The other day, a client asked me to explain, “how do you get to it all?” She wanted a concrete explanation of how to actually field the various roles and responsibilities life throws our way, while also maintaining some semblance of health, without a sense of constant overwhelm. She was talking about how to manage the myriad responsibilities that come with being a middle aged adult…parenting, helping our aging parents, attending to friends and partners, working, and, OH! – squeezing in some self-care. It’s a lot.
There are many suggestions about how to set up a system of balance, but I think it is less about the particular WAY you try to balance things and more about HOW you think about the whole concept. Thus, whatever system works for you is fine, but I believe there is an underlying philosophy that can help make whatever system you choose work the best.
The Philosophy: Balance appears to be achieved by addressing both what you want and what you are actually able to do. Essentially, this is a compromise between what you desire and what reality will let you achieve in the current timeframe you are working with.
This philosophy can be broken down into 5 steps. Once you’ve identified the steps for yourself, I suggest they need to be revisited regularly, sometimes on a daily basis, sometimes on a weekly or monthly basis. For the few lucky folks who have very, very predictable schedules, you may only need to do a review of these 5 steps every quarter or so. I’ll identify the 5 steps and then show you how I am actually implementing them in my life these days.
Step 1: Identify your top 3-5 values that drive you in the world. Values can range from kindness to competence, taking care of animals to putting yourself first. If you do a google search on “lists of values” you’ll get lots of options to choose from. Pick your top 3-5. Don’t worry; you can always rearrange or change them. Just start with the top 3-5 that are inspiring you most right now.
My current top 3 values are: joy, connection and health. I have chosen these 3 because they most neatly sum up what I am striving for in my life. I enjoy feeling joyful and love to help others feel more joy in their lives. I am fueled by connection and feel like my best self when I am well connected to my partner, my family and my friends. Health for me encompasses mental and physical wellbeing. My life’s work is to improve the mental health of my clients, and I need to attend to my own mental and physical health to be the best that I can be, both personally and professionally.
Step 2: Identify the behavioral action steps that go with these values. If you value learning, for example, maybe you will be taking a class. If you value honesty, you will probably be the kind of person who tries to be direct and truthful. For me, I am making sure that I am doing the type of activities that make me feel joyful (hiking, cooking, learning new things, reading, being playful). I am connecting regularly with friends, and even challenging myself to make eye contact and connect with strangers when appropriate, for example, greeting my bank teller by name, I’ll let someone in line in front of me at the grocery store who only has one item. Even brief connections can count! For health, I make sure to get enough sleep, workout at least 4 days a week, track my nutrition and meditate at night.
Step 3: Take a look at reality. Make sure that you are being realistic about your current reality. For example, how much money do you make? The reality of your income gives you a check on how much you should be spending. How much time can you realistically spend on things like working out? For example, I have several friends who are bike racers. It is a cool sport, but not for me because it requires much, much more time than I have to train. Therefore, I will ride my bike for fun, but for working out I train at the gym for an hour.
What other realities do you have? New baby? Reality is that you’re not sleeping as much as when you were single and childless. Two working parents? Reality means you and your partner will likely have to plan date nights! For me at the moment, one of my realities is that 3 days a week I am in charge of picking my daughter up at school at 3:30. This means I only see clients after work 2 days a week. Also, I don’t have loads of free time, so my nightly meditation practice (which sounds really good) is actually only about 2-5 minutes of time. Reality constrains what we are able to actually do. Some chafe at the constraint, but life becomes much easier if you acknowledge and work with your current reality.
Step 4: Put the puzzle pieces together, week by week, month by month, or however it works best for you in your current life situation. Don’t like how the pieces are fitting? Well, then you need to either change your values, shift your reality or accept this a phase in your life. For example, using the new baby scenario above, almost no one likes to get less sleep, but remembering that this is a short term phase of life tends to make it feel more bearable. Another suggestion is to combine values and actions that can complement each other. For example, almost every Friday I either go out to lunch or go for a hike with a friend or colleague. This hits all 3 of my top values but works around my limited amount of time available, and combines activities in a way that is both enjoyable and time efficient. By working with your values AND your reality, you can determine what actions you can take in any given time frame (day, week, month). Some week’s you may place one value above another, or need to shift your week’s plan due to unexpected realities (company in town, illness, other external obligations). Work with your daily, weekly or monthly schedule to make your actions as congruent with your values as you can, while dealing with the constraints of reality.
Step 5: When you are stuck, it is important to determine what value and accompanying behavior you are willing to give up. Sometimes It is a hard trade off. For example, many Wednesdays and Thursdays I eat a lousy lunch because it is more important to me at this time in my life to pick my child up from school at 3:30 than to take a decent lunch break and work later. Now is this something I recommend to many people? No! Eating a protein bar for lunch is not the best health choice. However, reality dictates that I have a really short work day on these days, so I am willing to compromise one of my values (health) in the short term for a longer term benefit (connection with my child). Here, my connection value outweighs my health value. Work with yourself and your situation to identify short cuts that might work for you.
In cases where you are regularly compromising one of your top values, it is important to ask yourself if that is really a top value, or if it is just one that you WISH was a top value. If you believe it is actually a top value, then it is time to adjust your schedule, priorities and actions to get closer to honoring that value.
Enjoy working the steps and matching your schedule to your values. Understand that this is a fluid process that will change over time, requiring a new assessment of top values, behaviors and how they fit into reality. Let me know how this goes for you, or if you’d like me to help you identify your values and look at your schedule to see where we can honor more of what you’d really like to see in your life.