The word itself conjures images of centeredness, ease, and making steady, stress-free progress toward our most cherished life goals. And yet there is a widely held myth—particularly among those of us on the personal improvement track—that in order to achi
Productivity coaches sometimes use a model called the Life Wheel—a circular graphic that resembles a pie and outlines eight key areas of our lives: work and career, finances, physical and emotional health, primary relationship, family and friends, home and surroundings, fun and relaxation, and spiritual development. The myth of the balanced life tells us that we should divide our attention proportionally between each of these areas in order to achieve optimum health and fulfillment, but the problem with this mindset is that it can create unnecessary pressure; we may shift into overdrive in an attempt to keep all the proverbial balls in the air. As a result, we not only feel the stress of spreading ourselves too thin, but we may also create the experience of feeling ineffective in any one area.
What makes the notion of a balanced life a myth is that the very nature of life is ebb and flow. Look anywhere in nature and you’ll see that there are times of productivity and times of rest. It’s rare to have a year or a month or even a day where we give equal time to all facets of our lives. From what I can tell, there will always be one or two areas grabbing for our attention while the others remain on the back burner, waiting for their day in the sun.
There are times—e.g., after the birth of a child, or if we or someone we love falls ill—when our family will require the lion’s share of our focus and attention. There are other times when career opportunities abound, and our passion and focus is naturally drawn there. Sometimes the need for fun and relaxation emerges as the clear priority, and we shift our focus from other areas in order to take the rest we need.
What’s important to understand is that each of us has our own internal definition of happiness. Because each of us has a different set of goals and desires, we will have our own unique picture of what a balanced life should look like. A schedule that feels perfectly satisfactory for one person may throw another totally out of whack. Even the same person will naturally redefine what balance, happiness, and “having it all” means as we grow through different phases of our lives. As some goals are realized and brought to fruition, other desires are born, altering our internal picture of what these words and ideas mean to us. The crucial part of this equation, from the standpoint of what brings us happiness and fulfillment, is not to bend ourselves to conform to someone else’s version of balance, but to remain connected to our own sense of what’s right for us—and to recognize that even our own definition is in a pretty constant state of flux.
Ultimately, what I have found to be one of the most powerful ways to achieve the balance, fulfillment, and happiness that we’re all striving for is to learn to appreciate and enjoy whatever is in front of us—to make the choice to be nourished by whatever we are giving our attention to at any given moment. If you’re committed to growing a young business, you may be putting in 60-hour work weeks—a schedule that, from the outside, may look totally overwhelming. But if you’re thriving, your work is feeding you, and those 60 hours are bringing you closer to achieving a vision that inspires you, those hours will be received not as drudgery, but as lifegiving passion. And that passion will spill over into other areas of your life as well.
Any time you find yourself in a phase where one facet of life is calling for the majority of your attention, you really only have two choices: to resist this reality and do yourself the disservice of splitting your energy, or to devote yourself wholeheartedly to the task at hand, trusting that giving your full attention to any one area of your life will have a positive effect on the rest. Chances are, you play a number of different roles in any given day— parent, spouse, career person, playmate, friend. Every one of these expressions nourishes you in a different way, and yet, it’s a little bit like eating at a buffet: You can only fit so much on your plate at any one time. So enjoy what’s on your plate and don’t rob yourself of the experience of the moment by worrying about the rest.
Unless you are living an extremely simple spiritual life that is removed from the complexities of the modern world, the notion of a perfectly balanced life is more of a fantasy than a goal to be attained. Striving to attain it is like trying to reach a mirage off in the distance. A far more exciting and worthwhile endeavor is to put our energy into creating a life that reflects our unique values and desires. The experience of “having it all” is one in which we are using all of our unique talents and gifts. It’s when we take the time to define the areas that are most important to us— whether it’s in the area of family, career, spirituality, or something else entirely— and bring forth our full potential in that area. The life we create may not look like anyone else’s perfect picture of balance, but if it affords us the ability to express our uniqueness, contribute to others, and explore our passions, then that—by anyone’s definition—is a life worth living.
Christy Whitman is a transformational leader and the New York Times bestselling author of The Art of Having It All. Visit her at ChristyWhitman.com and TheArtofHavingItAll.com.