Balance is a questionable goal at best. After years of reporting, I’ve found that the majority of people report being happiest and most fulfilled during times when they were unbalanced, giving their all to something they cared deeply about. But “giving their all” doesn’t necessarily mean only doing that one thing. People need to rest. And a healthy identity is one that contains some diversification.
If balance isn’t the right mental model, but neither is getting totally swept up into a singular pursuit, then what is?
Whereas balance means doing things in equal proportion (which, for someone who is driven and enjoys what they do, almost never works), boundaries means taking stock of your life; figuring out what areas you want to give your attention and energy to; and then setting rigid rules to ensure you follow through.
Boundaries serve two purposes:
1) They make sure the inertia of what you are doing in this moment doesn’t totally take over. For example, if you have a boundary to leave work at 6PM or to put your digital devices away at 7PM, then whatever emotional pull you have at 5:59 or 6:59 doesn’t matter. The decision was already made, and it was made when you were in a more self-aware state; when you could know what is actually good for you in the long-term and not just what feels good in this moment.
2) They give you permission to be totally present on whatever it is you are doing, because you know you have a forced switch to other important things in the future. There’s no need to multitask or multithink. You can be where you are.
Here’s the Stanford lecturer and coach Ed Batista, writing on his blog:
“Years ago my colleague Michael Gilbert suggested that we substitute ‘boundaries’ for ‘balance’: while balance requires an unsteady equilibrium among the various demands on our time and energy, boundaries offer a sustainable means of keeping things in their proper place. Gilbert drew upon his training as a biologist in his definition of healthy boundaries: ‘Just as functional membranes (letting the right things through and keeping the wrong things out) facilitate the healthy interaction of the cells of our bodies, so do functional personal boundaries facilitate the healthy interaction of the various parts of our lives. Bad boundaries lead to either being overwhelmed or withdrawal. Good boundaries lead to wholeness and synergy.'”
Boundaries are a lot less amorphous and thus a lot easier to make real than balance:
- What are the things in your life that you care about?
- How do you want to devote your time, energy, and attention to these things?
- What boundaries must you put in place to support your doing so?
The most common (and, I think, useful) boundaries involve space and time. More than ever, our environments shape us. When do we want to be in what environments? When do we want to have certain tools in our pockets? When do we want the marketers to have access to our brains?
Digital technology promised to make work more flexible so you could be more balanced, but it has had the opposite effect: it’s made it so you’re always kind of working and always kind of not working. That’s not balance. That’s an emotional and attentional clusterfuck.
Boundaries help us reclaim control over our most precious resources: time, attention, and energy. They allow us to go all-in on the things we care about without trying to go all-in on everything at once. They also encourage a natural seasonality, or the ability to set and re-set boundaries to align with ever-changing contexts, goals, and life-stages.