I’ve read quite a few articles about an overused topic, life balance. Almost all of them support the assumption that more balance is better. I’d like to challenge that assumption by claiming that life balance is an overrated goal. It’s better to cycle through obsessions than to constantly try to preserve balance.
“Almost everything meaningful is accomplished by a megalomaniac on a mission.”
Balance is static, it’s the opposite of change and the opposite of growth. I know few people who accomplished a really difficult goal without, at some point, becoming obsessively focused on it. If you do reach your goal while maintaining perfect balance, it probably wasn’t too difficult to reach.
Homeostasis is the body’s way of preserving balance. Many of the body’s systems are designed to resist change. If you get too hot, your body evaporates sweat to cool down. If the calcium levels in your blood become too low, your body will leach a small amount from your bones.
While homeostasis can keep you alive, it can also sabotage your efforts for change. If you go on a strict diet to lose weight, your body will compensate by slowing your metabolism. If you stop smoking, your body will force cravings to encourage you to get nicotine back to ordinary levels.
Obsession, not balance, makes things happen. The people that accomplish goals that require a lot of change throw themselves into it. This requires conscious effort, since homeostasis wants to keep everything the same. Getting out of balance, gives you the momentum to set a new balancing point for life.
Obsession and Goal-Setting
When I started building this website, I put my effort into getting out of balance, not maintaining it. I knew that it would require a lot of effort and a sharp learning curve to get started, and the natural tendency would be to avoid the work. By getting obsessed about it, I was able to get a foothold in the blogosphere.
I took the same approach when I wanted to rebuild my social life after moving to a new city. In the first few weeks, my social life was always my top priority and I built friends fairly quickly. The times when I slowed down or stalled always happened when I tried to spread my energy over several areas at once to regain balance.
Today, if I go for a goal, I make sure it takes a top priority, even if it means sacrificing other parts of my life temporarily. I recently did this for a highly competitive business plan course, and now our team will be competing internationally at the graduate level. During the last four months, my life was out of balance. I didn’t work as much on this website as I wanted to, I spent less time with friends, and I definitely was overworked. But those things are temporary, the experiences and achievements from that will last a lot longer.
Long-Term Versus Short-Term Balance
In the long-term, balance is necessary. If you erect a building on an uneven surface, it will eventually collapse or fall over. If you chronically overwork one part of life, and avoid other areas, you won’t be happy. Extreme financial success with no relationships is just as miserable as being in great health but in poverty.
But long-term balance doesn’t mean short-term balance. I cycle through periods of extreme work with extreme relaxation. Working for 6-8 months to reach a difficult goal and then spending 4 months to rest and pursue no-pressure activities. Even within those periods, I’ll probably have mini-cycles where I work hard for 5-6 days and take the next day off.
Going through cycles is more effective than constantly maintaining balance. Cycles allow you to fully immerse yourself in a project or fully relax without feeling guilt. Inserting smaller cycles into larger ones is the best way to avoid the problems of burnout or rustout that can happen when you’re temporarily out of balance.
Perfect Balance is Boring
I’ve argued that cycling obsessions is more effective than perfect balance, but is it a better way to live? I feel it is. Always trying to maintain the same output for every area of life becomes boring. There are no challenging goals or exciting adventures. The fulfilling parts of life are the same parts that throw us out of balance.
In order to take on an exciting project, you’ll have to spend less time with friends or family and spend more than a few stressed nights thinking about it. In order to travel the world, you’ll probably have to put a temporary hold on your career. In order to focus on your kids you may have to pass up a promotion.
Many people drive themselves insane because they try to always maintain balance, but still grab onto these opportunities. They want the promotion, friends, family, adventure, relaxation all in the highest amounts all at the same time. And, for the most part, it can’t be done.
Perfect balance ends up becoming an impossible juggling act. You can never make the radical improvements needed to take you to the next level in any area. But at the same time, it takes a lot of effort to keep things from slipping.
However, if you cycle obsessions, you can experience all of those things, if not at the same time.
Avoid the Chronic Obsession
The only thing worse than chronic balance is a chronic obsession. Just as important as it is to focus, it’s important to cycle those focuses. Some people get into a pattern of investing in only one area, until that area becomes a long-term obsession. Every few months, take another look at your values and see whether you need to switch your focus.
I’m using the word obsession fairly liberally, so I’d like to explain that obsessing on a goal doesn’t mean giving up everything to pursue it. If it did, you might gain one thing from your obsessive conquest and lose everything else.
When you’re obsessively focused, whether it’s on relaxation, work, your social life or your health, you still spend time to sustain the other areas of your life. Recently, working in this competitive, business-plan course, I still spent some time for the gym, friends, my girlfriend and this website. But I was focused more on sustaining, than making major improvements.
Sustaining activities means you still habitually invest some time, but it’s mostly on autopilot. I wrote articles for the last four months, but I did what I needed to sustain the website. I wasn’t actively involved in dreaming up new projects or marketing campaigns. I also spent time with friends, but I didn’t actively meet new people or build a social circle.
Can you sustain everything perfectly? Probably not. But that’s not the point. I know that even if a few parts of life don’t see huge improvements, I can reinvest in those areas again in several months when I reach my target.
Be a Meaningful Specific
You can’t be everything at once, so don’t try to be. Put enough energy into one pursuit at a time until you can make meaningful accomplishments, then cycle that energy onto something else. Zig Ziglar has a great quote, “Don’t be a wandering generality. Be a meaningful specific.”