Is your life “balanced”?
If you are one of the rare people who would answer yes, then here’s a follow-up question: how long have you been “balanced” and how long do you expect it to last?
We’re told by psychologists, talk show hosts, life-coaches, and parents that we should be seeking “more balance”.
From my experience, people who are spending their time seeking a “balanced” life fall into two categories:
a) People who have not accomplished anything remarkable, and never will, because they are constantly striving for “balance” (and are thus secretly afraid that doing what it takes to achieve true success in one area will put them out of balance).
b) People who have already achieved amazing things in one (or many) areas of their lives, and are now attending to the previously ignored aspects. Better term here would be people seeking to “rebalance”.
These are two vastly different approaches to living. And I’ll argue that the second is more admirable than the first. You see,
To accomplish truly great things, you need to seek an imbalanced life.
This imbalance I’m referring to is usually temporary. And the degree of imbalance depends on your specific goals.
But make no mistake, achievement of your most important, most ambitious goals, you need to embrace imbalance.
Let’s start with a simple example, using the three corners of The Goal Triangle: family/relationships, fitness and health, and finances/career.
Imagine trying this coming month to “balance” these. If you are accustomed to goal setting, you will quickly come up with measureable, timebound goals for this month in each area. And you’ll make some progress. But will you accomplish anything truly great, without having to “borrow” time, energy, or resources from another area?
For examples, here are three truly great (in terms of ambitious) goals for 30 days:
- Fitness: Lose 10 pounds of fat without losing muscle.
- Family: Spend extra time every day with your teenage kids (or working on strategies), beyond what you are already spending, resulting in 50% fewer arguments each week.
- Finances: Perform so well in your job, through ingenuity or extra effort, that you could ask your boss in 30 days for a 5% raise and she would grant it.
Are these the “best” goals? Maybe not, but they are all examples of amazing accomplishments for a single month.
Could anyone achieve all of them at once? Not a chance. (Ok, maybe 1 out of 1000 people could; I know I couldn’t. But later in this article I’ll share how you can accomplish them all, just not in the same month.)
In fact, each one of these is so ambitious that I would argue accomplishing even one of them would be difficult.
And doing so – accomplishing just one of them – would require some sacrifices in the other areas of your Goal Triangle. If you dedicated yourself to fat loss, you’ll need to exercise more, spend more time planning your menus, extra time doing research into food and calories, and possibly even extra time meditating to get through the emotional/mental struggle involved in losing so much fat without losing muscle!
The best-case result: your family and your work are simply “maintained” at their previous level of effectiveness. The worst case: less time and energy for your family and work, either of which hurts those corners of your Goal Triangle.
In other words, for that month, you will be imbalanced.
I’ll repeat it again, knowing that I’m repeating myself: To accomplish truly great things, you need to seek an imbalanced life.
Does That Mean The Other Areas Must Suffer?
No, it doesn’t mean that the other areas must suffer. Quite possibly, you can still accomplish small things. In the example above, while focused on losing the fat, you should still able to do your job at work. You’d still spend time with your kids. You may even make a little progress on small goals in each of those areas, but that depends on how deep you need to go into the main goal (in this case, fat-loss).
The more ambitious your goal (in terms of aggressive timelines or amazing results), the more likely other areas of your life could decline.
This is “temporary imbalance in the interest of achieving something truly great.”
How Much Imbalance Is Too Much?
Depending on your main goal, you may be willing to go deep into imbalance or not so much. There is no single formula.
Stephen Covey talks about the “emotional bank account”. The basic concept is that you are always either making deposits into or withdrawals out of your life’s key areas. With work, you are either doing things to improve your skills, relationships, and performance or you are letting those things slip a bit. With your family, you are either building stronger relationships or you are straining them. Same with your fitness.
Taking relationships as a deeper example, you can miss one of your kids’ basketball games (a withdrawal from the emotional bank account) if you’ve already been to the past three games (previous deposits into the emotional bank account). You can only withdraw what you’ve deposited. If you are taking more withdrawals than you’ve made deposits, then you are in trouble. Once an account balance is negative, it not only takes much more effort to restore good standing; you may also never recover.
I’m not advocating having a negative account balance in any area of your life. So you have to stay very aware of the impacts of your chosen imbalance. If you take the imbalance too deep or for too long, you obviously have to pull back.
So how does imbalance actually result in a greater life, full of diverse areas of achievement?
The Key To Balancing Imbalance
A simple but extremely effective way to avoid too much imbalance is this:
Cycle your imbalance.
Focus on one area, intentionally being imbalanced, for a period of time. Then switch gears to a different area, while simply maintaining the gains you made in the first area.
Over time, you are actually achieving life-long balance, even though there is never a single point in time where you are balanced. Think of it as a helix, where you are cycling around but over time climbing higher and higher because you are periodically rebalancing your life.
How Often To “Rebalance”?
I like to think of most big things in longer blocks than a month. Three months works pretty well for most ambitious objectives, because it’s enough time to accomplish truly great things but short enough that less attention to the other areas won’t do too much damage. This gives you 4 really ambitious goals to accomplish each year.
But some goals may require longer periods of imbalance. If you’ve been a horrible dad for 10 years and suddenly want to be a great dad, you are going to need to make that your primary focus for much longer than 3 months, even if that means you make little to no progress on career and fitness.
And some goals could take shorter than 3 months. For example, quitting smoking.
You’re not looking for a balanced life, you’re looking to constantly shift your balance one way then another.
And the magic of this is that once you achieve an ambitious goal, it usually is long lasting with reduced effort. You focus on learning the basics of a certain language, and then maintaining your fluency is easier than the initial learning. You focus for a few months really hard on learning everything about the right way to eat, even to the point where other parts of your life become secondary, but then you have that knowledge. It doesn’t go away. It’s like an investment.
What Goals Are Worth Being Imbalanced Over?
When you’re setting a goal that feels really ambitious, ask “Is this goal really important enough to me that I’m willing to be imbalanced as I pursue it? Am I willing to somewhat neglect other areas of my life to achieve it?”
If it is truly a great, ambitious goal, then you should feel some butterflies in your stomach as you ask those questions. Achieving great things doesn’t come easily. If you don’t feel butterflies, then maybe it’s not ambitious enough to earn the description of “truly great”.
Perhaps there’s a better big, ambitious goal to pursue. One whose achievement is worth being “temporarily imbalanced”.
Should goals be based around outcomes, or based around processes?
Hmm. There are three common views on this.
One is that all goals must be outcome based. It doesn’t matter how much you try if you don’t actually achieve the desired outcome.
Another view is that people are too obsessed with outcomes and need to focus more on the process. This is captured in a lot of eastern-based philosophies that tell us to this exact moment is all we have so enjoy the present. Too much obsession about future results blocks our ability to grow and uncover hidden opportunities.
But most advisers on goal setting, myself included, advocate a balance. There are some times when you want to base your goals around outcomes and other times around processes.
But are there any guidelines about when to use one approach vs. the other? I think there are.
What Are Process-Goals?
Process based goals are best when you are taking on a new goal in an area where you aren’t already skilled or experienced.
Think of process-based goals as habits or activities. Ultimately, you expect those habits to lead to outcomes but initially your goal should be simply to develop the habit itself! Once you have the habit down, that's when you'll turn your focus to the outcomes those habits are intended to produce.
Let’s take a common one: getting into shape. When you are just starting out, you simply need to get into the habit of eating better and exercising more.
An example goal could be, “For the next three months, I am going to get to the gym three times a week for at least 45 minutes each time, and I’m going to do these types of exercises: x, y, z. Additionally, I will eliminate all beer and twinkies from my diet.”
It’s still measureable and timebound. But notice there is no specified outcome – no amount of fat lost or muscle gained, even thought that’s really your long-term goal – to lose fat and/or gain muscle.
Or let’s say you are trying to learn how to do computer programming. If you know nothing about how to do it, you can’t possibly set up a realistic outcome goal. Initially, you need to set up some process-based goals. For example, spending a certain amount of time a week working on examples in a guidebook. You can’t even set up an outcome goal about when to finish the book because you have no idea how long it will take! You’re too new to the subject matter. And as you know, all good goals have a time-based component.
What Are Outcome-Goals?
Now eventually, once you're more experienced in something, then you switch to outcome driven goals. Outcome based goals almost disregard the process to get there - all that matters is the outcome!
So, if you're really already skilled at computer programming, you don't really need to have a process-driven thing of “I'm going to code for 4 hrs everyday for the next week”. You can jump to outcome based goals like “I will write a program in C++ that models the swine flu outbreak over the next 12 months allowing for up to 5 different input variables, and will complete this code bug-free and user tested by May 12th.”
And going back to the fitness example, if you have already been working out and eating well, and have some baseline of how much fat you have lost or muscle you have gained, is it enough to stick to a goal based solely around showing up at the gym?
No! You're already experienced. You don't need to learn the process, you don't need to develop the habit. You need an outcome. And in that case, outcome-driven goals are the most appropriate. For example “By May 15 I will weigh 170 lbs and be at 15% bodyfat”.
A Short Quiz
So which of these short goal statements are process-based and which are outcome-based?
- I am promoted to Sr. Account Manager by June 30
- Every day, I'll brush my teeth after lunch
- Whenever I eat out with friends, I will not eat the bread that comes to the table and I will only order water to drink
- By May 31, I will fit into a size 10 pair of Levis
- At my weekly book club meeting, when Joan starts getting obnoxious, I will count to 10 before responding.
Answers: outcome, process, process, outcome, process
Now, look at your own goals (you have them written down, right???). Put a little O or P next to each one after you determine whether each is a process-based goal or an outcome-based goal.
Corollary: I often talk about Major Goals and Minor Goals (and even mini-Goals). For results-based Major Goals, it is still critical to have many minor or mini-goals to support it. The bigger the goal, the more important those minor goals become. They give you feedback along the way to make sure you are really on your path to achieving the major goal. And regardless of the type of Major Goal (process- or outcome-based), your minor goals can be a mix of process and outcome types.
p.s. You might see me and others refer to outcome-based goals as “results-based goals” by mistake. They are certainly synonyms, but outcome has the connotation of being a byproduct of specific, intentional effort towards a conclusion, whereas result connotes a certain about of passivity. Linguistic expertise aside, I will do my best to use “outcome” – correct me if I slip!
I get into discussions sometimes about how people get all screwed up by the expectations of other people. In Hollywood we hear stories about how so-an-so’s dad was so overbearing and had such high expectations that so-and-so just could never live up and so resorted to drugs or some other self-destructive habit.
Or more common, but less sensational, are the millions of people who never achieve any of their goals because they are stifled by the belief that they have to live up to someone else’s expectations.
So here’s where you expect me to say that you should ignore external expectations and focus only on your own. Don’t keep up with the Joneses, Don’t let other people define your goals, Do find your own internal motivations for any activity you are doing, Yadda, Yadda.
Of course that’s what you expect. Because if you’ve listened to just about any success/self-help/guru/life-coach/psychic-savior/ guru out there, that’s what you hear.
Bunch of crap.
See, ignoring external expectations is not only impossible, it’s not smart.
Internal Vs. External Goals
I define internal vs. external goals this way: external goals are where your success will be determined – in part – by what someone else thinks. Internal goals are those where success can be achieved without anyone else rendering judgment that matters (not even a little bit).
And probably obvious is that external motivators are benefits (or the reduction of negatives) that you will achieve from the world around you, while internal motivators are purely those things internally that matter. An example external motivator is that learning a new skill could increase your salary; an internal motivator could be the inner confidence you have now that you know how to perform that skill.
To complete the explanations, external expectations are those things other people expect of you and internal expectations are what you expect of yourself. This is often where people suffer most because one or the other is often unrealistically high, or worse, both are exceptionally low.
You Cannot Escape External Expectations
Before I tell you why you need external goals and need to listen to external expectations and include external motivators, let’s get one thing straight.
You can’t escape them. They are everywhere.
Simply saying “ignore them” is like telling your body to ignore the cold when you are in negative 20 degree weather in your underwear. No amount of mind control will do it.
And if you work for a boss (or for you entrepreneurs out there, if you work for a customer), then you can try to ignore external expectations and goals only to find your financial condition deteriorating.
And isolating yourself from society doesn’t work either. Even Thoreau couldn’t when he went off to live on his own.
Who you are, in part, is due to external expectations.
What if you were never expected to go to school? Never expected to try hard? Never expected to tell the truth? Never told to clean your room? Do you think you would have just naturally learned these things?
From the time you are born, external expectations are thrust upon you.
And that’s a good thing.
Sure, it can be overdone and perverted. But so can meditation, exercise, religion, and everything else.
External Goals Are Good For You
None of us is perfect. None of us will always do the right thing even when nobody is watching. Hopefully your transgressions are minor, like forgetting to put your napkin on your lap at dinner.
External expectations are a requirement of a functional society. We expect people to abbey the laws. Not just the laws the other guy believes in. All the laws.
And setting external goals are good too. The easiest examples are those related to work.
Your boss comes into your office/cubicle and she says, “We have customer X coming in later today. I need you to create report ABC for me by 2:00. And it needs to be convincing.” This is clearly an external goal – it was “given” to you by your boss and your achievement of the goal is determined by the outcome – whether the customer is convinced by it.
So what do you do? Do you spend 3 hrs trying to “get internally motivated” so that this can become an internal goal? No! You get working on that report.
Assuming your boss is competent, this being an external goal has many potential positives:
- You don’t wallow around naval-gazing and wasting time trying to find spiritual self-fulfillment for simple report, trying to assign meaning to something with little spiritual meaning
- You might learn something by doing this report that you might never have been internally motivated to learn
- You save your company time by just doing what you’ve been asked to do, and that allows your company overall to be more productive which helps society (yes, I am an unabashed capitalist)
- This might be a more ambitious goal (being external) than you would have set for yourself (if it were internal)
- Your boss’s faith in you increases; not that you should be a “pleaser” but it’s clear that with increased confidence in you your boss will give you better assignments which eventually leads to all sorts of benefits
- You get honest, objective feedback about the quality of your work via the customer (external); assuming you can handle feedback, this will help you either to continue to do well or to direct areas of improvement
- You inspire coworkers to be able to achieve more ambitious goals when they publicly (externally) see you succeed at something challenging under tight time constraints
So stop avoiding external goals or putting internal goals on a pedestal. Both are important.
What do you think? Submit a comment below!