I’m Finally Letting Go of My Obsession With Balance

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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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