Lagom: The secret to balance

The Swedish concept of Lagom  has been hailed as the key to finding balance and happiness. But can it help us find more time in our busy lives? By Emma Johnson

Our time is precious. Feeling overwhelmed is common. Stress is on the rise. The juggle is real. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we can balance all the things in our lives so not one of them takes over, we can finally make time for the things that matter.

In Sweden, balance is a way of life, and knowing how to make the most of your time is a cultural imperative. The Swedes still face challenges, problems and worries, but the concept of lagom offers a wonderful way of removing complications and creating space for joy.

The best way to think of lagom is ‘not too much, not too little, just the right amount’. That means no diet and denial, but also no overindulging or bingeing. It means neither frugality nor excess. You buy what you need, and are conscious when you spend. You talk, but not too much, and not over anyone else. You respect people’s space and boundaries, and they, in turn, respect yours.

And what goes around comes around. The more the Swedes moderate their impact on the environment, on their spending and on the space they occupy, the more they learn to respect each other, and the more time they have for each other and for themselves. 

It helps that the country’s quality of life is among the best in the world. A family utopia, Sweden has a strong welfare state, its people are well paid and the working hours are shorter. There is generous holiday and parental leave, there is subsidised childcare, and there is balance in everything from free education to extensive recycling. The average Swede works 1,644 hours per year, compared to an average of 1,776 across the rest of the world. Swedish parents are entitled to 480 days of parental leave when a child is born, and get paid time off to care for sick children.

This is a product of lagom. The respect ethic that runs through it gives people the power to make their own choices, because they will likely make good ones. ‘The mantra of aiming for just enough at all times comes with benefits for our inner psychological and emotional world, as well as society at large,’ writes Linnea Dunne in her book Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living. ‘It’s about affording our consciousness the space to just be, and allowing enough latitude for change.’

The art of lagom is doing and having less, and being economical, thoughtful and intentional with the time you have. It is a skill. ‘Lagom shapes us into more mindful creatures in tune with our bodies and our needs,’ says Lola A. Åkerström, author of Lagom: The Swedish Art of Living Well. ‘It sharpens our curiosity and consciousness, and it provides questions that help us better assess what we choose to bring into our lives, be they material items or relationships.’

Lagom encourages us to respect ourselves and others. You value everyone’s time as precious, including your own, and so you do not waste it. This respect, central to lagom, says that we should be able to comfortably share space without devaluing others and their time. It also helps to create respectful boundaries around your space and time, and that of others.

‘We need to do what we say and mean what we do,’ says Åkerström. ‘This can be accomplished by not over-promising. By creating logical parameters around what we can and can’t do, we can let our actions speak for themselves.’

How can this translate to our day-to-day lives?

Be on time

Punctuality is key to lagom. When Swedes meet, they pick a time and stick to it. Being late would mean imposing the value of your time on someone else’s. ‘Punctuality is the single most important thing you can do to respect the time of others,’ says Åkerström.

Learn to say no

‘No’ is used freely and often in Sweden. Foreigners may see this bluntness as rudeness but it is the exact opposite. ‘Yes or no questions get yes or no answers,’ explains Dunne in Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living. ‘You can’t criticise Swedes for wasting anyone’s time.’

Speak less, listen more

Random chit-chat and stating the obvious is discouraged. When Swedes speak, they mean something, and they spend as much time listening as they do talking. There is a focus on pausing and listening to each other, seeing and hearing more, missing less. ‘There are so many opportunities and details that we miss when we dominate conversation and take up space,’ says Åkerström.

Make time for fika

Stopping regularly while working is another important element. Fika is the practice of having breaks to talk to others, to share food and coffee, to pause. These breaks often last no longer than fifteen minutes, but each marks a simple intersection in the day, breaking long pockets of working into effective bursts of energy. Again, balance is the key: work and pleasure are both good in moderation.

Work well

The Swedes work with intention and dedication, but stop when they need to and don’t allow themselves to overwork. Employees are actively encouraged to leave on the dot of 5pm, and it would be considered understandable to reject taking on work if it would negatively affect the work you have already. A culture of efficiency means that emails are concise and meetings are focused.

Curate your belongings

Reducing choices is a great way to reclaim time, which explains the Swedish trend towards minimalism. Curating a wardrobe and home that contain only pieces you love is a way to balance time doing and time being. If your wardrobe contains only items that you love, that you want to wear often and that you know how to pair, it saves time getting dressed. ‘Moderate conscious consumption makes decluttering easier,’ says Dunne. ‘It makes your home a more peaceful place.’

These small adjustments to your day and way of living can have a big impact. If you save minutes or hours here and there, your day opens up with possibility. ‘Those small conscious changes pull us closer to that core balance where the most important things in our lives are as they should be,’ says Åkerström. ‘They become that blanket of comfort and contentment that blooms around us. This truly is the sweetest secret to living well.’