Balance: will we ever attain it?
Everyone talks about a work/life balance. Magazines and celebrity spin doctors cram our brains with a steady diet of that other person (not you) who has a fast-paced, high-paying job, three kids, founded a charity, sits on her HOA board, is training for a half marathon and also regularly attends a gourmet cooking class, Pilates and her book club.
Meanwhile the rest of us mere mortals are fighting through traffic to get to Dunkin Doughnuts before a long day of meetings, crammed in-boxes, and trying to find some kind of healthy take-out on the way home to complete our kid’s half-finished diorama of the solar system and roll our eyes at the note still on the fridge to bring the non-nut-derivative snacks for Ms. Stravinsky’s second grade class yesterday (oops).
The list of items that I really want to do, start, or complete but haven’t, are many: master a foreign language; learn fencing, finally finish my Doctorate already, learn Kuk Sool Wan, speed read, publish those books I’ve half-written, start a business or two, climb Machu Picchu, see Elephant Polo in India, do the Sydney Harbor Bridge climb, teach a University course, and yes, run a half-marathon, to name only a very few. Those items are of course supposed to magically happen in between getting in shape, organizing the closet, being a better parent, cutting out caffeine, practicing yoga, going to church once in a while, and “training canaries in the art of falconry…”
You likely have a list of your own, with items in various stages of completion. If you’re like me, you don’t think about these things much, but they’re always with you, gnawing at the back of your brain, submitting a steady dose of guilt or inadequacy that society tells you is deserved because you’re not doing it “all.”
Or maybe you’ve convinced yourself that one day (when you have a three-day weekend) you actually will do it all, or maybe you know you know you won’t, and does it even matter? The truth is, most folks are approaching the concept of “life-balance” all wrong:
Consider that true balance might actually mean deliberate and strategic imbalance:
In short, I’m talking about mastering the “Wheel.”
“The Wheel of Life,” for you smarties who want to impress your friends at a cocktail party, is a common reference to the Sanskrit bhavacakra, referencing the cycles of human life. It has many forms, but all of them serve to illustrate the areas of life that are important to you, and track your progress in those areas on your terms. Generally the world’s great thinkers and sellers of books would have us believe that “balance” is maintaining a bit of everything equally at all times, like a plate-spinning act at the circus. But life is more like a grand buffet, with a little of this and then some of that and maybe next year you’ll eat a whole lot of that stuff over there and two years later maybe not so much.
Because “work” and “life” are vague terms that differ for everyone, and the priorities of one verses the other can change radically over the phases of our lives: perhaps when you’re young, your “balance” is focused on college or career over relationships, the focus of which may switch for a time down the road as you become more focused on finding a serious relationship, or having children. And what about other important factors that give meaning and balance to our lives, such as finances, physical health, romantic love, and spirituality?
Years ago I discovered The Wheel for myself.
I liked it and drew out a six spoke model, using the categories of finances, spirituality, relationships, health, career, and personal development.
My wheel is very basic, drawn on a blank piece of humble, white paper years ago with each category labeled in pen. As soon as I made it, I wrote a letter grade in the center part of each pie-shaped category, along with a date next to it, looking something like this:
Then every so often — sometimes every few months and other times every few years — I unfold my Wheel and grade myself again, adding the date. It’s so interesting to look at the string of grades and dates for each category, getting a visual map of my life balance over the years. It’s varied, and always out of balance. Some years relationships got an “A” while finances got a “C” as I struggled to build my career. Later dates show the finance category in great shape but health needing improvement.
As I look back at the dates next to each grade, I can recall that time in my life and why the grade was so: sometimes I was intensely focused on one category of my life over another, other times, particularly in my twenties, it was out of the sheer lack of having achieved certain things in that part of my journey and the lower grade reflected my discontent with that imbalance.
Today, there are other models that employ the use of even more categories, including things like “self-image,” “environment,” and “fun & recreation,” or, “community.” I wanted to keep mine simple, but your wheel may look different, representing the different components that define an overall healthy life as you see it.
Other “Wheel” designs are more intricate, including “spokes” where you rank your satisfaction with each area of the pie on a scale of 1-10, with one being at the center-most point of the wheel and ten being at the outer-most point. Then you connect all of the numbers in each category, giving you a wobbly, out-of-shape wheel, equaling a visual representation of where your priorities are at this stage of your life: reddandelion.co.uk offers an explanation of this Wheel and a downloadable version that you can complete for yourself.
Whatever the case, it’s extremely interesting to view your life in this way, and I highly recommend it. My Wheel of Life is worn, and has a coffee ring in the upper right corner. The upper left corner has a short list of names upside and a doodle of random triangles thoughtlessly drawn by a former supervisor during a meeting (My Wheel, which I carried everywhere, was sticking up out of a folder and she drew on the corner of the first thing she saw). “My wheel!” I though in horror, “She wrote on my Wheel!” “Doesn’t she know that’s my sacred Wheel of Life??!”
I carried my Wheel everywhere and still do to this day, complete with its stains and uninvited scribbles, and it reminds me that even though my life may seem out of balance sometimes, my life overall has been quite balanced.
On my Wheel, I can see decades of experiences and achievements; I see grad school and the struggles to build my career; I see losing money and making money, buying my first home, falling in love, and having a family. From my Wheel, I can even see the ebb and flow of my spiritual journey over the decades, all leading to who I am today, and all part of the path of who I’ll become tomorrow.
If you’ve bought into the notion that a “balanced life” means doing it all, I encourage you to make your own Wheel of Life, and discover where your priorities have been, where you are now, and just how much you’ve done in your journey.
In the end, “balance” is not a measurement of your success compared to others; it’s exactly what you decide it should be and nothing more.
You can view this article and more from Stephanie on her Linkined profile.