It’s early on a January morning, and it‘s cold. Like, really cold. All I want is to be back in my warm bed, but the only thing waiting for me is something even colder. I stare down into the water through the hole in the ice and so much of my body wants to be anywhere else right now. At the same time, though, this is where I know I (and my body) need to be.
Have you ever jumped into a frozen lake? Before last year, just thinking about it felt almost impossible for me. I always avoided cold environments and it was definitely one of my weaknesses. Then I decided to take that weakness and use it to actually improve myself.
Put simply, I use special breathing techniques to prepare my body, then expose it to extreme cold and meditate to control how it responds to that shock. I believe that this type of practice prepares my body and mind for handling all kinds of different stress and improves my life as a result.
This is my personal journey toward finding balance. Though I don’t believe that balance is something I (or anyone else) will ever actually find, getting as close to it as possible can enhance the way we approach our people, our work and our lives as a whole.
Let me show you what I mean.
What is balance?
When I envision “balance”, I think of our ability to be aware and in control of ourselves. In practice, that means being resilient to what is happening around us by being honest with ourselves about what is happening within us.
In my experience, this type of self-awareness is best found by doing everything we can to slow down, remain present and remove distractions from our lives.
Some examples from my life
When a lack of balance prevents us from bringing the best of ourselves into a situation, it can negatively affect the important decisions, conversations, relationships that move us forward and enrich our lives. I’ve felt those negative effects at certain times in my life and I’ve also seen how things can improve by collecting myself and getting back under control.
Out of balance = out of character
I’m putting my most cherished lesson first: it doesn’t matter what kind of strategies you come up with or what people you hire – if you aren’t bringing your true self to the table, you are building on an unstable foundation and depriving yourself of true feelings of success in the process.
For instance, I used to plan my tasks and meetings to the point that my schedule was 100% full. Though it looked impressive on paper and it made me feel nice and productive, I realized after a while that this didn’t leave me any time for things that I couldn’t predict, or even just time to sit and let my mind wander about what was going on that day (something that has helped me a lot too!).
One unfortunate result of my overplanning was that I didn’t have as much time for my people when something suddenly came up. Looking back, there were many conversations and interactions that I could have managed more considerately and appropriately if I hadn’t felt like I needed to rush to my next scheduled task.
These days, I try to plan only 80% of my time. This allows me to slow down a bit and be more present. What’s more, this slowing down ironically allows me to accomplish much more than before and in less time.
On a related note, when mistakes like these happen from me being out of balance, I feel it’s crucial to acknowledge that it is no one’s fault but my own. In those moments, the best way forward is to accept responsibility for not handling a situation correctly, apologize and approach it again with wiser eyes and on firmer footing.
Strategic planning becomes easier. Balance = better business decisions
Another lesson I’ve kept with me is the cyclical way that slowing down and balance contribute to one another. Basically, slowing down more makes it easier to feel balanced and, at the same time, the more balanced you are, the easier it is to slow down and notice things around you.
My biggest lesson of this came not too long ago, when I slowed down and realized that a lot of my people (myself included) had slipped into the habit of spending too much time dealing with small things that didn’t really contribute to who we are as a company. Detaching myself from those tendencies helped me envision, discuss and implement better systems for handling company processes and more ways to develop better interpersonal relationships with those we deal with.
You can’t make everything a priority
Very few of us have enough time in the day for everything that we want to do, forcing us to prioritize. Though creating a to-do list of tasks can be easy, sticking to what we decide is usually more difficult. On top of that, deviating from that plan leaves us bouncing back and forth between tasks which can hurt productivity even more.
What helps me most is to revisit just how important each task is and, beyond that, how important it is for ME to be the one who does it. If it’s truly crucial and I’m the person who needs to do it, I do it and I do it before anything else. If I can delegate something, I delegate it. If I can’t, I just don’t do it because in the end, it wasn’t as important as the other parts. I know I can’t put more hours in the day, so I use this strategy to make sure the absolutely important stuff gets done and that I manage my energy effectively.
It’s also important to realize that the most important things may not always be what you like or want to do the most. Our priorities should be defined by how much they move us forward, whether we are thinking long-term or short-term.
In addition to my ice swimming exercises, here are a few other activities that I use to bring me closer to balance:
Morning routines – amazingly helpful. When accomplishments happen almost automatically in the morning, I enter the rest of my day motivated and driven to keep that progress going.
Planning & preemptive decision making – in my downtime, I give some thought to what I want to accomplish in the next 10 years, 1 year, 1 month, this week and today. Keeping these plans concise in my mind helps me make decisions later that contribute to what I want to achieve.
Define main focus for the day – every morning I take a few minutes for myself and designate what today’s focus will be. Then I pour my time and energy into moving forward in that direction.
“Eat the frog every morning” – I like this expression a lot. Basically, it just refers to tackling the most difficult or least desirable task ahead of you as the first thing you do. After that, the rest of the day is a lot easier. Friendly note: Do your best to keep the number of frogs to a minimum.
Get out of that chair – physically remove yourself from your normal environment. Go for a walk, go for a run, go to a cafe, do a lap around the building.
When I’m feeling really depressed, for instance, I just go for a half-hour walk in the forest and when I come back I’m able to make decisions with a lot more confidence and clarity.
Breathing exercises – these are not only tied to the ice swimming exercises I do, but I also do them in my office to help me stay energized and present when my day gets exceptionally challenging.
I know that topics like these have been covered in all kinds of places, and I enjoy reading personal accounts of how people use them. This is my attempt to contribute.
What’s really precious to me is that this topic is central not only in my life, but that I have been blessed to be surrounded by colleagues, partners and clients that are all interested in exploring these concepts together to help each other move forward.
I strongly suggest that everyone try ice swimming at least once. If after that you find it isn’t for you, don’t worry – taking a dip in near-freezing water is what I use, but there are many other ways to reconnect with yourself. And it’s that journey toward balance that can make your business and life more successful and satisfying.