Sunday, January 23, 2011

Forget balance.

Literal balance is a great thing; I don't have as much of it as I'd like, because I have inner ear issues. But that just means I get to play a lot. I bounce off walls intentionally, because I can't always walk straight, and use that to practice moving without good balance; and sitting is always a challenge, as if there were a ninja behind me, pulling the chair away every time. I'm teaching myself to stand on one foot without waving back and forth like a construction crane in an earthquake (saw that once, it was amazing--and the worker didn't come down when the earthquake was over, just kept working).

But balance is not a word that usefully applies to how I spend my time. Some people talk about having balance in their lives, or balancing their activities, or balancing home and work, and it's all garbage. There's no such thing, and not only that, it's a bad goal to have.

When you're trying to balance, you're struggling with the different amounts of attention that you want to pay to things, and you're also struggling with the different amounts of your time those things might need. If work is using up 14 hours of your time plus some of your attention while you're at home, there's no way to balance your home life--you don't have 14 hours in a day to devote to home if you're already using 14 on work.

Yeah, I know--it's not meant to be literal balance, it's just supposed to feel balanced, it's supposed to make everyone you owe a duty to understand that you're performing it. And all the while leaving you enough time and attention for your own needs so you don't feel spread too thin, worn out, used up.

Imagine a set of hanging scales, as are often portrayed being held by blind Justice in statutes and paintings. There are two pans hanging at the end of the chains, and you divide up your life, your to do list, between the two pans. To be balanced, everything has to add up to the same weight, or time, or whatever you're measuring. The very metaphor sets some parts of your life in opposition to others, some relationships in opposition to others, some duties in opposition to others--because to give more attention to one thing you must give less to something else, and then you're out of balance. My desire to spend time with my friend isn't in a contest with my desire to read--I want to do both of those things, different amounts at different times. Saying I want to balance them isn't accurate. What I want is to do the amount of each that satisfies me and (in the case of my friend) her.

Balance is also an artificially stable condition. Life isn't stable; it's flexible, it changes. Life is ambiguous and uncertain. If you're aiming for balance, you'll never achieve it for long, because moments later everything will have changed. That's another reason balance is a bad metaphor: you are set up for failure. All the things you need to do and all the people you need to pay attention to are constantly changing. How much can you spare for the effort of balancing? Because whatever time you're spending thinking about how to balance is time not spent actually paying attention to the things you're trying to balance.

Balancing is also a bad metaphor because it implies giving each demand on your time just enough so it goes back into balance. What about the things that need more than just enough? Some pursuits and some relationships need more; sometimes passion needs free rein and full effort. You can't balance them into your life when what you really need to do is throw your whole life into them.

There's a metaphor that's much better than balance. It's focus.

Focusing is what you're doing when you're in the flow state (if you believe in it or experience it, like me). Focus is what passion looks like in performance. Focus is flexible: you can focus on each duty as needed, to the degree that duty requires. Or you can focus on what you want to do. Switch your focus from one thing to another as appropriate, don't count the minutes and stop your pursuit just to stay in balance. Focus can be tight or wide, depending on your resources (how much time and energy you have available right now) and the needs of the moment.

When you can focus on what you need and want to do, it's easy to strip out the filler, the stuff you might be tempted to add for balance. I don't need to make duty phone calls to my family, because I focus on them when we have something meaningful to share. When I'm at work I set aside personal life for the most part, and focus my attention and energy on doing my best for my employers. And I'm free to do that because the focus I turned on my personal life took care of what was necessary that day.

Give up balancing, unless you're a high wire act. Try focusing instead.

6 comments:

Joshkie said...

Question do you need to make a conscious decision as to what is important to you, or does what matter to you change with the flow and in the moment.

Also, this sounds like what I know as mind fullness? Being fully in the moment.

And why I feel balance is need sometimes, not all ways, we need to step back and look at the big picture and see if we are getting to where we want to be, or even if the destination is where we want to go anymore.

I can see where just looking up every once in a while to see where you are at has it's appeal to.

I feel everything has it's place and time.

Josh

Kai Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kai Jones said...

I think you have to be able both to make conscious decisions about what is important and to go with the flow; they're both necessary skills, they're not mutually inconsistent, and they can be learned.

I use mindfulness opposite to how you do: mindfulness is mentally stepping back to observe even while you are acting, taking note of what you're thinking and feeling about something. Flow is being fully in the moment, not observing or analyzing but directly living/doing/creating.

I don't think balance helps you evaluate your progress toward a goal for the same reasons balance doesn't help on a daily basis. Unless your goal is to achieve balance, in which case this post won't have made much sense to you--and I don't think balance in and of itself is a particularly worthy goal.

You can check progress toward your goals without using balance as a measuring stick, because balance is orthogonal (unrelated) to the goal itself. If I want to become a better writer, where does balance enter into that goal? It doesn't. I might need to improve my skill in a particular area because it's not good enough, but that's not working toward balance, it's working toward a specific standard of writing dialogue or plot. The problem with trying to achieve balance is that it is equally valid to achieve balance by dragging down one part as by improving another!

Joshkie said...

No the balance should never be a gual in an of itself I agree, but I do believe that balance is good as to much of a good think can sometimes be as bad as not enough.

Hmmm.. good discusion, but ultimatly what is best is what ever works for you or me as individuals.

Josh

Kai Jones said...

What you're admiring then is moderation, not balance. You don't judge how much of a thing is too much by balancing it, you judge it by itself.

Joshkie said...

Ah point taken. Moderation is a better discriptive for what I'm getting at.

Thank You,
Josh