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Balance or bust

By Marjorie Ingall, Real Simple
updated 6:22 PM EST, Wed February 26, 2014
  • An already busy mom seeks life balance through self-help books
  • Based on 7 books, the author documents her "BalanceQuest"
  • Guidance from one book often contradicts guidance from another

(Real Simple) -- I'm waiting at the Costco Tire Center for the stupid car to be fixed. I run out of cell-phone battery. My daughter is at a friend's house and calls four times, increasingly panicked about my unreachability. I'm behind schedule on three different work assignments. I need to write several condolence and thank-you notes. I owe e-mails to a dozen people. I haven't found time to exercise in a week.

So I eat half a giant bag of Fun Size candy from Costco. As I chew, visions of a more balanced life ping wildly inside my skull: I long to master the clock, to be less vulnerable to the vicissitudes of others, more in charge of my own choices and destiny. I want to feel that I'm on top of my responsibilities while still having room for spontaneity. I want to not fall apart when one element breaks down. I want the satisfaction that comes with managing the needs of others, of commerce, and of self.

Is that too much to ask?!

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Clearly I'm in need of an intervention. And since I already tend toward extremes, I have the brilliant idea of zooming, full speed ahead, to life balance. I will go all in (thus proving beyond a shadow of a doubt my lack of balance), immersing myself for one month in books that promise cures. I will treat the pursuit of balance like cramming for exams.

I start by buying every selection on Amazon that offers equipoise suggestions and looks as if it's written in semicoherent English, determined to deliver the best bits of wisdom, shining like gold nuggets in the dreck that is most self-help writing, to Real Simple readers. I winnow down my stack to seven standouts and dive in, highlighter in hand! Please allow me to share the best advice and techniques from each tome as I walk you through my BalanceQuest.

Day 1

I cannot find the form for an occupational-therapy evaluation for my daughter Maxine. It nestles somewhere in the endless pile of magazines, mail, and random papers that seem to breed like Tribbles on the kitchen counter. I know, too, that hidden in there is insurance paperwork, a wedding-reply card, an envelope in which to send money for the classroom watercooler, and a free pass to a museum that I want to rescue before it disappears, like most everything that enters my paper orbit.

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I take a page from "The Change Your Life Challenge," by Brook Noel. Noel offers up "the Five-Minute Rule": "If something can be done in five minutes or less, do it now! Don't add it to your to-do list. It will take more time and energy to write down, manage, and keep thinking about than it will take to get done."

Beginning today I focus on signing every form, RSVP'ing to every invitation, and paying for every field trip immediately. Abandoning my patented system of leaving papers to fester means that I don't misplace permission slips or sensitive mail.

Thus fortified, I forgive Noel the rest of her baroque system, which includes a three-ring binder, two notebooks, 100 index cards, five 9-by-12 envelopes, a yellow highlighter, four self-adhesive clear pouches, and a three-hole punch.

Day 7

I'm not in an official book group, but two of my friends (and the rest of the world) have raved about Rachel Kushner's novel "The Flamethrowers." My pals are jonesing for me to read it so that we can have a super-intellectual chat.

I finally reach the top of the hold list for it at the library. I start reading. I hate it. Ordinarily I would power through this thing, grumpily. Good heavens, I finished Timothy Ferriss's and Tony Robbins's hyper-macho business books for this story! Why can't I get through this award-nominated novel?

Shockingly, in "Awaken the Giant Within," Robbins (whom I dissed only seconds ago) helps me legitimize quitting.

He shares an anecdote about his teenage daughter and her dilemma about whether to dump a hard-won job as a Disneyland performer. A short time into her employment, she feels unfulfilled, but she doesn't want to give up such a plum gig.

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Robbins writes, "I assured her that making a decision to live congruently with your values is not quitting, nor is foolish consistency a virtue." Leaving the job makes this transition "a gift for someone else." I could look at abandoning The Flamethrowers that way: I can give my family the gift of more of my time and myself the gift of reading something I actually like.

Ferriss, likewise, in his generally execrable book "The 4-Hour Workweek," advocates a policy of quitting things like movies midway through if they don't grab you. Why grimly stick with something optional that doesn't give you pleasure? Simply to feel noble or be current or prove you're not a dimwit? Bad reasons.

Day 11

Our school faces a crisis. The city construction authority is insisting on a massive asbestos-removal job that will displace the free after-school child-care program for disadvantaged kids. Another PTA member asks me to write a rallying Op-Ed...the same week that I have a big assignment due. I choose to help the school, at the expense of work commitments. Inside I boil: Why am I the only one who ever gets roped into this stuff? Do I have a SUCKER sign on my back?

This time the best advice comes from "Life Lessons for Women: 7 Essential Ingredients for a Balanced Life," by Jack Canfield. The Chicken Soup for the Soul guy! Usually I roll my eyes when advice for women comes from a man (get a vagina and then we'll talk), but there's good stuff here (much of it from women contributors). My greatest takeaway: Own your choices.

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Canfield says, "It's all too easy to blame other people, but when you take full responsibility for your time, you have the power to make changes." Once I acknowledge my tendency toward martyrdom, I feel less beleaguered. Next time I'm asked to tackle a volunteer project that I don't have time for, I'll use the advice of a contributor to Canfield's book, Karen McQuestion (yup, that's her name), who shares the way her mom said no: "That won't work out for me."

When pressed, McQuestion's mom simply repeated herself. "My sisters and I used to laugh at the vagueness of the phrase," says McQuestion, "but now I understand the sheer genius of it. It says nothing but conveys everything." Indeed.

Day 15

It's my daughter Josie's birthday. She asks if she can bring cupcakes to school. My anxiety ratchets up as I contemplate an evening of baking. (Forget pedagogical value. The reason class size should max out at 24 is because that is how many spots I have in my muffin tins.)

I'm surprised at how much I like "In Search of Balance: Keys to a Stable Life," by Richard A. Swenson. Swenson is a religious Christian, and I am not. But his faith imbues his book with seriousness and grace. Unlike a lot of the balance books I read, it's hucksterism-free.

Swenson lost a baby grandson about two years before the book was published, and the book shimmers with a sense of loss. Which gives perspective: What really matters in this life? Why get agitated over things that aren't ultimately significant?

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Swenson quotes an author and speaker named Pat Katz ranting about how overwhelmed she is: "I heard myself say, 'And I still HAVE TO carve the pumpkin before I can go to bed,' " she says. "Wise offspring played back my very own words. 'You HAVE TO carve the pumpkin?' "

Don't we all do that? Get ourselves worked up over something inconsequential that we simply must tackle? Katz calls this kind of optional emotional freight a "DB"—a discretionary burden. "Each task that we peg as an obligation adds to our feelings of overload," she says. The fewer DBs you take on, the lighter your load.

And just like that, I let go of the notion of baking cupcakes. Heck, I let go of going to the bakery. We have salted caramel chocolates from Whole Foods in the pantry. I send them to school. Done.

Day 17

Today I have a deadline, but I also have a doctor's appointment, a ton of errands that absolutely must get done, the guilt of knowing that I owe my best friend a call, and several emergency e-mails to deal with.

My favorite of all the books, "The Power of Full Engagement," by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, explains that we freak out about not having time when what we really don't have is energy. And energy can be nurtured like a muscle. Just as you can increase your physical strength, so too can you increase your emotional and mental strength.

Loehr and Schwartz write about a client named Sara who was easily distracted by the zillion demands on her attention. They helped strengthen her focus and efficiency, telling her that as soon as she got to the office, she had to close the door and work on her projects for one hour—no e-mails or returning phone calls or checking voice mails.

I, of course, am Sara. I have increasing demands on my time as the day goes on, and I'm freshest in the morning. So I resolve to do 90 minutes of writing before I tackle anything else except making coffee. I can research, make calls, and check blogs later in the day, when I don't need my wee brain firing on every cylinder. And suddenly I'm getting way more work done.

I also discover that once I'm immersed in my 90-minute self-imposed writing zone, I'm happy to work for another 45 minutes. And just like that, my assignment is done. Feeling that I've crossed something major off my list, rather than experiencing it as a Wile E. Coyote--esque anvil hanging over my head all day, energizes me to get more done through the rest of the day.

Day 21

My cat Yoyo gets sick with some kind of crazy skin thing that leaves her with weeping sores and insane shedding. There is no question about dropping everything to take her to the vet and then a specialist. But I have deadlines to meet, including one for this very story. Plus, I had promised to accompany my mom to her appointment to look for a wedding dress. (She's getting married in two months.) What to do?

I employ the simple solution suggested by Suzy Welch in "10-10-10." The central advice is terrific: Whenever you face a tough decision, find your answer by considering the consequences of each potential choice in the next 10 minutes, the next 10 months, and the next 10 years.

In my case: Should I work on the Real Simple story or go with my mom? In the next 10 minutes, if I call my mom to cancel, I'll feel terrible...and then relieved that I'll have time to work. But in the next 10 months the picture looks different. I would feel bad for missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime kind of mother-daughter joy. My mom's not a big shopper. She never buys fancy things. She wants bonding time with me, and I want to show her that I'm supportive of her marriage even though I miss my dad, her husband, who died a decade ago.

And when I ponder the next 10 years, the decision is made: My mom will, knock wood, be 83. I'll have written hundreds of stories, but she'll have had only two weddings. The choice is clear: I head to Saks. Afterward, my mom calls, teary, to thank me for coming. We found a beautiful dress, and she was thrilled to have spent a giggly afternoon with me. I know, fervently, that I chose right.

Day 24

On Saturday we've planned a family walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. But Maxie announces out of the blue that she has a book report on the colony of Georgia due, oh, Monday. And she needs a book. And the library is closed on Sundays.

I'm forced to use "efficiencies of combination," to use Swenson's phrase, which is kind of like multitasking. Fine. The tougher part is letting go of the bridge, a jaunt I'd been looking forward to, and not fuming. I use this opportunity to deploy another Canfield tip: "Sanctify the ordinary."

I make a conscious effort to find the sacred in the mundane. (Canfield quotes a Zen saying: "How you do anything is how you do everything.") Maxie and I walk to the library via the park. We hold hands. She makes me laugh. We do our errand, and I give her my complete focus, without the distractions of electronic devices or even her dad and sister.

No need to hunt through our busy calendar to schedule quality time. We're living it.

Day 30

I'm doing better, but I'm not as balanced as I'd hoped. And Ferriss's book has made me feel worse, with its advice about never reading a newspaper, hiring virtual assistants in developing countries, and not asking people how they're doing, for fear they might answer.

The antidote to Ferriss is a snippet of Canfield. (That is not a sentence I ever thought I would write.)

Canfield suggests that every night you make a Victory Log, a list of everything you've accomplished that day, including small acts of kindness and good choices. I discover that I do a lot of small kindnesses throughout the day (e-mail high schoolers and friends of friends who want to be journalists; make the kids fresh smoothies instead of telling them to get a yogurt after school).

These things add up timewise, and acknowledging them makes me feel OK about not being able to do it all. Canfield suggests reading the log at least once a week so that you'll "recognize that your life has been a success and that the strengths you already have can support you in creating the life you want." Amen.

What's my takeaway from BalanceQuest 2014? I don't believe that perfect equilibrium is possible. But I feel better about that than I used to.

I've learned some excellent tricks to improve my juggling, to spend less time seething at others and/or kicking myself about my failures, and to figure out what's worth keeping and what should be jettisoned.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote, "We have always time enough when we know how to employ it well." That dude was wrong. There is never enough time. And he's also dead, which is more evidence that there's never enough time.

Given that we're all going to end up like Wolfgang, how much more proof do we need that we should prioritize what really matters while we're here?

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