As a young physician, Sanjay Jain decided to look at alternative investments and put 95 per cent of his money in real estate. It was a quick decision – he had always been the king of quick decisions. And being an eternal optimist, he never considered the possibility of losing money.
But his timing was poor, just prior to the real estate meltdown in the United States. He lost all his money, finding himself on the brink of bankruptcy with a young family and new baby. His peace of mind was shattered. He couldn't sleep and was under enormous stress. He began to ponder the experience, ruminating and reading about how to live a more balanced life, and took an MBA to help him better understand business and investing.
His experiences came together in a schema the Washington-area physician and life coach uses to talk about balance. Just as an investor allocates his wealth among assets such as stocks, bonds, real estate and cash, the doctor suggests you start by considering the core assets of your own life: safety, physical health, intellectual health, relationships, economic security and spiritual well-being.
Others have come up with similar frameworks, but his groupings are somewhat different . Just as your investment allocation changes over a lifetime – you may be heavily invested in stocks in your 30s but hardly at all by retirement – your allocation of time and energy, the main currencies for these spheres, will vary over the years. "In college, you may focus on the intellectual part. In midlife you may focus on your family and other relationships. Later in life, you may slant it to the spiritual," he said in an interview.
He stresses his model isn't a cookie-cutter solution. Everyone has to allocate their investments in these assets differently. Over a lifetime, he figures the investment in each dimension might be roughly equal in balance. But at any one time, imbalance is likely, even helpful. "As long as you have an element of each, you'll be fine."
He puts safety first in his framework, as people don't pay too much attention to this asset. "You can have all the good things in life and, in a second, it can be wiped out," he said, referring to an automobile accident rather than a real estate crash.
Some things are controllable, while others are not. Airline safety is mostly out of your control. But you can put on your seat belts when in a car. You can pay attention to certain health and safety risks, and undertake preventative screenings. At the same time, he warns in his book Optimal Living 360: Smart Decision Making for a Balanced Life, it doesn't pay to live in fear and let paranoia destroy you.
As well as ensuring safety, you will want to pursue good physical health. But he urges you to make dietary and exercise changes slowly: If it has taken your entire life to get out of shape, it's fine if it takes some time to reverse that.
Education covers your intellectual, emotional and mental health. He has spent years in the classroom himself, and notes that formal education is linked to better health, a longer life span, and higher income and self-esteem. But he also points to the value of life-long learning in other ways. It's also about leisure, to pump up your emotional and mental health, and avoid information overload.
Relationships cover love and happiness – since humans are social beings, you cannot be fulfilled without them. (He notes that living in isolation in prison is considered one of the worst situations a human being can endure.)
He uses an onion as a metaphor for relationships – as you peel away the layers, you go from acquaintances on the outside to most of the people you know in the middle, to the inner core of family, lovers and close friends. From his investment perspective, he asks you to consider your social wealth, and how you might allocate resources to relationships more fruitfully.
The most important aspect of money for most people, he said, is job and career, so it's important to shape that as best as you can.
Spiritual well-being is not exclusively about religion but more broadly about being in tune with something larger than yourself – depth, meaning, and purpose of life. Spirituality can give hope. But being extreme about religion, he worries, can lead to a dangerous imbalance.
Paying attention to these six elements of your life can put you on a better footing. As you invest your time, energy, money and social currency in these assets, however, keep in mind the law of diminishing returns.
At some point, your return on investment will start to shrink. An example might be diets, where the first few pounds come off much faster than the last ones. Be prepared to hit a plateau. As given returns diminish, don't go too far overboard in one category, he warns, but apply a sense of balance.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter