Balance, Part 1: Between Over-Think and Auto-Think

This is part of a series of “Balance” posts that will treat the subject of balance from a transdisciplinary perspective (for more on this, see end of post). It’s not about work-life balance only, but about the many decisions that modern citizens of the world have to evaluate today. I hope these discussions help you determine where you need to be on the spectrum to find your own inner truth.

rope being pulled in two directions

Balance can be a very loaded word these days.

Bloggers, pundits, media empresses (think Oprah) pay lip service or regularly feature articles about the need for ‘balance’ in our lives. This has led some people to reject the idea of cultivating balance in their lives at all, like Courtney and Tyler.

But I have a different take on balance, and why it’s important. I am not going to touch the rolling online snowball that is the debate about “women having it all,” but I suspect this is what alienated Courtney about the idea of balance.

What I mean is a constant, minute calibration, to ensure that our actions, the way we spend our lives, has meaning. Repeatedly asking, ‘Is this right for me?’ will lead us to our inner truth on the matter.

For this first post in the series, we examine two thinking patterns. On one side, there is the extreme of Over-Thinking. On the other, there is Auto-Thinking. Let me show you a couple examples.

Example, the First: Over-Think

You wake up, on a day when you don’t have to go to work. You remember your resolution of the night before: to go on a run this morning. But as you lay there in  bed, you think about the difficulties, the old cotton socks that are the only ones left in the drawer suitable for running. The possibility that your feet might start hurting again, like they did last time you ran. The foolishness of buying new running shoes when the problem is the way you run, and injure yourself. The folly of thinking that running would be the low-cost exercise alternative after those expensive new shoes…

Does this sound far-fetched? Or all too familiar?

As the person who had these thoughts, they still have a ring of rational logic.

But rational logic, in fact, is not what we’re best at when we first wake up.

At some point in rattling down this list of myriad potential difficulties and shortcomings and reasons to put off the run, I was able to step back from my overworking brain and blink away the veneer of rationality.

I got up, put on the damn shoes, and ran.

birds on wire: overthinking

Example, the Second: Auto-Think

You wake up, meaning to go for a run (excuse me if this sounds familiar). After some dilly-dallying, you get dressed, get your iPod all set, but then you walk into the kitchen and get out a bowl, the milk, and the cereal. You have opened the box of cereal and are about to pour when the vague background noise of your thinking brain suddenly comes to the fore: “Don’t eat a big bowl of cereal now; you’re about to go for a run!”

You stop. What was directing your movements before? A hidden puppeteer?

You just got caught in Auto-Think mode.

Actually, it was me (congratulations to those who guessed it). I did this the same exact day I had the tormenting thoughts about running. What is this, a concerted effort on the part of my unconscious to sabotage my best intentions?

These two incidents, happening as they did so close together, brought home to me the importance of balance, in this case between Over-Think and Auto-Think.

Otto Pilot, Wall-E

Seeds of Good Intentions

Obviously there are seeds of good intentions in each of these directions. Thinking about your goals and activities gives you the chance to make them purposeful, positive steps toward living the life you imagine. And giving yourself routines or some sense of structure can help to ingrain good habits and make mental room for more complex decisions (as President Obama does).

But going too far in either direction leads you to pitfalls:


 Overthinking is both a product of, and contributor to, self-doubt. As you saw in my example, I quickly cycled from concerns about pain from running to questioning my actions in buying the new shoes. Such self-doubt can be crippling if left to continue. Strengthen your decision process, and thereby strengthen your confidence in yourself.

Over-Thinking also leads to stunted growth, as the thinker preempts action with worry and does not move forward, or sideways, or anywhere. As many of this new generation will tell you, if you don’t act, you don’t grow.



Auto-pilot mode may be one of the major causes of overeating in the U.S. and I’ve definitely struggled with mindful eating. My friend Lori at Blithe Niche has written some excellent posts on this topic.

Too much auto-pilot can dull the edge of existence. Don’t believe me? Ask the characters of Wall-E, whose lives are run by machines and marketing gurus… a lot like ours are…

And finally, too much auto-thinking can make us miss the point. If you are dutifully running 5 miles every day because 3 years ago you needed to lose weight, but no longer take joy in it, you should change your fitness activity so that you do. Life isn’t all about duty and goals. The original reason for getting fit was to stay healthy and be able to live longer.

So make that life worth living.


N.B. Wikipedia’s entry on transdisciplinary is pretty good, but you can also look at this Copyblogger take on the subject, this helpful Puttylike post on the topic, or explore Agile Lifestyle, where Tony has built a whole site on the premise of applying the lessons of business, psychology, and Agile software development to our personal lives. I know, totally cool, right??


Images via Craig T. OwensAardsmaBehindtheVoiceActors, and 

6 Responses to Balance, Part 1: Between Over-Think and Auto-Think

  1. Pingback: Balance 2: Challenging Yourself vs. Accepting Yourself | Taste Life Twice

  2. Wow, thank you for the kind words and shout-out, Margaret! I like the transdisciplinary angle — I am a big believer in the concept.

    One common theme that stands out in the bios of great decision-makers is the ability to analogize and draw the lessons out of diverse experiences. The sweet spot between over-thinking and auto-thinking decisions is a lifelong challenge and I think you’ve hit on the tension well.

    One strategy I like is to put in as much upfront thinking as necessary and then not make the same decision again. We have a tendency to “re-litigate” pros and cons every time we encounter a decision, even if it’s very similar to a decision that we’ve made in the past. This can be as simple as choosing between brands in the grocery aisle or as fraught with complication as whether to accept a wedding invitation. Setting a policy and executing can be helpful with these types of decisions.

    • So true! Great comment, as you’ve hit on one of the things I’ve dreamed of these past few months: a system of systems. I feel that in tackling so much new ground, my memory’s capacity is exceeded, so I end up wanting to write down how I did something every time it works. But this will either lead to endless little slips of paper, or endless cells in a spreadsheet, OR endless Google Docs… so you see I haven’t quite gotten to the ‘next phase’ yet, lol! Our memories, the recall of them, and our operating RAM– still a mystery! I’d be ecstatic to find out someone has an app for that…

  3. Pingback: Balance 3: Mediating Focus and Openness | Taste Life Twice

  4. Pingback: Balance 4: Mind Control, Flexible Mind | Taste Life Twice

  5. Pingback: Rollercoasters and Roller Derbies | Margaret Pinard, Writer

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