In our society we like to talk about balance. Everyone seems to be on a quest to find the perfect balance between work, family life, and personal interests and hobbies. We talk about a work-life balance as if there is some absolutely perfect way for us to do all the things we want to do and to live a full life. This is an idea that I gave up long ago because it doesn’t really fit with the reality of the world we live in.
Instead of balance I like to think about packing a suitcase and leaning toward one item or another. We have a limited amount of time in a given day, and we must give priority to things we think are the most important. We must decide what we are for sure packing in our suitcase, and what things we are leaving out. Once we have identified those things that are the most important and valuable to us, we end up leaning heavily into one thing or another. We may lean heavily into our career, leaving little time or space for a significant other or for exercise. We may lean heavily into our family, making us less likely to put in extra hours on the job. Or we may live for a hobby and rearrange our lives to provide for more time and opportunity to focus on our personal interests.
A short section in Colin Wright’s book Becoming Who We Need To Be brought these thoughts of balance back to my mind. He writes, “There’s nothing inherently unhealthy about working long hours, or working hard on something you care about or think will benefit you in the long term. It only becomes potentially harmful when, in doing so, you neglect other aspects of your life that require attention. When you start to lose density and become less three-dimensional.” What Wright is saying is that there is no correct way to pack your suitcase, as long as you do it intentionally.
In the same way that we would be very thoughtful about everything we pack for a week long trip to Hawaii, we should be very thoughtful about what we decide to include in our lives on a daily and weekly basis. If we are going to put in extra hours at work then we should be thoughtful about how we spend the rest of our time so that we don’t just operate as a zombie and ignore family, friends, or our own health. We should recognize that we won’t ever be perfectly balanced if we chose to focus heavily on one thing, but we can at least be intentional with how we use the rest of our time. If we don’t, then we will find that our suitcase has haphazardly filled itself with things we don’t really need, like Facebook, Game of Thrones, and late night trips to Wendy’s. If we think about what we want to pack into our suitcase of life, we can make sure our lives are still dimensional and interesting, even if we are spending a majority of our time and focus on a single thing. We can give up activities that simply distract us in favor of activities that help us be more thoughtful, healthy, or engaged with our loved ones. We don’t have to completely cut out Facebook or TV, but we should be intentional about how much time those activities receive. Going through life on autopilot or trying to find a perfect balance will ultimately end up with us in a frustrated spot as we can’t seem to do everything we want and can’t seem to make our lives fulfilling.
In a letter written to James Harmon for the book, Take My Advice, writer Larry Niven writes, “The product of Freedom and Security is a constant. To gain more freedom of thought and/or action, you must give up some security, and vice versa.” Niven’s quote speaks to me about trying to find a middle ground in the world of freedom and security. He continues to explain that the constant is different for every individual and how the product of the two may vary depending on individual personalities. Some individuals strive to reach out to new people and new places, while others become more comfortable with a set routine and a guaranteed paycheck and living space.
Thinking about actions and choices in terms of freedom and security and understanding their relationship can help me find the place that I believe is right for me. I am not always as adventurous as I would like to be, but I understand that there is a certain level of security with which I am comfortable. Because my security allows me to spend my days without a constant worry, I can reach a higher level of happiness and self confidence even though I am not as adventurous as others may be. Becoming aware of the conflicting feelings that arise when I feel as though I have been in a routine for too long helps me enjoy each moment and remember that my security has has allowed me to reach the place I am. Finding a constant between freedom and security that leaves you in a confident place is a good thing, but I think there is still room for experimenting to see if more or less of either would benefit you. I would not argue for large pendulum swings, but an occasional swing for freedom or retreat towards security can be a solid learning experience to draw on as we search for our proper balance between the two.
Dr. Laura Schlessinger wrote a message to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, and in her book she hits on many topics including goal setting, putting others first, and time management. The following quote really dives into the idea of time management, “Forget balance, Think choices. You must order your priorities, and only do what you can do well.” I really align with this quote because I have recently begun thinking of time and time management in new ways. I grew up imagining the idea of balance and being able to do an equal amount of things that I enjoyed, found important, or helped me sustain myself. Recently however, I have come to see that balance is just a myth and that there are better ways to think about time management.
The first new way of looking at time management for me was imaging a tilt rather than a balance. In this way, we are always not quite balanced, but we are tilting one way or another. We lean towards things we are putting more time into as opposed to staying balanced with all of our time and activities nicely weighed out on a scale. When I first read this quote that was the idea I had in mind, but that idea is still a balance. What is worse is that the idea of tilting is just an unstable balance. We may be tilting one way or another, but then we are trying to add extra weight on a system that is already unstable. In my opinion it would be better to strive for a good balance rather than a good tilt.
The most recent idea of time management that I have been exposed to, and now that I return to this quote I see it as an idea that Dr. Schlesinger would agree with, came to me from Beyond the To Do List Podcast
. Sheranosher compared time management to packing a suitcase, and she did so by having everyone imagine a trip to Alaska. The best way to pack a suitcase she explains, is to lay out all of the things you want to take, and then to pack the most important things first. When you do this, you see everything that you have and make sure that you don’t leave behind anything crucial. First you tackle the most important items that you will need (your jacket, a pair of snow boots, gloves) and then you see where those extra items will fit (swim trunks & flip flops). If your most important items have taken up all of your space, then you simply leave out the swim trunks and move on. Her comparison to time management is brilliant. If you examine everything you need and want to do, then you have an easier time identifying what is important and what is not. You can take the items that you know you need to get done in your day, and pack those in your mental suitcase first, then you will see where (if at all) the extra things can fit.
Dr. Schlessinger in her quote was telling us to handle time the same way as Sheranosher, just without having to plan a trip to Alaska. She encourages us to examine our choices and be honest about which choices are priorities, and which choices are superfluous. In addition, she says to focus on those choices that we can execute fully and completely. If we can not do a choice well, then it does not make sense for it to be a priority. If we want to take that electric blanket, but do not know how to fold it into our suitcase in an efficient way, it may take up too much space and force out our more important gloves.
In a letter written to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, Joe Dallesandro writes, “When you’re young, you’re given a plate and you’re given all sorts of things to choose from, and whoever your guardian is should be trying to give you a balanced meal.”
As I have left college and entered the world of the 40 hour work week, I have begun to have major doubts about the idea of balance. A popular idea that I have come across in podcasts from the world of business, productivity, and entrepreneurs, is that there is no such thing as a work-life balance, but rather choices of what we want to focus on. We all have the same amount of time in a day, and how we spend that time will determine what our focus is, how well we meet goals, and what we do to achieve the things we want to achieve.
I think that the quote from Dallesandro is very interesting because it suggests that there can be a balance in interests, activities, hobbies, and meaningful work or family time, specifically when you are young and not in the world of a 40 hour workweek. I can definitely understand Dallesandro in this quote when I look back at my own life, but I also see a major conflict. Parents who are working 40 hours a week and who have no ability to maintain a magical balance, have to be the ones who shape and provide a balance for their children. Left to their own, children will zero in on a single focus and loose sight of balance, and in today’s world that may mean video games, Facebook, and other unproductive activities. I am not a parent and hopefully not anywhere close to being one, but I am very encouraged by the metaphor of providing a child with a balanced meal to help them grow in many directions as they move through school, possibly into college, and off to their own independent lives.
A constant tension in my life is summed up by Allison Vesterfelt in her book Packing Light, “As scared as I was of chaos and the unknown, I was equally scared of the mundane and predictable.” Since about half way through college, I have had serious fears when looking into my future. One of the principal fears is the fear of boredom. I do not want to live a life with a routine that does not excite me. I have always been afraid of being stuck in front of the television each night watching sitcoms or sports. I am afraid of doing the same thing every day. Afraid of not exploring the world, and missing the chance to truly live. At the same time that I find myself wrapped up in fears of not having a life that I enjoyed, I want nothing more than to be comfortable in a predictable world with a nice house, a nice job, a nice salary, and no stress.
In college I was not sure what I needed to do to find a way to live a life that fell in them middle of my two fears. As a sophomore I was active with coaching cross country and some basketball, and I was getting great grades in school, but I was not a complete person, and I was not sure what direction I wanted my life to move in. I began to question my desires, and worry about the importance of material things, especially if I did not have real relationships and fun people to share my imagined success with. I eventually began to take more chances and I got involved with clubs and organizations. I started as a member of the Spanish Club and eventually grew to start my own podcast where I interviewed student leaders to highlight the cool things that students at the University of Nevada did beyond the classroom. This taught me about how important it was to take chances and put yourself in situations that are new and scary. All of the guests of my podcast found a way to go beyond the comfortable success they wanted in college to do things that were difficult, not always clear, and so often rich with relationships and new connections.
As I have moved forwards in life, graduating from college and entering the world of the 40 hour work week, I am still working on understanding how to live a life that balances the chaos of the unknown with the mundane and familiar. I have turned to podcasts to help me explore new areas, and have put myself in positions that will provide me with opportunities to explore. The real lesson that I have learned is that it is ok to allow myself to build a safe place and a home that can be predictable, so that when I do begin to branch out and explore, there is a safe place I can return to, allowing the world to slow down around me.