(This article also appeared in The Charlotte Observer)
The other day I overheard a few folks in line at a coffee shop discussing how they were working to create more “balance” in their lives. As their conversation progressed, it seemed they each felt very frustrated that their lives seemed to run them rather than them running their lives. They also began discussing their admiration for another mutual friend who seemed to “have it all together” even though that person had many demands on her life including being in a committed relationship, raising children and working full time.
As they walked away, I began to think of my own life and wondered how did I achieve the “balanced life” I enjoy today? As I thought back, I realized that it certainly wasn’t always this way. I can certainly remember times in my life when I worked long hours, had many activities each evening and felt guilty if I sat still for more that 5 minutes to “relax.” In fact, I once went over 2 years without more than 2 days off in a row (i.e. no week long “vacation”). So what was so different about how I lived my life back then from my life today? What had I done to achieve this life I was now enjoying so much?
Typing “Life Balance” into Google returns over 161 million results. There are programs, seminars, books, websites, gurus and etc all with a slightly different method to find life balance. What I’ve found most important about achieving Life Balance is recognizing the difference between two important concepts: juggling life and balancing life. In Part I of this series, we’re going to talk about juggling.
Juggling Life refers to all the different areas of our life that require our attention. In fact, this is what most of us are discussing regularly with others when we talk about all the things we are trying to manage in our lives.
As part of our juggling act, we each play a variety of roles throughout the day:
We’re a parent.
We’re an employee.
We’re a partner / lover.
We’re a friend / sibling.
We’re a chef / maid / CFO / repairman.
Juggling is much different from Balancing. Juggling requires that we be able to handle multiple things, shift from one role to another with ease and give each “item” we’re juggling the appropriate amount of attention. If we cannot juggle well, we have little chance of achieving balance.
When people have asked me what makes juggling so difficult, my first response is usually that “all the things we are attempting to keep in the air are made of glass and covered in peanut butter!” In other words, first and foremost, we don’t want to drop any of them and allow them to “break” because each one is important to us. Being covered in peanut butter means that any of the items we are juggling can stick to our hands, become difficult to handle and hinder our ability to juggle.
Another analogy I use includes tennis balls and bowling balls. Often, we have several “similar sized” things we are juggling that are pretty light and easy to handle like tennis balls. While it may be challenging, it is not terrifically difficult. Other times the things we juggle may become difficult and make us feel like a bowling ball has been added to what we are juggling. An example of this would be when one of our children gets sick. In this situation, we have to provide more “effort” and attention to our child than we may normally. This can make it difficult to keep the rest of our “balls in the air.”
In the midst of working to juggle all these things, fulfill all our various daily roles and perform them well, it is very easy to lose our individual selves and what we need. We “run” all day long and collapse into bed exhausted only to repeat the cycle the next day. This is when we feel frustrated; when we have no time left in our day for ourselves and what we want. So, how do we change this? We begin by determining what is truly important to us in our unique life journey.
When I made the changes to my life several years ago, one of the problems I noticed I had was over-committing my time. I had a real problem saying “no” to people and, although I was always able to get everything done, living that way left very little time for me. What helped me change that habit was identifying clearly for myself what was important in my life. I needed to be sure what I was doing was because I chose to do it and not because someone else expected me to do it.
Now let me make this clear. I’m saying I sat down and determined what was important to me and what was not. I then became selective about the things I would allow into my “juggling items.” This didn’t mean that at first I still didn’t have to do some things I didn’t want to do; there were important things that I had to do even though I didn’t want them in my juggling list. Over time, I worked to remove these items from my list but at first, I had to continue to do them out of necessity (e.g. continue to work at a job I didn’t like because I had bills to pay).
The other thing I noticed about my “juggling list” was that I had an affinity for bowling balls! It seemed I was always trying to manage many, many difficult things at once which always stretched my ability to “get it all done.” I may have been keeping all the balls in the air, but my back was killing me!
Over the course of about 2 years, I gradually reduced my activity list so that what remained were the things that were really important to me. I only volunteered for things if I knew it would not feel like a “burden” to do (when the things we do aren’t burdensome, juggling is much easier). I also took care to recognize when I was dealing with a bowling ball or two and made sure not to accept any more “things” until I had removed some of the bowling balls. At the end of that 2 years, I was doing much more of what I liked to do, with much less effort and with more “free” time for myself.
To summarize, becoming a successful “juggler” requires a building-block approach based upon what is important to us and what gives our life meaning. First we must be able to juggle the things that are most important to us which usually include our spouse, children and career.. For the most part, these are the top priorities in our lives and deserve the majority of our attention. Next, we can gradually add things we enjoy doing as an individual (e.g. spending time with dear friends, taking classes, having time alone). Giving ourselves individual time allows us to recharge and not feel we only exist for the benefit of others. Finally, we must learn to avoid things that consume our energy that we are doing out a misplaced sense of obligation (e.g. agreeing to do a group newsletter when we know we don’t have enough time for it).
Juggling is always easier when we are acting in alignment with our true self and what is truly important to us. Now that we understand how to juggle, we can learn how to maintain our stability.