The Balance Myth

I regularly hear people speak of “balance.” Work-Life balance. Balanced priorities. Balanced attitudes. Balanced workloads. In a quantitative sense, there is no such thing as “balance” in life. Would your key relationships accept a “balanced” approach to love? Of course not! Your spouse expects to be first. Do you prioritize your life based upon a balanced, i.e. equal, distribution of your time, resources, talents, emotional, or physical energy? I am confident you do not.

You only have 168 hours in a week to utilize. Let’s assume you get the recommended 8 hours of sleep a night. Let’s also assume you are either at work, in transit to/from work, or getting ready for work 65 hours per week. You may have a very long commute to work. I have friends in several cities commuting 1½ hours each way to work. Thus, their hours consumed by work-related activities are much higher than 65. You may also be in a role that requires you to work many more hours.

Staying with my example (168-56-65=47), you then have 47 remaining hours in a week with 6.7 average hours per day that is “discretionary time.” Except, it’s not discretionary. The other priorities in your life, this includes people, will consume much of that time. The point is, there is nobody in the modern world that has a job and relationships that has true, quantitative balance. Nor is that desirable! If you want to make a difference in your world, relationships, or career, then the goal is not balance!

So, why do we hear all the talk about “balance,” as if it’s a virtue? I submit to you that balance is not a virtue. Further, if you give everything a balanced or equal priority and resources, then you will be unsuccessful in all that you do. I believe when people speak of seeking balance that they are expressing their earnest desire to set proper priorities in their lives and to make room for what is most important to them! In short, they are unhappy with the current order of things.

“they are expressing their earnest desire to set proper priorities in their lives and to make room for what is most important to them!”

Most athletes are successful because they have a great work ethic and they enjoy the training process. My marathon coach is a former Olympic athlete. He loved the training. Running before and after work to get 150 miles per week and make the Olympic team was important enough to him to make the sacrifices to get there.

I know a couple of active Navy Seals. Their job is 75% training and 25% deployment. They are successful for many reasons but among them is they enjoy the training. Their full-time job is to train for the occasional deployment. There is a reason they are among the most elite trained forces in the world.

Those with the most successful relationships prioritize them over other things. They sacrifice other opportunities and desires to make their relationships successful. They set boundaries around their relationships to give them the time and nurture they need.

The most successful people in any field did not get there because of balance. They got there because of a single-minded pursuit of a goal which often came at great personal sacrifice. You will usually find, however, that they love what they do.

What we seek is not balance but harmony. Harmony in how time is allocated. Harmony in relationships. Harmony among the priorities in our lives. This idea of harmony comes from a recent conversation with a colleague struggling with competing priorities in his life. The quest for harmony is a very personal one that is tied to your values and priorities and is something you will always have to fight to maintain. There will always be something competing for your attention.

Here is a process you can use to pursue harmony in your life. These ideas deserve much further development than I can give them in a blog, but they should help you get started.

1) Know your purpose. Harmony first comes from defining your purpose. My purpose is very simple. “To make a profound difference in every activity with which I am involved.” It’s vague but helps me set my priorities and determine what activities I pursue. If I can’t make a real difference, then I don’t participate. That helps me determine which activities to remove from my life. Define your purpose and let everything in your life flow from it.

2) Know what you value. Truly assessing your values requires some introspection. It includes certain relationships. It includes character qualities such as integrity. It may include spouse, kids, health, career, faith, and helping others. My values determine the categories of activities with which I am involved.

3) Assess your life. This comes down to evaluating what you are doing today. Where and how are you spending all of your precious resources (time, money, talent, energy, relationships?) Where can you make quick changes? Where do you need to start the process of making long-term changes? How do you categorize these activities? How do you rank them within the categories? Does the ranking line up with your purpose and values? Why or why not?

4) Prioritize and restructure. You are so talented that there is no way you can do everything of which you are capable. Thus, you must make the hard choices to order your life around what matters most to you. I order my life around faith, family, career, health, and helping others. These are my primary categories. There are things I do consistently in each of these categories. Your priorities and activities may be different. Some things require attention every day while you can pick your opportunities with others. You may do some things on a short-term or long-term basis but what you value should be a recurring theme in your activities.

5) Determine what you will sacrifice. You can’t do everything. Some things are easy to decline. Others may fit your overall priorities or categories but pull your attention and resources from other things that are more important. Do not let “good” take your time and resources away from “best.” Measure the cost and be cognizant of what you are giving up.

6) Protect your priorities. This means setting and enforcing boundaries around those things which are essential to you. This includes time for yourself. There will always be encroachments on your priorities. Some encroachments you can control and some you cannot or should not. In the latter, you should make the encroachment temporary. Do not let it become permanent. If you miss a day, then make sure you recover the time on the next one.

7) Regularly reassess. I generally do this on an annual basis but sometimes more frequently when I sense my activities are not lining up with my purpose and values. You know when things are slipping out of control and when it is time to reinforce your boundaries. This is an excellent time of year to look back over the last twelve months and genuinely assess what worked, what did not, where you were on track, and where you were not. Give yourself kudos for success and for where you made positive changes to move your life in the desired direction. Be sober-minded in evaluating failures, missed opportunities, and where your activities did not line up with your priorities. Let this be the impetus for change.

8) Remake your life. I worked with an executive coach some years ago who told me you have to remake yourself every five to seven years. It takes a process, sometimes lengthy and expensive, to become something you are not today. You are the CEO of your life. How would you rate your performance? What changes do you need to make? What investments do you need to make in yourself or others? Where did you “underinvest?” What is the health of your “organization?” Are you creating the value you desire? What does your “board of directors” think? What is your change management plan? Do you have one? How will you pursue and develop the harmony you need among all of your competing priorities? Be the CEO. Lead the change you desire to see.

Life is not about the tightrope. It is not about pursuing balance. Set the right priorities and pursue harmony. Make choices that align with your purpose, values, and goals.

What do you think?  If you think I’m on point (or not!), I would love to hear your thoughts and comments. This blog is one way I try to invest in others and to encourage character-driven leadership in life and business. If I can help, please feel free to reach out to me at

Lastly, I am running the 2019 Boston Marathon with the Pedro Martinez Foundation Charity Team and would very much appreciate your support! If you would like to help support PMF’s amazing work you can find out more here.

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By Alan Buttery