How to Design a Better Life

My life has been crazy for the last few years with job changes, kids’ activities, freelance projects, and a million other things. I know this is a common situation for many of us, but there is a way to stay focused, reduce stress, and achieve our goals.

When we’re in the middle of difficult phases of life, it’s easy to get caught up in the chaos and lose track of how we want to live. Each day drifts into the next, then suddenly months have passed and we haven’t made any progress.

The solution is to stop, assess your current situation, and create a plan to move forward toward a better life. I’m reminded of a quote from the famous Gen-X philosopher Ferris Bueller:

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it. — FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF

The first step in designing a better life is to create a system for assessing your current situation, setting goals, and monitoring progress. This helps you to establish a starting point so that you have a way to measure the results when you make changes. To be successful, you need tools that are easy to use.

A personal wheel of life can be an integral part of your system.

Areas of Life

I was always good at compartmentalizing things when I was a kid.

My parents divorced when I was young and I was raised by a single mother who often had to work two jobs. I had an absentee father who drank a lot and had little interest in his two sons.

I used compartmentalization as a way to keep the rough parts of my life from interfering with the good parts. The compartments were pretty simple – school, sports, hobbies, friends, and family.

Over time, I outgrew the need to separate my life into rigid compartments as a coping mechanism. However, I think there is value in viewing life as a blend of different areas that flow together through give and take.

Today, there’s a popular belief that we should all strive for balanced lives. We’ve all heard the phrase “work-life balance.” I believe in this concept to an extent, but I think most of us have the wrong definition of balance.

When we think of balance, most of us think of a static state where everything is equal and there is no movement. As a physical therapist, I think of balance as a dynamic state where forces are constantly playing give and take to maintain a position.

For example, when you stand on one leg, you appear to be completely motionless as you hold the “static” position. In truth, the muscles in your body are constantly contracting and relaxing as your body mass shifts to maintain this apparent state of stillness.

I believe that the same is true in life. There are many areas or factors that constantly ebb and flow to maintain your current state.

What Is A “Balanced” Life?

We often think of a balanced life as an equal relationship between work, family, and other areas of our lives. We think of balance as a destination that will make everything better if we can just reach it. This model is easy to understand, but it’s not quite accurate.

A balanced life is similar to the single leg standing example above. You appear to be standing still in a static balanced position, but in reality, there are many small movements happening in your body. As you try to balance your body, muscles are firing while your body is swaying back and forth around a point of gravity. The situation is actually very dynamic.

If you’re trying to find balance in your life, you should identify the main areas such as health, finances, relationships, or any other area that you want to monitor. You’ll need to pay attention to each of these areas to assess what’s really happening. Sometimes you might be spending more time on work, while other times you need to spend more time on your relationships or on your health. This is where a wheel of life model can help.

The Wheel Of Life

I’ve always been fascinated by Eastern philosophy and ideas. When I deployed to Desert Shield/Desert Storm, I took a few books with me including the Tao Te Ching and The 3 Pillars of Zen. I’ve had a particular interest in the ideas presented in Buddhism. One concept that resonated with me was the wheel of life.

A wheel of life is a diagram that illustrates the different areas of your life as a circle divided like a pie into sections. Each section represents an area of your life, for example, health, finances, relationships. There are many variations on this theme from ancient Eastern teachings to more modern self-help writers.

Using the wheel of life can help to compartmentalize things when life gets busy, but it can also help to keep things in perspective when you look at areas relative to each other. For instance, if you are struggling with finances and it is a low area for you, you can check it against your relationships or other areas. It’s unlikely that every area of your life is in a low state at the same time.

Comparing the areas of your life might help you realize that you are doing well in many areas even though a couple might need work. The wheel of life model can help you determine where to spend your time and effort to improve your life. It will also allow you to track your progress over time.

A wheel of life is a circle divided like a pie where each slice represents an area of your life. There is a line drawn from the center of the circle through each area with a scale rated 0 to 10 to indicate the level of success. Some models use 10 concentric circles instead of a number line to rate the level of success in each area.

You can assess the balance of your life by rating each of the areas of focus from 0 to 10, then shading in that area below that line. This will show where are you spending most of your time and energy – the highest shaded areas. These are also the areas of greater success. The lower shaded areas indicate parts of your life that have room for improvement. These can become your target areas.

Using Deliberate Imbalance

Once you’ve identified some target areas, you can make changes in these areas by using the concept of deliberate imbalance to influence your outcomes. Going back to the example of standing on one leg, you can make yourself fall by deliberately shifting your body weight in any direction as long as movement is outside of your base of support.

By adding effort (shifting your weight), you change the outcome of the situation. Instead of remaining in the single leg stance state, your body falls to the ground and causes you to take an additional step. You can use this concept to your advantage if you know where to focus the shift of effort. This is where a wheel of life can help.

I’ve created several versions of my own wheel of life over the years. It has been a helpful exercise that helps me determine how each of the areas of my life is doing. In other words, how successful am I in each area and am I spending enough time working on the areas that could be better?

To assess where you are spending your time versus where you need to be spending your time, I recommend creating a personal wheel of life.

  • Think about the different areas of your life make a list of 5-10 areas that you identify as the main categories (i.e., health, work, relationships, finances).
  • Draw a circle, then draw lines through it to divide it into equal sections like pie slices – one slice for each area of your life.
  • Make 10 marks on each line from the center of the pie to the outer edge of the circle; 10 will be the circle itself.
  • Label each slice of the pie as one of the areas of your life.
  • Think about how you are doing or how you feel about each area of your life, then rate it 0-10 with 10 being the highest.
  • Mark your score for each area and color the area from center to your mark. Use a different color for each area of life.
  • When you finish creating your wheel of life, you’ll have a visual diagram of the current status of the different areas of your life. The next step is to review your calendar, to-do lists, and commitments.

 

Wheels of Life
Shared by London Permaculture via Flickr

 

Review everything on your calendar and categorize the events into the areas of life that you identified for your wheel of life. If you use Google Calendar, you can use color-coded tags for each area so they’re easy to see. Do the same with your to-do list or task management app. Many of these apps also allow you to use color-coded tags. Be consistent with the colors for each area in your wheel of life and across your apps.

Next, make a list of all of your current commitments and any associated activities. Categorize them in each of the areas of life as well. If you use Word or Google apps to create your list, you can highlight the text to match the colors used in your calendar and task management apps. If you’re making your list with pen and paper, use highlighters to mark each entry by area of life.

I know this seems like a lot of work upfront, but it will help you assess whether your current actions and commitments are aligned with the areas of life that need more attention. Once you’ve completed these steps, review your calendar, to-do list, and commitments. How do they match up with your wheel of life? Are you spending time and effort in the areas that need work?

After you’ve determined which areas you’d like to improve, set goals and an action plan to achieve the goals. As you make changes, you can monitor your success by updating your wheel of life. Using this tool and the system described above will help you to be more deliberate in how you live. You’ll be on the path to designing a better life.

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