Almost every day, I find a reference to a news article or a social media post extolling the need for work-life balance. By no means a recent topic of discussion, work-life balance, or for that matter, balance in life, in general, has long been the subject of much contention. The Covid-19 pandemic has simply catapulted the discussion into the mainstream.
The prospect of returning to a physical work location after spending the better part of a couple of years avoiding long commutes or the need to shave or wear make-up (or pants?) has shaken us from a slumber of sorts. It has left many of us guessing and revaluating what the concept of balance in life (not just work-life balance) means to each one of us.
About time. Because the sooner we clarify what balance means to us, the better the rest of our life will be.
I’ve long extolled the virtues of balance and moderation to anyone who’s cared to listen. And if I’m being honest, I’ve spent more time lecturing those who think moderation is for mediocre people.
For many years I believed that a day was incomplete if it didn’t have all these elements in some shape or form: exercise (for the body and mind), productive work, good nutrition, and time spent nurturing relationships.
But my thoughts on the subject of living a balanced life have evolved over time.
The Jenga moment
I have since learned that balance in life is like the classic game of Jenga, where a player has to constantly remove a block from a tower and reposition it atop without letting the tower collapse. Jenga teaches us this: it takes imbalance to achieve balance.
And, just like in Jenga, in life, it may seem initially easy to layer on a productive stack of daily activities. But as soon as one of the stacked activities goes off-script—a 6 p.m. urgent work meeting or a sprained ankle—we are forced to readjust our day(s). Soon our schedule starts to resemble an about-to-crumble Jenga tower.
Any semblance of balance we may have felt until then starts to disappear, forcing us to realign our priorities. It causes us to lose confidence in our ability to control our schedules and, by extension, our lives. Then we’re wracked with guilt for not living up to our expectations of a “balanced life.”
But before we can redefine the ideal balanced life, let’s talk about the concept of moderation—a word often interchanged with balance.
Balance v moderation
While they may seem synonymous, technically, there is a significant difference between balance and moderation—a distinction most nutritionists are glad to explain.
Eating just one slice of cake, enjoying a handful of fries, a few chocolate cookies, or drinking just a small can of soda are all acts of moderation. You may be consuming moderate amounts each of cake, cookies, soda, and fries, but together, they break the rules of a balanced diet by a mile.
For the purposes of this discussion, though, balance and moderation may be interchanged. After all, spending moderate amounts of your time divided between work, relationships, and leisure is what a balanced life is all about.
Balance in life
The dictionary defines balance as “a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.”
And that’s what we try to do in our search for balance. We aim to ration our time each day in the (supposedly) correct proportions: eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work, a couple of hours for exercise and upkeep, a few hours for relationships, and the rest for leisure.
But then, our best-laid schemes often go awry.
What if, at the end of the eighth hour of work, you stumble upon a promising solution to a problem you’ve been trying to solve for weeks? Should you abandon your work until the next day and head to the gym (the next item on the agenda) to keep your life in balance?
Or, what if, you’re having a wonderful time chatting with your teenager—a feat almost as rare as seeing a comet with the naked eye. Should you watch the clock and do a Cinderallaesque run, so you don’t compromise on your eight hours of sleep?
Making the right call
While it may seem silly to question our choices in the examples above, those of us, who are balance-Nazis, sometimes do. Because we’re fearful of what might happen if we were to upset the apple cart.
What if the boss notices you staying late at work for a couple of days and then starts to expect you to stay late every day? And what about the snowball effect it could have on the other items on your to-do list?
Such fears are well-founded too. Isn’t the lack of balance why workaholics, exercise addicts, helicopter moms, and Instagram-binge posters exist? Or, for that matter, aren’t all compulsive behaviors a result of not being able to find balance?
But before we start labeling ourselves and everyone else around us, let’s question the very premise of requiring balance in life—a concept that’s almost a given in our culture today.
Is balance overrated?
I’m currently reading a book written by someone who can arguably be described as the poster child for forgoing balance—multi-hyphenate Rich Roll (author, ultra-endurance athlete, podcast host, etc., etc.)
Famously, Rich has said, “Balance is overrated.”
In his book Finding Ultra, Rich talks about how he struggles with the concept of balance, calling it the “fickle lover he can’t court.”
Like Rich, some people can never just dip their toes into the river to appreciate the water. They feel the need to be fully immersed—with feet on the riverbed—even to feel a connection with the water. Unlike the toe-dippers, these immersionphiles don’t believe in the concept of balance in life. To them, life is all about single-minded devotion to one cause at a time.
To quote Rich Roll again,
The question of balance is not only misplaced, but it’s the wrong question altogether. Instead, let’s ask ourselves, “what makes you feel most alive” and start doing more of that.
Stated like that, of course, balance seems like an imprudent pursuit. So, are we to then drop the mundane in a quest for the exciting? Always?
To balance or not to balance
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental economic organization, measures well-being across its thirty-eight member countries and publishes the results in its annual How’s Life study.
The list of factors the OECD considers to determine contentment and welfare is quite exhaustive, including, but not limited to, health, income and wealth, social connections, civic engagement, and work-life balance.
For a nation to score high on the well-being scale, it must score at least an average on all the factors listed above. For instance, well-being cannot be achieved when there is high income but poor work-life balance—the two will simply cancel each other out. Essentially, it’s the same truth that seems to catch high schoolers off-guard in regards to their GPAs—the A in Ceramics will not mask the D in Chem.
The message from the OECD regional well-being study is clear: the more balanced people’s lives are, the greater the nation’s well-being.
So, it’s not really a question of whether we need balance or not—we do, eventually. Rather, it’s about redefining what a balanced life should look like because we seem to have twisted the definition beyond recognition.
The state of “Flow”
Balance was never about being in equilibrium every second of every day. Our need to find steadiness at all times is misguided and can be exhausting.
Even a tight-rope walker has to go in and out of balance to maintain equilibrium.
When you’re in the thick of things or deeply entrenched in solving a problem, you’re essentially in a state of flow, also referred to as being “in the zone.” According to research scientists, it is within the flow state that we experience our deepest satisfaction with life.
At its core, a flow state is the opposite of balance—a single-minded pursuit and deep dive into the subject of interest with utter disregard for anything else. You may skip meals, spin classes, or even showers (hopefully not) because you are immersed in the problem at hand.
Conversely, by their very nature, flow states don’t and can’t last forever. So, the pendulum will swing back eventually to allow you to rediscover balance in life.
But what if the pendulum gets stuck and doesn’t swing back to balance?
“Flow” or simply lost?
How can you know if your life is out of balance, not because you are in “the zone” but because you are lost, or worse, running away from doing hard things?
Constantly feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, or guilty is a strong cue that you are not in a state of flow but are, in fact, lost.
There’s a difference between stepping outside your comfort zone and being completely in over your head. Both require courage, albeit different types.
When you step outside your comfort zone, you need the courage to overcome the fear of the unknown, but when you are out in limbo, clueless, or in denial, you need the courage and self-awareness to course-correct. That requires a degree of introspection.
Deciphering and then admitting to yourself that you are feeling feelings is tough. Just ask Michael Bloomberg.
Despite his earlier insistence that he would never return to that part of his life, eight months after his stint as mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg retook his job as CEO at the hugely successful financial and media namesake company he had built.
When asked why the 180, Bloomberg quipped,
Because the alternative was staying home and talking to Diana (his partner) about feelings.
The unwritten rules to live a fully balanced every second of every day can drive the most grounded of us crazy. Messages such as “leave work at work,” while well-intentioned, only serve to create an extra layer of overwhelm and pressure in our lives.
It’s certainly not a good idea to keep answering your work emails while at your daughter’s basketball game. But it’s okay to permit yourself to check emails over the occasional weekend when there’s a crisis at work. Without guilt.
Perfect balance in life is a mirage. The happiest people on earth are the ones who are in the Goldilocks zone, rocking back and forth between states of flow and balance.
Everything in moderation. Including moderation. Oscar Wilde