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Finding Joy by Focusing on the Essentials

An awareness of what matters most to us and where we spend our time and energy can help us rewrite our life stories in a positive way.

“The reason people talk so much about work-life balance is because no one has ever attained it,” says Tamara McCleary, Founder and CEO of Thulium, a brand strategy and social influence agency. “We are making ourselves miserable chasing something that doesn’t exist.”

In a recent presentation to the YPO Spouse/Partner Business Network, McCreary suggested instead of seeking constant equilibrium, people should take a longer view, and strive for balance over days, rather than moments. This calls for replacing negative or judgmental thoughts — proven to issue destructive chemicals in the brain — with positive thoughts, and it requires rethinking the stories we write about our own lives.

We create stories to make sense of our world, to piece together patterns and make sense of what we are feeling. If we reframe our stories as positive, they will engender restoration and healing.

Life is a journey and, like any journey, “getting there” requires an advance understanding of the destination. McCreary suggests several exercises to help you identify your destination by tuning into what really matters to you.

Picture your life as a tree

On a piece of paper, draw a sturdy tree, with roots, trunk, branches and leaves. Think about what you believe to be your core being/purpose both at work and at home and write those things on the trunk. On the roots, write what your home life and work life are grounded in. Cover the branches with the names of the most important people and areas of your life. And, on the leaves, write what you want to produce from your time and energy at work and at home.

Consider joy and challenge

Take a few quiet moments to list 10 moments in the past month when you felt joy or deeply fulfilled. This will not only inform you about what you enjoy most, but also how much you are (or are not) cultivating opportunities for such experiences. (Sadly, many people struggle to come up with even three, much less 10.) Then think about recent moments when you have experienced challenges at work or at home. Most people find this list much easier to develop.

The key is to develop awareness of both, and use this awareness to focus more on the joy in your life, work, family, health, fitness, finances, parenting, etc.

Seek clarity

Write down thoughts or words that exemplify the kind of personal life you would like to have. Do the same for your work life, and then consider what your life would look like if you could combine the two. This helps you gain clarity about what you want. “We can have anything we want, but not everything we want. We must make very specific choices. Clarity will help guide you,” notes McCreary.

One way to think about what to write for this exercise is to start at the end: write a eulogy for yourself. What would you want said about yourself and your life?

Set priorities

This is a multiple-part exercise. Do each part before you read the next step:

  1. List — in no particular order — all the people, goals, hobbies, career accomplishments and dreams you have. To keep the exercise manageable, aim for about 10 items.
  2. Now, go back and assign a number to each, with one being the thing that is most important to you, two a little less important, three a little less important still, and so on.
  3. Finally, write a letter beside each item: an A beside the item on which you spend the most time, B where you spend a little less time, etc., continuing until you have a different letter by each item.

Is the item that is most important to you (number 1) getting most of your time (letter A)? If not, why not, and how can this change? This exercise can kickstart a re-scripting of your life. Life stories drive behaviors, so positive stories tend to have positive consequences. If you focus your time and energy on what really matters to you, you can move from overwhelmed to fulfilled and from suffering to sensational.