- External demands and expectations can make it hard to consistently do what matters most to us.
- Rather than imagining we can always maintain balance, we can instead move toward balance again and again.
- Recognizing the limits of time and identifying small actions can support this practice.
This is part 1 of a 2-part series.
As fall approaches in the northern hemisphere, like many of us who either follow an academic calendar for our work or have children in school, I'm preparing for a significant change in my schedule. As I anticipate more demands on my time, I reflect on how to maintain some sense of balance in my life, so that I can do what matters to me across many areas of my life. When my colleague Sue Orsillo and I present in workshops or conferences on how to live a values-based life, one of the most common questions we receive is about how to balance different values, or different subsets of values.
Before I share some thoughts on how we each might cultivate balance, it’s important to acknowledge that our difficulties finding this elusive balance are not internal failings; they don’t have to do with weakness of will or some kind of failure of character. External demands require more and more hours at work, or at multiple jobs, or supporting children in various activities. Structural factors like racism, societally rigid gender roles, transphobia, ableism, and economic disenfranchisement can all add additional burdens for many. Individualistic cultural views can also bring additional demand by suggesting that difficulties finding time for each important area of our life is something we must or even can solve individually, as if “finding balance” were merely another task to add to our too long lists and another thing to feel bad about.
Ultimately, our sense of imbalance is a cultural and structural problem, and I hope we can all work toward structural and communal solutions—such as changing expectations in our workplaces and supporting one another in all types of work (such as attending to housework or family care) so that the burden is shared and more flexibility is possible and developing more infrastructure to support us all. And while we work toward and wait for systemic changes, it can be helpful to think about how to move toward balance in our lives as they are now in whatever ways we are able, so that we can begin to replenish our resources and feel a sense of meaning in our lives. Here are a few tools that may help:
1. Clarify your values. An important starting place in working toward spending time on a range of things that matter to you is clarifying what is important to you. I’ve written about this process here and here. Pay particular attention to the areas of life that you value but that you struggle to fit into your life so that you can work toward adding them into your daily, weekly, or monthly routines. This process can help you attend to what is important to you and not just what is urgent.
2. Turn toward the reality of time. A significant barrier to our ability to do everything that matters to us is the limitations of time. We can intensify this barrier by misperceiving time in many ways. I regularly underestimate how long it takes me to do a task, as well as how long it takes for me to get from one place to another.
Choose a typical day or week and monitor how long you spend in each domain of your life (e.g., work, family, friends, self-care and nourishment, community, spirituality, household responsibilities, etc). Notice what takes longer than you expect and what you never seem to get to. It can be helpful to think about how much of your time you would like to be spending in different areas and then comparing that to your actual behavior to see where there’s a mismatch. Consider whether you can cut back time in some areas to add something valued in. You may find that you are spending time on things that you think are restful, like browsing the internet or social media, when other activities like taking a walk, reading, or having a conversation with a friend might be more rewarding and energizing. Try out some small changes and notice the impact on your mood and sense of satisfaction. Some questions you might ask yourself about tasks that are taking more time than you’d like are:
- Is this something I truly have to do, or something I believe I have to do?
- Is the manner in which I do this more time-intensive than necessary?
- Am I trying to do this perfectly when I can instead do it well enough?
- Are there things I can say no to so that my time in this area is reduced?
3. Think small. We often feel like our values-based actions need to take a significant amount of time and then, when we can’t find a significant amount of time, we don’t add in these actions at all. However, even small doses of values-based actions can be meaningful and rewarding. Earlier this summer, a New York Times article suggested trying out an 8-minute phone call with a close friend because people are having trouble finding time to stay connected. A 2022 study by Virginia Strum and colleagues found that a weekly 15-minute “awe walk” (a walk focused on noticing nature and cultivating awe) led to increased positive emotions and connection for older adults. Look over the areas that you are having trouble fitting into your life. Is there a way to engage in a small dose daily or weekly? Maybe instead of 90 minutes of yoga, you can do a few poses first thing in the morning or stretch in between Zoom calls during your day. You might not have time to volunteer throughout a political campaign, but perhaps you hold up a sign or knock on doors for one afternoon.
See my next post for more suggestions for finding balance in the midst of imbalance.
With appreciation to Josh Bartok for editing help.
Orsillo, S. M., & Roemer, L. (2016). Worry less, live more: The mindful way through anxiety workbook. New York: Guilford Press
Sturm, V. E., Datta, S., Roy, A. R. K., Sible, I. J., Kosik, E. L., Veziris, C. R., Chow, T. E., Morris, N. A., Neuhaus, J., Kramer, J. H., Miller, B. L., Holley, S. R., & Keltner, D. (2022). Big smile, small self: Awe walks promote prosocial positive emotions in older adults. Emotion, 22(5), 1044–1058.