- Do less. Overbooking yourself and cramming your schedule is a sure-fire way to become hurried and harried, someone who tap their foot when the checkout moves slowly and beeps their horn if the driver in front doesn’t zoom off the second the light goes green. Intentionally accept fewer activities than you think you can take on in one day; most of the time we over-estimate what we can realistically do in 24 hours. The aim of life is not to eliminate all the white space in your diary but to make the most of what you do include.
- Leave time. Whenever possible, leave a little more time than you think you need for activities (we usually under-estimate) and between appointments (particularly wise if you’re changing location). Leave the house five minutes earlier than necessary and accept that you might have a few “wasted” moments if you arrive early. Wouldn’t you rather twiddle your thumbs and even be bored while you wait than experience the stress of rushing through traffic or ploughing through the crowds on the underground because you’ve cut it too fine?
- Choose your gear. You control your speed. Remember the courtyard scene in Dead Poet’s Society? Just because everyone else is walking in a certain way doesn’t mean you have to. Don’t get “infected” with other people’s haste if it is not what you want or need. And if a part of your day absolutely requires rushing and bustling, take a moment when that activity finishes to breathe and consciously change gear so that you don’t carry the sense of urgency required for one task into everything else you do and for which it is not necessary.
- Lower your expectations
Too often we put so much pressure on ourselves to have (and ensure others have) the perfect Christmas or New Year’s Eve that we end up stressed, frazzled and disappointed. What would it be like actively to set a lower expectation for your family this year? What if you were define a “good Christmas” as simply sharing a meal with your family (whether it’s a Nigellaesque feast, an overcooked turkey, or emergency take-away); enjoying some time off work to play with your kids (even if they squabble a bit); and finding a few hours to read a book (even if you have to get up a bit early to get that quiet time).
- Know where your responsibility stops
You are not responsible for ensuring your family has a good time. Read that again. Sure, you might be in charge of food, or you might be the one who deals with the kids’ presents, and those are definitely responsibilities with a capital R but, in the end, whether or not people enjoy the effort you make is up to them. You can lead a horse to the eggnog but you cannot make it drink…
- Get a little grateful
It’s so easy to let the season go by in a rush of wrapping up work, getting things done, paying visits, shopping, and attending events without stopping to appreciate all the gifts it offers. Over the holidays, take a moment at the end of every day to feel gratitude for all you have, even if – in fact, especially if – you currently feel like moving to a desert island at the earliest opportunity. Take a moment to, if possible, step outside, look up at the stars and genuinely count your blessings. When you go back inside, you’ll be able to see the noisy kids, grumpy father-in-law, slightly wonky tree, and rather cramped sitting room through very different eyes.
As I type the title of my article this month, I cringe, waiting for the Personal Development and Wellbeing Overlords to strike me down. I have rebelled. I have taken sacred words in vain. I have dared to suggest that the much-coveted and ever elusive balance on which much ink has been spilt and much energy spent is perhaps… not in fact such a prize. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I believe the very concept of balance sometimes to be unhelpful, misleading and – ultimately – impossible to achieve.*
I hear you gasp. I know. It’s like coaching hari-kiri. But if you can bear to read on, I’d like to explain why letting go of the desire for constant balance, indeed binning the very term, can liberate you to lead a more fulfilling life full of sense and purpose.
The myth of balance
Finding balance seems to be the wellbeing Holy Grail. And on paper, it is an appealing concept. Having every part of your life flourishing and nurtured. Limiting excess in any one domain. Feeling whole and well-rounded and like life is under control. Nice work if you can get it. Let me know if you ever do. Because I take issue with the somewhat simplistic quest for balance that is often touted as the key to calm. In essence, not only do I believe balance cannot be achieved, I’m also not convinced it is something to which we should aspire! In fact, I think that often the pressure to achieve balance actually contributes to us feeling even more off kilter and like we’re just, well, getting it all wrong, not winning at life.
Writing the book of your life
A friend of mine with a young baby recently shared her dismay that she spent all her time either looking after the baby or doing chores and had no time for herself – for personal projects or exercise. As a mother of two and her friend, I sympathised. Those early months (years!) can be brutal. But as a coach, I had more helpful insight for her. Life is a book, and a long one at that. It must be lived in chapters to make any sense at all. You can’t skip forward, nor can you page back and read again. Each chapter has its own function, tone and plotline. Some have action, some description. Others have dialogue and witty repartee.
My friend is currently living through the “home with small baby chapter”. I’ve read it myself – it contains lots of sleepless nights, stained clothes and endless laundry. It also features cuddles, personal growth and overwhelming love. It’s a real rollercoaster chapter with much to offer, but certainly not balance. What about the “young, single and first big job” chapter? That one’s all about late nights at the office, drinks with colleagues, and nights out. Not much balance there either. Or the “falling for the love of my life” chapter in which anyone who isn’t the beloved drops out of sight for a good few months? Or the “setting up my own company” chapter in which a person finds huge personal satisfaction from hours spent finding clients, securing deals, and getting a fledgling business off the ground. Every single one of these chapters is a fabulous read, but not a single one features anything like what I would call balance.
Read one chapter at a time
Over-emphasis on any single aspect of our lives for a prolonged period is, of course, unhealthy. But so is striving to keep every area of our life well-tended at all times. There will be periods when you party too much and do no exercise (the university years, anyone?), some when you hunker down to write a book or take a course and see no one for months, others when you soak in the joys and stresses of a new baby without a thought for your looks, keeping up with the news, or missing social functions. That’s fine. That’s normal.
All too often, the quest for balance mutates into a quest to have and do and be it all – and all at once. This creates pressure to keep all the plates spinning all the time, when really our wellbeing would often be better served if we just put a few plates down and concentrated on the ones that really matter to this particular chapter. Balance is a subjective term, and at different times of our lives it will be necessary and right to let a few things slide to spend sometimes inordinate amounts of time focusing on one thing – a political campaign, a new home, marathon training. So, enjoy the chapter you’re living, and tend to the areas of your life that are most important to its current narrative. Enjoy each chapter to the full and at the end you’ll find you have a bestseller of a book where the only thing missing is regret.
If you’d like help finding the right balance for you and your life today, grounding, holistic, 360° coaching can help you perfect the recipe of your life and achieve fulfilment, peace and joy. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.