Balancing your wellbeing is impossible

Anke Neustadt

Whether it’s a balanced diet or balancing your exercise routine with rest, you’ve no doubt been told that a dose of the B-word is key to living a healthier, simpler life. So why can that balance feel so elusive?

That’s the question strength and health coach Alicia McKenzie asks in her book, Balance Is Bullshit. She argues that we will never be able to find the sweet spot – and that there are better ways to fit in all the elements of health and wellbeing you need to succeed.

First, let’s break down what those elements are. ‘Wellness’ can feel overwhelmingly complicated, but McKenzie explains that there are four key pillars. They are:

Physical wellness: including functional movement and healthy eating

Community wellness: such as a sense of belonging and giving back

Mental wellness: focusing on motivation and gratitude

Financial wellness: such as financial power and intentional spending

These elements are what she envisions as the ‘glass balls’ of life: “Often, it feels like I’m juggling 10 balls at the same time. Most of them are rubber, but several – physical, mental, community and financial wellness – are glass.

“It’s OK if I drop any of the rubber balls, because when they hit the ground they’ll bounce and I’ll adjust to keep the others in the air. But if I drop any of the glass balls, they won’t bounce, they’ll break – and that’s when I’m going to have issues,” she writes.  

How to balance the four pillars of wellness

Prioritising these areas of life is a great place to start. But even maintaining those four glass balls can feel like a lot. That’s why she wants to dispel the myth that they are all equally important, all of the time.

In the book, McKenzie explains that there are times when certain elements of our life need to take precedent – and that’s fine. Like when you’re on a deadline at work and have to let your hour-long lunchtime walk slide, or when you have to pay a big bill and can’t go to the fancy dinners with friends.

Actually, McKenzie believes that the definition of balance is wrong when used in the context of our lives. The real definition of the word is “a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions”. 

But, says McKenzie, “I don’t think the elements of my life have ever been balanced in equal proportions.” Let’s not forget that some elements won’t need as much attention as others; if you don’t have mental health issues, your mental wellness ball might manage just fine, but paying attention to that ball may be more important for someone with anxiety. 

Rather than trying and failing to make all of these areas equal, McKenzie opts for integration – ensuring all four pillars exist in her life, even in small ways. “No one wakes up each morning and says, “I’m going to integrate my work, self-care and responsibility perfectly.” No matter how well-intentioned we may be…

“By shifting your mindset from one of balance to one of integration, it becomes less likely that you will neglect any of the four pillars,” she says.

Essentially, as long as all four balls are in the air, it doesn’t matter if one is a teeny-tiny pea-sized ball of glass. Just keep juggling it. But when the other balls are so big, how do you do that? 

A woman doing a side plank
Balancing all areas of your life isn’t easy

How to integrate wellness 

Start with little changes

“The struggle and greatest potential for failure happens when we try taking on too many changes at once,” says McKenzie. In the book, she writes about one client who wanted to integrate more physical wellness activities into her life, but didn’t know where to start. So she did five minutes of exercise a day for a week. When that felt good, she did 10 minutes. Within two months, she was at the gym lifting dumbbells.

“While five minutes may not have seemed like a lot at first, using a progressive-overload methodology (setting the foundational habit of movement combined with gradual increases) was the recipe for progress,” says McKenzie.

We use this strategy all the time in our workouts themselves, but it’s a great principle to apply to our wider search for wellness. Just as you didn’t walk into the gym on the first day and deadlift 100kg, why do we expect to suddenly know how to manage our money, look after our neighbours and meditate (and balance all those things)?

Form habits 

Preparing and continuing these small tasks makes them into a habit that you can integrate into your life. In her habit formulation, McKenzie says the most straight-forward way to build a habit is to:

  • Decide on the goal – 10,000 steps a day
  • Choose an action you can do every day – walk for 30 minutes
  • Set a time and place you can do it – every morning on the way to work
  • Be consistent – do it every day, rather than just when it’s sunny or easy to get up
  • Note when it’s intuitive – McKenzie says that after 10 weeks, you probably won’t think about the fact that you’re doing it, you just will

When that habit is integrated, start again with a new habit. The idea is that, while it may take time to integrate something from every pillar, the habits will actually last if you take it slowly.

Celebrate the small wins

On that note, McKenzie says acknowledging and celebrating your integration is crucial. The small wins are just as important as the big ones, she says, noting the famous quote by Admiral William H McRaven: “If you want to change the world, start by making your bed.”

“It is an accomplishment. It’s a small win that’s completed first thing in the morning, and if nothing else goes your way that day, you will come home to a freshly made bed,” McKenzie writes. Forget balance – a celebratory sleep in clean sheets is much more appealing.

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