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Monday, March 20, 2020

Balance

One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important and that to take a holiday would bring all kinds of disaster. If I were a medical man, I should prescribe a holiday to any patient who considered his work important.

       Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), The Conquest of Happiness

The benefits of balance go far beyond balancing work and life demands. An unbalanced life is always problematic. Sometimes it seems justified, but the effects rarely work to your advantage over the longer term. Look at celebrities who win fame and large gobs of cash at an early age. Many of them experience disappointment soon after. Some, especially those who added drugs or alcohol to the mix, find suicide as the only solution.

Slow Leadership aims to find a balance between the obvious need to get things done and the equally important need to live in a civilized and sustainable way. So how can you establish where the point of balance lies?

There isn't, I believe, some off-the-shelf answer. Everyone's situation is a little different. Still, a good way to think about creating the right balance in your life is to treat it as you would any major investment of money. Professional financial advisers are united in pointing investors away from unbalanced types of investing. It's far too risky. Investing all or most of your wealth in a single company or business sector is like betting everything you own on a single horse race: wonderful if you win; a total disaster if you lose.

It's the same with your life. Unbalanced ways of living are full of risk: to your health, your family and relationships, your mental stability, your prospects and your peace of mind. You may believe you're on to a certain winner—certain enough to throw most of your personal life capital behind it in the expectation of a huge win—but life is ricky. What seems a sure bet today may disappear by tomorrow. Is it really worth the risk?

Of course, most people aren't even aware of how much risk they're taking. They follow the crowd, just as thousands of small investors threw their money into the "dot com" boom of the late 1990s, certain that it must be the right thing, since everyone else they knew was doing it as well. When they lost much of their savings, it wasn't much of a consolation to be part of the crowd again.

It's the same in other aspects of life too. The herd mentality prevails and people rush to join in. Whether it's overspending and accumulating debt, trying to emulate the yuppy lifestyle shown on TV, or staying late at the office, following the crowd is what most people turn to automatically.

It's worth extending the comparison between lifestyle balance and financial caution a little further. When you choose how you want to live, you're investing a great deal of your personal capital in that decision. Capital made up of your time, your energy, your commitment, the success of your relationships and family life, as well as your personal earning capacity. The cliché says purchasing a house is your greatest lifetime investment. That's not true. What you invest in your choice of lifestyle is far greater; it includes your emotional and physical health too.

The workaholic who invests him or herself in job and career to the virtual exclusion of everything else is making a tremendous gamble. By giving up home and family life, ruining most relationships and risking mental and physical health to gain career advancement, the workaholic bets the resulting wealth and status will more than compensate for those losses. Maybe they will. Maybe they won't. Either way, there's a cost to be paid. Being a workaholic isn't right or wrong: it's extremely risky. By the time you find you've lost, it will be too late to change your mind.

A butterfly who lives only for instant pleasure is just as reckless. So is a lazy bum sponging off others and hanging out on the beach all day. All variations of unbalanced lifestyle carry high risks. A balanced financial portfolio is tied up in a wide range of investments. A balanced life is invested in many aspects of living. Some will work out well, some won't, but overall the risk of disaster is minimized.

One way to start is to check out the major aspects of life to see if you're giving each of them a significant amount of your attention. Any balanced life is going to cover all of them; not in equal amounts, but enough to make sure none are totally ignored:
  • Work and career
  • Personal development, learning
  • Health, physical activity
  • Thoughtfulness, quietness, inner calm
  • Family, friends, relationships
  • Leisure, fun, relaxation
  • Community
Take a look at your own life. If you're devoting most of your time and energies to work, maybe with small amounts for relaxation and relationships, the chances are good that you're lifestyle isn't properly balanced. It's easy to put off restoring the balance to some future time, especially if you're young and ambitious, but when you get there, you may find the chance is already gone. Developed countries—and many developing countries too—are already paying the price for unbalanced lifestyles in epidemics of obesity, diabetes, stress-related illnesses and domestic break-ups. Balance isn't simply a nice ideal; it's essential to mental and physical health. It's even critical to organizational health, since unbalanced organizations are equally prone to sudden catastrophe.


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