Something important happened on March 15th, 2022 in my life.
I woke up at 6:40 AM, brushed my teeth, took bath, and sat down for my morning meditation. I’m no stranger to thoughts intruding my meditation sessions, but on that day, one thought stood out from the rest.
It stood out because that thought set off a domino effect that has now resulted in me working on a book on the idea of Escaping Autopilot. What was that thought?
It comprised of a single word.
Since that meditation session on March 15th, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of balance. What does it mean to live a life of balance? To answer that question, I asked the following question to over 30 people.
What does a life of balance look like for you?
Many people didn’t have a ready-made response. They paused. Gazed upward and thought for a moment. And only then gave a response. Some didn’t know what to say and asked me, Um, what do you mean? And the rest responded quickly, sharing whatever came to their mind. Amongst the 30 responses, no two responses were the same.
However, there were three themes that I noticed across all the responses:
- Having autonomy over one’s time: “For me, Balance is having the agency to structure my days/weeks/months the way I want and do whatever I want in that time.”
- Loving one’s work: “For me, Balance is when you’re able to work without losing who you are as a person. And enjoy the work you’re doing.”
- Having time for oneself and their relationships: “Balance and happiness are centered around community for me. I enjoy sharing my time than spending it alone.”
What about you? As you read the above, what comes to your mind? Think about it for a moment. Gaze upward if you need to. And share with me in the comments below.
The Balance-Intentionality Framework
As I began thinking about the idea of balance intensely, I came up with a framework during a brainstorming session (huge thanks in part to Sterling Valentine, who is helping me write my book). I call this the Balance-Intentionality Framework.
Pause for a moment to inspect the four quadrants in the framework below.
I realized that talking about balance without talking about intentionality is like saying you should keep walking north regardless of whether your destination is in the north or south. Intentionally is the inner compass that we all have, and need to use, while walking to our destination.
You might be thinking that perfect balance is what you should strive for (I thought so too!), but that’s not necessarily true.
Let’s take the scenario of an aspiring musician who was recently discovered by a record label. The record label is taking a chance on her and wants her to create an album within the next 3 months, a dream come true for her. Should she spend the three months solely focusing on creating music to reach this deadline, or should she focus on living a life of balance by splitting her time between creating music, traveling to cities, and picking up a new hobby? There’s no right answer, but it makes sense to think that she should focus on creating music for the next three months and give up some balance in return for that so that she can live a better life of balance later on.
Sometimes, getting out of balance temporarily gets you back into it later on with a higher sense of well-being.
However, if only getting into and out of balance were similar to turning a nozzle on our lives.
More often than not, we find ourselves in one of the lower quadrants that lacks intentionality. First, let’s take a look at what each of the quadrants means. We’ll start with the ones below first.
You’ve never sat down to deeply think about what a balanced life looks like for you. You’ve adopted a life that others wanted for you. Upon reflection, you realize that you have been spending too much attention on one area of your life, at the expense of one or more important areas that have taken a back-seat; possibly for years now.
What does this look like? Joe is a quantitative analyst at a hedge fund. His work is demanding and consumes 12+ hours of his day. Generally, by the time he’s done, he only has the energy to go to the gym for a workout, which he skips more than he attends. He sometimes works during the weekend to catch up on pending work, and spends the rest of it either catching up with a friend or watching TV. His job used to be exciting, but now it’s become a routine that he’s gotten comfortable with. He’s aiming to get promoted soon so he can afford a new car, although he doesn’t get time to travel much.
This quadrant is also the zone of harmful autopilot. Generally, it manifests itself in the form of someone who overemphasizes the importance of their work and career at the expense of their health and relationships. Although less common, it’s also possible to see someone who considers themselves a social butterfly and spends any pocket of time they have during the week with people, and later regret feeling, “I wish I spent more time by myself, on myself.”
The good news is, this is also the quadrant that’s most talked about. Hustle culture refers to people in this quadrant, for whom their work becomes the central focal point of their lives that everything else takes a backseat. So it’s nothing you’ve not heard of before. However, talking about it has not alleviated the problem, as the data says otherwise. A study by FlexJobs and Mental Health America (MHA) found that 37% of people are working longer hours and 75% claim that work-related stress is affecting their mental health.
You’ve never sat down to deeply think about what a balanced life looks like for you. But it so happened that you have been living a largely balanced life unintentionally. Upon reflection though, you realize that you could have spent your time better and regret the choice to not have pushed yourself out of the comfort zone more.
What does this look like? Jane is a software engineer at a health-tech company. She treats her job as a source of a paycheck and doesn’t enjoy it. She has flexible working hours and generally works between 8 AM to 4 PM. After work, she goes to Zumba class followed by having dinner with her roommates and goes to bed on time. Her weekends are spent watching TV, cooking food for the week ahead, and talking to her parents. She’s been living this way for 4 years.
This is a very vicious quadrant to be in, as you’re generally in a zone of harmless autopilot (at least for the short-term). Since you’re living a life of balance by working flexible hours, getting sufficient sleep, exercising, and catching up with people regularly, it rarely shows outward symptoms. The symptom here might take years to show up. And one day when it hits you, you think, Why have I been stuck in a job that gave me no joy? Why didn’t I travel more? How is it that I have many people I call friends but no one who I can turn to in need?
People in this quadrant might feel a gnawing sensation of, Although everything seems okay on the surface, something seems off. But because the intensity of that is not high, it only surfaces rarely, and for a brief moment.
The missing ingredient that makes it seem off is intentionality.
You know what a balanced life looks like for you. You’ve thought about it deeply and crafted your life to achieve a sense of balance across the three major areas: your personal growth, your relationships, and your contribution to the world. You spend your time, and more importantly your attention, in accordance with your vision of a balanced life.
What does this look like? Joe is a graphic designer at a small startup who really enjoys what he’s doing. He works for 6-8 hours during the weekdays and spends his evenings meeting close friends for dinner, playing tennis, or attending live music events. He loves to travel and spends his weekends visiting a new mountain or national park. He also likes to give back to his community by taking part in local environmental justice drives from time to time.
While this might be the ideal state many strive for, it’s possible that you stop using your inner intentionality compass and slip into a life of unintentional balance (Q3).
You know what a balanced life looks like for you. You’ve thought about it deeply and are currently living an intentionally imbalanced life to focus on one area of life at the expense of others. You know it’s temporary and plan to move back to a place of balance soon.
What does this look like? Jane has a two-year-old daughter who she dearly loves. It’s incredibly important for her to spend more time with her daughter in the early years of her life, so she has taken a step back from work and social interactions to spend more time with her daughter at home, teaching and playing with her. She knows this is temporary until her daughter joins the school in a year, after which she plans on re-assessing her life and paying attention to other areas that have taken a backseat, including taking care of herself more.
While intentionally imbalanced might sound like an oxymoron, it’s possible to live it. And we all do it more than we think. Pulling an all-nighter right before an exam, locking ourselves in a room to finish a thesis paper, and staying overtime to work on our startup idea could all belong to this quadrant. Except, many who enter this quadrant thinking it’s temporary might soon find themselves living a life of unintentional imbalance (Q4).
Getting into this quadrant is as easy as getting out of it. Staying in it and moving back to a life of intentional balance is the hard part.
The map is not the territory, however. Don’t forget that as you internalize this framework.
This is to only get you to think about where you stand currently in your life. There’s certainly a lot more nuance to this framework that I’ve intentionally excluded for the purpose of keeping this article concise. I plan to include all the nuances in the book I’m writing though.
If you’re curious to learn more about this, and in general be updated as I make progress on my second book, join my weekly newsletter Making Of A Book where I deconstruct the process of writing a book.
Is Balance Even Attainable?
Someone I interviewed told me when I prodded her about balance,
I don’t think balance is even attainable. Anybody who says they’ve reached perfect balance in their life is lying. For me, life is always a series of priorities. At every point, I’m focusing on a few areas at the expense of others. I don’t even try to strive for balance, because why bother?
While I agree with the sentiment of this opinion, I believe it misses the whole point.
The point is not to achieve and remain in perfect balance.
It really isn’t. And if you have that as your goal, it will lead to a Sisyphus-like life of never reaching your goal and always feeling like you’re behind.
Rather, the point is to be aware of the imbalance in your life, be intentional about it, and know what steps you can take to move back to a place of balance when you need to.
At least, that’s the lens through which I like to view my life.
So far, it’s working out well. 🙂