On Balance

Why is balance so hard to achieve?

On Balance | Anything You Want, A Personal Finance Blog

During my summer in Europe, let’s just say that I ate a few too many pastries. As I sit here writing this, my pants are just a bit too tight. It’s got me thinking about two things.

First, capsule wardrobes. When you’re feeling a bit out of shape, don’t you just want to reach for the same five outfits that make you feel great? Which makes me think I should really be wearing those things that make me feel great all the time. But this is a topic for another day.

Second, balance. Balance is such a tricky thing, and I think finding balance in health (food/exercise) and money are similarly elusive. At least for me. I either eat all the things or next to nothing. I work out every day or never. I buy everything or save all my money. Why is it so hard to reach a happy, sustainable middle ground?

One of my primary goals with this blog is to help people (myself included!) find balance when it comes to money. I’m not trying to promote extreme frugality, early retirement, or rapid debt payoff (although I completely respect the myriad blogs out there that are). I’m trying to find a balanced, sustainable approach to money that will work for me in the long term, and that will allow me to live a happy life both today and in the future.

Extremes seem easier, but aren’t sustainable

I have always been a person who likes to play by the rules. Set up a framework and I will do everything within my power to stay within it. I think this is why I like to set up my own rules or guidelines in my life. “This month, I’m going to work out every day.” “I’m going to stop eating food with preservatives in them.” “I’m going to save half of my income this year.” I make these rules for myself all the time. What can I say, I’m a sucker for self-improvement.

These are great goals, but let’s face it, they are extreme. It is easy to make these rules but very, very hard to follow through on them. When you set firm rules like this, it is easy to slip just a little. Once you slip just a little, it is easy to say “screw it” and let yourself slip a lot. This is why extremes aren’t sustainable. Without balance, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

And let’s look at the flip side. The extreme I’ve been dealing with lately is eating everything. I’ve definitely had the “I’m on vacation so it’s OK” excuse going on. But after a certain point, even indulging by eating anything I want stops feeling good. And with that, I start to swing in the other extreme direction. Extreme begets extreme.

It is hard to follow rules that are flexible

After I set these strict rules and then fail to follow them, I often recalibrate and try to set a more manageable framework. I try to set balanced goals that will be sustainable in the long term. “I’m going to work out more.” “I’m going to reduce preservative intake.” “I’m going to cut back on eating out to save money.” I tell myself that these are lifestyle changes, that I’ll take baby steps and work towards my more extreme goals.

The problem is that these more flexible rules are also hard to follow because they’re so flexible. If I say I’m going to work out more, that means that I need to work out sometimes but not all the time. That gives me an easy out on a day when I’m a little tired, and again the slippery slope begins. The lack of a measurable metric also makes me less motivated and therefore more likely to revert to old, unbalanced habits.

Achieving balance involves refining your habits

I think that the key to finding balance, in health and in money, is gradual change over time that leads to new, more balanced habits. The hard part about this is that it means that change won’t be quick. The good part is that it hopefully means that change will be sustainable. By taking small, measurable steps that lead towards better habits, I think it is possible to get yourself into a more balanced routine.

Of course it is important to recognize that this balance and the habits that support it need to change over time. At some point in time you might be more focused on health than money, or focused on some other area of your life altogether. I think that it is important to give a little in one area if you need to re-focus attention in another. The tricky part is not changing a good, balance habit altogether in pursuit of another.

How do you achieve balance in your life?


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34 thoughts on “On Balance

  1. Ali, this is a great. I’ve experienced the same challenges and found the same issues with big goals and strict plans. It always starts off great, but eventually you slip a bit, then some more. Eventually you fall off the plan completely and hit a depressing failure moment.

    Have you read about BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habit method? He’s the founder of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab and a big influence on what we are building at Tip Yourself.

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  2. Balance is so tricky. Obviously, I have none when it comes to “stuff.” But in terms of diet and fitness and other things that I’m not so bad at, I find it a lot easier to set firm rules and build positive habits one by one. In terms of cutting out bad habits, though, I find I’m much more effective if I try to tackle them in sets. I can’t imagine the amount of willpower and dedication it would take to reset after a fabulous summer-long trip, though. Kudos to you!

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    • I have read a few things about trying to group together certain habits into sets, and supposedly it helps more firmly ingrain the habit and somehow therefore make it easier to adopt. Perhaps I’ll have to give that a try!

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  3. That’s a good question! I’m a Libra so by nature I think I crave balance. To me the effort to achieve it is well worth it because it doesn’t take much to swing the other way and feel crappy, tired, lethargic, broke, etc. I know the feeling well enough to want to avoid it.

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    • Feeling imbalanced is a great motivator to find more balance. I’ve definitely been more motivated lately because I’ve also been feeling tired and lethargic due to my unbalanced diet.

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  4. Whether we outwardly express it or not, we are all emotional beings. I believe that’s one of the main reasons why it is so easy to be all over the place. As our emotions change over the course of a day or a few weeks or months so to do our ambitions, desire, discipline, etc. That’s why it is so easy to go from one extreme to another.

    I agree, finding balance is key. Even that can be tough though!

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    • You’re right, I think the swings from one extreme to the other are very tied in with emotions. My hope is that by setting up sustainable habits, I’ll be able to stick with those habits even when emotions get the best of me.

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  5. I’m a big believer in small steps and sustainable change! I feel like my exercise habit is established but I’m working on decluttering, meal planning and eventually budgeting! I would love to have a completely decluttered home in 30 days but I know that’s not actually realistic or sustainable!

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    • That is great that you have good exercise habits. I think if you’ve already managed to create healthy habits in one area of your life, it will be that much easier to do so in other areas, too.

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  6. Loved this post! I think that balance is key to enjoying and being successful in anything in life. I used to try to go to extreme measures with dieting and exercise and found that it didn’t really work well for me, because as soon as I “fell off the wagon”, it was like a free for all and I was just completely discouraged by the whole thing. I am much more successful in reaching my goals when I feel more balanced and don’t take things to the extreme either. Baby steps is key too!

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  7. “It is hard to follow rules that are flexible” — I think that is the key. I started working out when I graduated college and fast forward 30 years later, I still workout about 5 times a week. I just make it part of my day, first thing in the morning so that I don’t talk myself out of it!

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  8. I can absolutely relate to your current “I’m on vacation it’s okay” mood. I just started to get back on track after my birthday month of “Eat everything! It’s your birthday!”

    Thanks for the great advice. I do believe sustainable change happen in small steps over time 🙂

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  9. Excellent point about not just taking small, but MEASURABLE steps. I have struggled with balance in the past and continue to this day. One of the biggest issues for me is trying to cram in all my side hustle stuff along with everything else I need to get done in my “free time.” I also think sometimes you need to throw balance out the window and go to an extreme but….like you said, it’s unsustainable. I think a season of being out of balance isn’t bad, as long as you recognize the need to recalibrate at some point.

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    • That is a good point about going to extremes on occasion. I agree that sometimes it is good (or necessary) to be “extreme” in one area of your life for a time. But I think that even in that you need to find balance, allowing yourself a little extra free time once your time of extreme business (or whatever it is) winds down.

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  10. I agree with the small steps to change your habits. I like to think of it as more of a lifestyle change, though. By picturing it that way, I view it as a more permanent change than “habit”, which screams temporary to me. However, have you read “The Power of Habit”? It shows just how powerful habit changes can be. Good write up!

    -DP

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    • I haven’t read The Power of Habit – i’ll have to check it out! That is an interesting distinction that you draw between a lifestyle change and a habit. To me, a habit is something that is incorporated into your lifestyle, but if thinking of change as lifestyle changes works best for you, go with it!

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  11. Sandy says:

    Ali, your blog reflects my lifetime struggle with balance. When I was young it was easier to “deprive myself” and balance food intake for example. As one gets older and life changes, ie children, marriage, etc., there are times that any balance goes out the window, especially when one is just trying to survive. And sometimes life just seems to “balance itself out”. Keep on thinking because it’s what you do best! Love your blogs. Aunt S

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    • Thanks!! Love your comments 🙂

      I agree, sometimes life just takes you over and balance goes out the window. I hope that by trying to get into a routine with balanced habits, when I get overtaken by life I’ll still be able to revert to those habits. We’ll see!

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  12. Wonderful post! I have a hard time with balance too. I find it easier to simply avoid temptations altogether instead of trying to balance them in “once in a while”. For example, I either need to eat no sweets ever or give up on trying to only have sweets “once in a while”. Also, I find it easier to simply workout every day no matter what than to miss a day (for any reason) and try to get going again.

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    • I agree that sometimes avoiding temptation altogether works best. For me, that is what I have to do if I want to cut back on shopping – no stores, no online deals, nothing.

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  13. Ali, I absolutely love this! Balance is the one key thing I am working on as well. What is the way I can focus on my health, finances, relationships, etc. so that they are all in sync? I find that if I focus too heavily on one of these aspects of life, the others seem to fall a little on the wayside. That sustainable approach is completely key because it will allow all those great habits to perpetuate throughout the rest of your life. I also think now (at 25) I am working on that balance to set up the foundation for what is to come in the years ahead. Potentially in 10 years I may switch my focus to one extreme (early retirement, etc.), but right now balance is the main focus! One thing I do to work on balance is maintaining an achievement journal (any type, whether work, life, or money related). When certain days seem more challenging than others, I can look through that journal and see all of the little, or big wins along the way that are helping me master the balance I am trying to achieve in life. It helps to break away the barriers & doubt in my mind. Great post, love this!

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    • Thanks for your comments!! I love the idea of an achievement journal. It is so important to keep in mind all of your successes, especially when you face challenging times that threaten to throw you off balance. I can see how having something to remind you of what you’re working towards and how you’ve succeeded in the past would help keep you motivated.

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  14. Great post! It’s such an important part of a successful life. I’m with you – trying to find and help people find the balanced, sustainable approach. We often gravitate to extremes because its easy. Eating EXTREMELY neurotic and eating like a slob with no regard for health seem like complete opposites but they share one core characteristic – they’re easy. Right in the middle is hard!

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  15. This is a great post! I think everyone is trying to find balance in some way… I have not yet found my balance… And right now I am coming off of my “It’s my wedding month…” excuse, so I’ve been eating poorly, and not exercising… I think the key for me is to not get down on myself when I slip a little. It’s hard, but if you just pick yourself up and continue, it seems to be easier… Reading a book by the author of the Zen Habits blog has definitely helped me with that aspect.

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    • Great point – keeping a positive attitude even when you slip a bit is key. Sometimes a little slip can turn into a major landslide if you let yourself get un-motivated. Best to just accept the slip and put it behind you so that you can move forward.

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  16. I am naturally an all-or-nothing type person. But once I accepted that I had to reshape my life because of the fatigue — and it only took most of a decade to accept — I had to start being nicer to myself. Which also meant more realistic.

    So now, when I make changes, I go in with the knowledge that I’ll mess up. When I went on a lower sugar diet, knowing that actually kept me honest for a long time. It became an issue of, “I will crack eventually. Do I really want it to be today?” And I could talk myself out of it.

    Same with my current exercise routine, which of course only got started because FinCon is looming. I know there are days I’m not going to be able to keep up. Today is one, since I seem to be running a low-grade fever. But that’s okay. I worked out Tuesday and Wednesday, and I’ll do the exercise videos again later this week.

    That’s about the closest I have to balance in my life, but it’s still miles better than I used to be.

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    • Sounds like you’re doing a great job finding balance, and like you have a great attitude about it! I think you’re absolutely right that at some point, you’re going to slip up, so just being accepting of that, or as you say “nice to yourself,” will help you accept the slip and move on without getting fully off-track.

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  17. Balance is tricky, but you give some good tips. I love you talk about refining your habits. Spending money on clothes is a weakness for me. I’ve read Dave Ramsey and listened to Suzy Orman talk about ways to preserve your money and having a reserve. Thanks for sharing.

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