Life Balance is Overrated

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.

Sustaining Activities

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.”


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  • http://SourcesOfInsight.com J.D. Meier

    There’s something to be said for obsessive results.

  • Travis

    I agree with your overall logic, Scott, but I would like to challenge one of your premises- who says that we need to achieve these amazing results in all areas of our lives? Wouldn’t you agree that we seem to be a bit busy pursuing goals and crossing off tasks on our GTD lists?

    I suppose what I’m getting at is that perhaps we can achieve a balance if we scale back a bit on our ambitions. Certainly, it’s impossible to be a good parent of 3 kids when you’re working even 40 hours a week. But why say “well, either my work or my kids”? Why not cut down on how much you work and free up time for your children?

    Balance, in some ways, has been pushed off to the fringes of today’s thinking. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing, either.

  • Amiteshwar

    This is so true, obsession makes you think about your goal all the time, you become what you think about most of the time.
    When you want something as badly as air/water – you shall have it.

  • http://LearnThis.ca Mike King

    Scott, interesting how you have taken things from recent posts. I’m not sure if you read one of my recent posts on this or not, but since I fit your profile of recent posts, I thought I would chime in.

    I wouldn’t say that balancing work and life is about putting the same amount into everything and getting the same results at all, it’s about getting what you want and having that mixture of what you want balanced. You are saying the same thing really but arguing that it requires ups and downs to get it. Of course it does but ultimately like you said, sometimes you are trying to obsess for something. A new social life in a new city. Well, to me that is just balancing that social like back into place of where you want it to be. To get a blog running, you are balancing the payoff so it requires less work later and doing it now instead. Nothing wrong with that, that IS balance though. If you are balancing the work and life you want to lead, all is well. I’ve been writing about the problem when people find that things in their life are not balanced and they are NOT happy about it. Too much work that they don’t enjoy, no time to do things they love and not happy with the balance that they are striving for. That is very different from the in-balance or obsessions you write about here.

    To me is sounds like you really are balancing the things you love and one of those things is obsession. Without, you would likely not be as happy!

  • http://bytebaker.com Basu

    You’ve put in words exactly what I’ve been thinking for the past few months. I’ve also come to realize that it’s much easy to be obsessively focused at college where you don’t have many very deep ties than it is at home, where you’re sort of expected to spend time with family, even when you’re obsessed with something that is very important to you. I definitely plan to use this strategy next year as I pursue my research and grow my blog.

  • Michael

    I find that cyclic obsession is my natural way of thinking. A few times a year, I come across a new hobby, and I throw myself at it. After a few weeks, I will get a little bored and rediscover an old hobby. A couple of weeks after that, I will switch to something else. The results are pretty satisfying.

    I completely agree that trying to distribute your passions evenly is an impossibility. I’ve noticed that some skills degenerate faster than others. Skills with a physical component, such as staying in shape or playing an instrument, fade quickly. Intellectual skills are retained much better. When I noticed this, I tried to balance my instrument practice (piano and viola) with other pursuits. But in the end, I ended up exhausting myself and losing interest in all of them. It was counter-productive. I had to make a re-evaluation and I had to come to accept that music wasn’t the central part of my life. I ended up giving up the piano, and now I have enough time to play my viola three or four times a week, which is enough to keep me in practice.

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young

    Good comments everyone,

    I think some of the disagreement I’m getting comes from my using the all-too-sacred word ‘balance’. The point of the article was:

    1. Too many people are trying to “be everything, all of the time”
    2. People are afraid to step into challenges that might take a full effort.
    3. Balance is important in the long-term, not the short-term.

    However, I will agree. Some of the points I didn’t get a chance to follow-up on in the article need saying, and a few of you have called me on my omission. I needed that.

    Obviously, long-term balance can be interrupted if you commit yourself to the same type of goals repeatedly. Constantly pursuing the same projects and excellence, at the deprivation of everything else. This is a kind of addiction that needs discipline and long-term thinking to overcome, but it can also result in a lack of balance.

    I think when people are upset about a lack of balance, it’s usually because of failed long-term balance, not short-term. I may get temporarily stressed if I swing too far for a few months, but that won’t create any permanent damage. It’s getting stuck in the same focus for years that creates problems.

    Thanks for the insights!
    -Scott

  • Sebastian

    Hi Scott,

    Great post. Your description of short vs. long term balance was particularly interesting. My overall understanding was; long term balance is made up of a series of individual imbalances.

    However, because balance can’t be a constant, instead of using time (short vs. long) as a determinant, what about using the intention of an action? If the intent of an action fits in with an awarness of ‘overall’ balance, the net result can be viewed as balanced despite seeming imblance of the action. This approach removes time from the equation.

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young

    Sebastian,

    Perhaps. But I still think the range is important. Goals of 8-12 months can result in fairly large imbalances, sometimes their success requires that imbalance. But if we deal with 8-12 years, the imbalance can be dangerous.

    -Scott

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  • http://anamazingmind.com/blog/ Vlad Dolezal

    Hey Scott!

    I have noticed the exact same thing. I get the best results when I get completely obsessed with something. I read about it, take action on it, and spend every waking moment thinking about it.

    I know I’ve reached the point of obsession when it’s the last thing I think of before going to sleep and the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning.

    Funnily enough, I sometimes get so obsessed I find it hard to switch gears when I need to. Just a few days ago, I had been fueling one of my recent obsessions, when I noticed I ran out of my stack of finished blog posts and had to write some new ones. It actually took me two days to get in the mindset for writing, because my thoughts kept returning to my obsession whenever I tried to think of something else.

  • http://wikify.me James Ingallinera

    Excellent post. I agree 100%. This is the first time that I have heard anyone (other than myself) explain the “short-term imbalance, long-term balance” concept. Tried sending you an email but there was an error. I would like to connect with you, and strongly believe that you would get a ton out of it. About me – I’m also a 23 year old guy, went to a top school, started work at Bain Capital, quit to launch my own company, and am entirely consumed with living the best life I can (have spent the past 7 years obsessively devising a methodology that would enable me and others to actually do it). I’ve got as good an answer as anyone for how to live the best life you can that I’ve ever come across (hopefully you will change my thinking!), and I’m using my own methodology to become as successful as I can be, live by example, and teach as many others as possible how they can do the same. Hope to hear from you soon.

    Best,
    James