How To Achieve Balance

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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?


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…


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


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 weekHow To Become Great

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  • With courage comes compassion…

  • Alex, don’t you wonder why we’ve placed such value on being over-busy and overbooked at this particular time in history?

    Are we really more productive—or as you assert, multi-tasking is actually making us less productive?

    I remember a slower, saner pace, as a child. More reasonable demands. A simpler life. I never thought of it as balance—just satisfaction. Now I think of it as peace…

  • Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts through your blog.

    Lately I have the feeling of information rushing through our internet society at a greater pace. I wonder how our individual minds and overall society can process this rapid flow of facts and opinions—a pace and volume of communications much higher and differently conveyed than the environment that shaped the biological evolution of our minds. I wonder if there might be some social instability that resonates out of control with the force of this flow. Probably I have been paying too much attention to the news and public rage of US politics and the health care issues. Perhaps many of us will adjust successfully to this new internet environment by becoming more aware of seeking the balance you discuss.

    Duke: I agree it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information that sits on our computer screens. Easy for our days to become swallowed up by Internet reading. Sometimes we have to forcibly turn ourselves away from it (again, like television).


  • Actually (following up on my own previous comment), it is not so much the flow of facts that worries me as the flow of angry opinions and deceptions masquerading as facts.

    Duke: Amen.


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brad Bengtson and Alan Gee, Alex Lickerman. Alex Lickerman said: How To Achieve Balance: Every once in a while (or perhaps more frequently than I’d like to admit) I find myself ov… […]

  • I only found your blog two weeks ago and already find reading it a valuable way to start the week.

    Thank you for taking the time to do this.


    Anthony: Thanks for reading.


  • So many of us struggle to say no. The best practical advice I found on this was to make it a habit to never say yes immediately. When the request comes, say “Let me call you when I have my calendar open,” or “Hang on, the child has a homework question; let me call you right back,” or “Can you send me an email with the details?” or anything that gives you time enough to reflect before answering. You may find you want to say yes, but you can do so after considering your other responsibilities and needs. And if you find instead that you need to say no, you’ll be able to frame your answer more thoughtfully.

    Rob: A really great suggestion.


  • […] Today’s post contains one such thought. Writing about achieving balance in one’s life, Dr. Lickerman takes a moment to talk about multi-tasking. And he echoes what I, and many others with me, have discovered independently about multi-tasking: Great idea, but it doesn’t work out in practise the way you’d think. I’ve written about this before, and will link to that post as soon as I migrate it from my old blog. […]

  • As I read the first paragraph of your post, Alex, I thought: “This is a description of the way I used to live.” What changed? I became chronically ill. Despite the physical and mental toll of chronic illness, I realized as I read your post that my life is much more balanced since I was forced to leave my career and to live a life of relative isolation.

    I’ve had time to work on my inner life. I’ve cut down drastically on multi-tasking (it exacerbates my symptoms). I’ve come to define what’s important in my life (my family and trying to write a little every day). I’ve learned to say no. This last one took time because, before I got sick, I hardly ever said no to a request even if I knew it would spread me too thin. And even after getting sick, I continued to say yes to things that made me worse. I thought it was immoral to say no to a reasonable request. But when I was finally forced to do it by my medical condition, I realized for the first time what a gift it was to myself.

    Would I trade my health for this illness despite the positive changes the latter has brought to my life? In a heartbeat! But I don’t think I would go back to that former life. I feel that deep down, I’m a different, more balanced person.

    Toni: Now that’s what I call changing poison into medicine!


  • Thank you for this post (and all your posts). This one happened to hit home the hardest as I have just gone through a very trying time with relationship problems, career-related issues and subsequently financial issues…when it rains it pours. The section on Inner State is the stand out for me as I have a tendency to let situations and people with their emotions overcome my inner state. It had become so out of control that I lost my sense of self and therefore the ability to overcome even everyday obstacles. This led to loss of hope and a really bad mental state which I found it hard to overcome. What helped pull me out of this was a reflection back to my younger days where I stood up to any challenge, actually I didn’t see many things challenge me at all. Life was the journey, not the dreaded thing I had to fight through each day. Somehow in my time of distress I focused back on my abilities and tackled to the best of my ability each task slowly and purposefully. Now though I still have changes to my inner state, it is easier to get done what needs to get done and spend the rest of the time enjoying at leisure.

    Thank you again for your insights.


    KC: You’ve hit the nail on the head. It really is all about mustering a powerful life force that makes you feel bigger than all the challenges you have in your life. Glad you’re doing better.


  • Hi Alex,

    I hope it’s okay to let your blog readers know we’ll be exploring this issue with you on the May 1st edition of The Career Clinic radio talk show. You’re more credible, to me anyway, for admitting you don’t have all the answers when it comes to juggling your many priorities.

    So tune into at noon Central on May 1st for what I’m sure will be a fun talk. I feel like the radio program is nostalgia in action, going back to a time when we devoted an hour or two to meaningful conversation—versus trying to cram it all into a tweet.

    And finally, one of my most embarrassing moments ever came from supposed multitasking gone awry. There’s more at

    Keep up the good work!


    Maureen: I’m glad you did mention it! I was thinking about you and our planned talk when I wrote the post. By the way, I love the answer you gave your attorney when you realized you were you. 😉


  • Hi Alex, I love your blog and read it every week. This week I have a question. I often decline invitations to do things that I just don’t think will be very fun for me, or which will interfere with things which are important to me, such as getting enough sleep every night. This makes me feel curmudgeonly. Am I falsely declining to do unfamiliar things out of a fear of change and novelty, preferring to do what I know, or am I actually making mindful choices about how I spend my time? How does a person tell the difference?

    Thank you!

    Claire: Great question. I think often we literally don’t know why we don’t want to do something, especially if psychological pressures we don’t want to acknowledge or simply don’t realize are in play are, in fact, in play. Just as we rarely do anything for only one reason, we rarely decline doing anything for only one reason. Defending one’s boundaries (like one’s sleep) may feel “curmudgeonly” but it sounds more likely that your values simply differ from the values of those doing the asking. I find in my own life that if I pay attention, I can tell the difference between genuine disinterest (say, in grocery shopping) compared to genuine fear of trying something new (say, vacationing in a third world country—which, by the way, I’ve done and loved!). Even if you are refusing certain things out of fear, it’s always and only your decision to challenge it. Some fears are more “happiness restricting” than others. Choose your battles carefully. And of course always realize that sometimes your fears are legitimate (you may decline skydiving because the risks just aren’t worth the rewards for you). Seems to me the fears to challenge are the ones you find yourself feeling at a greater level of intensity than seem warranted. Hope that was more helpful than confusing.


  • It’s a pleasure I look forward to each week to read your well-written blog, and to follow the thoughtful comments of your intelligent, and, thankfully, non-combative readers through the following week. A port in the stormy internet.
    Thank you.

  • Hi Alex. Another great post. One strategy that has worked for me in making it easier to say no (and avoid drama and prolonged discussion) is to stay mindful in the moment that one need not justify one’s refusal. So often, the person who asks for your time, money, or other commitment will ask you to justify your initial “no” with a form of a “why” question or an argument why doing what they want you to do is a worthy or “right” thing to do. Recognizing that we needn’t justify our decision to say “no,” or to counter their argument concerning the rightness of their request, makes it easier to stick to your original response. If, in the moment, we can resist the temptation to justify our position, and do so in a compassionate way, a lot of turmoil is avoided and our time remains out own. So say “no” with a smile and good wishes for whatever they are doing. FWIW. Cheers!

    Glenn: That’s outstanding advice. Thanks for contributing.


  • Alex,

    Very well done. Lately I’ve been trying to manage my time so I could be more productive and be eventually happy because I know if I have accomplished something I really want to, I’d be very happy. I just need to focus on the things that matters most and not be sidetracked by the little things.


  • Dr Lickerman,
    I have been reading you blogs for a few months now and after this one especially, I thought it was time I thanked for your intelligent, very insightful and relevant posts. Like a good friend, clear and succinct, difficult to find.

    Camy: Thank you for such kind words.


  • […] may feel over requiring you to care for them.  So figure out whatever you need to do to maintain balance—a daily walk by yourself, a good book to enjoy at the end of the day, an occasional movie—and […]