Note: This is a guest post from Angela G. Horn of Mostly Mindful.
January was Get A Balanced Life Month.
Can you even remember that far back? More to the point, why am I pointing this out when it’s already May?
Well, we’re more than a third of the way into 2023. So I figured now would be the perfect time to see how things are going. Let’s start with a question.
How balanced is your life right now?
Here’s the thing. There’s a lot you can do to get organized at the outset of the new year. Decluttering, cleaning up your inbox, getting your admin in order, and so on.
But unlike the examples listed above, balance isn’t a box you check off on your to-do list and then move on with your day. Between work, family, friends, and health, it can often feel as if life is a never-ending juggle.
Most of us are never going to reach a point where all areas of our lives are in perfect harmony. And that’s okay. You can’t expect to give the same amount of effort to everything.
Depending on what you have going on, one area will always need more attention than the rest.
A big project at work means extra hours at the office. A health setback makes self-care a priority. Small children or elderly parents will have family taking precedence.
That’s how life is. Things happen. If you haven’t laid the groundwork for balance, your life will feel like an endless game of Whack-a-Mole.
Let’s agree to make 2023 the year that stops happening. I’ll get to the steps to a balanced further down, but first, a quick primer on Stephen Covey’s four-quadrant time management system.
The Four Quadrants: Where to Focus Your Attention
Stephen Covey’s four quadrants is a time management concept that helps individuals prioritize their activities based on urgency and importance. The concept is outlined in more detail in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
The four quadrants are:
- Quadrant 1 (Urgent and Important): Activities that are both urgent and important. These are tasks that require immediate attention, such as emergencies or impending deadlines.
- Quadrant 2 (Not Urgent but Important): Activities that are important but not urgent. These are tasks that contribute to long-term goals and success but may not have a specific deadline or immediate consequences.
- Quadrant 3 (Urgent but Not Important): Activities that are urgent but not important. These are tasks that may be time-sensitive but do not contribute significantly to long-term goals or success.
- Quadrant 4 (Not Urgent and Not Important): Activities that are neither urgent nor important. These are tasks that do not contribute to long-term goals and are often time-wasting activities, such as scrolling through social media, watching TV, or getting stuck in the latest news cycle.
Covey suggests that individuals should focus on Quadrant 2 activities to achieve their long-term goals and minimize Quadrant 1 activities through effective planning and organization. Quadrant 3 and 4 activities should be minimized or eliminated as they do not contribute significantly to personal success.
5 Steps to a More Balanced Life
The aim of these five steps is to help you minimize stress and maximize wellbeing. By dialing those down and up respectively, you’ll be better positioned to achieve and maintain a sense of equilibrium in your life. And in doing so, free yourself up to focus on the things that are important.
Implementing the suggestions below won’t make all your days zen perfect, but they’re sure to be a huge improvement on your previous status quo. Sayonara Whack-a-Mole. Hello, balance.
1. Figure Out Your #1 Self-Care Habit
When life gets busy, taking care of yourself is often the first thing to suffer. Between deadlines at work, raising kids, and being active in your community, finding time for you can be tough.
Michelle Segar, a leading researcher in the science of sustainable health behaviors, says one of the most important things we can do is identify our #1 self-care habit. That one thing that keeps us energized, plugged in, and ready to rock.
For her, it’s sleep. For her husband, it’s exercise. I used to think that exercise was mine, too, until I skipped my morning meditation practice three days in a row. It wasn’t pretty.
What’s your one thing? Whatever it is, make it a non-negotiable priority in your life. Schedule it into your calendar, and stick to it no matter what. Remember, you can’t take care of those around you if you don’t first take care of yourself.
2. Decide Which Burner to Turn Off
I learned about The Four Burners Theory from the habit guru James Clear.
Imagine that your life is represented by a stove with four burners on it. Each burner symbolizes one major quadrant of your life.
1. The first burner represents your family
2. The second burner is your friends.
3. The third burner is your health.
4. The fourth burner is your work.
The Four Burners Theory says that “in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful, you have to cut off two.
As James points out, that leaves you with two options.
The first is to choose a more balanced life and accept that you’ll never reach your full potential in any one of the quadrants. The second is to go all out in one area at the expense of one the others.
If you dream of going to the Olympics or creating the next Google, turning off two burners is how you’ll get there. If not, turning off one is plenty.
But how do you decide which one to turn off?
You need to get clear on what’s most important to you. Six months or a year from now it might be different, but focus on what matters most to you in this moment. Once you know what that is, you’ll know which burner to turn off.
If work is most important, health and family might come next, which means friends are out of the picture for now. Turning a burner off might be hard, but you’ll know in your gut which one has to cool for a while.
3. Create Foolproof Systems
This is another tip I learned from James Clear. He says that instead of setting goals, you need to focus on creating systems. I’ve always been more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type of person, but since reading Atomic Habits, I’m a convert.
I finally understand the importance of creating foolproof systems. You don’t have to think, you just do. How is this helpful? Surely operating on autopilot kills creativity?
It’s actually the opposite. When you avoid decision fatigue, you free your brain up to focus on the important stuff. Whatever that is for you.
These systems also act as insurance. I won’t say you’ll never forget something, but the chances are a lot slimmer than they are when you’re in Whack-a-Mole mode.
Write down all the things you need (and would like) to get done on a daily basis. Some, like brushing your teeth and driving to work, are already ingrained. It’s the things you keep forgetting that you need to install systems for.
Those systems can be simple. I kept forgetting to write in my gratitude journal before going to bed, so I started placing my journal on my pillow after making the bed in the morning. Problem solved.
Think about how you can use this tactic in your own life. For example, do mornings always run late because the kids can’t find their stuff? Have them pack their bags and leave them in the hall before bed.
Are you always misplacing things? Give everything in your house a place. When you get home you hang up your car keys on the hook behind the door.
The idea is that eventually, all these things will become rote activities. When you reach that point, your brain is on autopilot. The chance of you forgetting something is close to zero.
4. Get Help When You Need It
Asking for help is tricky, especially for us women. Men hate asking for directions, but we hate asking for pretty much anything. It’s ridiculous. I mean, why wouldn’t you get some help when you need it?
Help can be anything from employing a cleaning service to hiring a babysitter to paying someone to do your taxes for you. It doesn’t matter.
The important thing is that you ask for help when you need it. Trying to do everything on your own will drive you crazy. Also, it’s a surefire way to keep your life in a constant state of imbalance.
If you can’t afford to pay for the help you need you could always barter with friends and family. We all have different skills to bring to the table. You might be great at admin, while someone else in your clan is a food prep maestro. Perhaps it’s as simple as agreeing to carpool your kids so everyone has at least a couple of mornings free.
Think about how that could work in your immediate family, your friendship circle, and even among work colleagues. We’re all different, but one thing the majority of us have in common nowadays is a shortage of time. Teamwork makes the dream work.
5. Breathe, Let It Go, and Enjoy
Regardless of how well you plan or how many systems you have in place, things will sometimes go awry. It could be a blocked drain, a fender bender, a bout of flu, or whatever.
What’s important is how you respond to these situations. You can either argue with reality (and lose) or you can breathe and let it go. Accept that you’re behind on your day, and make the best of it.
When you’re so focused on balancing everything, it’s easy to take life a little too seriously. Remember to give yourself free time to relax and regroup.
Downtime is as much a part of getting a balanced life as being productive is. Take a trip, get a massage, or go to a movie, whatever appeals to you. You’ll come back more balanced than you left.
Final Thoughts on Re-Centering Yourself
Becoming un-busy can take work. You need to extricate yourself from the old way of doing things. You need to put systems in place and retrain yourself to operate more efficiently. But, get it right and you’ll have freed up not only the time, but the mental bandwidth to focus more fully on Covey’s second quadrant.
Even better, you’ll find that life is more balanced.
Angela lives in Cape Town. She enjoys spending her time drinking coffee and writing about her urban hippie adventures on Mostly Mindful.
Dawn Biy says
The timing of this is amazing! I’ve been thinking for several months if I should go back to school for a masters in education. I’ve been a stay at home mom for 17 years and my first child is leaving the nest. I’m no spring chicken! It helped me make the decision not to go that route as our would throw my other “burners” out of balance. Thank you!
I’m so happy it helped you make a decision you feel is right for you now.
Just playing Devil’s Advocate though, if your first child is leaving the nest I’m assuming maybe any remaining kiddos are not far behind? If that is the case perhaps it is time to consider turning up your education/work burner and dialling back a little on family.
As a fellow “not-so-spring-chicken” I feel your desire to grow in a different direction. Feel free to tell me to mind my own beeswax, of course! Ha ha.
Either way, I’m super happy the post helped in some way.
I loved the 4 quadrants part, but the four burners metaphor is… wow.
I‘ve never heard of/read anything by James Clear, but to suggest that it might be a smart idea to cut off (not ‚lower the flame‘ but ‚turn off‘ the burner!) friends, health or family for work(!) – in a scenario when pretty much all shops and companies hang ‚we are hiring‘ signs – is the complete opposite of what all the big names in the minimalism industry have ever advised, and for good reason, too.
Joshua Fields Millburn, Courtney Carver, Ryan Nicodemus and, yes, Joshua Becker all started their way into minimalism because their obligations to job or home kept them from spending time on (or having) their family, friends or health care.
James Clear is the habit guru who wrote Atomic Habits. His work is definitely worth reading! It can be tough to get your head around the four-burner technique, but James thoroughly explains it in the post I linked to.
Honestly, I don’t think it’s dangerous advice (obviously, else I wouldn’t have proposed it lol). We all have to make tough choices about where we spend our time. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it in the long run. :)
Angella, this is a beautiful piece. You are speaking directly to my mind. I have fallen in love with the post.
Hi Moses, I’m so happy you enjoyed it! :)
Spring has sprung says
Hmmmm. Im not too sure about cutting off a burner of those four categories. (Family. Friends. Work. Health) HOWEVER, what about Coveys 4 quadrants. What if I’m trying to cut out not urgent not important quadrant 4, and cut down in quadrant 3? I can really get behind a hybrid of these two. Turning off the burner under quad 4 feels like a life giving goal to aspire to. I feel hopeful!! Thank you.
That’s an interesting way to look at it – perhaps you’re onto something by proposing some hybrid. For me, my friends burner will still remain off for now. I have a side hustle I’m focusing on, so all I have the capacity for right now is family, work, and health.
That’s not to say I’ve lost touch with my friends completely. I still message etc., but I’m not hanging out with them right now. :)