An Intentional Life: Step 2, Balance

Other steps: Step 1 | Steps 3-4 | Step 5

For years I’ve been developing a framework to help me build a more intentional life. During the pandemic, I started transforming this concept into an online course. The live version of the course is currently on hold, but I decided to start sharing the content here.

In this post, we will walk through the second exercise. Step 2 moves beyond the insights of Step 1, further dividing the activities that fill up your days into what I’ve dubbed The Four Ps.

I first wrote about The Four Ps back in 2016. You don’t have to read that old post, but it goes into a bit more detail about my early experiences with the process, if you’re curious.

Here are The Four Ps and how I define them:

Productivity: A fitting term for this category might be “adulting.” It includes cyclical tasks that must be performed regularly, like paying bills, shopping for groceries, preparing meals, caring for children or other family members, participating in the paid workforce, and so on. Some of us are inclined to load up on these tasks, others less so.

Progress: This category encompasses hobbies, passion projects, and upgrades. These activities typically help you cultivate a body of knowledge, hone a skill, or produce a tangible product. This includes pursuits like writing, painting, knitting, guitar lessons, researching how to start a small business, renovating a bathroom, learning a new language, and so on. They tend to be less recurring and more linear than the Productivity tasks (and one would rarely call them “tasks”).  

Peace: These activities promote quiet contemplation, presence in the moment, or devotion. This category includes activities like spiritual practices, meditation, time in nature, journaling, gratitude practices, and other actions that allow you to refocus and recharge. Other P words that work here are Pause and Perspective.

Play: These are activities you do to have fun without concern for any specific outcome other than relaxation, entertainment, and/or connection. Pamper and Pleasure are two more Ps that apply here. This category includes hanging out with friends, watching Netflix, scrolling through social media, “retail therapy” (yes, I think sustainable amounts of this are ok), getting a pedicure or massage, etc.

If you are feeling dissatisfied or out of sorts, perhaps you are doing too much of one or two of the Ps and not enough of the others. It is my firm belief that working toward a balance of The Four Ps that clicks for you can be life-changing.

Four Ps Exercise

Make sure your list from Step 1 is handy. Now, take another piece of paper (or whatever medium you prefer to use) and draw a vertical line and a horizontal line in the middle so that it’s divided it into four equal squares. Write Productivity at the top of the first square, Progress at the top of the next square, Peace in the third square and Play in the final square. (It really doesn’t matter in what order you place them.)

Take the items from your first sheet and write each one in its appropriate square. Try to find a way to note whether each item came from the Automatic or the Willpower column. You could write an A or W next to each item (whichever applies) or write the Automatics in one color and the Willpowers in another color. Maybe you write the Automatics in lowercase and the Willpowers in ALL CAPS? It’s up to you.

You don’t have to transfer every single item from Sheet 1 to Sheet 2—just the ones that take up significant chunks of time. For example, if you wrote “brush teeth” under Automatic, you could probably skip that one. You will also transfer over the Willpower items that don’t yet take up much time, but which you want or need to do more often.

Some items may fit in more than one category; do your best to limit each item to just one P. For example: I put yoga under Peace, though it could also fall under Progress. As with the first exercise, don’t get hung up on trying to be “perfect” here—if you find yourself wavering, just pick a square.

Now, look at your Four Ps: How do they compare? Do some squares have more Automatic items while others have more Willpower items?

Assess the amount of energy and time you currently dedicate to performing activities in each category. Give each category its own rating for comparison’s sake and to establish a baseline. Previously, I used numeric scales for measurement purposes. These days, I try to avoid using numbers when they aren’t necessary because they feed into my OCD tendencies.

My paid version of this course was going to have a kick-ass color-based system to give each category an “intensity” rating (shout out to my husband who was going to do the coding). For now, you can use a scale of 0-10, or a letter rating, or whatever floats your boat. Feel free to get creative!

A score at one end of your range indicates that you’re doing zero regular activities in the category; a score at the other end of the range signals that you’re performing a heavy load of tasks in the category. For most people, the high end of the scale is not the goal—in fact, it likely means you’re overloaded in the category.

Once you have assigned your ratings, ask yourself: How do I feel about the balance that my Four Ps depict? Would I like the categories to be closer in intensity?

As we move on, remember that there is no ideal recipe for The Four Ps—only the formula that best suits you.

Until next time, great work!

Ready for more? Move on to Steps 3 and 4.

An Intentional Life: Step 1, Awareness

Other steps: Step 2 | Steps 3-4 | Step 5

Over the past six months, in addition to writing and editing my memoir, I’ve been developing an online course. The concept is based on a life-balance framework that I first wrote about on this blog way back in 2016.

For a long time, I felt stuck in my daily routine. I wanted to cultivate a more fulfilling mix of activities in my life, but I was always putting off taking action. So, I started reading about habits and motivation. Then, I experimented with how to set new priorities and make mindful choices. A course I took from Jocelyn K. Glei called RESET also helped get my butt in gear.

The approach I came up with worked so well that I am now writing, reading, practicing yoga, and meditating regularly—all things I was struggling to do before.

I’ve decided to pause creating the live version of this course, but I still think the ideas are worth sharing. So, I’m going to post the content here in four steps, similar to how the course would have unfolded in Zoom sessions.

If you aren’t quite ready to hire a life coach but could use some tools to shape an intentional life that works for you, my approach just might help.

Activities Exercise

Start by taking a close look at how you currently spend your time—this includes activities that you do on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

Take out a piece of paper and draw a vertical line down the middle (or do this on your laptop, on a white board, your phone, whatever makes you happy). At the top of the left column, write Automatic. At the top of the right column, write Willpower. Then, start listing activities under each category, as defined below:

Automatic – These are activities that you perform freely, with little-to-no prodding (from yourself or others). This includes activities that you find fun or rewarding, habits that have become second nature, and tasks that you perform willingly out of a sense of responsibility.

Willpower – These are activities you want or need to do, but do not perform consistently (if at all). You have to summon significant willpower to start and/or complete these tasks, so they rarely get done. This includes activities that you find boring, challenging, or alien to your regular routine. 

Here’s a condensed example of my sheet from when I first started doing this:

Automatic

  • Watch TV
  • Scroll on social media
  • Caretaking for Mom
  • Walk the dog
  • Make meals
  • Pay bills
  • Texting with friends
  • “Busy” work (tidying, organizing)

Willpower

  • Read (and finish) books
  • Write and edit
  • Yoga
  • Meditate
  • Cardio exercise
  • Crafting
  • Calls and visits with friends
  • “Heavy” chores (bathrooms, floors)

Take your time and try to get down as many activities as possible. My full list had 22 items in each column! Sometimes a task seems to fall in the middle. Try your best to put it in one column or the other—you’re not being graded, so just pick a side.

Now, reflect on why items landed in either column and how you might shake things up. Ask yourself these five questions:

  1. Why do I perform the Automatic activities on a regular basis? This may include a variety of reasons, depending on the task. You don’t have to do this for every item, but try picking out at least five and asking why. Keep going if you’re having fun and gaining insight.
  2. Why are the Willpower activities so challenging for me to perform regularly? Again, varied reasons may apply, depending on the task. Start with a few items and continue as long as you like.
  3. Which Willpower items would I most like to incorporate into my schedule? It is highly unlikely that you’re going to suddenly start doing everything in the right column. This approach is about creating a sustainable balance—not pushing yourself to take on too much. As you move on to later steps, you may want to build habits for some of these Willpower activities so that you perform them regularly; for others, you may simply want to be more mindful that they’re on your menu.
  4. Are there any Automatic tasks that I can scale back or delegate to other people in order to free up time for Willpower activities? Circle those tasks. (Sadly, there is no magic way to add minutes to your day. You must make the time yourself, and the Automatic column is where you look to do so.)
  5. Am I resistant to the prospect of letting go of any of the Automatic tasks? If so, why?

This exercise might seem like a giant no-brainer, but I promise you that being more aware of how you spend your time is critical to moving forward. Getting it down on paper can be hugely enlightening, even to those of us who consider ourselves highly self-reflective.

Splendid work—good for you for getting started!

When you’re ready, you can move on to Step 2.

Accepting New Things

There’s a saying that goes, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” According to the internet, this quote is a mash-up of writings by Mahatma Ghandi and a 1914 speech by union leader Nicholas Klein.

These men were referring to the gradual success of political movements, but I think the insight captures the spirit of how we humans respond to all kinds of new things.

Earlier this year, I went to pick up food at a Five Guys burger joint, and while I waited, I became fascinated with a sign that was attached to the side of their soda machine. I don’t know if you’ve ever interacted with one of these touch-screen soda machines, but they’re pretty cool. You can choose from like a thousand options of soda, tea, lemonade, sports drinks, and fruit flavorings. It makes the traditional soda fountain look quaint and insufficient.

The sign instructed customers that they could use their smart phone to scan a QR code from the screen of the soda machine. This would allow them to select from all of the same beverage options through their phone rather than having to touch a screen that other people may have touched.

At first, I rolled my eyes hard. I snapped a photo of the sign, looking forward to sharing this ridiculousness with my husband. He, too, chuckled when he saw it.

Months later, I was scrolling through my phone and happened upon that photo. With some distance, it didn’t seem quite so silly. Why not offer people an option that takes advantage of the powerful technology that so many of us carry around? Who was this sign hurting? OK, it might slow down the line a tad as people try to figure out the app, but what’s the problem with slowing down for a minute or two?

Things that are new and different scare us. Our minds haven’t yet figured out why we need them or how they work, so we reject them. Why is that? Maybe the primitive part of our brain worries that if we don’t understand something, if we have to incorporate new information in order to “get” it, that implies something is lacking in us.

But as time goes on, and we acquire that knowledge without even trying, as we think about it some more and become familiar with the new thing, we start to warm up to it.

Sometimes, like the quote, we still fight against the new thing. And those who fight don’t always win. But slowly, the new thing becomes a part of our culture, and we grow to accept it. Can you think of an example of a practice that was shunned, even outlawed, which is now embraced? I bet you can. This has been happening for centuries in societies all over the world. The process can be long or short or anywhere in between.

This same principle is at work in our personal lives. We resist making changes. The new thing—think meditation, exercise, journaling—runs counter to the self that we know. Contemplating adding this new thing to our existence suggests that we are currently incomplete or deficient. And that makes us feel unsafe, so we puff ourselves up by snickering at the alien thing.

However, once you immerse yourself in something unusual, the process of acceptance speeds up—like stepping your foot on the gas. We can all override our instinct to ridicule the new and unusual, and the reward is a more expansive life and a more inclusive society.

Rooftops and Control Issues

Years ago, when I lived in New York City, I used to visit friends in Brooklyn. This couple lived in an apartment building that was about five or six stories tall, and they had access to the roof. Hanging out on their roof offered a dramatic view of the Manhattan skyline.

Whenever we were up on that roof, taking in the towering skyscrapers, I kept my distance from the edge of the building. If I stood within a couple feet of the edge, I felt as if I might go flying right off.

I had no desire to jump, and my friends weren’t prone to violence or stupid stunts, so the chance of falling from their roof was remote. But it terrified me, nonetheless. If I did inch toward the edge, my heart started thumping and my stomach twisted, as if I were on a tightrope instead of a solid surface.

Since I was a kid, I’ve been afraid of my life spiraling out of control. For decades I struggled to feel secure about my safety, health, finances, friendships, relationships, even my mental stability.

My mind would go from zero to 60 in an instant. A sharp pain in my back was probably cancer, an overdrawn bank account would lead to financial ruin, a missed deadline meant I was about to get fired.

Clearly, I had issues with control. My brain always craved more.

No one wants less control over their lives, right? We expect a certain measure of control over the basics—where we live, what we eat, whom we love, how we dress, what we read, when or if we have a family, how or if we worship. When those options are blocked, we get our backs up, and rightly so.

But for some folks, a generally accepted level of control is inadequate. It’s too slippery, too treacherous.

Control is a funny thing. I could argue that we have way more control over our lives than we realize, and I would be right. I could also make a compelling argument that we have far less power than we think and be correct. Like a kaleidoscope, our ability to control our lives is constantly shifting due to all the moving parts.

How can we panicky people accept the randomness of human existence? I’ve decided to focus on the control that I do have. I am scouring my days, looking for parcels of time that I can affect. The simple act of pausing and choosing one thing over another instead of running on auto-pilot is surprisingly empowering.

Instead of watching cable news, I can read. In the first 62 days of 2021, I completed six books, which is the same number I read all last year.

Rather than getting lost in YouTube videos, I can write in my journal. I’ve never been much of a journal keeper, but this year I am using a book with prompts and have filled 40 typed pages thus far.

When I have 10 minutes here or there, instead of scrolling through social media, I can meditate.

Instead of doing busywork (like organizing my closet or writing out detailed to-do lists), I can take a walk or do yoga or brainstorm small business ideas.

Big actions can help clear the decks for the smaller stuff. I chose to quit drinking nearly four years ago, which was a huge power move. That decision opened up vast amounts of time in my life.

The results have been promising. The more control I exert over my days, the less I worry about my life blowing away from me.

Procrastination, Priorities, and Vegetable Soup

Let’s say you are making a big pot of vegetable soup. (Yes, it’s analogy time again.) You find a recipe online but decide to improvise—spending an hour inspecting your spice rack. Once you settle on a mix of herbs and spices, you grab whatever bags of veggies you have in the freezer and dump them into the pot.

Your soup may turn out perfectly fine, but most folks would agree that your emphasis on ingredients was misplaced. Flavor enhancements are important, but this is a vegetable soup. You might want to spend more time choosing and chopping fresh veggies if you want a truly delicious soup.

If you want a truly fulfilling life, you must also choose which ingredients (or actions) to concentrate on. For years, my personal priorities were out of whack. I would spend precious time on busywork rather than creative projects.

If you’re anything like me, this train of thought might sound familiar:  I need to write a blog post, but maybe I should put on a load of laundry first. Oh, and now would be the perfect time to rake up those leaves in the front yard. And wouldn’t it be nice to organize that pile of stuff on the coffee table? Laundry’s ready to fold! Ugh, now I’m drained, and I deserve a break. Instead of writing, I’ll just collapse on the couch and watch Netflix.

This was happening over and over again because I was stuck in a loop of focusing on things that were mentally easy to do but still consumed considerable time and energy. It felt good to be crushing it at “adulting”—but this system was leaving me unfulfilled in a larger sense.

Last fall I took a course to help get my life on track and establish a writing practice. In the first phase, we were encouraged to set goals that we could achieve in approximately three months. One of my goals was to write 30,000 words in my book by the end of January.

This goal sounded intimidating, given that I hadn’t written regularly in ages. But if I wrote, on average, five days a week, I only needed to produce 400 words a day over the 15-week period. Totally reasonable!

But to make this happen, I had to stop staring at the spice shelf.

I had to break my habits of:

  • Making meticulous to-do lists for everyday tasks and striving to check off every item
  • Jumping on non-urgent things to get them “out of the way”
  • Turning trivial chores into complicated, time-consuming projects
  • Insisting on doing everything to my standards, by myself

When I felt the urge to procrastinate with busywork, I had to ask myself:

  • Will I get to these chores eventually, even if they’re not on a to-do list?
  • What would happen if I saved this task for later?
  • Am I being paid to perform this chore at a master level?
  • Can someone else help with this task or take it over altogether?

Doing the above was the only way I could make time for my writing. I had to suffer the pain of watching the laundry pile up higher than usual, push past the discomfort of seeing those damn leaves every time I walked in the front door, and learn to ignore the clutter on the coffee table.

And by Jan. 31 I had exceeded my writing goal, pounding out a grand total of 40,060 words. Writing was the star ingredient in my plan, and by placing my attention there, I produced the result I desired.