Ah, bal­ance.

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

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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.

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