Adjusting the Dials: Why Your Life Is Chaotic, and How to Fix It

Piece of electrical audio equipment with knobs. Old retro amplifier with selective focus
serkus/Bigstock.com

It would not be surprising to find out that for most people busy has replaced good as the auto-response to a How are you?

All 168 hours in the week may not actually be blocked out with schedule commitments in your smartphone calendar, but it certainly feels that way sometimes. Some of that is surely the acceleration of life that unprecedented technological innovation has enabled. Until recently, we didn’t have to worry about things like creating laws about email cutoff times to prevent people from barraging each other with messages late into the night. Workdays had clean boundaries.

Some of the busyness may be purposefully self-inflicted. A number of artists and academics have wondered if we try to preoccupy ourselves with busyness to avoid confronting feelings of emptiness, mortality, or meaningless. Even if we know it’s exhausting or stressful, busyness is better than nothingness.

The problem is that busyness for busyness’ sake is just a different kind of meaninglessness: spinning your wheels instead of being parked and paralyzed. In its best form, we’re busy because we’re engaged in activity that’s worth doing. Work we love. Learning a new hobby. Training for a marathon. Cooking for the family.

But the good kind of busy, worthwhile activity, is still only half of a flourishing way of life. The other half is rest and disengagement. The most basic form, of course, is sleep. This is not a biological complication in need of a technical fix to eliminate it. Sleep is essential to our ability to function properly during waking hours. Yet many of us wear a badge of honor proudly proclaiming how few hours of sleep we think we can get by on. Even then, we shoot ourselves in the foot in the race to REM sleep by gluing our eyes to blue-screened devices (blue = clear skies of the daytime = be awake, brain!) right up until we lay our head down on the pillow. During the day, our bodies work hard to maintain periods of stable energy and then let us know when they need rest, but we hijack that cycle by consuming all sorts of uppers and downers: coffee, tea, energy drinks, supplements; cocktails, beer, wine, sleeping meds, and the like. Most of us can’t hear our bodies telling us when we can be exerting and when we should rest.

Activity and rest are the most fundamental set of complements of a well-rounded life. We need engagement, risk, and sweat; and we need disconnection, mindfulness, and sleep. If we’re primarily just one or the other our lives get out of sorts. Just activity: exhaustion and bewildering bustle. Just inactivity: melancholy, occasional self-loathing, and extra pounds of bodyweight.

There are several other complements that flow out of the foundation of activity and rest. Exercise and recovery. Work and time-off. Socialization and solitude. Teaching and learning. Being in the city and being in nature. Self-critique and self-love. And many others.

These are not antagonistic binaries. Rather, there’s a sliding scale for each set of complements from one to the other. So if purely active is the left edge of the active/rest scale, purely restful is on the opposite end. Since binaries, scale, and purely this or that probably reads like a whole lot of jibjab, take a look at it visually.

Active/Rest Scale
Baldukas2015

Depending on what’s going on in your life and the time of the day, you’re likely closer to one or the other end. If you’re purely active, you’re probably not reading this because you’re too busy and about to pass out from exhaustion. If you’re purely restful, you also are likely not reading this because you’re in deep sleep. The rest of us are somewhere a bit left of center (middle of the workday, in the midst of a workout) or somewhere a bit right of center (streaming a movie, browsing through cake blogs).

Life feels chaotic whenever we’ve been too far to one side for too long.

Because we don’t swiftly jump back and forth between really active and really restful like alternating electric current. It takes a while for your body to recover from a long day of work or other strenuous activity. You’re trying to mellow out, pick up carryout for dinner, and go put sweatpants on, but you’ve still got adrenaline and cortisol flowing and a high-strung mind. Your body is still active when you’ve hit a time to rest. It takes a little while to slide over on the scale.

The middle of the scale is the goal. It’s balance; well-being; stability and contentment. To find that balance requires rhythm. Rhythm is understanding where you’re lodged on the scale and what you need to do to bring you closer to the center. If you’re off-center to one side, you need the contrast of the other side. If you’re in a state of hyperactivity you need an equivalent form of rest. It’s like counterweights. Or better: like the dials on a stereo or equalizer in a music app. If there’s too much bass in a song, you turn the dial to increase the treble to compensate. If your life has too much bass (and let’s be honest, we were a little too all about that bass, no treble for a while, there) you need to counterbalance to bring things into equilibrium.

This is true for any of the complementary pairs that contribute to your well-being. Too much exercise: you need recuperative things. Too much work: you need a vacation or a staycation. Too much socialization: you need some solitude. Too much city: get out in the woods. Too much teaching and leading other people: crack open a book in a quiet place to learn something new for yourself. Too much self-critique: do things that encourage self-love. Too much connecting: time for a bit of digital detox. And, of course, they can all overlap and interconnect. Some need to counterbalance this way, some that. If you’ve been in a downtown workplace completing work on a smartphone (too much work, connection, and solitude), you should get out and go for a hike with some friends (out in the woods, digital detox, socialization).

On an average day, it’s easy to get caught up in one thing after the next. You drop off your significant other. Work gives you a handful of surprises to resolve. You realize it’s 3 hours past lunchtime so you stop at a sandwich chain or a convenience store. Life just kind of happens to you, and you set the alarm to get up and do it again tomorrow. But when you consider where you’re at on the different scales, you can start making a day or a week happen with some design. You start living with some intentionality, the way that will help you feel balanced and well. Finding rhythm gives you a gameplan, a beat, a flow. It gives you a guide for the thing or kinds of things you should do next—and after that, and after that.

This means that most things we might do on a regular day aren’t inherently bad, but they might be bad for you in that particular moment because of where you’re at on the scale. They’re not a counterbalance right now: they’re a chaos catalyst. If you had a cheeseburger and soda for lunch, and then have fried chicken and a few beers for dinner, you’re going to put your digestion and energy out of whack. You want to think about something lighter for dinner (can’t go wrong with some pho). But if you’ve been eating light all week, maybe it’s a good night to treat yourself to a bit of comfort food. Fried chicken and beer isn’t evil—it’s just indulgent—and you might be self-sabotaging if you’re already well into the comfort food side of the scale instead of the health-conscious one.

Nobody’s going to be a flawless balancer. If we all were perfectly in the middle of each of life’s scales, unicorns and rainbows would probably spontaneously appear. But they don’t, and we’re not. It’s OK. Remember, there’s a self-critical/self-love scale to try to keep balanced too.

If we’re at least trying to find rhythm there’s a good chance that we actually will a lot of the time, and we’re going to have some real well-being and contentment because of it. That’s a lot better than busying ourselves into the meaningless chaos we were hoping to avoid.

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