There seems to be just too little time for everything—or more accurately, there is too much to do for the time we have. Maybe for a while (years, even) we try to cram everything in, while stressing about it, losing sleep, berating ourselves, leaning on stimulants of choice, and postponing favorite pastimes until a lull appears in the schedule, if it ever does. Eventually, health problems may arise, depression may set in, relationships can suffer...we know the downside.
Instead of this picture, how can one find a nourishing balance of work and play, productivity and relaxation, and other elements from the realms of the body, mind, and spirit?
“There are no easy fixes,” the saying goes, but actually there are. If you can jettison things you really don’t want to be doing but are hanging on to them out of “shoulds,” let them go! What are you waiting for? Imagine the time you would have for other interests, and draw courage from that delicious vision. A relieving bottom line I learned years ago (but still have trouble believing sometimes) is that nobody cares as much as I do about the choices I make. If I make a choice that disappoints somebody, their own life will soon sweep them onward with less and less thought about my decision. If I make a choice that pleases somebody, ditto.
If other people rely on you for something you want to bow out of, affirmations like these can give you courage to do so: Somebody else with fresh energy and ideas will bring something great to this. Doing this because I feel I should is blocking the natural flow of creative energy, for me and the project. I am the expert on “me,” and I know better than anyone what I need. Change sparks growth and discovery, so I’m giving everyone involved a chance to do that.
Besides ending the things you care for least, other easy fixes include sharing tasks with friends (such as child-care groups held at different people’s houses each week); hiring somebody to help out, even if a few hours a week; and getting a new piece of equipment to streamline a task.
Some changes may not be easy but are important to consider, such as paring down on work hours by saying no to overtime. Ask other people who know you—or who don’t know you as well—for feedback about your situation; they may think outside your worry-worn scenarios very creatively. Try saying “That might work!” to each new suggestion before dismissing it, and think through how it could help you.
Perhaps you’ll find something familiar in Billy Internicola’s story. He is a teacher, drama club director, and head of the English department at a Poughkeepsie middle school. He is also a husband; father of three children (ages 2, 4, 7); a writer of scripts, fiction, and poetry; a musician; and a volunteer with his son’s Boy Scouts troop. Over the summer he and his wife Annie, a freelance artist, will add co-directorship of a kids’ summer camp. And this is with less time than he had before the kids and the fulltime job, when he and Annie lived in New York City.
“Before, I used to be involved with lots of different creative endeavors,” says Internicola, “like poetry, fiction, theater, and painting. It was possible to get a toe dipped into a lot of things. You can sort of convince yourself you’re committed to all of them, until you have to really make some hard decisions to let some things go. Now I have to focus on what is really most important. The transition was difficult, and at times I felt resentful and angry about it.” But in a way, he says, having children and a traditional job has made him more focused. “You have to be more careful with how you divide your life, and more sincere with what you do.” So he has narrowed the most-important list to four things: creative arts, family, work, and service with a spiritual component—still a very full plate.
How did he choose from a multitude of must-do tasks, should-do tasks, passions, and talents? “If your heart is fully in something, no matter how busy you are, you find a way,” says Internicola. “It just may have to be in a different way. I used to be able to spend hours at a time reading. I wasn’t doing that anymore, which was driving me crazy. But I realized there are several breaks during the day when I could read a few pages at a time, and now I may read even more than before.”
Still, the Internicolas sometimes imagine returning to a nontraditional working life, exchanging the income of Billy’s fulltime job for more time, freedom, and energy to weave the multifaceted web they crave. “I like my job,” he says, “but it does take a lot.”
Clarity of Hindsight, Now
A classic suggestion for identifying where you might be paying out too much time and energy is to consider what you want to do before you die. It sounds morbid, but imagine having to say good-bye to this lifetime right now. What seems a unique, thrilling expression of who you are but feels tragically ignored or unfinished? Then write those down and make them priorities. Doing so honors your life—now, not after you’ve died. You may have to make big changes, or perhaps only small ones. Maybe all you need is a weekly timesheet to keep on track.
Creating a list of life priorities is something Sharron Phillips, a life coach in Chester, helps her clients do. “There are so many opportunities today, for kids and adults, with a lot of pressure to be everything you can be, do every thing you can do. People are asking, ‘Where am I in all this? I’ve lost myself in this life.’ A lot of times they don’t think they have a choice about what they are doing. Women especially don’t know that they do have permission to let go of things, say no to things.” Phillips keeps her own perspective by asking about her life: Did I love? Did I live? Did I matter?
One practical tool Phillips likes is creating a vision board. On a large piece of cardboard or paper, depict what you want to aim for in the next five years by making drawings, gluing on photos from magazines, or creating other enticing visuals. Then hang the board where you will see it every day. “It really does work,” says Phillips, “to remind you of what’s important to you. The rewards are great. The first time I did a vision board [in a workshop setting] I was cranky about it and didn’t want to. But then I became so moved by it and engaged in it that I didn’t want to stop.”
You can get together with friends to create vision boards, and couples can create one together. “As a couple,” says Phillips, “you are having a real-time connection about what’s coming up as you make the board and figure out what’s important to you. The discussions may not always be easy. It takes commitment to get through the parts that may be uncomfortable and move past them.”
What Are We Teaching Our Kids?
Kids have lots to do too, and may struggle constantly to fit everything into their schedules. But the high demands of academic achievement may skew the balance, as Jim Handlin, head of Woodstock Day School, explains. “The danger in this wired-up society is that it’s so easy to reduce everything to academics and your computer, and lose sight of the arts, theater, music, community service—any of those things that give life richness and depth. It’s important not to lose those. More and more that’s something we have to teach, because kids can really lose their way from finding their inner calling, their voice. The more you know about your voice and how it works, the better you’ll be able to make choices.”
That voice is a precious guidance system toward a life of personal fulfillment. If you can help a youngster identify it, you can foster it. You can even use it to teach skills and knowledge. “As teachers, we’re interested in strengthening a kid’s voice,” says Handlin, “and in understanding their learning patterns. We find an area where the kid is passionate and can have success, and then put other skills onto that. If a kid’s passion is being a chef, then he has to learn some math to do the measurements, and he’s doing chemistry by freezing or cooking something.”
With a keen awareness of how important work is in adulthood, Handlin wants kids to find vocations where their voices can keep singing. He helps them find a good fit. For kids with multiple passions and talents, he has this practical advice: “Find a job where you can use all those gifts. Teaching is a traditional match for that, where you can do your academics during the day, and do other things like head up a musical production after school. Another place where many talents are needed is some of these new tech companies that are entrepreneurial—you can go into a lot of different directions. But a job that has an outlet for just one talent is not going to work.”
Handlin also notes how often kids are not getting attention from adults, even though an attentive adult figure is of utmost importance to a child’s development. Perhaps it’s no wonder, as adults out of balance also lack in-person attention. Phillips observes that “a lot of us live in our heads, and when we talk to others we think we’re communicating, but we’re not really connecting. We’re using so much technology to communicate, it’s more important than ever to get that juicy connection with each other in person.”
The Joy of Extremes
Is being able to balance a multitude of interests and activities overrated? What about some other strategies, like serial obsessiveness, flowing from one all-out investment of your being into one thing, then another, and another? Creative artists may produce their best work this way, and even court imbalance intentionally, to tap into realms not reached by everyday balance. Probably each of us has an experience of being obsessively devoted to one thing for days or weeks at a time, whether by choice or not, and found it productive, transformational, or at least a very good story in the telling.
One example that Barbara Bash of Accord recently experienced, as she does every spring with delight and exhaustion, is a week-long event called Authentic Leadership in Action (ALIA). ALIA is an ever-growing conference that brings together people (250 of them this year) who are interested in creating change in the world without burning out and losing their idealism. Bash is a freelance artist, an author, and the creator of the visual blog True Nature; she says ALIA is a hopeful and visionary time, where she serves as a teacher and performer. As the event grows it becomes more taxing. “I get really stretched with putting forth,” she says, “and I feel really used up—in a good way. I’m completely engaged, and stretching psychically, physically, and emotionally. There is real aliveness and happiness that comes from that. But it’s like a marathon—there’s no way I could go on like that week after week. It’s like breathing out and breathing in. The conference was a big exhale, and now I’ll do things to recharge, breathing in.”
Recharging makes overdoing it possible. Some of Bash’s favorite ways are massage and “anything where you can drop into the subconscious, especially involving water, like swimming in a pond or taking a bath.” She also immerses herself in the joyful movements and exuberance of African dance, and attends to her body’s needs to get enough sleep. She also recommends deeply connecting with others. “Whenever I feel depleted,” Bash says, “I get an infusion of having a conversation, where I am really listening to the other person, and I am really being heard by them.”
Chaos with Grace
If you’re attached to more endeavors than you can manage, here is a different approach besides paring them down. Look deeply at who you want to be, and choose underlying principles or purposes to live by. Then imbue everything you do with them. For instance, you may recognize a gift for finding solutions to problems. Whenever you are struggling with overwhelm, you can remind yourself that you are accomplishing your purpose by affirming, “I am creating solutions in the world.”
And remember that stories abound of people who found their greatest satisfaction—and left a unique imprint on the world for it—by going with their inner impulses of joy. The brain is very good at coming up with “what makes sense,” but when it comes to parsing out your life’s song, hopefully there will be a bold voice from the heart section that sounds out over the chorus of neurons.