Life Balance

We hear the term “life balance” a lot – but what does it really mean? And how do we find and maintain it?

I think there are two answers to these questions. The first has to do with looking at the various roles and responsibilities in our lives; and accurately and honestly assessing how we’re establishing our priorities and directing our energy. The second, I believe, has to do with recognizing and managing our internal conflicts.

I like to think that we’re never truly “balanced” – but that at any given time we’re either moving toward balance or moving away from it. Moving toward balance means taking the time daily to take stock of our tasks, sorting out what’s most important, and working our way through the list – while continuously and effectively monitoring and adjusting the energy and time we’re devoting to each one. If we feel reasonable healthy on all levels, its probably safe to say we’re moving toward balance.

It also helps to do this mindfully: we see and assess things more accurately and effectively if we’re really “present” in all of our actions and interactions. It’s easy to engage mindlessly in doing the things we need to do, and in being the people we need to be – but successfully “checking everything off the list” doesn’t necessarily mean we’re moving toward balance. When we act in a rote and mindless manner we become disengaged from our emotional and spiritual selves. And we can’t experience a move toward true balance without those.


Mindfulness for Stress Reduction and Better Sleep

Mindfulness is a simple concept; although not always easy to employ. It simply means (according to at least one definition) just being here right now. Non-judgmentally being with this moment. And this moment. And this moment…

Our bodies do not easily differentiate fantasy from reality, so when we’re ruminating about the days’ events or about what’s going to play out tomorrow, or bodies respond as if the mental scenario we’re playing out is really happening. The body then goes into its stress response and we can’t sleep. Or digest well. Or relax. Or think clearly.

So during the day it helps to remind ourselves to just be right here right now. If we take a moment, use the breath as an anchor to just be really present (just observing the breath going all the way in and all the way out, without trying to control it in any way), we realize that literally nothing is really going on at this particular moment: the stress we feel is purely a manifestation of what’s going on in our head at that moment.

I had been giving a workshop sometime ago about sleep, when one of the participants shared a great strategy. It’s something I continue to use regularly, and I wish I knew who he was so that I could give him proper credit. He did not call it mindfulness meditation, but as he explained the simple technique I knew that that was exactly what it was:

The next time you have a hard time sleeping, particularly because you’re ruminating, the first rule is to remember that just by lying there you’re getting most of the metabolic rest you need. So don’t stress about trying to sleep. Don’t even try to sleep – that only makes things worse. Rather, try slowly and persistently saying ‘Goodnight’ to every little piece of your body: “Goodnight toes. Goodnight balls of the feet. Good night tops of the feet. Goodnight ankles. Goodnight calf muscles…” You get the picture. And when you start to drift off or wander, force yourself to continue with the exercise.

This exercise may sound silly, but it’s very powerful in its simplicity. What you’re doing is automatically relaxing every part of your body simply by focusing on it. And when the body is relaxed, rest comes more easily. The other thing you’re doing – and this is where the mindfulness comes in – is stilling the mind. When you’re focused on each part of your body, you’re not thinking about the day or about what’s in store tomorrow. And when the mind is calm, rest comes more easily.

So if you find yourself stressed from time to time (as we all do), try cultivating more mindfulness during the day: just stop and be present with whatever you’re doing, so that you can make clearer choices. And if you find yourself carrying it with you to bed, try this simple exercise before reaching for the sleeping pills or the bottle of wine!

A Healthy Dose of Optimism

I heard a great quote recently that got me to thinking about what it means to be optimistic: “If life doesn’t give you at least a little sugar as well, your lemonade’s gonna suck”. In other words, a positive attitude isn’t always sufficient in and of itself.

So what’s the difference between a healthy and unhealthy optimism? The former, in my opinion, embodies a more realistic perspective on things with a sense of hope and possibility attached to it. The latter, I’ve come to see, is simply a ‘happy-face’ mask designed to hide ignorance, fear, and denial.

A healthy optimism entails the willingness to see the ugly things as they really are – to feel discouraged and angry when appropriate – but also remembering to engage fully with the beauty that does exist. Focusing on what is right and good in the world, without turning a blind eye to the rest, can give us the encouragement and strength we need to make right the things that need to be made right.

Are you typically an optimist or a pessimist? Or maybe you consider yourself more of a realist. Or maybe it depends on the situation. It really doesn’t matter: the point is that it helps to take stock of the assumptions we tend to make, and the ways in which we typically choose to approach the world. We need to maintain a hopeful but balanced perspective in order to lead change effectively.

Improve Motivation By Creating A Space

There is much written about how to improve motivation and how keep it. Unfortunately, motivation is one of those things that easily elude us. Where does motivation come from? How do we get it and make it stick? Can we really do or say anything to motivate another person if it has to come from within?

These are hard questions with no easy answers. The truth is that we need to find what works for us personally, and what style of motivating matches the others person’s values and desires. Google ‘Motivation’, pick a couple of tools, and try them out. And it’s important to remember that once you’ve got it yourself, that doesn’t mean its here to stay: we need to keep working on our motivation whenever the need comes up. We have to renew it constantly and work hard at it (the irony is that we have to be motivated to stay motivated!)

So it’s not an easy thing, but as I mentioned, there are some tools to help draw out that elusive drive from within. One of the things that works for me is to ensure that my environment is set up in a way that helps my motivation rather than hinder it.

For example, like many of us, exercise is the tough one for me. I’m not much of a ‘get up and go to the gym’ type of person, and so I’d rather keep in shape at home. I have the bench and weights, elliptical trainer, and yoga mat – but unfortunately they’ve experienced a lot of darkness and dust over the years.

Fairly recently, however, I’ve created a space that actually makes me want to be there; and that’s made all the difference in the world. I painted the walls in the ‘exercise room’ and put a little stereo in there, as well as a couch and TV: all the comforts of home, so to speak (of course you can go too far: if I also decided to go with the beer fridge, for example, the exercise plan might have gone down the drain!)

So now I’m back on track and it feels good – and it really didn’t cost much.

Where can you ‘create a space’? Think about your home or work environment, for instance: is it cluttered and dull, or is it a clean, organized, exhilarating and inspiring place to be? ‘Exhilarating’ may sound like an exaggeration when you’re thinking of a workspace, but it’s really not: read about colour and aroma therapies, for example – there’s some good research to back these up (or even feng shui if that’s your thing; although the evidence on that one is rather lacking).

And remember, a cluttered environment makes for a cluttered mind. There are some good professional organizers out here who can help, if this isn’t your strength – don’t be afraid to use the resources available.

And don’t forget to change it up periodically: we habituate to our surroundings after awhile, and so we need to keep it fresh to keep those neurons stimulated!