It feels like a long time since I last posted an essay to this site – and it has been a full month. The last few months have been a bit of a whirlwind for me with my move and starting an intensive educational program (I wrote about both of those changes here). Also thrown into the mix was a trip to visit family and attend my brother’s wedding, which was a nice break but stressful both leading up to it and afterwards. We’re now doing some remodeling to our house and while we’re excited for the end result, there is a lot of upheaval involved in the process.
In the midst of all of this, I haven’t forgotten about this blog and I have a lot of ideas for things I want to write about. I’m still working on the productivity “hacks” I wrote about last time that will enable me to better accomplish what’s important to me while minimizing stress and overwhelm. I will write more about that soon, but I have something else in mind for today. I’m going to apply a principle from a children’s story to life balance and looking at the various aspects of our lives.
Too Much, Too Little, Just Right
Do you remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? It’s a popular children’s tale in which a young girl wanders into a cottage and finds three bowls of porridge, three chairs, and three beds. Upon testing out these items, she finds that two of each are “too” something or another (hot, cold, big, small, hard, soft) while the third one is “just right.” There are various philosophical implications of this simple story, but I want to focus on the “too something or another” aspect of it.
When we look at the different facets of our lives and examine them, we often find that there are some things that feel “off.” Perhaps we’re doing too much of some things and not enough of others. One key toward living a fulfilling life is to “tweak” our time, energy, and focus such that they are appropriately allocated toward the activities and pursuits that are most important to us. Of course, things are never going to be perfectly balanced all the time, but it can be helpful to pause periodically to examine the current state of affairs and make adjustments as needed.
Three Simple Exercises to Increase Awareness
Below I share three simple exercises you can do to better understand what’s too much, what’s too little, and what’s just right in your life. Doing these exercises can help increase your awareness and better empower you to make any necessary changes. Each exercise will take you less than an hour to do. You don’t need to do all three, but if you have the time and the inclination to do so, I think you’ll reap rich benefits from the process. As I outline the exercises, I will share some examples and insights that I have gained from this type of self-exploration and the shifts I’ve made – or plan to make – as a result.
If you do one or more of these exercises and end up feeling like you’ve veered wildly off course and need to make drastic changes, that may not necessarily be the case. It often doesn’t take a big shift to increase one’s sense of control, peace, and satisfaction – a little can go a long way! Sometimes just scaling back on a few draining tasks and adding some joyful activities can make the difference between feeling overwhelmed and being re-energized.
The Plate Exercise
Years ago when I had a phone session with a life coach I was working with, she recommended a simple exercise that I found very helpful. She suggested that I make a list of everything I had on the “plate” of my life – relationships, activities, commitments, projects, etc. After I had the full list in place, my next step was to ask myself what I would willingly add to a clean plate that day if I had a choice in the matter. I found that some of what I had taken on was no longer bringing me joy and perhaps never had.
At the time, I belonged to several networking organizations and was on the board of directors of one. I was also involved in a service organization in a leadership role. As I pondered what I would add choose for my life if I had a clean slate, I decided that these responsibilities felt like “shoulds” to me rather than commitments I was passionate about. I had said yes to certain roles because I was either afraid to say no or didn’t give myself the time and space to truly consider my options.
After doing the plate exercise, I decided to scale way back on my participation in various organizations. I didn’t leave them high and dry, but I did set the wheels in motion for stepping back as soon as possible. Of course, I realize that not all commitments can be as easily broken. If you hate your job or are overwhelmed with a particular relationship, walking away may not be an option, at least not in the short term. But simply realizing what isn’t bringing you joy can push you to take steps in the right direction.
You can start looking for a new job, for example, or take some classes to explore other career possibilities. If a relationship is bringing you down, you may be able to negotiate changes through communication or therapy or you may wish to spend less time engaging with that person. But sometimes we do need to walk away from relationships that bring us more grief than joy. I have done this with a number of friendships and it wasn’t easy. It can be very painful to let go, but on the other side of that pain is peace and an open space for bringing new and more positive relationships into your life.
The Plus, Minus, Equals Exercise
This exercise is similar to the one above but is a bit more nuanced. It starts out similarly in that you begin by listing all of the roles, responsibilities, and commitments in your life. Then, next to each item on your list, you will place a plus sign, a minus sign, or an equal sign. Place a plus sign next to anything for which you’d like to increase the time, energy, and focus you’re dedicating to it. If you want to scale back on your involvement with something you’ve listed, note that by the presence of a minus sign. If you’re happy with your level of engagement with an item in question, place an equal sign next to it.
One key to making this exercise as useful as possible is to make the list expansive. You can even include your consumption of certain types of foods and beverages, as well as the types of things you read, watch, and listen to. It can be beneficial to take a full day and jot down anything you give your attention to from the time you wake up until you go to bed. This will help you to capture more items to evaluate and potentially improve. As I just thought of this idea while writing this post, I’m going to do my full list tomorrow, but I already have a good sense of the things I’d like to either increase or decrease.
Here are some of the things I’d like to increase:
- Reading books
- Going for walks, especially when it’s light outside (I often go for walks at night)
- Watching movies
- Keeping in touch with friends and family
- Eating vegetables
- Trying new recipes
- Taking photos and sharing them with others
- Blogging (I want to get back to posting as often as I did earlier this year)
The things I’d like to decrease include:
- Staying up late
- Being on screens (tablet, smart phone) at night
- Listening to podcasts (I would like to be more deliberate about this)
- Internet surfing on my phone
- Buying and returning things
If you end up with fairly lengthy plus and minus lists like mine, I recommend that you select just one or two things to work on to get started and that you make relatively small changes. For example, I could commit to contacting two friends or family members and trying out one new recipe each week. Setting too many goals can set us up for feeling defeated because it takes time to create and maintain new habits. Once you have firmly made a shift or two, you can then opt to tackle something else you’d like to either increase or decrease. Small, gradual changes have a much better chance of becoming permanent and they build up over time.
The Wheel of Life
The final exercise I’m recommending is a tool many coaches use called The Wheel of Life. There are various iterations of this tool, but they usually look something like this:
As you can see, the wheel is divided into eight different sections, each one of which represents a specific area of our lives. To do the exercise, consider your level of satisfaction with each life area on a scale of one to ten, with one being extremely dissatisfied and ten connoting a very high level of contentment. Draw a line at the appropriate level inside each wedge of the life “pie.” After you’re done, you’ll have a quick and easy graphical representation of how balanced your life is. Your end result may look something like this:
The next step is usually to select one or two areas of your life to work on over the next month or so. Like with the last tool I mentioned above, commit to making a few small but significant changes. Let’s say the person who completed the example above decided to focus on their significant other relationship and their finances. They may opt to have a weekly date night with their spouse and start budgeting and tracking their income and expenditures using a tool like Quicken or YNAB.
It can be helpful to do the Wheel of Life assessment on a quarterly basis (here’s a free online tool) to maintain awareness of your satisfaction with the various areas of your life. My husband and I did this for number of years, but stopped a while back for unknown reasons. Suggesting this tool in today’s post is encouraging me to revisit this quarterly practice, as it helped us to set and track meaningful life goals. We have been focusing a big chunk of our energy on the physical environment portion of our lives with our recent move and remodeling projects, so perhaps we need to allocate more energy to fun and recreation and friends and family in the coming months. We’ll see what we come up with when we revisit The Wheel of Life soon!
I hope you found this post interesting and helpful, especially if you’re feeling like something needs to change in your life. If you opt to do one or all of the exercises I suggested, I would love for you to share how it went for you and what changes you’ve decided to make as a result of what you learned. I have also been thinking about applying the “goldilocks principle” to our wardrobes, so I will be back soon with my thoughts on that topic. Although I have written a lot about closet downsizing in the past, there is still more to explore and share, so stay tuned. Thanks for reading and I look forward to your feedback.