I’m Finally Letting Go of My Obsession With Balance
10.30.17
Collage by Edith Young; photos by  Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection and Geoffrey Clements/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Balance was always my endgame. The idea that I simply needed to find it is one that’s punctuated my entire adult life. Whenever I learned that too much or too little of something made me feel bad, I reasoned I simply needed to do better next time — be more judicious with my energy, make different choices. If I could just manage to engage all my best qualities in tandem, I thought, my life would finally fall into perfect rhythm: the right amount of writing, socializing, cooking, learning, giving, cleaning, ruminating, creating, exercising. The ideal swirl of joy, challenge, novelty and comfort.

It seemed logical enough. If I’d succeeded at each of those things individually, why not all at once? Anything less than a little of everything felt like lost potential. My ability to spin every redeeming plate in my proverbial cupboard was my barometer for success for a long time. It was a stressful way to live, but a gratifying one when I got it right.

When I came to New York in March of 2016, the game was thrown. It felt like I let all my plates crash to the ground at once. Beyond a broken lease and a plane ticket, my move here required a new way of working, living and thinking. All the change robbed me of my even-keel. I became a capricious, exhilarated mess. I still am!

From this place, I’ve had no choice but to rethink my obsession with balance, lest it eat me alive. Over the past year and a half, I’ve lived my most unbalanced existence to date. I’ve never been so all over the place. It’s an odd, slanted perch from which to analyze my old litmus test for success, but it’s helped me understand the pressure I put on myself to “find balance” was (and is) costing a lot more than not achieving it in the first place.

The myth of “having it all” is a well-worn topic, but it was something Tiffany Dufu, the author of Drop the Ball, said that finally helped me develop a different relationship with the notion:

I don’t think about balance. I’ve gotten clear about what matters most to me, and multiple times a day, especially during moments when I’m overwhelmed, I ask myself…Is doing [XYZ] my highest and best use to achieve [WHAT MATTERS MOST]? If the answer is no, I either delegate it or let it go altogether. There are often consequences, from missed birthday parties to a few parking tickets, but I don’t beat myself up anymore.

It wasn’t so much the concept of prioritizing that struck me – it was the idea of accepting consequences. Around the time I heard this, I was neck-deep in anxious energy about whether I was doing enough. I was fulfilled by my work, spending time with my family and partner, exploring a city I loved, learning a lot and generally feeling happy. But, on the other hand, I wasn’t doing that much yoga or cooking or meditation. I still hadn’t learned to paint, read Hemingway or started a side project. I wasn’t hanging out with that many strangers, taking informational coffees, volunteering, blah, blah, blah. The list could go on for as long as my expectations were high.

When I think back on the past year, though, I see all of those things, just not at once; they came in waves. And that’s when it struck me: Balance is a much longer game than we give it credit for. Day to day, the focus of my energy has costs and benefits. When I’m working a lot, my social life might suffer. When I’m putting energy into meeting new people, my house might be a little messy. When I’m going to yoga frequently, I might not be reading as much. That kind of give and take is natural and inevitable, and as soon as I looked at my life through that lens, it felt like a suffocating pressure had lifted.

Trying to pursue everything I care about and enjoy all the time isn’t just masochistic, it’s impossible. There is a natural ebb and flow to my energy and attention, and that means the areas of my life that get the best of me often vary week to week. As a result, “balance” isn’t something I often feel day-to-day, and that’s becoming increasingly less important to me.

It’s not that allowing myself to spin fewer plates doesn’t solve the problem of broken glass when forgotten ones fall. It’s still a bummer, for instance, to come upon a weekend where I’ve failed to make plans because I was busy working all week. It’s still frustrating when my apartment is a mess because I keep choosing to relax instead of clean it. But these little shortcomings don’t have to be anything more than nuggets of proof that I’m prioritizing other things at the moment. They aren’t failures; they are the cost of living with agency. Changing that language, and taking its associated guilt out of my emotional rotation, has been surprisingly profound.

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  • Hayley

    Your timing in publishing this could not have come at a more opportune time! Thank you, Haley!

  • elwolf

    This really resonates with me. I have become kind of obsessed with ‘doing all the things’ over the past couple of years (hadn’t really thought about it as an obsession with balance until reading this). I struggle with depression, and generally when I’m super busy and trying to do everything beneficial I can possibly think of (yoga, cooking, keeping my apartment clean, taking care of my skin, going to the gym, reading, studying Spanish, painting, meditation, writing, and the list grows), it distracts me to the point where I don’t notice the depression as much. It’s gotten to the point where I’m kind of addicted to starting new things/projects/learning something, but I just don’t have time to do it all. And I’m pretty exhausted. And because I try to do everything, I don’t really accomplish that much in any one area. I think I’ve been leaning on ACTIVITIES!! as a way to avoid just having to be with myself.

  • Jane

    I definitely relate to this. I feel most of my friends in their late 20s/early 30s feel this push and pull between being “together”/adult and embracing youth. It’s the I’m young and free! I should be running around the city having adventurous weekends and going to fun parties v. omg I’m so shameful about my hangover and subsequent day of rotting/I’m too old for this…or I’m going on that trip I can’t afford, I need to see the world while I’m young! vs. I am nearing 30 and maybe I should have some savings…

    We’re lucky (and it’s honestly comical) that we can even complain about these things…but, for a very fortunate group in the world, it’s a very real part of this time in our lives…and maybe it kinda of always will be in different forms.

  • Merrynell

    Sarah Knight has helped me deal with this imbalance. Now, I always consult my “fuck budget” when I fall into this “should I or should I not spend time on this?” rabbit hole — if you haven’t seen her TEDTalk, get to it! It’s pretty life-changing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwRzjFQa_Og

    • Selena Delgado

      I loved this TED talk

  • Charlsey

    You are an absolute gem

  • Cynthia Schoonover

    If I have the opportunity to do something I like to do, I will. The housework, laundry, whatever can wait. On Saturday, my husband and I had three opportunities for fun things and we chose two of them because we couldn’t do them all. The two we chose were most important to us. If there’s something special you want to do, such as travel, set up a fund for it. You can still be youthful and be an adult. I’m 63 and I’m still a kid at heart.

  • I feel this so strongly that reading it actually made me a bit anxious. It’s interesting because (the internet?) (or brains?) (media?) really makes it feel as though everyone else is executing this flawlessly.

    • Modupe Oloruntoba

      … but we’re all also laughing at the same memes about how we definitely don’t have it all together. We’re a weird bunch…

  • Elizabeth Armstrong

    “It’s an odd, slanted perch from which to analyze my old litmus test for success”…. Well, an amazing woman once wrote, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant”. How can anyone expect to find balance these days? Much less, any woman? Much less over THIS past year? You get props for just looking at your own experience, identifying those “consequences,” being honest and compassionate with yourself, and reevaluating your priorities. After all, if you are pressuring yourself to achieve it, and spending more time having anxiety about it, it isn’t balance. And no one’s going to keep it all in place or level all the time. Being on a slant can sometimes be that dangerous slippery hill, but a slant can be the valuable shift in the angle at which you view things. Uniquely. Honestly. Deeply.

  • Lindsey

    This reminds me of that quote from “Eat, Pray, Love” where Ketut tells Liz that “Sometimes losing balance for love is part of living a balanced life.” I know it’s about love in general, but without the word “love” in there, it’s still deeply true, and has actually been a line I think about often. Part of balance is falling out of balance. It’s how we keep re-finding it. I think, to be perfectly balanced would lead to a very dull life. Nothing exciting or spontaneous would happen because everything has been so planned out.

    It’s something I’ve been thinking about often, recently. I, too, feel that need to find my perfect balance because I know how I feel when I do yoga (amazing, relaxed, energetic), and how I feel when I eat frozen pizza and boxed mac n cheese three days in a row (filled with carbs, but not in a great way). I just think, “If I can fit in all the things that make me happiest: seeing my friends, having nights alone, doing meal prep on Sundays and going to yoga three nights a week, I’ll feel so good and on top of things.” But I usually fall out of that by Monday evening and kick myself for the rest of the week for not pulling myself back up. But lately I’ve been thinking about the whole concept of releasing control over my Path, whether that’s just a weekly balance I’m seeking, or my Life Path, the direction I want to head. That’s not to say that we should lose ambition or purpose, but to allow ourselves to stop thinking about all the things we *should* be doing to move forward, or the things we *should* be doing to achieve balance and therefore our Highest Selves. That kind of control – even used to find balance – ultimately robs us of spontaneous moments of joy and direction we never could have found on our own. I want to be open to that. But it sure is damn hard.

    • Cristina

      I feel very lucky then that I never feel like crap if I eat pizza three days in a row, cause I really love pizza. Haha. Just keeping it lighthearted 🙂

  • Jennifer

    Nice timing. I just wept in bed last night as I mumbled to my fiance that I felt like I was spinning a plate on each of my limbs! A good cry sesh is healing and puts things in perspective. Ugh.

  • PeppermintNightmare

    They aren’t failures; they are the cost of living with agency.

    ^^^

  • Alli

    Love this. Your writing is always that perfect jolt of frank, unassuming wisdom that I need to remind myself I’m not alone on my journey of confusion and struggle and growth

  • Flic

    Exquisite and laudable, you gorgeous creature. Bravo.

  • Anne Dyer

    TBH – I thought this article was going to be about learning to skateboard and almost didn’t read. Glad I did.

  • Cristina

    Honestly, sometimes I feel like an uneducated hick from Hicktown (when I’m not, I took advanced English courses my whole life and graduated college) but I think what all the fancy literati-version of Drake quotes are summing up is: EFF IT.
    And I agree. Interests come in waves. I really love TV. It’s like my time to zone out and forget about everything else. What’s that, you are into bathing with crystals and hiking? That’s cool, I like to watch The Walking Dead. When I’m bingeing Netflix, in the back of my mind I’m thinking “gosh, I have a million books I my to-do list that would be more productive”. But right now, I’m reading back to back books and haven’t really watched a ton of TV. I dunno, it’s just my current mood. I’ve also been in the gym regularly, which is like, super rare. I guess right now, my body is cool with waking up at 5am to workout, cause now I wake up at 5am even when I’m not working out. I’m currently super into the one stop shop makeup look (enter Fenty matchstix) but that doesn’t mean I won’t go back to a full-on face when the mood strikes again.
    I think we all just look up and at too many people. Too much social media. Too much comparison. Too much putting people that portray a “together” life on a pedestal and now we don’t even live our own lives. Like, do whatever the f**k you want. Put that on a shirt.

  • What, in all of christendom, is an ‘informational coffee’?
    La Femme | A lifestyle(ish) blog

    • Diana McNeill

      Having coffee, or some sort of drink/food, with someone whose career you’d like to emulate or who might have a position open in their company and you want to learn more about it. It’s like a nonchalant interview, but you’re interviewing them to see if their job is a good fit for you. Without the commitment or pressure.

      • Modupe Oloruntoba

        precisely this! I’ve done it, while I was an assistant – awkward to ask but I’m glad I did

      • That actually sounds like a great idea. We should import it to the UK

  • leilanigl

    The language matters so much more than I tend to think it does, this was great. (Also love love loved ‘Drop the Ball’ – such a good book!)

  • Jay

    Loved the quote already in the article about her.

    And personally thing worklife balance is BS.

    It is not about balance, but about priorities at times. I‘d rather do one thing fully and commitedly at a time. And another at another time.

    Like: No phone in the gym. Neither when I’m with my BF.

    But: No texting and playing around at work either.

    Finish late if you need to.

    But leave earlier on that Friday.

    Get your metime in (biggie for me).

    But don‘t go into isolation all the time.

    Actually, I figured that having one night a week on which I take 30 minutes to literally map my next 7 days out is really great. I write out everything (creepy control freak) – like time for the work projects I need – time for housekeeping – time for my BF – time for my friends – time for me (with categories on exercise, reading, listening to new music, watching new shows, getting a private project done – such as writing – and facials, baths, etc…)

    I am allowed to disclose this here, cause it is halloween and ok, then I am a monster.

    But it works for me.

    And that weird woowooo balance?! Well, that‘s for people who can do Mindful Eating I guess… (Love the idea, just cant…)

  • theysayshycity

    For me at least, I think this is partly a mental/emotional holdover of the college application process….the Atlantic had a good piece about how we ask too much out of students on the essay portion of these applications (be honest, what made you happy when you were 18….my guess is the answer is not volunteering), but I think it extends to other things as well.