As part of the July theme of ‘Designing your normal, but very best life’, I’d like to talk about balance.
Quite often when you’re feeling a bit out of sorts, sometimes seemingly for no particular reason, there’ll have been something going on in the background of your life which has gradually knocked one or more important things off balance.
Of course at other times, it’s blindingly obvious that it’s happened, but you either don’t know how or don’t have the energy or right mindset to be able fix it.
And knowing very well why things are out of whack can be just as frustrating as not knowing.
Being out of balance in any particular moment is to be expected – do you not think that elephant standing on the beach ball is constantly wobbling and having to readjust to stay up there?
But, problems tend to kick in when one of three things happen:
- You’re significantly off balance in an area of your life which is really important to you – and this takes you a long way away from your values/priorities or threatens your survival in some way (e.g. in the modern world, this might be financial)
- You’re off balance in more than one important area at the same time so it becomes very easy to develop a negative mindset that nothing is going your way, your life is out of control and you aren’t capable of fixing it
- You’re significantly off balance for a prolonged period of time and/or have no control over when it’s going to end
If you know someone who’s been off kilter in several important areas of their life for a while, then I’d be really surprised if the signs of stress or low mojo aren’t patently visible and they may well be in need of some help and support to get back on track.
Balance of what?
I see there being a number of critical and limited resources which can commonly get out of balance:
- Time – it may not feel like it sometimes, but we all make choices about how we spend the 24 hours that we each have every day and much of it will be unconscious due to routine, habits and commitments
- Physical energy – this ebbs and flows and being forced (or forcing yourself) to expend large amounts of physical energy on something without appropriate opportunity to recharge will lead to exhaustion
- Emotional energy – having to spend a lot of emotional energy on something/someone which does not, immediately or over time, bring you something in return or where the balance of emotional energy from an event or relationship is consistently negative as opposed to a net positive
- Money – finding yourself in a position where what you’re spending on something financially, which also correlates to the effort required to earn this money, is out of proportion to your perceived value of the event/activity/thing
And what I mean by ‘out of balance’ is when one, or more, of these things is not well aligned with your values, preferences, priorities and needs.
This can happen due to external influence, gradual erosion over time or a short sharp shift, but can also result from not investing any thought into what your priorities are and/or not making a conscious choice about how to use these precious resources.
Of course, these aren’t simple, linear, unrelated choices e.g. how you choose to spend your time can easily have a knock on affect on your emotional energy.
And some of these choices, particularly in relation to the time/energy you devote to work, are played out over a longer game where sacrifices are made in the short term in order to create resources for the future.
The W word
So which aspects of your life have most influence over how you use these resources?
Although it may not immediately spring to mind as our top priority, for many people work inevitably takes up the largest proportion of our resources – at least a third of your waking hours and often a lot of your physical and emotional energy.
But, of course, in return it offers significant contribution to another important resource in the form of money and also, for the lucky ones, a positive boost for your emotional energy bank in the form of satisfaction, engagement and self-worth.
Back in 1926, Henry Ford decided that his factory employees would work a 5 day, 40 hour week. And, of course, there’s a lot of sense in this standardisation of a workforce – amongst other things, everyone knows where they stand, everyone is generally working at the same time which promotes collective decision making and collaboration.
But it does feel like that working in this way is now universally and unconsciously accepted, even though it may not align to everyone’s preferences, priorities and needs. (And I’m very aware that many people reading this would be delighted with a 40 hour as opposed to a 60+ hour week!)
For me, the term work life balance has been somewhat overused and undervalued by employers and their response, in my experience, has been to only pay lip service to the issue or introduce token wholesale programmes which mask the real issue and the unique nature of each individuals needs for balance.
In reality, I suspect that if you ask most people what their #1 priority is in life they would say family and friends. But, once you’ve spent the 40/60 hours of time and energy at work in a week, do you realistically have much left to give to these other important things? When you feel this imbalance acutely it leads to frustration and often stress and/or low mood.
Also, regardless of how many hours that you spend at work – do you have balance within your job? Is your time/effort directed towards things which are important to you in your working life e.g. using your skills, making a difference, developing others. Often, I hear people say that they actually really don’t care how many hours they have to work as long as it brings them some satisfaction.
As important as other priorities are, the reason that I’ve chosen to dedicate so much word space to work is because it’s so often the area that feels like the root cause of imbalance – whether in terms of time, emotional energy or preferences – and therefore it’s worth the investment and analysis to try to get it right.
When we talk about the other needs and priorities against which we need to balance the investment of our resources, the world is our oyster and everyone should make their own choices.
For example, I choose to spend about an hour of every day devoted to my dog. That will sound ridiculous to some but it brings me a huge amount of pleasure and is something that I’ve consciously chosen as a way in which I want to spend a significant proportion of my time resource.
Beyond the biggies of work, family and friends, you can also think about finding balance in your attitude, something which I find is coming up more with clients these days, and I believe has been exacerbated by the proliferation of social media.
Many people, particularly women, seem to be deciding that there is a certain life structure or model which they need to adhere to in order to be classified as successful, healthy or having their shit together. And, with this, comes an all or nothing, boom or bust attitude which, in the long term, is rather futile.
What about designing our lives to just be pleasurable and satisfying? Yes, of course, it can be satisfying to fit into those size 12 jeans that haven’t done up for a while and it does bring us some pleasure when someone comments positively about the way we look. But, if for the other 401,198 seconds of the day you’re feeling stressed, deprived and preoccupied by the rules you’ve set yourself then, more than likely, your mindset has got out of balance and you’d do well to loosen the reins on some of those “rules”.
From talking to people, friends and clients, I’d say there are three big areas which often get forgotten or neglected – saving some time and energy for:
- flow – something you get lost in
- rest – recharging the batteries, taking pleasure in doing nothing, being present
Analysis (forgive me I’m a geek)
So if things are feeling a bit out of whack at the moment, I’d encourage you to do a bit of analysis around your priorities/preferences and how you’re spending your precious resources, to find out which areas feel about right and which ones might need a bit of realignment.
Once you’ve identified some potential areas for improvement, have a think about what aspects of that thing are within your control and then what you might be able to do differently to move things in the right direction. Place your attention on the things that can change – that’s where and when the magic happens.
How can you analyse it?
Time…..we all have 24 hours each day, some of those will be spent sleeping and around an hour a day will be spent on hygiene activities (washing, dressing, loading the dishwasher etc – boring but necessary) so you’re left with around 15-17 hours to play with. You’re probably spending at least half of these working (in itself something you may want to challenge) – what’s happening to the rest and can you make some changes so that time is really well aligned to your priorities? E.g. rather than getting lost in facebook you may want to use your commuting time to chat on the phone with friends/family or make arrangements to meet up with people or to educate yourself by reading/studying.
Emotional energy…….keep a journal where you jot down every time you feel in a low or negative emotional state, don’t analyse it in the moment just write it down and then after a few weeks read back through to see if there are any themes or patterns. Anything that comes up repeatedly is likely to be an imbalance which needs to be addressed in some way.
Money……again, keep a record for a month of roughly what you’re spending and then add up across some key categories to see how you feel about where your cash is going. It also regularly amazes me how many people I come across who desperately hate their jobs but have no idea how much money they realistically need to live a good life so are unable to determine what their options might be for a new career.
You don’t have to analyse these things to death (although, of course, I would), the purpose of these exercises is to give you a way of getting some perspective and a feel for what might be going on below the surface.
What you gonna do about it?
If you’re feeling like something (or life) is off kilter then I’d really encourage you take a step back to think about how well aligned your values/preferences are with the way that you’re spending your time/energy/financial resources.
The exercise itself can be quite an easy task but I fully appreciate the ‘what now?’ bit is a lot more difficult – not everything is within our control, many things are inter-related and there are knock-on consequences which cannot (and should not) be ignored.
Work is so often a biggie and wholesale change isn’t always a choice that you want or are able to make right now – so start by trying to break it down into some small opportunities which may, at least, start to redress the balance. Is there any way to flex your hours, any possibility to work from home, could there be a way to use your lunch hour to get something non-work related done?
My concluding thought is that although we want to enjoy the moments, life rarely stands still for very long so, at any point in time, you can and should allow things to go a bit off balance. This movement is needed to achieve our goals and move towards better things. But, where you can, make it a conscious choice, keep things under some control and always try to have the end in sight.
Like the elephant on the beach ball, to stay balanced you’ve got to be ok with the wobbles.