This week I’m turning my attention to reciprocity. Again, this subject is much bigger than one post, so I’m breaking it into smaller pieces, just as I did with boundaries. For me, reciprocity describes a specific aspect of a larger subject: Balance.
Balance is, according to a quick internet search, “a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.” I’m constantly running into articles, blogs, books, opinions and speakers who talk about balance. It’s an important concept these days: Balancing family and jobs, balancing creative life with paying-the-bills-life, balancing technology with face-to-face connection, balancing our diet (and our bathroom scales), balancing our exercise, balancing our time and our checkbooks. With so much discussion out there, I wonder why many of us are so remarkably bad at it.
I think finding balance requires two things. The first is clarity — the willingness to look honestly at our lives and our choices. The second is taking responsibility for the fact that we do make choices.
I don’t know a soul who finds either one of these easy, and I also don’t know anyone who always feels great about the balance in their lives, in spite of what they may say.
Note in the definition above the language “correct proportions.” What are the correct proportions? You tell me. Are you happy? Are you healthy? Do you find your life meaningful? Do you enjoy your home, your relationships, your work, a good night’s sleep? If the answer is no, and you want things to be different, I suggest you work with the idea of balance.
It so happens I came across a great exercise for this years ago in a book called Home Sanctuary by Nicole Marcelis. I was just out of an abusive marriage and this book became an important part of reclaiming myself, my life and my home. In it, there’s a chapter on balance.
The exercise asks you to make a pie chart and consider each piece of your life, calculating how much of the pie that piece takes up. Yes, you include sleep. You can make a pie chart for a day, a week, a month, or any increment of time you choose. Then, if you like, you can take each piece of that first pie chart and make another pie chart. If one of your pieces is parenting, for example, you might break parenting down into playtime, laundry time, cooking and food time, taking walks, reading aloud, visiting doctors, etc.
This exercise has absolutely no value (except to let you play with big pieces of paper and crayons) if you’re not willing to do it honestly. I, for example, am a solitaire junkie. I can play solitaire on this laptop for hours. Literally. Whenever I’m upset, or bored, or trying to regulate my feelings, I play solitaire. I feel like it soothes my anxiety when all the cards fall into neat little piles. I tell myself (and others) I’m planning what to write, or making a grocery list or writing an email, but that’s just bullshit. I’m playing solitaire and I’m feeling numb.
A game or two of solitaire is not a problem. I don’t feel ashamed. An hour or two is getting out of control. Three or four hours and I’m hiding it from my family. I do feel ashamed. I have a partner, a blog, a job, and I’m writing a book. I live in a beautiful place and love to be outdoors. What’s up with sitting for hours playing solitaire? Something is wrong. I’m out of balance.
Don’t be a weasel with this. Watching TV with your mate does not count as quality relationship time. Watching TV with your kids is not great parenting time. Don’t lie to yourself about your relationships. Connection time has to be connecting for everyone involved. Family mealtime is nothing but a sham if someone spends it on their tech device or you’re glued to the TV. (No, news isn’t different than a sitcom!) That goes in your tech or TV slice of the pie. You have to come clean with yourself in order to make real changes.
The thing about balance is it’s dynamic. What’s balance for this day won’t be the same for another day. As we stand upright we’re using countless muscles, nerves and our senses to maintain our balance and proprioception. Balance in our lives is the same way. It’s so easy to get off balance, but the good news is one can regain it nearly as quickly.
But only if you’re willing to be honest and claim your power to make choices.
This exercise is fascinating. What I realized was I didn’t really know what I was doing with my time. When you actually count the hours you spend doing whatever you’re doing, it can be a real eye opener. When you’re finished playing with paper and crayons and you look at your life through the lens of these pie charts, then it’s time for some hard questions. Does the way you choose to spend your time reflect your priorities? If you say your family is your priority and 80% of your pie chart is spent working (yes, commuting counts!), then you’re out of balance and you’re also not being honest. If you love the outdoors and want to be exercising more but you don’t because you’re couch locked in front of the TV, you’re out of balance. (Watching Planet Earth doesn’t count.)
The exercise is entirely flexible. It works with any resource, not just time. For example, you can do it with energy. Is there a connection or relationship in your life that demands all your energy? Are you getting as much as you’re giving? Are there other relationships that nurture and reward you that you’d rather be spending time in, but you can’t because you’ve got this vampire attached to your jugular vein?
How about money? Most of us have budgeted at one time or another. Tell me, friend, how much money do you spend on cigarettes? On drugs? On beer? On shoes? Cable TV? Can you buy food? Are your bills paid? Are you working at a job you hate because you need the money in order to support your habits — and are those habits making you happy and healthy?
We all have the same 24 hours in any given day, and we all choose what to do with those hours. This is not so much about making “right” or “wrong” choices as it is about realizing we are making choices. Nobody makes us watch four hours of TV every evening. If we’re longing to do creative work and we tell ourselves and the world we haven’t time for it, all we’re really saying is we lack the will to make it so. Why not be honest and say we’re too afraid to try, or we’ve given our power to someone else, and they say we can’t, or we’re an addict and our addiction has our power?
If you made a pie chart of the kind of life you want to have, with the perfect balance for your needs, how different would it be from what your life is now? What needs to happen to make changes? What can you excise from your present chart in order to free up time/energy/money/life?
Make no mistake, this exercise takes an enormous amount of courage, but the payoff is powerful. I revisit it now and then, just because I like to keep track of what I’m up to, and I want to know my choices are reflecting my priorities. I also note I’ve told people about this exercise, two of whom seemed to have no life outside of work and unhappy partners, and one who spent hours of screen time every day, both TV and computer, but talked about doing all kinds of fun things in the real world. I even loaned my book to one of them. None of them had time for clarity, change or choices.
(This is the first post in a series of 4. See also Parts 2, 3, and 4.)
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