The Myth of the Balanced Life

This article is inspired by Gary Keller’s book The ONE Thing, more specifically by the bullet number 8 in Part 1: The Lies. This book is the book that made me start writing everyday and change the way I prioritise things in my life. I highly recommend you read it.

In our quest for reaching our goals and always strive for more, a lot of us get worried about other aspects of our lives without being able to really work on them. We may be really good at some things. We might crush goals and reach targets work-wise. But what about our family, our friends, our body? For a lot of us, we often feel guilty about prioritising work over other areas of our life.

In which area do you score best? — source:

It’s like we can’t seem to work on all these areas at the same time. We hear all those stories of people who ruined relationships because they worked too much, lost touch with their kids. Sometimes it gets worse. People get overweight from getting work done in a chair all day, they never go on vacation…

So what’s the key to managing all the areas of the wheel of life, with success and at the same time? How do we crush our goals all the while taking care of our family, our body, staying grounded spiritually, and still having fun? In essence, how do we get to a balanced life? Well, the answer might disappoint you.

There’s no such thing as a balanced life

People think they want more balance in their life, but what they really want is more balancing. Balancing in an act, not something that happens out of the blue. It’s not a fact, not a state. It’s a never-ending act. When you look at a tightrope walker, she appears to be walking flawlessly on the rope, with no effort. But the truth is, her whole body (and her mind too) is constantly making tiny micro adjustments to stay balanced on that rope.

The problem with the idea of balance is that it is seen as an abstract concept, while it should be seen as a concrete act. An act fuelled by purpose, meaning, drive. When we focus on the right things, that’s when balance will come into our life.

“The act of living a full life by giving time to what matters is a balancing act. Extraordinary results require focused attention and time. Time on one thing means time away from another. This makes balance impossible.” — Gary Keller, The… Click To Tweet

So how to start the act of balancing?

The magic never happens in the middle

If you think of balance as the middle, then out of balance is when you’re away from that middle. But if you stay your whole life in the middle, nothing extraordinary will happen. Improvement, productivity, passion, goals — those all lie far away from the middle. They lie at the extremes.

Illustration by author

We all know that success lies at the extremes. After all, that’s what most of us are being told our entire life. We see the successful CEO who works all the time, the athlete who doesn’t have a life other than in sport, the rich freelancer who can’t spend 1 hour without checking his emails… All these people are successful, but they’re extreme. And they also had to give up hell of a lot to get where they are today.

It’s normal to give up on some things to be successful in life. But if those things are your health, your social life, your family, then you’re not doing it right. The act of balancing is achieved through knowing when to pursue the middle and when to pursue the extremes, in all areas, and at the same time. I know, it’s complicated.

Most of us don’t chase extremes because we’re afraid of the consequences. It’s nice to be a successful CEO but we also want to see our kids grow up. It’s nice to be a rich freelancer but we also want to have a life. We see how most people who live at the extremes are, and we don’t know how we would manage if we were out there.

So how do we get there without ruining other parts of our life?

Counterbalancing: the true balance

Constant adjustments are the key to success — source:

You will always leave things behind in your quest for success. It’s inevitable. The trick is to be clear on what you want to give up, and what you want to prioritise. Once you’ve prioritised the different parts of your life, you can then counterbalance the investments in time you make in each one.

“The idea of counterbalancing is that you never go so far that you can’t find your way back or stay so long that there is nothing waiting for you when you return.” — Gary Keller, The ONE Thing Click To Tweet
Illustration by author

The main challenge in most people’s lives is to counterbalance work with personal life. There is absolutely no way this can be achieved without sacrifices. But again, the sacrifices don’t have to be where most people expect them to be.

In the sphere of work, it’s never about how much time you put in. It’s about the results. To get those, you need to forget about a lot of your tasks, and only focus on a few important ones. You have to accept that some of them (a lot of them) will be left behind. You may have some time to get back to them once in a while. But most of the time, you’ll be in full focus on your top priorities. You’ll be out of balance within the extreme of work, and that’s totally fine, as long as you can come back to life later.

Illustration by author

In the sphere of personal life, it’s always about how much time you put in. If you don’t put in the time, you’ll miss out on your friends’ big life events, your kids’ birthdays, and all the important family stuff. Within the extreme of family, you need to achieve as much balance as possible, unlike work. You need to go back and forth between friends, family, events, happiness, sadness. It’s about managing all those at the same time.

Illustration by author

Here is the key learning. When you head down for a long period of work and place yourself in total imbalance with your personal life, you need to prioritise, because you’re only there for a certain period of time. So accept that things will be left behind. When you come back to the other side, your personal life, you need to go back and forth between everything and everyone.

The question of balance is a question of priority.

“When you’re supposed to be working, work, and when you’re supposed to be playing, play. It’s a weird tightrope you’re walking, but it’s only when you get your priorities mixed up that things fall apart.” — Gary Keller, The ONE Thing Click To Tweet

Big ideas for a balanced life, from Gary Keller

I would like to finish this article with Gary Keller’s Big Ideas list for the act of balancing one’s life. He has a similar list at the end of each section of his book, and it is brilliant. It cannot be summarised any better, and it is invaluable advice.

Think about two balancing buckets

Illustration by author

Separate your work life and personal life into two distinct buckets — not to compartmentalise them, just for counterbalancing. Each has its own counterbalancing goals and approaches.

Counterbalance your work bucket

Illustration by author

View work as involving a skill or knowledge that must be mastered. This will cause you to give disproportionate time to your ONE Thing and will throw the rest of your work day, week, month, and year continually out of balance. Your work life is divided into two distinct areas — what matters most and everything else. You will have to take what matters to the extremes and be okay with what happens to the rest. Professional success requires it.

Counterbalance your personal life bucket

Illustration by author

Acknowledge that your life actually has multiple areas and that each requires a minimum of attention for you to feel that you “have a life.” Drop any one and you will feel the effects. This requires constant awareness. You must never go too long or too far without counterbalancing them so that they are all active areas of your life. Your personal life requires it. Start leading a counterbalanced life.

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