The Sandman is a cruel master.
How do you feel when your day ends?
- Do you go to bed wishing you had a few (or couple dozen) more hours to do other things?
- Do you feel unsuccessful because you did not do something you wanted to?
- Do you feel guilty because you did something to relax instead of doing something productive?
Recently, I have been obsessed with the goal of creating “balance” in my life–obsessed and chronically frustrated. As a reasonably intelligent person (excluding Mondays and days without coffee), I berate myself for either not having the discipline or intelligence to figure out how to get that balance.
Then I realized something liberating.
Balance is a mirage.
When we are unhappy, we look down the road and see this oasis where everything in our lives is as it should be, which is in perfect balance. We think that if we can get there, we will spend the perfect amount of time at our job, with our family, volunteering, and even pursuing our hobby of weaving cat hair into mittens.
But for many of us, that oasis does not exist. Pursuing a balanced life is pursuing failure.
There’s a shopper’s-tip that says you should not go to the store when you are hungry because you will buy things you otherwise would not. When you are hungry, so many things sound delicious and satisfying. But if you tried to buy everything that you thought you wanted to eat plus everything you believed you should eat (you know, the healthy stuff), you would likely realize a few things.
- What you want/need to buy costs more money than you have or can justify spending.
- You could not possibly eat everything you wanted to.
- If you tried to eat all of it, you would likely make yourself sick–especially if you did this every day.
Basically, your hunger brings about gluttonous desires. The need to make a balanced life can be like that. We are so hungry to feel accomplished that we succumb to what I call achievement gluttony–a detrimental obsession to accomplish far more than we need to.
Feed the Need, not the Want
If you are like most people, you cannot afford to buy everything you want. That means when you go to the store, you must have an idea of how much money you can spend, what you need to buy (essentials) and what you want to buy (indulgences).
Because I only shop when my refrigerator is crying about feeling empty inside, I typically want to buy quick convenience foods which tend to be delicious–but over-priced and not healthy. Since I also want to be financially and physically fit, habitually succumbing to those wants would be detrimental.
I need to sustain my health but I want pleasurable taste and convenience.
To relieve yourself of the burden of trying to do too much, consider making a “shopping list” of your To-Dos. For each item on your list, ask yourself:
- Do I need to do this or do I just want to? (For the purposes of this exercise, a need is something that, if not done, will have serious negative consequences for you and/or those you are responsible for. The more immediate those consequences, the greater the need is. A want is anything else.)
- If you do not do it, who is hurt and how?
- How long will this take? (Optional. This is important for folks who prefer having everything scheduled vs. those who simply need a checklist of priorities and accept that they will probably never complete the list. I’m a bit of both.)
Here are two similar line-items from my own life to illustrate how this may look.
- Exercise 3 times per week: I need to do this because not doing it can lead to poor health which could literally kill me. (And contrary to some previous moments in my life, I have grown quite attached to being alive.) Time: 3 times per week at approximately 45 minutes per session (2:15 per week).
- Exercise 5 times per week: I want to do this because I want to improve my physical appearance both for my own ego and to be more attractive. Not doing it has no dire consequences because I am doing it 3 times per week already. I probably won’t see the changes I want or they may just take longer, but I’ll still be fit. Time: 5 times per week at approximately 45 minutes per session (3:45 per week).
Once you have your shopping items defined, put them in order with the most urgent needs at the top and least consequential wants at the bottom. Don’t stress if you are not sure if one item should be ranked higher or lower than another. If they are needs, you’ll get them done anyway. If they are wants, they hold similar value to you and you can simply do whichever you want to when you get to that part of your list.
Once you have your priorities in order, then you can use whatever task/time-management methods you normally use to schedule the items on your list. Your budget is the total amount of time you have available each week to do things besides sleep (though you can add that to your list if you are chronically sleep-deprived).
If your list is too long, it is perfect.
A fulfilling life is one spent doing what is important to us. Having too many things you want to do is a great problem. Depending on your list, it can show your passion for life, capacity for compassion, sense of adventure, creative ambitions, and more.
When you do what matters most, balance stops mattering.
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