Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
24 May

What Does It Mean to Have “Balance” in Your Life?

Let me step outside the usual Primal fare today and play with an idea we’re all familiar with on some level. Balance: it’s perhaps the most ubiquitous self-help buzz word, and it seems like the perfect, compliant prescription for a manic paced world. I mean, who can argue with finding more balance in life?

The way it’s usually presented focuses us on organizing, strategizing, and maximizing. These all seem like worthwhile endeavors (and sure, there’s often a lot to be gained from them), but could “balance” as it’s interpreted this way limit our scope of personal vision and possible change? It doesn’t challenge us to ask the kind of weighty questions that shift our lives fundamentally. Think of it this way. We likely don’t resolve on New Year’s Eve to “achieve” more balance in the coming year and then find ourselves weighing a hundred pounds lighter, starting a new career, or taking on a new phase in our lives. If we do, it’s likely because we chucked the resolution for something much more ambitious.

It also doesn’t demand that we ask whether we’ve taken on too much in the first place. Add another responsibility to your already busy schedule, shift some resources here, make a few adjustments there, and voilà, balance! Or do all of your responsibilities (and thus, your entire life) suffer as a result?

My sense is that at its best, “balance” in the conventional sense can give us a short term strategy for managing our lives as they are. At its worst, it can lull us into fully accepting a precipitous cycle of frenetic living – and can keep us from truly thriving. But let’s take a closer look and see what we can uncover.

First, what is usually meant by balance, anyway? Then, should we really be striving for it after all?

When I see the word balance on a yoga/health/fitness/natural-living magazine cover, I always imagine one of those plate spinners – the performers who enthrall crowds by tending to any number of plates they spin on long sticks. The idea of course is to spend just enough time and attention on each plate to keep it moving but not so much to lose track of another and see it shatter on the floor. Meanwhile, the person at the center of this game is darting back and forth with keen, jittery attention. It’s always struck me as a manic and exhausting exercise. While it may be entertaining to watch, is it any way to live?

It seems like many people approach balance this way – as an act, a feat, a trick they cultivate. We’re supposed to take pride in how rapidly and deftly we attend to the given game in front of us – no matter how many plates there are; work, parenting, fitness, marriage, volunteer work, school, hobbies – the list goes on and on. If we just spin them fast enough, we should be able to keep any number of them going.

Balance in this way is about controlling, rationing, and conserving one’s time and attention. As rational as it seems, it also feels a little exacting. The concept – and the plate game – would’ve entirely eluded Grok. I think there’s a fine line between monitoring the relative parity of one’s life and parsing it out. We can miss much of the big picture – and miss or reject real opportunities for healthy change – when we’re frantically moving from one plate to next. Call it balance if you will. I’ll call it a game that can’t reasonably go on forever. The plates, eventually, always come crashing down if you add one plate too many.

Maybe there’s a different take to be found here. Let me modestly suggest this: the equilibrium shouldn’t be in the plates. Forget the plates, in fact. Forget the spinning. Let go of the perpetual vigilance. Loosen your emotional grip. Just observe the whole metaphor – and mindset – shatter on the floor. (Truth be told, there’s something therapeutic about it.) Maybe the crux of genuine equanimity isn’t to be found in maneuvering. Rather, perhaps we should let the parts go and home in on the real center.

First, a caveat… Sure, there are times in life that call for juggling. You have a particularly busy month at work. You’re working around a family member’s illness or absence. You have a baby. I remember life when the kids were both little. Especially right after we had our second and were learning to function with two, we had what we called the “ten minute plan,” in which we set the agenda for what had to be done in the next ten minutes. After that we had absolutely no idea. It was too much to consider. Life was lived according to a succession of ten minute plans. As we got a better handle on things, we didn’t add time to the “plan.” We gradually let go of it. We rescinded enough control that things began happening organically again. Sure, there were times when we had to resurrect the ten-minute model, and we were glad we were schooled in it. It made life easier to be able to efficiently slip into that mode as necessary, but we always looked forward to slipping out of it as soon as possible. In other words, it was a strategy to use but not a way to live.

On the flip side of the coin, if you find yourself continually gravitating toward – longing for a sense of balance, I’d suggest stepping outside of the concept for a while. Put away the calendar. Drop the magazine questionnaires. Go for a long walk. What would it take for *you* to feel balanced? Forget how the responsibilities line up. Just suspend them for a while. (Trust me, they won’t go away.) Imagine feeling a genuine sense of equilibrium in your life. Maybe you’ve found it – made it happen. Maybe you feel it sometimes. Maybe you used to feel it. Maybe it’s never felt in your grasp. Can you put yourself in that place? How has the scenery changed?

For all the choice we have in the modern age, we deal with some pretty hefty challenges. We navigate circumstances and weigh options that never figured in during our ancestors’ day. We wrestle with the co-existing freedom and responsibility of forging our own paths toward how we envision thriving. The answers might not always be clear. What do we want out of life? Can we find these by adding plates and “balancing” our daily agendas? Or, alternatively, do we need to shift the center altogether?

Thanks for reading my musings on this much bandied about word and concept, everybody. You tell me: What does balance mean for you in your wellness endeavors? Have you been able to achieve your goals by balancing your life, or have you felt called to make more seismic shifts?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I know this might sound a bit “catch all” but learning about fueling the body in a Paleo/Primal way has had a PROFOUND balancing affect on my life in so many ways! THAT has been the ticket for me. I was so0o0o0o0o anxious before, and I blame most of it if not ALL on my “healthy whole grain” diet. Constantly running and working out to “burn off” what I’ve consumed. Almost running from my demons. Bad way to live.

    It sounds funny, but at times I’ll pretend to be living 10,000 years ago during my walks, sprints, or workouts. Imagining traveling to the creek for water/food (our creek is real and runs through town). Sprinting for or from an animal. Climbing a tree to retrieve food or ESCAPE from a beast. I find this fun “mind play” a way to add some reality to life’s stresses. Try it sometime.

    craig almaguer wrote on May 24th, 2012
  2. I do my best to be “present” or “in the moment” as much of the time as possible. I find that if I am right here right now with whatever it is that I am doing, there is no worry about what is to come later or regret for what has past. Living in the now brings not only the brain but the mind and body into better balance. I know that sounds “new age”, but it certainly works for me. Since I have been living my life in this way my stress has pretty much dissappeared even though many circumstances have not.

    Sitara wrote on May 24th, 2012
  3. Balance for me means:
    – working out every morning
    – time to write (creative writing / journaling)
    – engagement for my mind (this is mostly accomplished through school – I’m working on a PhD)
    – supplementary engagement for my mind (learning a foreign language to balance the mathematics… see above)
    – a 2-3 hour chunk a week that I can curl up with a fun book
    -schoolwork during the school year but I work at a summer camp in the summer
    The “play” piece for me is the language learning and reading and summer camp.

    I feel well-balanced but that’s only because I’m single, introverted, and have no kids.

    Speaking of which – the introvert thing is the hardest one to balance. I am very introverted and have to balance “with people” time with “curl up in a cupboard and be alone” time!

    AlyieCat wrote on May 24th, 2012
  4. To me, balance implies that everything has equal importance. You have to keep spinning all the plates or something will crash to the floor. I prefer to think of my life as harmonic, a constantly changing combination of priorities that must work together. I may add something new and drop an old priority. Or this week my daughter is sick, so I focus more on her than on work. Or I have an opportunity to attend a great class, so I spend a week away from home. I take care of all the basics for each thing, and let anything that can wait slide until I can take care of it comfortably. In this way, I acknowledge the NOW and what is important at the time without beating myself up for not going full on all the time.

    Also I have learned to say NO to those things that are not necessary and not important. It gives me more time to spend on the things that support my mental, physical, spiritual and material goals. And I’m perfectly happy most days, so it must be working! :)

    Cheri wrote on May 24th, 2012
  5. Being imbalanced by stress is a big concern these days. Stress is a natural part of life for any living thing on earth and is actually necessary for all life, but chronic negative stress is harmful to our health.

    Some reminders can help you keep life in perspective:
    – Don’t focus on negative thoughts, and balance the negative by often thinking about the positive aspects of your life.
    – Be an optimist.
    – Pursue achievable goals.
    – Keep an open mind.
    – Treat difficulties as challenges and life as an adventure. Every obstacle in life is one of its challenges.

    Another big part of controlling our reaction to stress is realizing which things in our life we can control. This is a big part of independent critical thinking and the making of informed decisions. It requires the patience to see things through and know when we do not have enough information to make a decision or act. It also enhances our ability to know when we have been deceived or to realize when there may be a real potential for deception. For example, when someone (or institution, group, etc) attempts to make you act based upon limited or unknown information, you should be naturally wary, and act (or not act) accordingly. Otherwise you could obviously be manipulated, and even trapped in a pattern of manipulation.

    For more information:

    David Marino wrote on May 24th, 2012
  6. Coming from a daoist background, balance (yin/yang) is pretty fundamental…but not something that can be summarized. Yin transforms to yang and vice versa, so in life, what means balance to a person will also constantly change. I suppose awareness is the first key. Know when you need to change.

    I’ve been playing a game with my kids–you know the one “hat would you do if you won the lottery”? Well this is “what if we won the lottery of desire” and didn’t want for more than we had. We’re trying to shift the balance of our desire to fundamentals like dinner time together as a family in our (small, messy) nice house that we’re fortunate to own…and reading good books together…being able to play all kinds of crazy games since my body is feeling awesome now that I’ve been Primal for 3 months…

    Thanks again Mark and everyone for the ideas and feedback.

    Tom Bassett-Dilley wrote on May 24th, 2012
    • “what would you do…” not “hat would you do”…oops. Typing out of balance!! :)

      Tom Bassett-Dilley wrote on May 24th, 2012
  7. There is only one plate. :)

    Kev wrote on May 24th, 2012
  8. I love your writing and many of the posts above mine. Seems as though we all have our own definitions of balance, and quite rightly so! For me, I have found that surrendering to change whilst in pursuit of a general well-being, life-loving, happy and healthy state is key. I tend to make seismic shifts, then get “balanced”, then get ready for another huge shift, and so on… More than anything, I’ve found it useful to be in the moment, even (or especially) when I find myself in the 10-minute scenarios of life! Much Love!

    Ivana Siska ~ The Loving Life Coach wrote on May 24th, 2012
  9. The problem with balance is that a lot of people equate as an excuse for mediocrity. They want to work, but not too hard, exercise but not overtrain, eat properly but not be obsessed, have personal time but not be considered lazy or frivolous etc etc.

    The real trick is to commit to whatever you are doing at the time 100%. Buddhists talk about living in the moment when their focus is their current task that being performing heart surgery or making breakfast, they don’t multi task or let their minds wander off until that task is complete.

    Balance in life is the same, if you work do it properly get the job done and know it is done well then clear it from you diary and your mind. If you exercise give it 100% for the duration of the session then don’t worry about till the next session. If you are spending time with the family concentrate on them, not your phone or other distractions.

    The balance comes from prioritising the elements in your life and according each the relative amount of time, not from doing everything half baked. If you cut out the trivial you free up so much time for the really important things.

    giles troulan wrote on May 24th, 2012
  10. I think “balance” has been codified these days as “work-life balance”. In other words, everything shoudl be equal. Unfortunately, trying to bring that to reality causes more stress than not trying.

    Reality is the various pulls of our life: Health, family, work, play, all have different levels of urgency at different times. It’s more of an ebb and flow.

    True balance is achieved when we have cleared enough “noise” from our lives that we are able to accomodate the various ebbs and flows without stressing out. That means simplifying. Something most find very difficult.

    Joe wrote on May 24th, 2012
  11. Excellent post Mark,

    The plate analogy was succinct and once again a very insightful counter intuitive approach to balance.

    Thank You,


    Eric Keyes wrote on May 24th, 2012
  12. For me ‘balance’ is not something that I aspire to find, it is not the end product. Balance for me is a verb and not a noun. Balance is something that I do on a daily basis. The tight rope walker does not have balance, yet he is constantly balancing.

    Guy wrote on May 25th, 2012
  13. To me the whole concept of balance is the wrong way to look at things. This implies that one must put one more thing on top of an already tottering pile.

    No. The question is: how much time do you simply sit and think? I mean do nothing else but sit and think. No reading, no knitting, no TV, no music, no texting. Just thinking. And not with the kids, or the dog, or with the wife/husband chattering on about the day.

    If you never do that, I think there is trouble in your life. To talk about balance is just trying to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. IMHO

    Barbara Hvilivitzky wrote on May 25th, 2012
  14. Balance in this day and age is more difficult than fitness, diet or anything else.

    We simply don’t have enough time after work now to maintain balance as well as we should and it is something, much like fitness that we should actively strive for and manage.

    I am off home to get some balance back!

    Marcus wrote on May 25th, 2012
  15. After going through much sickness and death in my family over the past 8 years, I’ve finally come to a place in my life where balance for me means just living life more simply. My children are grown, soon I’ll be living alone for the first time in my life. For the past 40 years I’ve raised children and even one of my children’s children (which seems to be becoming more common in this day and age unfortunately). As my grandson gets ready to move onto college, I’m looking at this time as a new chapter in my life. I want to learn how to take time for the things I truly love in life. Music, reading (and I don’t mean catching a read while I’m doing ten other things – I mean sitting on my patio with my birds and my little dog and reading a book) New Chapter – and this blog has become an important part of “how to treat myself better.” Thanks Mark!

    Barbara wrote on May 25th, 2012
  16. Its a matter of getting your priorities straight. Even a right brained thinker needs to organize his work in order to find a balance and piece of mind.

    Jason@Megadyne wrote on May 25th, 2012
  17. One thing that I have noticed is that, as I am able to slow life down, I seem to have more time to do things. A weird little paradox. But, for instance, after last week’s challenge to turn off electronical gadgets in the evenings, I have so much more time to do things in the evenings, and yet I feel so much calmer. The phone calls, emails and status updates can wait till the next day. Reading to my daughter shouldn’t! That’s the kind of balance I’m looking for. There have been several days recently that my laptop has stayed in its case, and the phone is off before dinner time. And you know what? I am not missing a thing! Maybe my friends are just really boring, but nothing happens in my time away from the technology that I’m even a little interested in!

    Cathy wrote on May 25th, 2012
  18. For me, balance really means keeping my commitments to a minimum!

    Kim wrote on May 25th, 2012
  19. For me 90% of the time if I’m feeling out of balance its one of three things sleeep, diet or exercise. I’m ignoring one or more of those. If its not one of those three things its time to get into the wilderness!

    CMHFFEMT wrote on May 25th, 2012
  20. This article was so timely Mark. I have been Primal for almost 6 months now. Being super curious how things were turning out for me on the inside I asked my doctor to order some blood tests so we could have a looksee. Turns out my LDH is still high. I’m eating Primal and exercise Primal so what gives? I’ve been under so much stress in the last 3 years that all I can come up with is my adrenals are pumping cortisol into my system and if I don’t get some balance the plaque will become stickier and stickier. Not a good situation. So, the fundamental shift must happen. My stressors are family related. I’m moving towards a mental paradigm shift. the whole belief = behavior concept. And, I’m learning to breathe with my diaphragm (the way it was intended) instead of my chest muscles (stress breathing). The proof is in the pudding so to speak. Looking forward to another round of blood tests around the end of 2012 and see what the changes have wrought. Thanks for the post Mark and the great comments everyone!

    Carla wrote on May 25th, 2012
  21. I believe that perfect balance is impossible to ever achieve as nothing in life is perfect; however, the closer you are to a balanced lifestyle, the happier you are likely to be. When I’m feeling that my life isn’t going as I want it to, I do a simple exercise. Make a circle, divide it into the following categories: work/finances, social, emotional, spiritual, family, and physical. Put a percentage in each piece to represent how much of your life is represented in each category. Obviously if your spending 80% of your time at work, then all the other categories will suffer. For me, my physical and spiritual categories were too low when I did this a few months ago so that is where my current focus lies. The Primal Blueprint has actually added a great deal of balance in several categories. I usually do this exercise when I just can’t figure out my next step in life and it always gives me an answer. You will never have every category perfectly balance because if you do, you have simply stopped living. Just my two cents worth!

    Stacey wrote on May 26th, 2012
  22. Perhaps, in a “primal” sense, balance is the state we live in when not in fight or flight mode. Unfortunately, to survive in the modern world, one is a stressed state more often than not. Hence, people feel balance when they can drop/turn off those stressors. As in many things primal, less always seems to be more!

    Pally wrote on May 27th, 2012
  23. Balance for me is doing just what you suggest. Just strip away the “stuff” and simplify as best I can. One of Bruce Lee’s concepts of Jeet Kune Do is to strip away techniques that do not work for you and keep the ones that do. Each person needs to find his or her OWN balance.


    Brett wrote on May 28th, 2012
  24. I have come to believe that that elusive “balance” is nothing more than being willing to listen when your mind and body direct you. You know when you need to make changes. The difficult part is accepting it.

    Erin wrote on June 2nd, 2012

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