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We all know the difficulties of working out.
We know what it’s like to climb the peaks and suffer the valleys.
We know that progress never gets easier and returns diminish.
Some people respond to this with pure piss and vinegar—no-holds-barred, no-days-off, no-excuses-no-explanations-no-regrets.
BUCKLE UP, BUTTERBALL, they cry, IF YOU WANNA LEVEL UP, YOU GOTTA TRAIN INSANE, EARN EVERY INCH, FUCK SLEEP, DRINK PRE-WORKOUT, RELEASE THE KRAKEN.
Shriek. Flail. Gyrate.
And then there are those who coo in ASMR tones about the need for kindness and care, for embracing your wholeness and radiance, for dropping into your heart space and feeling into your sensations and don’t forget to exfoliate and it’s okay if you didn’t work out today here’s a baby Yoda.
Too many people lean too heavily toward one of these extremes and neglect the other. They’ve weaned themselves on either a diet of nothing but oppressively tough love or cloying self-care.
And in the fitness racket, there’s a lot more of the former than the latter. Everywhere you turn there’s another hard-faced hardbody growling about embracing the suck and doing it anyway so you can earn the aftermath one brick at a time.
The ball-ache is both of these approaches ultimately hold you back. Both are unkind. Stir the agita too much and it reaches critical mass and you spiral into burnout. Coddle yourself too much and your spirit cools and congeals and you slide into blackout.
The key is balance, in knowing when to flow and when to float, when to brace up and bear down and when to back off and breathe. Go, go, go versus slow, slow, slow.
How do you find that balance?
That’s one of life’s mysteries. I wish I had a pat answer. My guess is there isn’t one. It’s a matter of learning about ourselves and our capabilities and limits, and the only way to do that is to spend a lot of time at the coalface and reflect on our experiences. How hard can we push before the wheels start to fall off and how much rest do we need to recover?
This will be heavily informed by what we value most in life. Do we want purpose, intensity, and achievement or latitude, relaxation, and enjoyment? Neither path is inherently better than the other, but we have to choose one. We can either strive or savor, not both.
A simple illustration of this is the “four burners” theory of life.
Imagine your life as a stove with four burners that symbolize its most immediate compartments —your health, family, friends, and work.
The theory states that to be a high achiever, you need to virtually cut off one of your burners, and to be truly exceptional, you need to snuff out two. In other words, if you want to have a great career, you must sacrifice much of either your health, social life, or family, and if you want to join the ranks of the elite, you must knock out another as well.
This analogy highlights an important axiom of life: it’s a game of tradeoffs. If you want to have a vibrant and fulfilling career and marriage, you’re not going to have much time or energy left to give to your health and social life. If you want to be a model parent with exceptional health, it’s going to be hard if not impossible to excel in your work. And if you want to divide your efforts equally among the four elements, you can achieve plenty of “balance” but little self-actualization.
The key here isn’t what tradeoffs you accept but simply that you consciously accept and embrace them. Otherwise, you won’t find much satisfaction in living because you’ll always be painfully aware of whatever’s “missing” without the counterbalancing consolation of what’s not.
For my part, I’ve chosen to more or less extinguish the friends burner and dial back the family so I can maximize work and health (which are intertwined for me, naturally). Practically speaking, that means I spend about 80% of my waking hours studying, working, and working out, and most of the remaining 20% goes to my family.
At some point—in a later “season” in my life—I’ll probably want to trim work and turn up family and friends and probably even add a fifth burner—civic—but as for now, this is the life that makes the most sense for me given my goals, temperament, and circumstances.
Such an “imbalanced” lifestyle that revolves mostly around work may not suit you at all, and there’s nothing wrong with that. While you won’t have as much of an impact in the world or make as much money as you could, you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy something that frustratingly eludes so many overachievers: enough.
No matter how much money, prestige, victories, trinkets, beauty, or sex they have, some people seem to be hardwired to simply want more. What for? They couldn’t tell you. All they know is they don’t have enough. If you could sum their life up in a bumper sticker, it’d read “whoever dies with the most toys wins.”
Regardless of where you fall on the strive to savor spectrum, know this:
Self-care is meant to be a sojourn, not hearth and home—a pit stop in the race. Linger there for too long and it’s procrastination. Leave it out for too long and it’s punishment. The trick is knowing how to thread this needle, how to get the work done without ravaging the worker, when to screw up your courage and gut it out and when to strike your flag and regroup.