Is a balanced life possible?
This is a loaded question for some people. For those of us in America’s estimated 11% of people who work 50 hours a week or more, it gets even harder. Balance doesn’t look the same for everyone. Personally, my body cycles like a teenager with a binging issue. I will go for two or three weeks where I can’t sleep more than three or four hours a night, then sleep 12 hours a day for a week. Eating is the same. I don’t drink caffeine every day, but when I do I’m likely to have three to five cups of it. Most people would call that imbalanced, but from many years of forcing myself to have a life that was more of what we commonly call balanced, I’ve learned that this is my happy place. So what if I have a three day stretch where I do absolutely no work? I probably worked 20 hours a day for the four days before hand. For me, I have learned that simply going with what my body needs leads to more productiveness, more sanity, and less bouts with sickness over all, which was not the story when I forced myself to have a more regulated life. Once I figured out my personal rhythm, I was better able to build a life around it.
Perhaps you’re an early riser. Perhaps you’re not. Figuring out what balance means for you and your life is one major thing that can help you right now. If you’re very aware of your habits you might be able to sit down with your calendar and figure out what your habits were during your peak and valley times. For most of us, it’s better to keep a diary for two weeks that has your eating, sleeping, working and playing record, as well as how you’re feeling. If you’re a pixilated person, putting this in an excel chart can make it even easier to see correlations (I prefer a paper notebook). When you see how things work best for you, then form your life around that. Once you know what balance feels like, it becomes very easy to know when things are out of balance, and as you practice this, it becomes ever easier to identify problems and correct them quickly. While you’re trying to figure out what your healthy balance is and what that feels like, here are some pretty good rule of thumb pointers to help you get there:
- Assume unexpected events will occur and allow time for them. Also have a little money set aside for these unexpected events. As far as money is concerned, my mother taught me to put ten percent of every dollar I had in the bank and only touch it when something serious happened. She taught me to do this before I even looked at my bills so I felt like I never had the money. It was one of the best bits of advice I’ve ever been given. You can put savings into accounts that earn higher percentages of interest as a passive way to gain small amounts of money (though you should keep six months living expenses in easy reach, just in case). In this way, you tie your cash up so you won’t touch it and it earns for you while it just sits there. You can do this with time, too. If you add 10% of the time you think a task will take to the time you allow to do it you can slow down, rush less, and still not run yourself ragged when things happen that you didn’t anticipate. Eventually, you’ll be able to do this for things that aren’t serious. If you budget that extra ten percent of time all week and work ahead on your to-dos in any spare time you didn’t need, you’ll have time to meet with that friend from out of town over the weekend for lunch. If you wind up not needing that extra time, you can treat yourself or work ahead on your to-do list and enjoy the sense of gratification that brings.
- Learn when to quit. Making long term commitments that steal your happiness, health or sanity aren’t worth it. Sometimes quitting is a sign of wisdom. Now, those of you who know me personally know I’m a bit of a stickler about people making commitments and keeping to them as I consider the law of integrity above all other laws. However, things change. If you’ve decided to do something you thought you would enjoy and you didn’t, there’s no shame in dropping it and doing something that brings you joy. If you joined a gym to get on the bikes with the intention of using a bike three times a week, then discovered you hate being on a bike, getting on the stair climber instead doesn’t make you a failure. The same goes for other enrichment activities. Quitting is not necessarily failure. Sometimes you don’t need to quit an original commitment (such as going to the gym three times a week), just transform the method through which it’s being carried out (the stair climber instead of the bike). Look at what you do accomplish rather than imagined failure when this happens, and seriously think out commitments ahead of time so you don’t do this often and lose a lot of time.
- Make time for hobbies and interests rather than just responsibilities. You work to live, not live to work. At times I ask clients to take a moment and make a list of ten things that give them joy, that make them happiest, and/or the things they feel they incarnated for. If you instantly come up with a list of things you haven’t done in two weeks, there’s a good chance I don’t have to dig much deeper to figure out why you’re unhappy or stressed to the limit. Get a calendar if you have to and time block out daily responsibilities, and then time block out one of these activities at least every other day. If you don’t have children or care for an elderly parent or a like situation, block out time once a day. If you’re following the whole 10% more time for everything rule, you’ll soon find it isn’t that hard to actually make a half hour of time to sit in silence and read a book (my personal happy place) or whatever it is you need to do.
- Get enough sleep. Seriously.
Now, refer to comments above about my binge sleeping. Everyone needs a different amount of sleep, and often times this isn’t always the same amount of sleep. But you’ll be more productive, more stable, and frankly more enjoyable to be around if you get sufficient shut-eye to be a mostly functional human being. And think about it- when you’re exhausted, how quality is your work?
- Give yourself space. For introverts like me, we need a lot of space and alone time. Get to know yourself and what space you need, and then give yourself that space. This also doesn’t have to look a certain way. I feel very drained after doing an event or teaching a class, so when I get home, if there’s a song on the radio that feels good, I might take a drive around the neighborhood until the song is over, and specifically just listen to the song, not allowing myself to think of anything else. This was one way I learned to make time for me that has truly made me a better, more energized, more patient, more productive person overall. Giving yourself the space you need will make you a better you, and your whole life will be easier and more manageable.
- Exercise and eat right. Again, this is different for everyone. A healthy diet and an enjoyable exercise routine is a very specific personal thing. But once you figure out how to listen to your body, this can change even daily. But some rules of thumb include cutting down on sugar and making sure you exercise at least 20 minutes three times a week. I personally like to do ten minutes of exercise twice a day. This gives me a lot more energy, but doesn’t feel like I’m taking as much time out of my day (though it is the same amount of time no matter how you split it!). Another thing you can do is aim to eat one green thing a day if diet is a problem. It’s not enough for a long term solution, but it’s a good place to start, and you’ll start seeing differences pretty quickly even with that one change.
- Ask your friends and family for help. If you have children or other responsibilities, have plan B and C roles. Perhaps your mother can be a plan b when the sitter has to cancel, and a neighbor you trust can be a plan C person. Also, be willing to have plan B and C roles in other people’s lives to pay off that karma.
- Learn to forgive people, because you don’t deserve to be bitter and miserable 24/7, and holding on to long past pain that the other person has probably already forgotten about is doing nothing but dragging you down. At some point, holding grudges becomes self-abusive. You don’t deserve abuse, even from yourself.
- Spend as much time outside as inside. If this isn’t possible, commit to a half hour outside daily. It will help balance your body, including your mood and hormones, help you sleep better, and give your body a break from the electronic and environmental pollutants that are in your home or workplace.
- Find a way to make daily tasks and chores fun. Adding some joy into your work can make draining things refreshing. The more laughter the better. Listen to comedy skits while you wash dishes. Sing and dance to ridiculous music when you vacuum. Tickle the kids until they’ve laughed themselves awake. Make funny faces at other drivers when you commute. Think I’m nuts for suggesting all this? Try to laugh as much as possible (at least five times a day) for one week and get back to me on that. Seriously, you’re life will change with this one thing, and it will improve your overall body chemistry and help you be a happier person literally out of habit.
- Be okay with occasional indulgences. I have this one friend who is a health food nut and nutritionist. Every time he sees me I hear about how I shouldn’t drink caffeine. My response is usually something like “yeah, yeah, if you’re going to lecture me, at least bring a mocha with you.” You’re not a perfect human being, and if you were, you’d probably be bored out of your mind. Allow yourself occasional indulgences, even as rewards if that works for you. But keep these things proportional to the rest of your life. If your indulgence is a pint of ice cream and three hours of television, don’t do it every night, try more like once a month. If, like me, your indulgences include things like turning your cell phone off for the whole day and not getting out of bed until noon, every other week can be a thing and still not destroy your life, even if you run your own company like I do.
- Designate different spaces in your home for different purposes, and keep to it. There’s a lot of reason for this. It first off keeps your home more organized. Second off, it keeps psycho-emotive triggers to behave certain ways in their proper place. If you work out of your bed for instance, your brain will start to get ‘work’ and ‘rest’ confused. Keep everything not having to do with sleeping (and maybe intimacy) out of your bed room, including the television. It will help you sleep better. Keep work things in the work places of your home. It will make you a better worker, because when you sit in that chair with your work in front of you, all the triggers you need to get to work and be productive will be in place.
- Help other people. Volunteer. Call your mom. These little human interactions help your karma, improve your body chemistry, and help regulate the electrical cycling in your heart, thymus, brain, kidneys and adrenals. It helps you feel like you matter in the world. And the more of it you do, the more you do matter to others.
- Categorize what you’re doing 1. For yourself, 2. For those you love and 3. For the world. This helps you see where re-balancing needs to happen. If you’re putting too much energy in one or more of these categories at the expense of one or more of the others, you can see where you need to make changes. You can even fold a paper into columns and write it out if you need to.
These are many of the tips I give as a life coach and counselor, and most of what I said up there is backed by scientific evidence that has been studied and we know works. Of course, your life is personal to you and the applications of these things will be different. I’d love to hear about what a balanced life looks like for you, and about other ways you keep it all together. Care to comment?