Finding balance is one of my primary goals in life, and I suspect plenty of other people share that goal. Balance isn’t something that you achieve once, and then you’re done forever. Balance is something that you have to work at on a daily basis.
Lots of things can throw our lives out of balance; in fact, much of society is built specifically to lead us toward an unbalanced life because putting too much time, energy, money, or any combination of those into something nearly always benefits someone else.
Spending too much money on unhealthy foods benefits the companies selling those foods, so we see advertisements all the time trying to entice us to buy more. Working too hard benefits your employer, so they often ask us to stay late and work weekends. There are a lot of incentives out there pushing us to live an unbalanced life.
But fighting back is worth it. Striving for balance helps to prevent burnout, fatigue, and that terrible cycle of working way too hard and then spending several days doing nothing. A balanced life enables you to find inner peace and live a steady life, without the exhausting highs and lows. When your life is balanced, you benefit from having lower stress levels and more time to do the things you love.
Balance just feels good.
7 Signs That Your Life Is Out of Balance
1. Falling into a cycle of several productive days followed by several days where you barely have the energy to do even the basics.
It took me a long time to realize that this was happening in my own life, and I suspect it’s fairly common, as it’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
It starts with a few days (or even a few weeks) of high productivity. In my life, that means 3-5 hours a day of writing, a few more hours of other types of work, and usually, a mini cleaning marathon done at a sprint pace. For some, that may include things like very strict eating habits, working out more often than usual, or decluttering and reorganizing large sections of your house on a whim.
Then comes the slump. Maybe it manifests as physical exhaustion, mental exhaustion, emotional exhaustion, or a combination of all three. It shows up in ways like having a more difficult time than usual getting out of bed, decreased willpower, increased consumption of unhealthy foods, and more time spent aimlessly scrolling through the internet.
In short, this cycle of too high productivity that causes a slump, which is followed by more productivity, often in an attempt to catch up or make up for the slump, is often a sign of lack of balance.
2. Feeling Irritated
Taking on too much work or pushing yourself too hard leads to feeling pressured and stressed. Pressure and stress often lead to a shortened temper, racing thoughts, and less patience for the things and people around you.
If you find yourself getting worked up over things that typically wouldn’t bother you and putting too much energy into fighting battles that don’t matter, it’s likely a symptom of your life being out of balance.
It can take some careful mindfulness to become aware of increased irritation, but developing that mindfulness is worth it. The earlier you can catch yourself when you’re losing your sense of balance, the easier it will be to correct.
3. You can’t remember the last time that you did something just because you enjoy it.
Whether it’s reading a book for pleasure, eating a great meal, sleeping in on a Saturday, going shopping with your best friend, or immersing yourself in your favorite music, an essential part of balance is taking time to do the little things that you love.
The little moments of joy are often the first to go when we become too busy with life’s other demands or when our priorities are out of order. Often we put the demands of others above our own needs, or get lazy and waste time doing things that don’t bring us joy but also don’t require any effort. If you aren’t regularly taking time to do the things that bring you happiness, that’s a strong indicator that your life is lacking balance.
4. Similarly, you can’t remember the last time you treated yourself.
I’m not much of a “treat yo’self” person, but taking care of your present-day self and occasionally prioritizing them over that future self that I talk about is a part of maintaining balance.
This is one that I struggle with often. I tend to want to push myself harder and harder and never spend money on myself today in favor of having more savings and results in the future. Obviously, it’s important not to screw over your future self, but that doesn’t mean your present self can’t enjoy life as well.
If you’re always choosing your future happiness over your present wellbeing and joy, it may be a sign that your life is out of balance. You deserve occasional treats.
5. Feeling unable to relax
Maybe you have downtime scheduled into your day, but when that time comes, you continue to think about whatever it is that you had been working on. Or you continue to plan for whatever’s coming next. Work-life balance especially means not only physically leaving your workplace and stepping away from your laptop, but also resting your mind and thinking about things other than work.
If you find yourself unable to concentrate on whatever you’re doing to relax—reading, watching Netflix, hanging out with friends—and instead find your mind is still stuck worrying, planning, or thinking about work, this is a sign of a lack of balance.
Similarly, if you feel you don’t have time to relax because you have more work than you have time for, and you have to continue working as much as possible or you’ll end up swamped, that is definitely a sign that your life is unbalanced—though I probably didn’t need to tell you that.
6. You can’t remember the last time that you hit a goal or milestone.
This could mean one of several things. It may mean that you aren’t working hard enough. Yes, many of the items on this list are signs that your work life is overtaking your ability to relax and enjoy life, but sometimes, life can become unbalanced when we spend too much time relaxing.
I’m not necessarily talking about work-related goals here, either. If you’d like to have work-related goals, that’s fine, but what I’m primarily talking about when I talk about goals and milestones are your passions. Putting time and effort into your passions is a key part of attaining balance and one that is often overlooked.
Being unable to remember the last time that you hit a milestone could also mean that you’re using the wrong strategies or working toward the wrong goals. This isn’t so much a sign of lack of balance as it is a sign of lack of focus and self-reflection. But that’s a topic for another post.
Often, though, going for long stretches of time without accomplishing any goals, even small ones, is a sign of lack of balance. It’s telling you that your efforts aren’t focused on the right things.
7. Poor self-control
If you find yourself suddenly indulging more than you typically would or can afford do—things like spending more money, not exercising anymore, or binge eating—this is frequently a sign of stress and imbalance.
When we’re feeling out of balance, our willpower plummets. We give into temptations that we would otherwise be able to resist, we stop prioritizing our futures, and we turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Rather than being unable to relax, we may not be able to do anything productive as we’ve spent so much time and effort working that we’re too tired to do anything but give in to the things we want. Finding balance again will help you strengthen your self-control and self-discipline.
10 Ways to Find More Balance
1. Start small.
If you’re stuck in that cycle of high productivity followed by a slump, as you’re coming out of the slump, you’ve got a perfect opportunity to break the cycle. Rather than going all out and trying to be super productive to “catch up” to where you think you should be, ease back into it.
Going full force is likely to cause you to burn out again and continue the cycle. Remember that productivity and self-discipline are a marathon, not a sprint. They’re things that you want to do slowly, but consistently, in order to get the best results.
Don’t pack your schedule full. Schedule time to relax. Scale back your habits and routines and focus on nailing just the basics. Steadily build up your routine over the course of a week or more until you find a limit that feels good without pushing yourself too hard. If you find yourself having a harder time than usual starting tasks and staying focused, that’s a sign that you’re pushing too hard and need to take a step back so it doesn’t turn into burnout again.
Keep in mind that it’s perfectly normal to be able to focus on mentally involved work for only two or three hours every day. It’s been drilled into us for our entire lives that seven to eight hours is what’s expected, but realistically, much of that time is wasted. Aim for two to three hours of good, solid focus, and then do lighter, easier tasks for the rest of the day. Pushing too hard leads to a productivity deficit, and you’ll likely have less productive days afterward to make up for it.
One of my favorite ways to reframe your thoughts is to turn, “I don’t have time,” into, “it’s not a priority right now.” Because, whether you realize it or not, the things that you choose to spend your time and energy on are your priorities.
It doesn’t matter if you say that exercise is more important than Netflix if you spend two hours a day watching Netflix and zero hours a day working out. What you say doesn’t matter. What you do matters. Clarifying your priorities and then aligning your actions with them brings balance. When your actions don’t align with your priorities, your life will inherently be out of balance.
While you’re determining your priorities, don’t forget self-care, rest and relaxation. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Taking care of yourself and your body is the most important thing you can do if you want to set yourself up for success in achieving your other goals.
3. Be mindful.
It’s much easier to maintain balance if you can catch yourself just as you’re slipping out of balance rather than after things have completely fallen apart. To catch yourself starting to slip, you have to be mindful.
Check in with yourself at least once a day. Take a few moments to notice how you’re feeling and what your mental and emotional states are trying to tell you. Be honest with yourself and really listen. It takes practice to notice the signs that you’re losing balance and figure out which moods have deeper meanings.
I incorporate these moments of mindfulness into both my morning and evening routines. I journal in the morning, which is useful for catching those things below the surface that I may not notice with a quick check-in. Journaling keeps me fully focused on what I’m feeling. Meditation is also a great way to bring intentional mindfulness into your life.
4. Give yourself permission to take breaks.
If your moments of mindfulness tell you that you’re losing your sense of balance, listen to them. Give yourself the okay to back off the gas a little.
When I notice that I’ve been pushing myself harder than I should and realize that I need to be conscious of what I’m doing so that I don't burn out, I let myself take some time to rest without guilt. Sometimes taking a day off from the gym to stay home, meditate for a while, and spend the morning reading is the way to go because if I’ll end up overworked if I keep pushing myself.
It’s okay to take small and intentional breaks to keep yourself on track. It’s better to take one day off with intention than to push through when you need to rest and end up taking five days off in the future because you’re so exhausted. When you notice you’re starting to lose focus, take a break. I’d rather use those five days off for a good vacation somewhere sunny anyway.
5. Plan it out.
I know that if I don’t put relaxation time on my calendar, I’m unlikely to do it, and if I do decide to take a break, I’ll probably feel guilty about it. Putting break time on my calendar shows me that I do have time for those breaks and that I won’t fall behind from taking a break.
Scheduling my break time also helps me to turn off my work-brain and let me fully relax when the time comes. When my calendar says it’s time for a break, it flips a mental switch that says, “okay, work is over. Now is scheduled as reading time; focus on reading,” and I can leave the work at work.
Planning out your breaks makes sure that they fit into a busy schedule. There are busy days where it’s go, go, go until suddenly it’s 9 p.m. and you haven’t stopped moving in 12 hours or eaten since noon. Scheduling downtime into your day helps you to at least attempt to have a balanced day.
6. Use your time and energy efficiently, and know when it’s time to quit.
One of the things that I hated the most about my last job was that the office culture was one of staying in the building for 12+ hours but doing mediocre work the whole time because everyone was exhausted. I would've much preferred the usual 8 hours or less each day, because this facilitates high quality work during that time because people feel energized and able to concentrate.
After a few hours of work, your efficiency, accuracy, creativity, and problem-solving skills all start to weaken because you’re tired. Very, very, very few people can write good code (or whatever you do—I was a dev) for more than a few hours. At that point, it’s time to take a break and recover because you use your time most efficiently and produce the best work when you’re feeling energized and focused.
Pushing for long hours is rarely the best way to produce quality work, but for some people, the ability to keep going endlessly has become a point of pride. This creates imbalance, not to mention shoddy work. Exhaustion causes people to make stupid mistakes.
If you get stuck or frustrated after working at something for a while, that means it’s time to take a break. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably have a pretty easy time solving the problem when you come back to it feeling rested. Knowing when to quit, sleep on the problem, and return to it the next day is an essential part of using your time and energy efficiently.
7. Keep the parable of the two woodcutters in mind.
This has been surprisingly valuable for me to remember. The parable of the two woodcutters goes like this:
Two woodcutters were competing against each other as to who could chop down the most trees in a day. Both started hacking away within earshot of each other. After an hour, Sam stopped. Fred was puzzled but carried on chopping.
Five minutes later, he could again hear the swing of Sam’s axe. Another hour went by, and Sam again seemed to stop chopping for a few minutes. Fred was thrilled. He became more confident that he would win.
So he kept chopping away, pausing now and again to wipe away the perspiration from his forehead. Sam’s “start and stop” continued for the rest of the day, and Fred’s delight grew.
At the end of the day, however, Fred was surprised to discover that Sam had felled more trees.
“How can this be? I never stopped chopping once but you kept taking a break!”
“Yes, but I stopped to sharpen my axe,” Sam replied.
If you’re anything like me, you want to keep pushing and pushing and pushing. In my mind, working harder is always the key to success. But that isn’t true. Neglecting to take care of yourself and your tools will make your work less efficient. Taking time to take breaks, rest, and recover will help you to achieve more in the long run because your tools are well maintained.
8. Know what energizes you.
For some people, sending emails is easy and doesn’t stress them out. For others, emails, despite typically not being difficult to write, are stressful and draining.
For some people, flexing their graphic design muscles to put together a gorgeous powerpoint gives them energy because it’s a task they enjoy working on. For others, putting together a powerpoint is the most boring, draining, dull thing they could spend time on.
Even though both of these tasks are typically pretty straightforward and easy to complete, different people will find themselves reacting differently to the work.
Know what types of work make you feel good and which kinds are draining. It’s okay if you find relatively simple tasks to be exhausting because you hate them or they stress you out. Similarly, you may find there are difficult tasks that you can work on for hours if you really love them.
It’s also possible to love a task but still find it draining. The only way to figure out how different tasks make you feel is to do them and observe your reaction.
Once you’ve figured out which activities you enjoy, are good at, and energize you, keep that in mind as you plan out your days. Interspersing those activities throughout your day can help you recover and recharge after doing something draining, which will help you maintain balance.
9. Know that balance looks different for everyone.
Gary V recently post (on LinkedIn, I think, but I can't find it. Sorry.) about how, for him, working long days is what he loves to do. In his life, that’s what balance looks like: lots of work. Similarly, my dad always says, “I don’t do ‘fun.’” He has no interest in things like traveling and other things many people do for enjoyment. He’s happier sitting at home working through the problems in my old Abstract Mathematics textbook. (Yes, I’m serious. My dad does math for fun.)
For others, balance may mean doing eight hours of work and then leaving that all behind at an office, or it may mean completing work in chunks of two to three hours before taking a longer break, but working later into the evening.
Pay attention to how you work. Notice when you feel your best, when you’re most productive and energized, and what kinds of activities you prefer to do in your downtime. Just because someone you look up to balances their life in a certain way doesn’t mean that that will work for you. Each person is different, and balance looks different for everyone. Figure out what works for you.
10. Say “no.”
“No.” is a full sentence. I’m granting you permission, starting now, to say no without explanation to anything that isn’t in line with your goals—though I’m going to remind you that keeping your job and not pissing off your boss are probably in line with your goals even if it’s not what you want to do at that moment.
Sometimes, though, maintaining balance does mean talking to your boss, professor, friends, family, whatever, and explaining what’s going on. Sometimes balance means taking a step back from everything that’s happening right now, and we can’t always do that without first talking to a few people.
Most people are more respectful and empathetic than you’d expect when it comes to our personal struggles to find balance. Talking it out and taking some things off of your plate is sometimes the best thing to do.
That said, I know this isn’t always possible. I’ve been screamed at by management for expressing concerns about work-life balance. Some workplaces claim that their employees’ mental health and personal lives are important, but in reality, the bottom line always comes first. If you’re in one of those situations, I empathize with you. Do your best, and take care of yourself.
Balance often means saying no to things, even things that we may want to do when we just don’t have the time—or energy. Just because there’s open space on your calendar doesn’t mean you have the energy to add more to your plate. It is okay to say no.
There you have it: 7 signs your life is out of balance and 10 ways to find balance again. Finding balance is difficult, and it’s something that we have to work at every day.
What are your favorite strategies for bringing balance into your life? Or, what are the signs that your life is becoming unbalanced? I’d love to hear in a comment so that we can all help each other find and maintain some semblance of balance in this crazy world.