The importance of a balanced life

tightrope-walker.jpgImage from Oxford Dictionaries

It can be tough trying to live a good life. Most of us want an existence that favours our own happiness and contentment, but struggle to achieve them, repeatedly falling off the proverbial wagon into gluttony, lethargy, burnout, or any other calamitous outcome. We can be way too hard on ourselves, pursuing idealistic lives that are wonderful in theory, but unrealistic in practice, with every failure followed by the harshest of self-criticism, and then dismal self-loathing. Voltaire famously said that “the best is the enemy of the good,” summing up perfectly what we should be aiming for—not perfection, but good.

This is the idea of living with balance—not an idealistic dream in which you exercise six times a week, eat only the healthiest of foods, and spend every spare minute learning, but a life in which you exercise just enough, eat healthy foods just enough, and spend just enough time expanding your brain. A balanced life is achievable because it acknowledges your weakness for couch-lounging, fatty foods and trashy entertainment, while recognising that you’re also making the effort to accomplish healthy goals. It’s the patient, sympathetic teacher that you had at school, as opposed to the cane-wielding psychopath who would happily tear shreds off you for the slightest indiscretion.

History is peppered with stories and philosophical concepts on the importance of living with balance. Greek mythology tells the tale of Icarus, a prisoner on the island of Crete whose father fashioned a pair of feathered wings in order to make their escape. He offered his son a stark warning: “don’t be complacent and fly too low, as you’ll drown in the sea. Also don’t get too cocky and fly too high, as the sun will melt your wings.” This is clear advice to maintain a balance between the two—the course in which both extremities are avoided, and survival is ensured. Icarus ignored his father, melted his wings in the heat of the sun, and drowned.

Greek philosophy offers us the golden meanadvising to navigate the desirable middle between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Socrates himself taught us that a man should know “how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible.” Buddhism has a similar concept—the middle way (samatā)—which states that nirvana can be achieved by walking the line between sensual indulgence and withdrawn asceticism—neither too much pleasure, or too little. There’s examples from Islam too, with theologian al-Ghazali believing that “what is wanted is a balance between extravagance and miserliness through moderation, with the goal of distance between both extremes.” Even the Temple of Apollo was inscribed with “nothing in excess.”

 

A balanced life is vital for happiness, so how does this translate for modern folk? There’s a few key areas things to consider.

Exercise

Unless you’re training for an ultra-marathon, you probably don’t need to run fifty miles a week. A common reason that people fail to maintain exercise habits is because they set the bar too high, filled with excited motivation during planning, but succumbing to crippling laziness when the time arrives. Starting small is a great way to build long-lasting habits—a short run a couple of times a week, with gradual increases of distance.

Exercise needs to be balanced with relaxation. Our muscles repair themselves when we’re resting, allowing us to recover for another session. Too much exercise will result in exhausted burn-out, and too much rest in negligent, wheezing infirmity. Exercise and rest go hand in hand, and we must find the right balance if we want to maintain excellent physical health.

Food

It’s obvious that you should take the advice of every doctor, nutritionist and personal trainer on the planet, and eat healthily. But unhealthy foods are damned delicious, and by depriving yourself of them all the time, you’re missing out on a great deal of joy (and mental health benefits). Extreme, unbalanced approaches usually end in failure—95% of people who undergo weight loss diets end up regaining the weight within 1-5 years. There’s also the risk of developing a debilitating eating disorder, which is eight times more likely for weight-loss dieters.

All you really need to do is make yourself a healthy eating plan that consists of actual food instead of pre-processed garbage, and allow yourself a few delicious treat meals to satiate your natural cravings. You’ll undoubtedly fall off the wagon, but provided you’re sticking to it for the most part, you’ll have a good balance between healthy and unhealthy food, without having to become a mini-Hitler and goose-step your way to failure.

Entertainment

When it comes to entertainment, we’re spoiled as toddlers at Christmas. Netflix offers us an immense selection of movies and shows across an eclectic range of genres, wrapped up in a user interface that is ridiculously easy to use. These days, we rarely have to wait from week-to-week to watch a TV season, instead slithering into our well-worn sagging spot on the sofa, and consuming the whole lot in the course of the day, only rising to grab food from our poorly underpaid Uber Eats driver.

Our phones are also brimming with entertainment—Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Candy Crush, Angry Birds, WhatsApp, Twitter—most of them designed to trigger our dopamine response, and keep us hooked.

There’s nothing wrong with a little entertainment, but when we spend large portions of our day mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, or sit for hours staring at trashy, mindless TV shows—glistening trails of drool running down our chins—we’re sacrificing precious time on activities that allow us to grow as humans: reading, writing, cooking, spending time with friends, meditation, hiking, painting, designing, or any other creative activity that requires patience and effort.

It’s vital that we become more conscious of how much time we spend entertaining ourselves with mindless junk, in order to create space for activities that make us more compelling, complex, and fufilled humans.

Relationships

Solid personal relationships are a key component of a happy life, with the potential to proffer us with extra years, fight off stress, and improve our immune system. Lonely people are more prone to depression, pain, fatigue, and tend to have higher blood pressure in later life.

We need good relationships if we want to be healthy, but it’s crucial that we carve out regular chunks of time for ourselves, so that we maintain a sense of freedom. Being in a stifling relationship—in which your partner or friend is so reliant on you that they’d crumble into dust on your departure—can have the unfortunate effect of making us feel like a superior parent, rather than an equal. Time spent with friends must be balanced with time spent for ourselves—there’s nothing wrong with rejecting a social invite if you’d rather stay at home and finish off the bewitching book that you’ve been reading.

Work

Unless you truly love your work, or are temporarily under pressure to get something done, every additional hour spent at the office is wasted time that could be spent on activities that actually make your heart sing. You probably don’t need to work until 7pm every night in the hope that your boss with lavish you with additional riches, because believe it or not, more money can actually damage your good character.

A good work/life balance will help to keep your stress levels in check, while furnishing you with the time needed to pursue habits that are good for your wellbeing, not just your wallet.

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A good life is achievable, we just need to construct and maintain a careful harmony between the various aspects of our lives—a juggling act that requires practice, and regular assessment. Living with balance is allowing yourself to indulge in unhealthy pleasures, comfortable in the knowledge that you’re regularly doing the right thing, and so staving off shame-inducing guilt. Instead of a rigid strictness—highly tense and susceptible to breakage—living with balance makes us softer, more agreeable, and more likely to achieve the goals that we set for ourselves, giving us the breathing room that we need to be healthier, happier humans.

How to beat procrastination

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 6.31.44 pmPhoto from My Time News

Excessive procrastination is a sure-fire way to fuck up your life. Every time we put off the difficult and worthy thing in front of us, we’re walking the path of a trembling coward, destined not for excellence, but mediocrity. Life is full of growth-packed challenges, and if we consistently lack the courage to tackle them with immediate, unrelenting perseverance, then precious time is being thrown to the wind, and our habit of putting things off is a little more bolstered.

We procrastinate because we don’t want to feel stupid, to experience that distressing feeling of confusion, sitting there immobilised, waiting for your colleagues to start questioning your competency. We procrastinate because we fear failure, of ballsing something up so badly that our reputation is forever tarnished, waiting for the imminent invite to our boss’ office where we’ll be ruthlessly sacked. We procrastinate because we’ve been taught from a young age that unbroken happiness is a birthright, and in our foolish entitlement, can’t understand why we ever have to experience negative emotion. We procrastinate because it’s a deeply ingrained habit, which is fucking difficult to overcome.

Whatever your reasons might be, you have the ability to change. Insidious bad habits are formed over time, and just need to be replaced with a more positive habit. In the case of procrastination, it’s simply getting on with it. Those who appear brave aren’t fearless, they just continue despite their fear.

Here’s some ways in which you can defeat procrastination:

Learn how to catch yourself

One of the more difficult obstacles to overcome is catching yourself in the act of procrastination. Auto-pilot is great when we’re kicking goals, but not so great if we’re checking our Facebook feed for the 20th time that day, in an attempt to delay a painfully challenging task. You can fortify your conscious attention through mindfulness meditation, an exercise that is brimming with amazing benefits. The more mindful you become, the less time you’ll waste on valueless pursuits.

Murder distractions

Don’t literally kill your colleagues, however much you might want to. Instead, purchase a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, to blissfully drown them out. Close the 50 tabs that you have open in Chrome, to bring your focus to the single important thing that you have to do. Use Block Site to prevent your future-self from sabotaging your success, by disabling all of the distractions that you love to undertake. Temporarily murder anything that might send you a notification, including your emails, messaging apps, social media, and carrier pigeons. Those dirty, head-bobbing grey bastards will have to wait a couple of hours to coo in your ear.

Do a little dance, make a little love

It’s easy to get caught up in a perpetual cycle of hard-work, and not celebrate our achievements. Missing out this important step can make you feel like a forsaken slave, destined for a life of servitude. The next time you accomplish a formidable thing, leap from your desk like a spirit-possessed Evangelical Christian, and praise Jesus for your success. If you’re a little less unhinged, you might consider quietly smiling to yourself, acknowledging the fact that you’ve knuckled down and got the job done.

Don’t believe your own stories

Convinced you’re going to fail? That’s just a story that you’re telling yourself, and nothing more. Whether you choose to believe that story is entirely up to you, and it can be the difference between just getting the fuck on with it, or more procrastination. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – a relatively new field of behavioural therapy – have a method called cognitive defusion in which you can alter your relationship with such destructive thoughts.

Take the hardest step

The first step is always the hardest. Sometimes the task in front of us can appear unsurmountable, but this is just fear whispering into your earholes. Taking the first step launches a momentum that might sustain you through to the end of the challenge. You’ll be too busy getting on with the exercise to worry about failing. Try not to hesitate, just jump right in and see what happens. You’ll quickly realise that it isn’t that scary.

If the task in front of you really is mammoth, consider breaking it down into more manageable chunks. This will make it much easier to start.

Take it easy on yourself

Understand that you’re going to fail, repeatedly. A deep-seated habit isn’t going to be replaced with ease. This process will be hard work, and without a little self-compassion, you’ll be punishing yourself unnecessarily. Respond to failures with kindness, and your motivation to doggedly return to the task will be enhanced. Unless you’re a PVC-clad masochist, stop whipping yourself.

Consider why you’re procrastinating

You might be procrastinating because you see no value in what you’re putting off. Maybe, like so many of us, you’re in a job that’s about as enjoyable as stepping on lego. Without a sense of personal meaning for the task, your motivation is bound to be stunted. Perhaps it’s finally time to discover your passion and move onto another job?

Slow down

Pull the reigns on those horses of yours, so that you may savour your time instead of manically rushing through it. It’s difficult to experience something at breakneck speed, not to mention stressful. Paradoxical as it may seem, we’re more happy and productive if we slow down.

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With the right tools and a lot of effort, you can finally tame the voracious beast that is procrastination, transforming your day from one of forlorn bitterness, to air-punching, rip-roaring achievement.

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The trouble with expectations

One of humanity’s greatest feats is our ability to predict the future. Like star-emblazoned, crystal-wielding psychics, we can consider the elements of a situation and conjure up a relatively accurate forecast. This propels us towards things that are likely to be rewarding, or retract from what’s damaging, like Homer gently reversing into an immersive hedge. The ability to envision and expect outcomes is one of the main reasons we’re such a successful species. But wonderful as it is, it comes with some pretty big drawbacks.

As much as we’d like to be hocus-pocus prophesiers of the future, our crystal balls aren’t particularly clear. Expected outcomes are often wildly incorrect, and we writhe in pain instead of celebrating success. The problem is that the world is damned complicated – there’s way too many variables for our simple minds to compute in order to make fool-proof, diamond-studded predictions. Constant failure to foresee the future is inevitable, and learning how to accept that is one of the greatest skills you can master.

Holding tightly to expectations can cause much damage in our lives. We become so hypnotically focused on the outcome, acquire such a degree of tunnel vision, that we end up missing much of the experience. Our senses are trained solely on the future, numb to what’s happening here and now, which is the part that really counts. By clinging to desired outcomes, you’re missing out on the adventure itself, like trekking to the dizzying heights of Mount Everest with your eyes closed, and only opening them when you reach the top. This kind of goal-focused behaviour is necessary,  affecting brain processes such as attention, interpretation and memory, but when we become overly attached to the end result, we’re reducing the excitement in our lives, and permeating it with disappointment.

Think of a time that your usually-outstanding partner does something to piss you off. There’s a good chance that your annoyance was caused by an expectation of how they should be behaving. But you can’t control what they do, no matter how satisfying that might be. In fact, knowing how your partner is going to act all the time would be tantamount to standing in the world’s longest post-office queue – boring beyond belief. Much of life’s excitement comes from surprise. Hopefully, the person who you choose to spend your life with has a unique and compelling mind of their own, so they’re always going to do things that don’t meet your expectations.

Exercise regimes are another expectation-clad occurrence. The chimes of Big Ben have hardly stopped reverberating before we’re swearing an oath to develop a body better than Arnie and Dwayne Johnson’s lovechild. The surge of motivation that we feel after our declaration rarely persists into the future, and before you know it we’re slumped across the couch, stuffing an endless amount of cumberland sausages into our fat mouths.

Our daily output at work is also suffused with expectation. No matter how hard we try to create timeless masterpieces, sometimes we end up with uninspiring mediocrity. Failure is just as important as success when trying to improve. Wallowing in the aftermath of an unmet expectation is immature and foolish; you’re clinging onto the unrealistic idea that your foresight is infallible. You can’t always get what you want. Those boozy angels knew what was going on:

“Expectations are premeditated resentments” – Alcoholics Anonymous

Life is much easier if we go with the flow. Instead of balking at an unanticipated, dissatisfying outcome, remind yourself that the future isn’t unreservedly predictable, and that it would be extremely boring if it were. Existence and all that it entails is a weird and wondrous adventure, cannoning down a white-water river in a vessel that can sometimes be controlled, and sometimes not.

“Those who flow as life flows know they need no other force.” ― Lao Tzu

If this blog hasn’t been persuasive enough to convince you to casually shrug off unmet expectations, then maybe the world’s greatest basketball-dunking werewolf can:

“My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations.” – Michael J. Fox

The next time things don’t work out the way you expect, leave your dismay at the door, and let go of what you can’t control.

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Why we fail to improve

When it comes to non-habitual behaviours, most of us are terrible at sticking to our guns. Science has revealed routines that are proven to make us happier (exercise, meditation, a healthy diet, etc.), and yet we repeatedly fail to put these into practice, despite fully comprehending the long-term benefits. Why do we screw up so much?

There’s a few reasons, and most of them aren’t our fault.

As with every other living thing on Earth, we’re the products of evolution. Over the course of 4 billion years, our two main concerns were surviving, and procreating. These have been of vital importance for billions of years, and our brains have evolved to respond fiercely to them. Nowadays, when we see a pretty girl with a muffin, it’s a wonder we don’t trample her to death.

The more recent development of the pre-frontal cortex serves to regulate our behaviour (among other things), and this is why we’re so conflicted. The ancient, primal parts of our brains want to eat and fuck everything in sight, and the modern parts attempt to remind us that those things aren’t always our best options. We ultimately have two minds, often engaged in bloody battle. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt created a fantastic metaphor for this, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis:

“The image I came up with for myself, as I marvelled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.” – Jonathan Haidt

The elephant is very much in control. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves after gobbling down an unintentional doughnut.

In addition to battling against a burly, be-trunked mammal, we’re also up against the brain’s tendency to form habits. Repeating an action and having it engrained into your mind as a habit is a wonderfully useful technique, until it happens for an undesirable action, such as consuming a fistful of Lindt balls. Every time our willpower fails and we do something harmful to our long-term health, that destructive habit becomes a little stronger. This is probably the biggest cause of failure for us.

Even when we do have a moment of strength and hold fast against our habituated primal desires, we’re using a precious reserve of willpower which depletes over the course of the day. The cookie that we defy in the morning takes on an especially delicious glow by afternoon.

The internet and social media are also to blame. We live in an age of instant gratification – social media apps are designed to hack our reward system, turning us into addicts who start twitching unless we get our quick-fix daily memes. We want a million delightful things at once, and we don’t want to put any effort into them. As a result, resisting what’s harmful is becoming much more difficult.

It’s not all doom and gloom, we just need to learn how to build better habits. This is one of the most important skills you can develop; Leo Babauta offers immensely helpful advice on in his blog Zen Habits. He suggests starting extremely small, and working your way up. You won’t develop a running habit if you tell yourself you’re going to run 10km every day. Neither will you be able to completely stop eating sugary treats. This is setting yourself up to fail. You need to give yourself a lot of leeway to begin with, and make slow, incremental improvements. Remember that the elephant is in control most of the time.

Another suggestion is to only focus on a single habit at a time. Figure out what it is that bothers you the most – the one thing that you’d love to start doing – and put all of your effort into that sole habit. You won’t be able to change ten things at a time; you’ll flounder and then feel terrible afterwards because you’ve failed again. Once your new habit is embedded, move onto the next. This is a process that might take years; prepare yourself for a lot of hard work. Realise that you’ll still mess up from time to time, and all that is required is to pick up where you left off.

Lastly, celebrating your success is key. Instead of focusing on what you’ve failed at, look to what you’ve achieved. Illuminate your accomplishments; remind yourself that you’re triumphing over something that you’ve flopped at for years. This will give you the motivation you need to continue.

By slowly building good habits, we can all gain a little more mastery over our elephants.

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