The Balancing Act

When my wife Beth and I conceived of the idea of starting a wellness blog that would share a bit of our journey and maybe help a few people along theirs, we reached out to our friends to see what they might be interested in reading about. From their ideas emerged the three things we hope to talk about here: food related wellness, exercise related wellness, and self-care and/or personal wellness.

Our first post comes from the third category and comment from our friend Jill, who wrote: “how to balance it all!” I assume she meant the time and energy it takes to eat well, exercise, sleep enough, work a full-time job, be somewhat sociable, maintain a reasonable amount of hygiene and living space cleanliness, etc. etc. etc. Sometimes it can feel like eight people are needed to pull it all off—and that’s without children, never mind with them!

Since that’s bigger than food or exercise, I’m going to address it in pretty broad terms below. I’m not sure I have all the answers—it’s something I struggle with myself. But here are some things that have helped me…and if you have others, please add them below!

1. Balance is about wobble and correction, not about static perfection.

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Sometimes when people talk about balance in their lives, they seem to think of it like an equation. As if life were some sort of calculus they can balance and solve. In my experience, life balance is much more like biomechanics.

In the biomechanical sense, balance is the ability to remain centered, while experiencing minimal amounts of sway. Having good balance doesn’t mean experiencing no sway—the movement generated by our own bodies and the inevitable disturbances around us make that impossible. Rather, good balance means having a “sensorimotor control” system that’s tuned in to the shifts and responsive.

My experiences of life balance have been similar. It’s not about hitting some magic spot of equilibrium. It’s about being in tune with what I need, even as things shift inside and around me—and then being willing to respond, in ways that keep me centered.

2. Balance is about making sure I’m aware of my spending and don’t overdraw myself.

gettyimages-102416909-56b941923df78c0b1367d802.jpgMany (most?) of us are super busy and balance isn’t going to allow us to do one more thing. Balancing your checkbook doesn’t put more money in your checking account, right? It helps you see where you’ve put your money and prevents you from overdrawing your resources.

I was once given a really helpful tool for that type of balancing. It’s a series of lists that helps you see where your time is going and where your priorities are—“balance” happens when the two are aligned. Then when something comes in, you’ll know if it’s going to overdraw your resources and if it aligns with your priorities. (This could apply equally well for food choices, exercise and training plans, etc.)

Which leads me to my next observation…

3. Balance is not about doing everything equally or about doing everything. 

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Particularly when women talk about wanting to get their life in balance, it sounds to me like a coded way of saying “I want to be able to do everything.” So! Excuse me for a moment fellas and masculine folx! I need a little side huddle with the feminine-identified: doing everything is impossible. Doing a lot is possible. Doing less with more care and attention is certainly possible. Doing everything is never possible.

It’s not surprising that the person who brought this up was someone who identifies as a woman. This was literally taught to generations of women in finishing schools as a means toward “poise.” While I’ve got nothing against composure, it’s worth noting that the more masculine-inclined folks aren’t often concerned with “balance,” as much as they are about “priorities.”

Both narratives about how to navigate life are pretty ingrained in the people who live by them. When women joined the workforce, there was an expectation that they would work outside of the home and run the household—after all, men still had a career to attend to. As a credit to so many of our foremothers, many of them pulled it off to varying degrees. But many of them “overdrew” themselves in the process, to go back to our checkbook analogy. So I’ll say, perhaps especially to my more feminine-leaning readers: if the word balance is doing you more harm than good, just ditch it and try on “priorities” instead.

4. Balance is about remembering the difference between priorities and demands. 

bullhorn-768x779This might be a bit gender-skewed too, but there’s a huge difference between priorities and demands. Priorities are set internally, based on a person’s values, beliefs, and goals. Demands are set externally, based on the values, beliefs, and goals of those around you. When you start out saying “I should…” chances are good that what follows is a demand. When you start out saying “I want/need…” your probably speaking of a priority.

None of us live lives with no demands—and some of those demands keep society functioning and good hygiene happening. If you find yourself saying “I want to wring his neck, but I shouldn’t.” you can be glad for the demands of society that restrain you from your murderous impulses. When you say “I really want to get started on my work day, but I should really brush my teeth first.” maybe you, like me, find yourself super grateful for the demands placed on us by our dentists.

But lives lived entirely dictated by demand, lose all autonomy! And again, for women-identified people especially, this is often culturally ingrained. Women are told in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways that everyone’s demands matter more than their intrinsic priorities. Sometimes what’s described as a problem of “balance” happens when too much of our time is being focused on what demands it. 

5. Balance is about remembering the difference between importance and urgency. 

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This bit of wisdom I picked up from the business world and I’m grateful to Covey for all the ways it’s made overwhelming situations more manageable. The basic distinction, which Covey maps into four quadrants, is between urgency and importance. One is a measure of time pressure and demands; the other is a gauge of weight and priorities. You can read more about it than I have the space to explain here.

Covey and others suggest we should spend the majority of our time in Quadrant II—the Not Urgent but Important. I will always need to spend some time in Quadrant I (Urgent and Important), but if all of my time is there, I’ll never have any time left for the long term investments in the things that really matter to me. People who spend all of their time in Quadrant I tend to be the folks who feel busy in ways beyond their control. Likewise with folks who spend most of their day in Quadrant III (Urgent but Not Important), but worse they sense that none of it matters! Their days are dictated by urgency, not by priority. Quadrant IV is often where I land when I’m in complete burn-out. I organize my desk piles or make new email folders, doing tasks that are Not Urgent or Important just to be doing something mindless.

Your mileage with those quadrants may vary, but I find them helpful for the kind of “balance” that keeps my focus on longer term outcomes. And if you’ve ever tried a balance pose in yoga class, you know that it’s a lot easier to keep your balance by concentrating on one spot across the room than by watching the spot right at your feet or watching to see if the person next to you wobbles!

6. Balance is not effortless, though some make it look that way. 

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I know. Not what you want to hear me say, right? But sometimes the expectation that it “should” be easier or that others do it effortlessly can sabotage people before they’ve even started. They’re like the kid who makes one stroke with a paint brush and decides they’re no good at art. Or worse, someone else tells them they’re bad at art and maybe they should try basketball instead.

Whatever someone’s told you, whatever you’ve told yourself, please don’t sell yourself short. People that seem to have everything in balance have spent a lot of time wobbling and falling to get there. But the more I’ve tried to get clear on my priorities, learned to check in and shift as needed, and shed my unhelpful scripts around doing everything, distinguishing between priorities and demands, and moving away from constant urgency, the more I’ve been able to stay centered. As in yoga—as I practice and learn to be aware of the body, through incremental shifts, I’m suddenly in a posture I’d thought impossible.

What are some things that have helped you with balancing—your diet, your training plan, your life? Let us know in a comment below!

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