Every once in a while (or perhaps more frequently than I’d like to admit) I find myself overwhelmed by my own life. Taking care of patients, blogging, writing, maintaining relationships (with my wife, son, family, friends, and co-workers), exercising, practicing Buddhism, marketing my writing, answering pages, answering emails, handling unforeseen crises, cleaning out our cats’ litter boxes—suffice it to say one of my greatest challenges is not only getting all these things done day after day but also finding time to enjoy a few leisure activities, too. I often feel like I’m running on a treadmill that never allows me to actually savor any of the moments I’m spending doing these things because the moment I’m done with one—even while I’m doing it—my mind is already moving on to the next thing. Certainly, to accomplish anything great you have to be just a little bit obsessed with it. But if a little obsessiveness is highly adaptive, too much blocks you from leading a balanced life.
Why is balance important? For me, the answer turns out to be the same metaphorically as literally: so I don’t fall over. “Balanced” at once describes a feeling of being in control of multiple responsibilities as well as the sense that several important areas of one’s life aren’t being neglected in favor of only a few. A balanced life, most would agree, feels less stressfully lived than a non-balanced life, which feels overwhelming and unsatisfying. So how do we capture the feeling of the former and avoid the feeling of the latter?
INNER LIFE STATE
The real answer has to do with our life-condition, which changes from moment to moment. In the morning I may feel overwhelmed because my inner life state is weak and I feel discouraged, but by lunch I may have recovered some of the fighting spirit, and tasks that loomed like mountains abruptly shrink to molehills. The tasks, of course, haven’t changed—I have. Obviously, both as a physician and Buddhist, I believe one’s inner life state can be made stronger in a very real way, but it takes real work, happens slowly over time, and remains a process that never ends. How one attempts to do this will vary from person to person. Frankly, I think just recognizing one can and should strive to strengthen one’s inner fortitude is a great first step. Beyond striving to do that, however, some practical considerations apply…
THE DANGERS OF MULTITASKING
We may think by multitasking we’re able to get more things done more quickly and thereby achieve better balance, but this is an illusion. We can only really pay conscious attention to one thing at a time. Other parts of our brains may be in constant motion directing activities that don’t require our conscious attention—like breathing, walking, and even driving a car along a familiar route—and do them well as long as they remain simple. But the moment these tasks become complex (e.g., someone cuts us off in traffic) our conscious attention is commandeered to ensure the best outcome (i.e., avoiding an accident).
So when we multitask, by definition, we can only do the one thing we’re attending to directly well (and even that not so much: how can we, for example, remember what we’re reading when someone is intermittently tapping us on the shoulder to ask us questions?). We think working this way—doing more than one thing at a time—is efficient, but it’s not for several reasons:
- Multitasking impairs future recall. Memory is a function of attention and concentration. Why do you think you can enter a room and forget why you did so? Because in between the time you thought of the reason to enter it (e.g., to find your keys) and the time you actually entered it, you allowed your mind to focus on other issues.
- Multitasking risks poor performance. Complex tasks like writing or conversation require our full attention. If you allow yourself to do other things (e.g., read email messages) the work product you produce may be so substandard you have to spend extra time reworking it later.
- Multitasking prevents you from enjoying what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Enjoyment also requires our full attention (what’s become popularly known as “mindfulness”). If while watching your son play in a playground you’re thinking about your next blog post, you may not even remember him laughing as he slides down the slide head first.
This isn’t to say that what makes us efficient is taking on tasks sequentially. What makes us efficient is avoiding distractions while we’re performing them. Email messages, text messages, voice mail messages, Twitter, Facebook—we’ve never been more accessible to one another at any time in our history than we are now. PDAs, smartphones, Internet browsers (the new television)—we’ve never had so many potential distractions all chirping at us for attention.
I had a minor epiphany not long ago that having a smartphone that delivers emails and text messages to me automatically was significantly interfering with my productivity. It’s like having junk food in your house: once it’s there, it’s almost inevitable that you’re going to eat it (the best strategy to avoid this being to not buy it in the first place). For me, once an email message arrives, I’m unable to resist reading it. So I turned my email on my smartphone off and now allow myself to check email only intermittently, when I decide I need a break from what I’m doing.
DEFINE WHAT’S IMPORTANT
Unless you know what’s important to you, you won’t know what to prioritize and, even more importantly, what not to prioritize (or even agree to do). Knowing your most basic mission in life is critical. If asked to commit significant time and energy to something, how else can you decide if you even want to? I turn down interesting projects all the time because they don’t fit into the well-defined circle of things I find most important. I often find myself wishing for more than 24 hours in a day and the ability to be two places at once, but because neither is possible, I often don’t do things to which I find myself only moderately attracted. If you lead a busy life, you need to be merciless in refusing to become involved in things that don’t resonate with your core mission.
This brings me to what I believe to be the core principle of maintaining a balanced life: learning to say no. I touched on this in a previous post, The Good Guy Contract, and will only add here two additional points. First, you don’t just have to learn to say no once. You often have to learn how to keep saying it. Second, saying no implies that you value your needs more than the needs of others when you say it, which makes many people uncomfortable. But no one has infinite resources, and choosing your needs is often neither selfish nor immoral. Being intimately aware, as we all are, of our own failings while at the same time remaining blissfully unaware of the weaknesses and failings of others often mistakenly leads us to conclude we aren’t actually worth as much as the people sitting around us. But this is an argument more based on feelings of inadequacy rather than on sound reasoning. All lives are equally valuable at their core. How we get fooled into thinking ours are somehow less so simply because we know ourselves best has been the subject not just of books but entire paradigms of therapy.
Achieving balance, then, in my view, ultimately rests on having courage: the courage to make difficult choices; to exclude other possibilities in order to choose the one that suits you best; to let go of fearing the disapproval or disappointment of others. The correct practice of Nichiren Buddhism requires you to aim at your own happiness while simultaneously aiming to help others become happy, too. But “simultaneously” isn’t meant to imply “at every moment.” Rather it means striving to develop the compassion to care about others. Yet in striving to care about others, we often forget to care for ourselves. It’s often a difficult balance to strike, sometimes requiring complex calculations to arrive at the best answer in any given situation. But when we recognize we’ve allowed our lives to fall seriously out of balance, we must take courageous action to reestablish it. You can’t help anyone else become happy if you yourself are unhappy. As Nichiren Daishonin wrote, “A sword is useless in the hands of a coward.”
Next week: How To Become Great