Balance in Life

March 6, 2005

There is no free lunch in life, which is a good thing. If you overdo something, you have to let go of another. Some of us like living at the extremes, obsessed with a few things at the cost of everything else. It’s a life style choice. Others seem to do better with being in the middle of the road.

Like most things in life, there is an optimal amount of time one may spend on any activity. After this, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Deviating from a path of balance seems only optimal when one might experience the law of increasing returns. Whether or when this switch-over occurs is more a philosophical matter than one of fact.

For example, if we wish to learn to play a musical instrument. Are we better off playing for a little time each day or crash-coursing it by playing several hours for the first stage of the learning process? There is something to be said for both approaches. In the former, we are likely to err on the side of stopping before the right amount of time, i.e. on the path of increasing returns to time spent, but short of the optimal. In the latter, we are likely to err on the side of reaching the region of diminishing returns. Where this optimal point lies varies from person to person.

Hence, when we talk about achieving “balance” in our lives, we are (a) referring to our self-awareness about this optimal stopping point, and (b) we are dealing with a notion of “relative” balance, and not an absolute one.

Nature has the notion of balance hard-wired into its system! Take going to the gym. At a low level of exertion, you do not reach an aerobic state and the activity is physically worthless. Once you cross a threshold where your heart rate begins to climb you are in a “low” aerobic state, wherein the body is not stressed, yet begins to burn fat to provide energy, since fat needs time to burn, and with low stress, this is possible. At a slightly higher exertion level, you remain in a “high” aerobic state, but now, the muscles need energy fast, and the body burns less fat and more carbohydrates, which release energy faster (we know this as the cardiovascular state). Any exertion beyond this point is too much for the physique to handle, and is bad, and is known as anaerobic. In this phase, lactic acid accumulates in the muscles, suffocating them, rather than answering their clammer for more oxygen. So our physical systems are great examples of “balance” – too much or too little physical activity is detrimental. Doing nothing is bad, and “thrashing” yourself in the gym is even worse. Buddhists know something when they speak of the “middle” path.

The same works for the mind. Through much of my life, I have always worked steadily, never doing things at the last minute. It has served me well. I never studied in “exam week”, simply put in the time slowly over prior weeks. This is one of the prime reasons for my learning to drink coffee very late in my life – I assume most people develop a need-based fondness for coffee in those crazed days of cramming for tests. We are all only too keenly aware of the fact that we function so much better when we have had plenty of sleep. And when we oversleep, it also takes the mind time to recover from the stupor. Learning should never be undertaken too slowly or too fast. As with eating, there is a good middle digestive time.

I have begun to notice that my friends who multi-task well seem to be those with a good awareness of their optimal balance points. Multi-tasking, across the physical and intellectual domains seems to be highly correlated with balance. Again, low bandwidth or too high a bandwidth life style seems to work poorly; getting the balance always does.

As an academic one is always striving for that right balance between teaching and research. I worry about those that complain incessantly about teaching, stating that research is the real role of an academic. They a priori discard their free option of balance. We academics are indeed lucky to have such a clear cut scale to work with, and I do believe many of us find our optimal points.