Continuing the theme of transitions from some of my previous posts, have you noticed that in times of transition (like when summer turns to fall, or winter turns to spring) you are particularly susceptible to feeling off-balance? It seems to me that in months like September and June, when there’s a lot of change going on, I hear the phrase, “There’s just not enough time in the day to do everything I need to do ..." even more often than most other times of the year.
Of course, if you’re a mom, working outside of the home or not, you may feel out of balance most of the time! By now at least you know you’re not alone. And, as a recent post on Time.com shows us, men are beginning to openly join the struggle to balance family and career. It’s great to read about successful men discussing their attempts to have quality time with their children while working at demanding, high-pressured jobs.
But in today’s high speed, high pressure and high-stress world, it’s not just balance between work and family that’s hard to find. If you’re a “stay-at-home” mom, you very likely constantly struggle to find balance between the needs of your family and your own needs—for exercise, time to read or be alone, to visit with friends, even to take a long hot shower, and so on. And if you are not married or not a parent, you are very probably still struggling to find a good balance in your life. Are you a single who is working so hard that you have troubles developing a social life, or even finding some downtime for yourself? Or are you so involved in the drinking and partying world that you fail to take care of either your physical needs or the demands of your job? Balance is an issue for all of us.
Even young children can have a hard time finding any kind of equilibrium. I recently heard about a 10-year-old who was only getting five hours of sleep a night. It turned out that after a day at a highly competitive, demanding school, this child went first to soccer practice and then to additional private courses in any of a number of different subjects—language, art, music, high-level math. No wonder he wasn’t sleeping. I wondered when he even managed to eat, let alone have any downtime to explore his own inner world?
Obviously, while children who grow up this way may be learning how to work hard, they are not learning much about finding a balanced life; but how can we teach them when so many adults have difficulty finding it for ourselves?
There are so many things that we have to balance in our lives—work, family, play, leisure, relaxation, caring for others, caring for ourselves, social consciousness, political consciousness, environmental consciousness, religious beliefs and activities, physical needs ... to name only a few of the issues most of us are balancing, often without realizing it, all of the time. “Finding balance” in our lives is so important, yet so hard, that there are mountains of books and articles about it. A Google search of “How to find balance in your life” brings up 332,000,000 results. It’s not at all hard to understand why we need balance and why we are searching for it; but why are we having so much trouble finding it?
There are a lot of answers to that question, including cultural and environmental ones that lead to fears about the world we live in and anxieties about taking care of ourselves and our loved ones in the here and now and in the future. There are also plenty of personal answers, having to do with self-esteem, expectations, and complex wishes to please someone else, prove ourselves to them (or to ourselves), and sometimes to surpass someone else.
But there is one key point that many of these books and articles seem to miss. When you take this point into account, almost everything else is easier to accomplish. But it’s a hard idea to accept, which is, I think, one of the reasons that it’s not always included in discussions of finding balance.
The point? Finding balance is a lifetime project. It is ongoing. It is not a finite goal at the end of which you will have a peaceful, calm and meaningful life. Balance is a way of living. It is a process.
NYC yoga teacher Mindy Bacharach says this about balance:
The Equinox - a place of balance between day and night, dark and light, surge and subside, unfolding and enfolding. It's marked as a day (two if you include spring) on the calendar and often observed that way. The day of equipoise.
But in reality, it's not a whole day. It's not even a few minutes. It's a fleeting moment. The instant it occurs, the balance tips.
I tend to take my cues from nature. What nature tells me here is that balance is about navigating transition—rather than trying to 'nail' a spot and (desperately, er, um) gracefully hoping to stay in it.
So, what can you do to find some balance in your life?
Here are five suggestions culled from some of the more balanced people I know:
- Keep in mind that, as Bacharach tells us, balance is not a final goal, but an ongoing process. Being balanced does not mean being calm, relaxed, and content all of the time. Balance often occurs only for a fleeting moment, but it can reappear over and over again. Rather than trying to stay balanced, think of yourself as practicing balancing, over and over again. I love that many yoga teachers talk about yoga as a “practice”—the goal is not to become great at it, but to keep practicing it. You often hear the comment that it’s good to fail—it means you were trying. The same is true in life. As long as we keep practicing finding balance, we will find one. Of course, we will lose it. But we will find it again.
- Prioritize. In his book The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker talks about the importance of setting goals, deciding which are most important, and then, doing the most important things first. The problem is often figuring out just what is most important. On any given day, in any given moment, what is your priority? Is checking your email more important than calling your grandmother? Is taking a hot shower more important than talking to your best friend for the third time today? In order to stay on course, you may have to re-examine your priorities regularly. But Drucker’s point is that once you decide what’s important, focus on it and get it done.
- Set both long and short term goals. In business, this is called “Tactics and Strategy.” Strategy is the longterm goal, the big picture. Tactics are the combination of short term goals that will help you get you to your longterm goal. For example, if you want to be a successful writer, your short term goals might be to get your first article published in any newspaper that will take it. Then you will need to break down that into even smaller steps, tactics to get to that first goal—for instance, taking a writing class, writing for 30 minutes every day, joining a writing group, or submitting something you’ve written to a local newspaper.
- Be specific. It’s more useful to say, “I’m going to spend an hour alone with each child sometime this week,” than to say, “I’m going to have quality time with each of my children.” Quality time is a great concept, but it’s also a vague one. And since it’s so vague, it’s hard to know whether or not you’ve accomplished that goal, which makes it hard to feel in balance. The same is true if you say that you’re going to eat healthily or exercise more. Set something specific—for example, this week you’ll add kale to three meals, or you’ll have fruit with your breakfast every morning; or decide that you’ll run for thirty minutes on Wednesday and Friday mornings.
- Remember that it's often easier to find balance with another person. Imagine a balancing act that involves not only individual strength, but interactive support. The keyword here is interactive—if you're bearing all the weight, you can't get balanced. But if you're not carrying your share, you won't get balanced either. What's most important is not how much weight one person carries at any given time, but how you interact with one another, drawing from and giving energy to each other. That's balance.
Also, keep in mind endgame versus process. In an interview on NPR, the actor Ki Hong Lee, who appears in the film, The Maze Runner, makes this point beautifully. He says a friend once asked what his goal was in life and he answered, “to win the Academy Award for my acting.” When asked the same question, his friend said, “to be a working actor every day for the rest of my life.” Ki Hong Lee was blown away by the realization that his friend’s goal was about the process of living. It was about balance. In your own life, this can translate to a variety of things.
For instance, if you haven’t been working out, your long-term goal might be to get into shape; but perhaps it would be more useful to say to yourself that you are going to try to find a way to live that allows you to maintain your physical well-being. Short-term, you might think about starting slowly, in manageable ways that you can work into your life and gradually, as you get stronger, expand. Instead of saying that you’re going to the gym every day this week (which might be unrealistic and also leave you so sore and overworked that you won’t go back for months; and if you don’t go, you’ll beat up on yourself and that will be the end of any potential sense of balance), think about what you can realistically expect of yourself and attempt to figure out how you can actually get yourself to follow through.
For instance, it might be more realistic to start with a 30-minute walk two times this week. Or even, if it’s not too far away, simply walk to the gym and back. Yes, really! Once you see how you’re feeling, then you can set up another goal—but it needs to be one that you can accomplish and fit into your schedule and your lifestyle. The same is true for any other goal, whether it’s to lose weight, change careers, find a life partner, start a long-delayed project ... really, anything you want to do.
Remember that both accomplishments and failures are part of balance. Most of us have plenty of both already in our lives, but we may not always pay equal attention to both. If you are someone who focuses on your failures, try to notice small moments of success. See what that feels like. See if you can figure out what you’re afraid of, why you have to focus on the negative instead of the positive. But don’t beat up on yourself if you can’t stay there. It’s normal to fall out of that awareness back into more familiar thoughts. Just go back to the positive when you can. That’s balance.
The same is, of course, true if you always focus on your successes. It’s great to be proud of yourself!! But maybe try for a moment or two to pay attention to any failures you may have had in the last couple of days. You don’t need to stay there long. Just recognizing that they’re there will help you be more balanced!
Whether you’re heading back to work or school, sending your kids off to a new adventure, changing jobs, getting married or divorced, moving to a new city, or just living life as usual, remember that you are always in transition. The trick to living a balanced life is, to quote once again from Mindy Bacharach, to always keep in mind that, “Balance is the process of holding something(s) steady during change.”