Lucky for you, life isn’t like a plane (for one thing, the seats are way more comfortable.) If you can simply find 20 minutes to sit and think in a quiet place, it IS possible to get clear about what’s not working and how to fix it.
(Don’t have 20 minutes? Likely that’s the problem to start with.)
Step 1: The Good Stuff
First, take a piece of paper and write down a list of everything currently going right in your life. (Because sometimes it’s only by putting our strengths under a microscope that we can best identify our weaknesses.)
If you have a hard time coming up with a list, write down some life categories, (i.e. “health, “marriage,” “career” etc.) and try to come up with ideas under each.
(Still coming up with nothing? Maybe you’re depressed. Honestly, it happens to the best of us. Perhaps the whole point of this exercise is realizing you may need to get some help with that.)
Once you have your list of “good stuff,” consider…
- As a whole, is your life really all that messed up? Are the changes you’d like to make being driven by truly bad things happening in your life right now, or by your lack of acceptance that life is never going to be perfect?
- Are any of the good things in your life contributing to the stuff you’d like to change? If so, ask yourself if that’s necessarily a bad thing. For example, let’s say your relationships are great, but your career is going nowhere. What if that’s ok? Maybe this is the time in your life when you put those connections first and let your career coast a little, (or maybe those relationships are going to help you create your new career.)
- What do all of these good things suggest about you as a person? For example, if your job and your relationships are going great but your health kind of sucks, maybe that simply means you’re a giver. Maybe ask yourself why giving your time and energy to others is so much more important to you than giving it to yourself.
Essentially, treat all of this “good stuff” as fodder for learning more about yourself and where your priorities are. Then, move on to the harder part…
Step 2: The Bad Stuff
Take another piece of paper and list some life categories, (mine usually are: Physical Health, Mental Health, Career, Social Life, Marriage, Parenting, Community.) Think of these categories as a row of buckets on the ground in front of you.*
Start brainstorming things you’d like to change (about yourself, about your life, about the world…whatever floats your boat) and toss each idea into the metaphorical bucket that feels like the best fit. (e.g. “My pants don’t fit” goes under “Physical Health,” or “I hate my boss” goes under “Career”.)
You will learn a lot from how your buckets start “filling up.”
- If you only have a single problem tossed into one bucket but dozens in the others, maybe it’s time to get rid of that light bucket entirely. You’re human and can only do so much in a day. If you want to make the biggest impact in your life, concentrate your energy on the places where things are the most messed up–in other words, your fullest bucket(s) to which you have the strongest emotional connection.
- Let’s say one of your buckets is simply overflowing with problems. It might make sense to organize all of those problems into subcategories. For example, maybe under “Social Life” you have “Obstacles keeping me stuck at home,” or “People I’ve lost touch with.” If this bucket is full it’s likely because it’s a fundamental problem in your life. Perhaps it needs to be your sole focus moving forward.
- If a few buckets are full of huge, complex issues while others contain nitpicky items (like your “Physical Health bucket has “not flossing enough” or “keep forgetting to get a tetanus shot”), consider filing away these nitpicky lists for now. These can be rainy day projects for when your life is feeling more on track.
Step 3: Getting started
O.K., now you have two lists: one of good stuff in your life and another of organized bad stuff.
First, stick your good stuff list somewhere where you can see it easily and often. Use this list to remind yourself every day that you know how to win, (even if all it feels like you’re doing lately is losing.)
Then, take the list of bad stuff and start thinking about next steps.
- It’s likely some of the issues on your bad list deeply resonate with you in your gut while others feel important, but may not be all that critical. Focus on the gut stuff. If it helps, number your buckets in order of priority. Put everything that is a low priority on the back burner.
- Once you’ve picked the top issue(s) that are most important to you right now, drill down on them until you get to an action item. (In other words…take the top priority bucket, find the top sub-category in that bucket, identify the most pressing issue in that sub-category, and then ask yourself, “what can I do to address this today?”) One small thing will suffice. You’re moving mountains here, so don’t waste time daydreaming about how to build a bulldozer. Just scoop some dirt in your hand and toss it. Then repeat that step tomorrow…and the day after that…and the day after that.
- Share your top priority and your action item(s) with people who know and love you. This will help you build in some accountability for yourself. It will also create a cheering section who can help lift you up in those moments in the coming days when you have doubts, when you fall, or when you fail.
The truth is, changing the things that aren’t working in your life is a tough task. Not everyone is in a place to do the work and not everyone has the courage to take the first step. Once you do, you’ll often be faced with tedious tasks for which you’ll likely get no praise or glory.
You should do it anyway.
You only get this one, precious life, my friends. Take 20 minutes now and then to ensure you’re making the most of it.
*If you hate the three dimensional concept of “buckets” substitute the word “list.”