In a recent essay for the New York Times, performance coach Brad Stulberg advocates for the “unbalanced” life. He explains that “the times in my life during which I’ve felt happiest and most alive are also the times that I’ve been the most unbalanced.” These were times when he was fully consumed by a particular activity, whether trekking in the Himalayas, training to set a personal record in the triathlon, or writing a book. Sticking with a more balanced lifestyle might have precluded these “formative experiences.”
Brad goes on to quote elite athletes who also urge people to “give it your all.” The idea is enticing: who wouldn’t want to clear away distractions and throw themselves passionately into a single special activity?
But whether unbalance is the best strategy is debatable. There’s a simple approach to allocating time among activities, and that’s to spend the incremental hour where you get the highest pay-off. Because talents and aspirations differ, what seems balanced for one person might be unbalanced for another. The more important question is how to achieve a state of inner balance.
The right way to allocate time can be illustrated with a simple example. Excluding sleep, meals, hygiene, commuting, and so forth, let’s assume a person has 12 hours a day available for “working” and “running” (or substitute your own special passion). The solid line in the chart shows how you can split 12 hours between two activities:
Point C represents someone spending ten hours a day running (or in related activities, like cross-training) and two hours a day in work tasks. This is a version of the “unbalanced” strategy that Brad writes about. Like Brad, I’ve operated at point C for brief periods of time, but C isn’t sustainable for me because I wouldn’t be able to support my family. For very talented athletes, however, this could be the route to fame and fortune.
Point B represents someone who spends ten hours a day at work and two hours running. This is a simplified version of me a couple years ago when I was training intensely. Running two hours a day was a source of great joy, but the pay-off to a third hour would have been modest, in part because of the risk of injury. Conversely, while work was very important, spending an extra hour in the office every day wouldn’t have accomplished much. Point B maximized the pay-off from both activities, it was the perfect balance for me at that time.
Point A represents an individual who spends all day at work, with no time for running. That was me about twenty years ago, when there was a very high return to working hard, because my career was at a critical point, and our daughter had just been born. At the same time, I was taking a break from running due to injuries. Some people would call this a balanced strategy because of the focus on work and family, while others might think it unbalanced because physical fitness was ignored.
The point is, you should balance pay-offs, not hours. The situation would be more realistic with more than two activities (this would make the chart harder to draw), but the concept would be the same: spend that incremental hour where it will have the biggest impact.
While the concept is simple, people sometimes struggle with balance. Think back to when you first learned to ride a bicycle: before you were cruising smoothly, there was a probably a certain amount of wobbling around and even a crash or two. Balance is an acquired skill, and life throws us challenges: sometimes there isn’t the flexibility to allocate time the way we’d like — or priorities clash — and the result is confusion, anxiety, a sense of inner conflict, and sometimes we fall down.
Recently I woke up early intending to go for a run, but felt less than totally rested — and then remembered an important business meeting later that day. My mind flashed back and forth: first I pictured myself running, then I imagined an extra hour of sleep, and then these images cycled through my brain over and over again. Anxious and undecided, I lay awake and achieved neither goal.
That experience gave me some appreciation of Arjuna’s complaint to Krishna in the Hindu epic, the Bhagavad Gita: “The mind is restless, turbulent, powerful, violent. Trying to control it is like trying to tame the wind!”
Last summer I was training for a big event, but also struggling with an injury. I faced a conundrum: without intense training, I wouldn’t be ready — but training might make the injury worse. My mind jumped back and forth between these two scenarios, leaving me frustrated and anxious. Eventually a strategy emerged: continue training for the time being, but make the runs short and easy. Once this decision was made, I felt calmer; a sense of order was restored.
A state of inner balance is sometimes described as flow, after the work of psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. In his essay, Brad states that “flow and balance are irreconcilable,” but according to Csikszentmihalyi, flow results not from any particular allocation of time, but rather from from the individual’s ability to impose order on the conscious mind. Without that form of self-discipline, the mind may oscillate in an unbalanced fashion:
When we are left alone, with no demands on attention, the basic disorder of the mind reveals itself. With nothing to do, it begins to follow random patterns, usually stopping to consider something painful or disturbing. Unless a person knows how to give order to his or her thoughts, attention will be attracted to whatever is most problematic at the moment: it will focus on some real or imaginary pain, on recent grudges or long-term frustrations. Entropy is the normal state of consciousness— a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”
When the world becomes disordered, random, painful, disturbing, problematic, frustrating — that may mean it’s time for a new plan. Which is the right point — A, B, C, or somewhere else on the line? As you reassess long-term goals and the pay-offs to different activities, and then consider re-allocating some of those precious hours, you may be giving order to your thoughts and thus establishing both inner and outer balance at the same time.
Committing to a plan is no guarantee that goals will be reached, but just like on a bike, it’s easier to keep your balance once you’re moving forward again.
Calmness, gentleness, silence, self-restraint, and purity: these are the disciplines of the mind.
— Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita