Author: Lote Larmane
It can bring tremendous joy to strike the right balance between personal life, work, family, and friends. Reaching sustainable balance, however, is not an easy feat; maintaining and constantly adjusting that balance is damn near impossible. Trust me – I know a thing or two about this from my own experience.
As Covid-19 turned me into a remote worker, I believed that bar some minor adjustments, my life would still retain a semblance of pre-pandemic normality. This did not really pan out as I had expected, with the border between my personal and professional lives becoming increasingly blurry, my exercise routines disrupted, and my mood subsequently affected. This is not just me. I have friends who returned to school, believing that they could juggle work, personal life, and education without sacrificing a thing. Alas, most of them went in unprepared and ended up burned out and unhappy just in a few short months.
Our modern, fast-paced society often seems to valorize working over self-care and relationships. In such circumstances we all constantly face a risk of losing balance and committing to one aspect of our lives at the expense of another. Regrettably, work is usually the thing we end up overdoing which robs us of valuable leisure and social time. While workaholism is a transnational phenomenon, our American friends seem to have the hardest time drawing the line between work and everything else.
Now as I already said – I am not perfect. In fact, I am yet to master the whole proper balance thing myself. Still, I want to share five things that I’ve observed and practiced over many years that have helped me to get my house in order more than once.
Let me ask you a simple question – what does balance mean to you? Seems pretty straightforward, but would you be able to come up with an answer right off the bat? The truth is that there is no one universal recipe for what perfect balance looks like and it may differ for every one of us depending on our particular circumstances.
The funny thing is that when everything is fine we don’t dwell on the what perfect balance means to us. It is when we feel overworked that these questions emerge. Now this is not wrong in and of itself – just basic human nature. However, it important that when you feel that something is not right, you take immediate steps before everything gets out of hand.
If you feel overstretched, I suggest making a quick rundown of the current situation by asking yourself:
The purpose of this exercise is simple – you need to know what your starting positions are before making significant changes. Without establishing this, any attempts at improvement may be a futile shot in the dark.
You might ask: “Hey, doesn’t this go under the first step?” And you would be right. However, this is such an essential part of the entire process that it deserves to be singled out. When we start walking down the tightrope which we call life and try to keep everything in perfect balance, we initially have everything more or less figured out. Using the tightrope analogy, imagine holding a pole for balance. One side of the pole contains obligations (work, education, chores) and the other the things that bring us joy (relationships, hobbies, mental and physical well-being).
However, given the peculiarities of modern life, what tends to happen more often than not is that, without even being aware of it, we tend to take on more and more obligations – increasing out workloads at the expense of other things. What’s worse is that we tend to lose sight of the things that bring us joy and we don’t realize it until the scales are so tipped to one side that it is no longer a question of just reestablishing balance, but of mending fences (e.g. rekindling neglected relationships, finding mental harmony, getting back into shape etc.). The problem is that once the imbalance has gone on for too long, the time and effort needed to “mend fences” is disproportionately greater to what it would have been had you just stuck with the right balance all along.
Take this famous quote by Brian Dyson, which encapsulates the concept perfectly: “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them – work, family, health, friends, and spirit – and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.”
Don’t get me or Mr. Dyson wrong – obligations such as work matter. They bring structure to our lives and ensure financial stability, which allows us to devote ample time to other things. However, never lose track of what really matters to you. Remember – work is the sole aspect that can be dropped or ignored for a while without serious long-term consequences. My simple solution is to list the things you genuinely enjoy doing and then get in the habit of looking at them repeatedly. Obligations are hard to forget as they are constantly present, but constantly reminding yourself about the things you love will make for a more fulfilled life.
We have established that balance should be the ultimate goal for all of us. Once you’ve established what balance means to you, why you want to achieve it, and what things really matter to you, it is important to set effective goals for every domain of your life. This creates a clear roadmap under which you can plan specific tasks and actions to achieve these objectives. I suggest setting goals in these areas of your life:
Setting concrete goals will allow you to make sense of what you want to achieve and how to best go around balancing everything. Furthermore, having a clear outline of your goals will allow you to set daily, weekly, and monthly tasks to achieve them.
Planning and scheduling is essential! Even though balance may seem like a go-with-the-gut kind of thing, often planning is the only way to make it happen. Setting time aside for social time, exercise, and hobbies beforehand will help you stay on top of these things during the week and not let work slowly overwhelm everything.
Finally, planning without reflection is pointless. At the end of the week look back on the progress you made, any failures you encountered, and how you can improve your planning and actions to achieve both your immediate goals as well as the ultimate goal of balance.
I have only two things two stress here. First, whenever you do work or study, do it intensely. Drawn-out workdays or tediously long study spells have the words unproductive and exhaustive carved into them. Giving any intellectual activity your 100% for a couple of hours (instead of the half-hearted 8-hour standard) is the way to go.
This may not work for all of you as we still live in an antiquated 19th century system of 40-hour workweeks. But regardless of the type of employment, if there is something that has to be done, don’t postpone or slack around. Instead focus hard on it and get it done. If you can’t escape the 8-hour framework, plan other things such as meetings or some menial work around that short period of intense intellectual engagement.
Second, look critically at your day and cut out everything that is not adding value to your life. The first time you really analyze your time, the results may seem bleak as we discover that hours upon hours each week are wasted either on social media or by binging on something on Netflix or YouTube. One thing I personally can recommend is just disconnecting altogether for a couple of hours each night. Simply put your phone away and do something alone or with your friends or family.
Why did I bring these things up in an article about balanced life? Well if you do manage your time better at work, which is the thing that most often disrupts our peaceful balance, you are more likely to have plenty of time for the rest of your life. And if you are still pressed for time, look to the one thing that is likeliest to devour most of your time and attention every day – your trusty smart device.
Balance is great, but it is essential to understand that it is neither static, nor universal. It is not static as things will come up that disrupt your plans near constantly and being flexible in such circumstances is a valuable skill. Think of our tightrope analogy again – I haven’t seen a single acrobat walking down the entire rope completely straight all the time. Still, once the wind slightly pushes them to one side, they manage to use the pole to lean the other way and get that balance back.
Nor is balance universal. Many of us look back at our high school or university years thinking that we were more cyborg than human – capable of practically everything without rest or hesitation. These days our priorities have shifted and we need to be careful to strike the right balance. Fast forward another 20 years and our capabilities and expectations will have shifted again.
As long as you have a clear understanding of and commitment to your priorities, goals, tasks, and plans disruptions should not be a cause for concern but rather a testament of a solid foundation.
So what should you, dear reader, take away from all of this? Finding and maintaining balance is not easy. You have to make sense of what balance means to you, get your priorities straight, set goals and subsequent tasks to achieve those goals, manage your time attentively, and be prepared that even after all your efforts there may be external or internal factors that could disrupt your long sought-after balance.
In conclusion, it is important to stress that at the end of the day balance should not be about perfection but harmony. It is impossible to be an excellent ballet dancer, a CEO of a multinational, and a perfect parent all at the same time. If we are stretched over a multitude of roles, all are likely to suffer. But that is ok. That you are managing to juggle all these things is a sign of a very wise and understandable decision. A decision to opt for a harmonious yet sometimes imperfect balance over cold and flawless focus.