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Find balance over your years, not your days

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The other day I sorted through five years of weekly to-do lists, which were almost identical to each other except for the date.

There were items I had been attempting to address for years, but somehow I had never actually done any of them to the point where they didn’t need to be on a list any more.

You may have experienced this familiar cycle. On a weekend, after a disappointing week, you write out a list of things you’re going to start doing, for real this time, on Monday. Working out. Practicing an instrument. Writing a bit every day. Reading a bit every day. Initiating plans with friends more often. Getting organized.

You’ve probably done a lot of each of these things at some point, even regularly for a while, yet for all their persistence in your mind they never really established themselves in your routine. You keep writing them down because you’re not prepared to let go of the idea that you will one day be fit, organized, and good at what you want to be good at.

When you’ve been writing down the same resolutions for years and they’re just not happening, two ugly possibilities may come into focus. Either these pursuits are not that important to you, or they’re too hard for you to pull off.

Chances are neither is true. The problem isn’t that they’re too hard or not important enough, it’s the opposite. They’re all perfectly doable, and we know that because other ordinary people do them. And they’re so important to us that we never put down any of them completely. We can’t accept any of these goals as optional, so we think it’s reasonable to progress a little bit with each at the same time. Just a ten minute workout every day. Just 250 words before breakfast. Reach out to one friend a week. Meditate for just five minutes.

The point is to achieve “balance”, which is a concept we seem to value even if we can’t really say why. It seems reasonable to presume that if the person you want to be does all these things, you must always be doing these things, otherwise you’ll never get there.

I think I have finally accepted that this doesn’t work. It dilutes your resolve too much. There’s never enough progress in any area to keep your enthusiasm renewed, and there’s a much greater chance of missing your standards.

It makes way more sense to keep most of your plans for improvement boxed and shelved at any given time. Pick just a few, maybe just one, to take out of the box. And do something significant with it.

On the others, don’t worry about making even the smallest amounts of progress, and don’t worry about deciding when you will get to them. If they’re truly important then they deserve a more undivided effort.

Let your priorities cycle, so that everything that’s truly important gets to be at the center of your life for a time.

Give the important things a year of their own

In 2012, after a magical trip to New York City, I came home to my quiet suburban apartment, and I couldn’t stand it. My whole life suddenly felt like it was too far from the action. I wanted to become a much more social person than I ever had been. I moved to the busiest area of town. I made a ton of friends that summer, and went to a lot of parties. I learned how to mingle, host, initiate plans and do it all without being nervous.

But I didn’t do a whole lot else during that time. I didn’t pick up the guitar much, I didn’t write all that much, I didn’t try to get into great shape and I didn’t try to get better at my job.

A year and a half later, I’m pretty dormant socially. I spend most of my time at my desk and I take a lot of walks. I see my girlfriend a few times a week and other friends maybe once a week.

This current passivity towards relationships doesn’t reflect my overall values. I love people, and my long term vision for myself is a well-connected person that spends a lot of time visiting. In the past I would have felt like there’s something wrong with this, because obviously I’m scoring pretty low in an area I know is important. There’s no balance.

But if balance is necessary (and is it?) then I will let it occur over a number of years, rather than over my daily or weekly routine. If I can spent ten years giving ten areas of life each a highly focused year, I will be vastly better at all of those things than I would be if I worked on all those areas at once, even if I did manage them well.

Even though I’m kind of a hermit this year, last year’s whirlwind of socializing left me permanently unafraid to talk to strangers, and altogether more relaxed even when I’m alone. I gained so much that year and I can put it to use whenever I want. The more intense your periods of focus, the more you get to keep from them.

There’s a natural friction between what we’re doing and what we could be doing, so if you completely shut down some of the options, you reduce the resistance to fully engaging the others. Doing that requires the conscious granting of permission to let most areas lie fallow for a bit, even for a year or two.

This is against the natural impulse to perpetually worry about everything that’s important. We have to assure ourselves that it’s still important even while it’s dormant. If it’s truly important, then it deserves dedication, and dedication requires that we separate it from other dedicated pursuits.

Right now I want my day-to-day life to consist of little more than advancing in three areas: building my livelihood as a writer, reading as much as I can, and becoming a more mindful person. Those bases I can really cover. They reinforce each other well. I’m giving myself permission to let go of improving anything else for now.

I don’t mean that I’ve become obsessed. I still do my laundry, I still get exercise, I still have fun. But French will wait. Big travel plans will wait. The Great Novel will wait. They each deserve their own intensive period, and the guy taking them on will be more experienced, better read and a lot more focused.

You could call this a minimalist attitude to growth, and I think that’s fair. It has similar benefits to reducing your possessions: your gratitude and your attention are both split fewer ways so the overall experience is richer.

It’s also just a much more efficient way to grow. I’m a lot better a writer than I was only a few months ago, because I’m focused on it and I’m doing a lot more of it. When I do decide to take the guitar seriously, I know that I’ll improve more in one year than I have in the last ten years. When I take on French again, I’ll make of a year of it and do it in France or Quebec.

Imagine the compound interest from a stack of years like that. If you’ve been trying to do everything, decide what you’re going focus on — and what you’re going to box up — for 2014.

Or to think of it a different way: what do you want to be much, much better at by 2015?


Photo by Nick Page

petra December 9, 2013 at 3:04 am

I came to the same realization a couple of years ago. trying to change too many things or to establish too many new routines never worked. so I paired it down at the beginning of this year. and it’s been working fantastically. I’ll add two and a half new things to my to-do list for 2014. that’s it.

great post!!

David Cain December 9, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Two and a half is a good number.

kabamba December 9, 2013 at 4:45 am

“Passionate people who don’t have it all together change the world. If you’re worried about life-work balance, something is probably wrong with your life or your work. Instead of agonizing over balance, get excited and create change.” ~ Chris Guillebeau

Perhaps this is what he meant. Thanks David.

kabamba December 9, 2013 at 5:20 am

As we come to a close of yet another year, I have found myself thinking a lot about what routines i need to establish going forward; the things i need to commit to do on a daily basis. This article gives me a bit more clarity and It confirms my suspicions of how I have been trying to manage my days and years in the past.

David Cain December 9, 2013 at 10:19 pm

That Chris Guillebeau is a smart man. By best years so far have been totally unbalanced.

Vonnie December 9, 2013 at 6:16 am

Seems so many of us are in the same place…and although I have acknowledged such, reading your post this morning sparked a new thought. I’ve long since had a nine-box lifegrid with the most important thing in the middle box, whilst filling the surrounding boxes with other interests/passions/goals etc, (the idea being if we ever lose one, even the most important central box, we still can still see that our lives are rich and diverse)…anyway, my thought this morning was this – do you remember those cheap square toys you got in your Christmas cracker or Lucky Bag years ago? The square puzzle with space for nine squares, but with eight pieces, that you moved around to complete a picture. Maybe I should make a small adjustment to my lifegrid and leave one square blank? That way I could periodically move the squares, so that eventually each important element would have its moment in the centre spotlight…hmmm maybe I should even make a three dimensional model to keep on my desk! Thank you for sparking yet another new thought in my old head.

BrownVagabonder December 9, 2013 at 7:03 am

I always find that I fall into the trap of thinking I can do more in a week than I can over a month. My week will be filled with four or five important things to do, whereas my overall month will have two. I feel that I compress too much into a few days and then I dilly-dally over them, because the more work I feel I have, the more I wish to procrastinate. Then, nothing gets done, rather than getting something done. I am trying nowadays to put only one important thing on my plate everyday, and trying to do it early in the morning when I am most productive – this way I have balance over the rest of the day where I can focus on relaxing, and other less important items. Thanks for the post! It reminded me of this lack in my life. :)

David Cain December 9, 2013 at 10:23 pm

I have been doing that with my writing, because it’s usually the most emotionally demanding part of my day. I do it in the morning and then even if the rest of the day is weak I’ve done the important part.

Mike December 9, 2013 at 7:39 am

Thanks for the clarity and insight. Giving ourselves permission to focus, while setting aside but not letting go of other long term goals is a huge relief.

Meg December 9, 2013 at 7:41 am

20/20 hindsight: a whole year devoted to improving any craft works much better than trying to do too much day by day or week by week. There’s something about the temporal shift that changes the scale of the project in one’s mind. When we think of day-to-day matters, it is full of things like taking out the trash, paying a bill, putting gas in the car, etc. Putting one’s craft/art/goal on that same list somehow diminishes it to the mundane, to just another thing on the list we scramble to keep.

The year-long goal, however, bumps things up to a lifelong, philosophical level: a path instead of a task.

This realization will make all the difference in the world!

David Cain December 9, 2013 at 10:29 pm

That’s a helpful way of looking at it, as a path instead of just another thing on the list. Although it wasn’t on purpose, much of my life I didn’t give much more energy to my passions than I did to buying groceries.

nrhatch December 9, 2013 at 8:49 am

The thing that jumped out at me from this post:

“The other day I sorted through five years of weekly to-do lists, which were almost identical to each other except for the date.”

The sameness of your lists didn’t surprise me . . . what surprised me is that you had kept the lists for 5 years.

After sorting through them, did you shred them?

David Cain December 9, 2013 at 10:42 pm

I have a binder that I use for self-improvement tracking, which has never been very organized until this year. In the back there were still lists from five years ago. Not every week, just weeks when I decided to “take things seriously” again.

Jacki Maynard December 9, 2013 at 9:19 am

This is so true. I need to sit down and really contemplate that question–what do I most want to be better at by 2015? For me, the issue is prioritizing. It all seems too important. Right now I’m starting so many things — the idea of boxing anything up for a year seems like it might be fatal to it. Maybe the only thing I can box up is socializing. I need to trust that my friends will be there when I emerge.

David Cain December 9, 2013 at 11:00 pm

Keep in mind that every additional thing you earmark as “important” automatically makes everything less important. There’s only so much time and energy.

Trish Scott December 9, 2013 at 10:04 am


I tend to do one thing at a time and not worry about balance at all. I did wife and mother, then music for a huge chunk of time, woman in power suit when $$$ was mandatory and I have done animal and nature communication for the last 10 years. This year I am doing a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, that’s Mexico to Canada, the mountain route :). That’s all I’m doing this year. It is going to require mental and physical conditioning on many levels I have never even got close to before. It may lead to attempting the Triple Crown, the PCT, AT, CDT. It may only get me to the first desert water stop. It will go where it goes.

I tend to think of my chunks of time focusing on this and that as different lifetimes. When I think of past lives I think of wife and mother, musician and so forth. They are entirely different aspects of what can only be connected by the fact that they all share what appears to be the same body. Of course that too is entirely wrong – this is not the same body! The same consciousness? Don’t know. Seems like it but I’m not convinced. Even memory, the great glue of “self” is iffy. Some of the same relationships shift in and out of focus throughout the time, writing about it as it goes seems to be a thread that is unbroken but that’s about the extent of the similarities between one phase and the next.

All together it is a great adventure. Glad I came!

Pura Vida Nick December 9, 2013 at 10:31 am

Thank you for this insight right before the new year, David.

There are many practical examples. One is debt. For the time in one’s life where they have lots of debt, they need to focus on getting rid of that debt ASAP. If that means working 8 hours at your day job and 3 more every night at a grocery store, so be it. As long as you have an end goal, say, in 8 months you will wipe out $15k in debt, you may have to focus all your attention on that debt for those 8 months.

Stephanie December 9, 2013 at 12:16 pm

I’m inspired by the post, and reminded of the quote, “It is folly to expect men to do all that they may reasonably be expected to do.” –credited to Whately, though I believed I read this in Walden…

Chris @ Flipping A Dollar December 9, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Wow, you’ve really hit the nail on the head. I’m currently trying to juggle too many balls in the air and they all feel like they’re falling. I (and I know others are in the same boat) just feel like if I’m not at least thinking about it on a weekly basis, then I’m failing at it. I need to look at it more holistically. I’ve become a master with budgeting money now, but I am TERRIBLE at budgeting my time. I know I always spread myself too thin but haven’t tried to do anything about it. Thanks for the kick in the butt.

Ryan Grant December 9, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Thank you for this great post, and reminder to work on what is truly important. It’s been said that having too many “focuses” is as good as not having any. I think picking a couple and working on them for the amount of time they deserve is a very good strategy, and one that I need to put in place myself.

Deepak Thirunavukkarasu December 9, 2013 at 12:28 pm

After a month of trying hard to find the balance, I was reaching a similar conclusion and reading this post is quite reassuring for me. Thank you!

Nitya December 9, 2013 at 1:15 pm

When I turned thirty I acquired confidence. With this new-found confidence I decided (mindfully) to adopt an open friendly manner with other people, no matter who they were. I’ve lived this way ever since. Occasionally I’m rebuffed, but most return my friendliness in the same way. This has been the greatest finding of my life. I honestly feel as good as anyone and if I’m not treated that way in return, I assume it is due to feelings of insecurity on their part.
I don’t know what initiated this mind shift, but if I can pass it on it comes with a guarantee of effectiveness.

Allie H December 9, 2013 at 2:52 pm

I’m in a bit of awe right now…it never did occur to me to think about it quite like that…time to rethink some of my priorities and how i’ve been tackling them me thinks…bloody brilliant that was

Dylan Martin December 9, 2013 at 9:43 pm

I really enjoyed the post. :) If anyone would like to check out a blog with information related to the above post, check out http://www.allsimpleblogging.com

John December 9, 2013 at 10:28 pm

Different take on the whole resolution thing. I like the idea. I often feel as if I’m in paralysis due to my mind always having several things I want to do/change on a day-to-day basis and I end up not doing any of them. This past year I tried to really focus on making five changes and would say I fully accomplished two of them, while the others were a bit half-assed. I agree with petra above, two-two and a half is a good focus.

Sangeeth Simon December 9, 2013 at 11:18 pm

Nice take on the idea of “balance in life”. But I have some viewpoints which digress from your core thought. Getting better at anything is about spending time with it consistently. Lets say you want to learn guitar. Your view point is that i’l dedicate the next year completely to learning it and then move on to my next hobbie/interest. But, it so happens that without regular practice, whatever you learned that one year is going to erode away by the end of next year. Additionally, relationships can’t be categorized as another thing on a “to-do” list. Because its about people and not things. And like a growing plant, it requires regular attending to and not some “time zoned” pursuit. Hence, I would rather suggest that make two lists: Core list( which includes things that you commit to do regularly) and a hobbies list( things that go on and off over time).

Kim December 10, 2013 at 3:08 am

Hi David! I’m always struggling with keeping more than one or two routines. I either cook and go running OR I keep in touch with friends regularly and play piano OR I play guitar, etc. It irks me to no end that I can’t keep the balance people around me seem to be able to. I think I’m going to try your approach for 2014: focus on 2.5 things (friends, guitar & 1 difficult piano song) for the year. I’m curious to see how it’ll work. Maybe I’ll even go running and cook at home more often than I do now because with that approach, I don’t *have* to? Because there’s no guilt attached when I don’t do it, only joy when I *do*? Thanks David!

AB December 10, 2013 at 3:27 pm

Great post! It’s a good way of explaining the age-old problem of doing a couple things well or a bushel of things poorly. You don’t have to be awesome at everything; that’s what other people are for. But specializing in a few things goes along way.

Jenny May Forsyth December 11, 2013 at 1:50 am

Hi David,

In a recent meditation class we meditated on the fact of our own death, in order to examine our attitudes to our attachments (metaphysical as well as material).

This might have to a rhetorical question as it’s a biggie, but how does the fact that life is finite factor into your attitudes about To Do lists?


Jenny May Forsyth December 11, 2013 at 1:52 am

Arg, typo! ‘to BE a rhetorical’

Kristen December 11, 2013 at 8:57 am

This has given me an idea; while a lot of people have small-ish new years’ resolutions (such as exercising or writing more, two goals you’ve mentioned), i agree that they take big life changes to really incorporate. That being said, I’m thinking of doing something like you have suggested on a month to month basis as opposed to a yearly one, because I am not sure if I need to devote an entire year to teaching myself to clean consistently. But if I do it for a month straight, I can get an idea of the benefits those goals will bring.

Cherry Odelberg December 11, 2013 at 11:44 am

This is wisdom. A great way to reduce the stress and failure of “ought to.” Rather than continually beating yourself up for goals not met; looking back over the long haul gives the satisfaction of seeing growth. The things we achieve make for permanent change, as you pointed out and I like the minimalist description.

Cynthia Stevenson December 11, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Kristen, I once had a friend who came to my house for the first time, looked around, made complimentary remarks, but all the time with a puzzled expression on her face. Finally she asked me, “Cynthia – where’s all your STUFF?” Ah, stuff. Stuff makes me nervous, I told her. The less I have, the less time I need to spend taking care of it. Less stuff means less cleaning, polishing, arranging, placing, picking up and storing it. Keeping stuff out of your life gives you the freedom to do what you really want to do. Sure, cleaning will bring you the benefit of……a clean house? But in the end, it’s just another chore – like running errands, putting gas in your car, cooking, and doing laundry. Instead, ask yourself what you’re passionate about, what special talents you have that you want to develop, perhaps a course of study you want to pursue, a relationship that needs attention, a cause that you’d like to devote more time to. This is the stuff worth having, but to get it you need to make a sustained, long term commitment. Give it a year, as David suggests. Clear the clutter and distractions from your life, and just twitch your nose at the cleaning. :-)

Pura Vida Nick December 12, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Cynthia, I completely agree. The more stuff you have, the more you have to take care of it, think about it, clean it, and so on. Very interesting comment!

Austin December 16, 2013 at 10:56 pm

I am simply amazed once again how timely this advice is yet again. These articles are better then any shrink or fortune teller. Great advice Dave.

Jim Coy December 17, 2013 at 6:58 pm

It must be nice having reached the point, at a relatively young age, where you can peer down at your audience and dictate to them whom you will not respond to. I love your style and your natural ability to zero in on subtle life themes, but having visited your contact page, I seriously doubt if I’d be in any way fortunate in getting to know you as a human being. We are cut from the same cloth, and I was hoping to make some connection with a being of similar mind to mine, but I live the blues, and you merely sing about it. Evidently, my part of the fabric covers the crotch, whereas yours is the elegant bow tie. Good luck to you and your blessed followers!

David Cain December 17, 2013 at 10:34 pm

Well that’s not a very nice thing to say. I get more comments and emails than I can respond to, and I’m not perfect at managing them. Most readers understand this and don’t call me a bad person for it. If you make those kind of judgments about me just for not responding to your comment I don’t think we are “cut from the same cloth” at all.

Ivo December 18, 2013 at 7:57 am

Dear David,
Greetings from Bulgaria. I’m a frequent reader of your blog and I’m experiencing similar things. As a man who reads, do you know this book – Alexis Zorbas, by Nikos Kazandzakis?

Mike Harris December 21, 2013 at 4:44 pm

This reminds me of THE MYTH OF MULTITASKING, where unitasking and switch-tasking are discussed … but writ large on a macro scale. As always, excellent food for thought.

Rainbow January 6, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Wise words and well articulated. Reminds me of something I recently read – ‘there’s not such thing as work-life balance, anything worth fighting for unbalances your life’. Clearly not to be taken to extremes, but it did put having too many ‘things to do’ in context, and helps allow me to focus on fewer things and let other things simmer in the background for a while.

Mark Kandborg March 1, 2014 at 2:58 pm

Couldn’t agree more, and it’s so nice to have my experience supported by someone else’s experience. When I wrote my first screenplay, a huge undertaking involving a lot of research, this is how I did it: I quit working, except on weekends, I quit going to the gym, and every day of the week I had one goal – get four pages down on paper. It worked. I am easily distractible, and worry a lot, so allowing myself to expend energy on nothing else until my project was complete was exhilarating and freeing.

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