When was the last time you stopped to do a big-picture assessment of your life and career? If it's been more than a year-or worse, you've never done one at all-now is the time.
Why is this so important? Because in the crush of daily life, daily obligations, and daily deadlines, it's impossible to stay focused on what's most important for you in the long term. So we all have to step back from time to time and assess how our daily schedule and activities aligns with our long-term goals. We also have to re-assess those goals themselves because they're likely to change over time.
Deirdre Maloney, speaker, trainer, and author of Bogus Balance: Your Journey to Real Work/Life Bliss, is an expert at this sort of self-assessment. She herself goes through this exercise once or twice every year, she says, and offers online worksheets to help others do it as well. It's an important process, she explains, because most of us have more choices than we realize in life and could be a lot happier-if we have the courage to make the necessary changes.
"Work-life balance, the way we've defined it, seems to insinuate that if get the right planning tools and set boundaries we can have it all," Maloney says. "We can't have it all, so instead of trying, we need to define what is our all."
Doing that requires figuring out what makes you the most happy and fulfilled, "and then doing those things wholeheartedly," she explains. The key, she says, is to make conscious choices about what you do and don't do.
Start by asking yourself the following questions:
1. What do you value most in life?
"Ask what values really rise to the top for you," Maloney says. "Income, family, success, achievement, giving back to the community." Listen to your own voice-not what you think you should value-and make your own ranking of what tops your list, what comes second, and so on.
Then think about how those priorities play out in your daily life. This doesn't mean, for instance, that if your family takes the top spot that you'll always choose family over work. But if you've skipped dinner at home several nights in a row to go to work-related events, taking a look at these priorities may tell you when it's time to turn one down.
2. What failed to fulfill you this past year?
Think back over all your activities, work-related and otherwise, and pick out the ones that were least satisfying. "Maybe sacrifice some things," Maloney suggests. "We all have things we have to do that we don't love. But you'll be happier and more fulfilled if you're intentionally choosing the things that feed you the most."
3. What would your ideal career look like?
"What does my all look like, if I chose to have it?" Maloney says. Assess where you are right now, and what the steps are between there are where you want to be. What will you do to bridge the gap in the next 24 hours? In the next week? Next month? Then, week by week, evaluate your ideal and your intentions against what you actually did. This will help you make small changes that can set you on the road to a more fulfilling career. (Here's more on how to increase your focus and achieve your goals.)
4. What would your ideal home life look like?
Whether you have a partner or spouse, and whether or not you have (or want) children, everyone has an ideal for what their home life and their relationships should look like. For too many of us, that ideal slips as we get deeply involved in our work. If that's happened to you, take a look at some changes you can make-again in the next 24 hours, the next week, and over the coming months-to change that.
5. Who do you want-and not want-in your life?
Just as we all have to do things we don't like, we all have to spend some time around people whose company we don't enjoy. But here again you should make a deliberate choice (spending time with an unpleasant in-law because you value family and your relationship with your spouse, for example).
In the same way, make a conscious choice to lessen the time you spend with people who don't make you happy or nourish you. "If someone calls you and you're constantly putting the phone on mute, you may not want that person in your life so much," Maloney says. (Here's more on how to manage difficult people.)
6. How well are you taking care of yourself?
It's an important question because if you're not in good health, being fulfilled in every other area becomes much more difficult. So make an assessment similar to what you did for your career-ask yourself what your ideal self-care would look like, and then plan incremental changes you can start making to get there.
In the midst of both starting her business and writing her first book, Maloney recalls seeing herself in a television interview. "I looked terrible," she recalls. "I was unhealthy and my husband and I had grown distant. I started putting better boundaries on my day."
That doesn't necessarily mean that self-care requires completely disconnecting from work, she notes. "I've done focus groups with some people who are very happy and fulfilled and when I asked them how much time they spent thinking about work, they would say 90 or 100 percent of the time. They had stories about taking laptops on hikes."
7. What were your top three moments in the past year?
"Reflect on your high points of the last 12 months and the last few years," Maloney says. "What do they tell you about what's most important to you? They may or may not be the big accomplishments that you set. It's often surprising what didn't make the list."
8. Who do you envy?
Sometimes looking at the people around you is a good way to figure out what you yourself want most. Deciding whom you envy in various areas-career, family, self-care, or general happiness-can help you figure out what goals you want to work toward.
9. What do you wish you could do?
"If you look at your life, are there things happening you wish you could be part of?" Maloney asks. "For example, every time you go by a golf course, do you wish you could play? Or when you see people traveling, do you want to travel more too?"
Paying attention to urges like these can help you add elements to your life, or your work, that might make you happier more fulfilled. "Those are great things to do when you don't know where to go for new ideas," Maloney says.
10. What has and hasn't worked for you this year?
Remember that everything you do is an experiment. "When you try something out, you're always testing," Maloney says. "We make goals, but we don't set them in stone." If something isn't working, try something new.
11. Are you ready to make real changes?
"That takes guts, because it means change and it means saying no to some things," Maloney says.
She knows a thing or two about making scary choices. As the result of an earlier life assessment, she and her husband decided to spend time living in Europe. When they returned recently, her husband was planning to get a job at a company, but then they did another assessment together, and decided he would partner in her business instead. It's less secure, she says, but it's the path that will make both of them happiest.
And that path, of increasing the things that make you happen, and decreasing the things that don't and finding what works is what life is all about. "It's all a journey," she says. And it's all good. "As long as you continue to be intentional about the choices you're making, and let your vision guide your decisions."
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