When you hear the word “balance,” what does that word mean to you? Do you feel like your life is in balance? Do you feel like your best life should be balanced? We often hear about work-life balance, but is that realistic? Can we really find total balance, where everything—work and life—is equally weighted?
The honest answer is no. Balance isn’t possible. Balance is a myth. Work-life balance is a myth. But many of us continue to strive for this balance and work-life balance myth, and according to one study, 66% of those surveyed feel like they’re falling short—they don’t have work-life balance.
We often think of balance as a scale with two pans that are totally and equally balanced. If we add something to or take something away from one of the pans, that scale is out of balance. To put this in real-life perspective, precious time spent on one thing takes time away from another thing, throwing that scale out of balance. Since the two pans of that scale can’t move or they’ll be out of balance, they’re stuck. If your life is truly in balance, you are also stuck. And that’s not a place anyone wants to be in. So, if finding balance is your goal, you’re probably falling short, and that’s not a place anyone wants to be in either.
Signs and Symptoms of Being Out of Balance
Trying to live into this balance myth can be detrimental to our lives in many ways, and when we experience any of the following signs or symptoms, what we’re doing to try and “balance” our lives probably isn’t working:
- Unclear priorities
- Lower productivity, both personally and professionally
- Difficulty setting boundaries (saying no)
- Increased stress
- Excessive phone usage
- Disorganization in both personal and professional spaces
- Working excessively: One study found that 48% of Americans identify as being workaholics, and another study found that 77% of those surveyed have experienced burnout in their jobs at least once, with 50% saying they’ve experienced burnout more than once.
“The truth is, balance is bunk. It is an unattainable pipe dream.... The quest for balance between work and life, as we’ve come to think of it, isn’t just a losing proposition; it’s a hurtful, destructive one.” ~Keith H. Hammonds, Harvard Business School graduate, Deputy editor of Fast Company
If finding and sustaining balance is a myth, what’s the answer to trying to make all the pieces in our lives fit together where we feel like we’re making time for all the important things and not neglecting any of those same things? Instead of thinking of balance as a set of balanced scales, think, instead, of balancing the things in our lives. It’s not about achieving balance, it’s about continuously balancing, and balancing our lives is attainable. Nora Roberts, New York Times bestselling author of more than 200 novels, offers a powerful theory about balancing. She refers to all the things in our lives as glass and plastic balls, and we’re constantly balancing the balls in our lives:
- Glass balls are the most important things. If we drop a glass ball, it will break.
- Plastic balls are also important things, but they’re not as important as the glass balls. If we drop a plastic ball, it won’t break.
Depending on what’s going on in our lives, our balls can change from glass to plastic and vice versa. While not referring specifically to this ball theory, Kevin H. Hammonds explains,
“...Instead of trying to balance all of our commitments and passions at any one time, let’s acknowledge that anything important, and anything done well, demands our full investment. At some times, it may be a demanding child or an unhappy spouse, and the office will suffer. At others, it may be winning the McWhorter account, and child and spouse will have to fend for themselves. Only over time can we really balance a portfolio of diverse experiences.”
Balancing becomes all about keeping those glass balls in the air and continuously evaluating the difference between our glass and plastic balls. We don’t want to drop any glass balls, and if we need to let a plastic ball drop from time to time, that’s okay. That ball can be picked up later. This process doesn’t have to be tedious or overwhelming either. It can actually be freeing, putting us in control of which balls are glass and which are plastic.
Think about this theory in your own life:
What are your glass balls right now?
What are your plastic balls right now?
5 Tips for Balancing Your Life
If you ever you find yourself falling into the “trying to find balance” trap, or if you’re ever having a difficult time deciding which balls are glass or plastic, based on the statistics shared above, you’re not alone. It’s safe to say that we all want to devote time to all the important things in our lives, both professionally and personally. But we also only have the same 1,440 minutes every day—we cannot borrow more minutes from tomorrow. When you find yourself striving for that unreachable balance or having difficulty deciding between those glass or plastic balls, here are 5 tips for balancing your life, and as a leader, keep these tips in mind when working with your team as well so you can help them in balancing their own lives.
Tip #1. Realize that everything has a trade-off. If you choose to say yes to one thing, you’re choosing to say no to anything else that would take that space. Take on a new project? You’ll have less time to spend on other things—both at home and at work. The important thing is to understand what those trade-offs are and then to choose wisely.
Tip #2. Similarly, learn to say no. Warren Buffett once said, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say ‘No’ to almost everything." It can be difficult to say no, especially when you want to do your best work, contribute, and not let others down. But saying no can actually help you accomplish all of those things since you’ll be focusing on the glass balls—the most important things.
Tip #3. Prioritize your physical and mental health. If you’re not feeling well both mentally and physically, every aspect of your life can—and probably will—be affected. Whether that’s through working out, meditating, taking a vacation, going for a walk, taking up a hobby, spending time with friends or family, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, reading a book, volunteering or serving someone else, or whatever this looks like for you, make this time a priority—a glass ball. Even a few minutes at a time can make a difference!
Learn about mental health resources and tools that can help you and your team here.
Tip #4. Set boundaries. This can be a difficult thing to do in our 24/7/365 world. But if we don’t set some boundaries, we can feel like we’re consistently “on” 24/7/365. Here are some ideas for setting boundaries: Stop answering emails at a certain time each day, unplug for a set period of time, only work nights and weekends (or on your days off) when absolutely necessary, and honor commitments made to yourself, friends, and family over last-minute work requests. Yes, sometimes boundaries need to be adjusted due to unforeseen circumstances. That’s life. But, for the most part, boundaries can be set and kept, allowing better balancing to occur.
Tip #5. Evaluate your glass and plastic balls—your priorities—often. Life can change from day to day (even more often at times), so your priorities can change too. Schedule time in your day, week, and month to look ahead and see which of the things on your to-do list are glass and plastic balls. After all, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” That was true when Benjamin Franklin said it, and it’s still true today. Balancing your life is much easier when you make time regularly to evaluate and reevaluate your priorities.
Finding balance in your life is a myth. Balancing your life can be a reality. And when you make balancing your life, both personally and professionally, a priority—a glass ball, you’ll be well on your way to achieving your goals and becoming who you want to become in all aspects of your life.