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Design Your Life

Photo by the incredible Tom Palumbo of Anne St. Marie, 1959.

Are you tired of setting New Year’s resolutions only to find yourself faced with the same resolutions a year later? Don’t you just hate that feeling of guilt rising in your stomach at the thought of lost time, lost opportunities and lack of self-discipline?

I was at the gym last night and was shocked to see 3 times as many people there than normal. Rushing out of a locker room filled, hip-to-hip, with half-clothed ladies I’ve never seen before, I hopped on the last of twelve treadmills and gazed around the room in amazement – nearly every machine was occupied, the personal trainers were fully engaged, and there were countless new faces.

This is what I call “New Year’s Resolution Syndrome”.

It is well-known that gyms will overbook annual memberships at the start of each year, banking on the fact that many people will not follow through and will eventually stop showing up. Over the next few weeks, the traffic will slowly die down and the gym will be back to its normal and quiet self again.

What’s the problem here? The problem is that resolutions do not work. Especially the socially coined, “New Year’s Resolutions”. It’s a cliché that only 12% of people actually take action on and resolve.

What we need is a different approach. We need a system of designing our lives to sustainably improve the quality of our daily experience.

This article details a step-by-step system that I personally use for creating and living a balanced and meaningful life. Throw away ‘them TO-DO lists, and resolutions, because they don’t work – at least, they don’t last long enough to make a sustainable impact. Let’s drill down and focus on what really matters.

The Old Ways

First, let’s have a peek at why the old ways don’t work in creating a lasting impact on our lives.

Problems with New Year’s Resolutions:

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the words “New Year’s Resolution”, my stomach tightens in angst. Through years of failed resolutions, my association with these words has become “empty goals I don’t look at until next New Year”.

What’s the point of setting these goals if we don’t plan on taking them seriously? They shouldn’t even be called “goals”, they should really be called “wishful thoughts” instead.

Here are some common reasons why resolutions are not effective:

  • We look at our list only once a year.
  • We do not review the goals throughout the year.
  • We don’t know why we want to achieve the goal.
  • Not enough passion or reasons to motivate us into action.
  • The goal is not specific. Too vague.
  • The goal seems too large and overwhelming, so we never start it.
  • We don’t actually want it.
  • We do not come up with a plan to make it a reality.

Problems with To-Do lists:

Don’t get me wrong, I love to-do lists more than the average gal. However, due to their never ending nature (seriously, they never end), they are not the most effective way to manage our lives in a meaningful and balanced way.

When we feel unbalanced, it is truly helpful to list out the tasks that are weighing on us, in a to-do list, and categorize them on paper. Getting these things out of our heads and onto paper frees up mental capacity. Indeed, we can get a lot of stuff done with to-do lists, and they are a very helpful tool, but using the lists alone will leave us feeling unfulfilled because we end up chasing after a never ending to-do list and forget to live our lives.

Here are some common issues with using to-do lists alone to manage our lives:

  • The sheer number of tasks can seem overwhelming.
  • The list never ends and you will always have more items to add.
  • Every item on the list appears to have the same sense of urgency. In reality, some tasks will bring more value and impact to your life than others.
  • The purpose and motivation behind a given task is not clear.
  • Selecting what to focus on becomes arbitrary, and we usually default to doing whichever’s easiest.

Live By Design, Not By Default

In trying to make the most out of our hectic lives, we may get caught up in the enthusiasm of crossing tasks off our to-do lists, and we disconnect from the knowingness that life is not about living by a to-do list, or ‘Getting Things Done’.

Chasing after tasks on our list can fulfill us temporarily, because it makes us feel busy and productive. It can also make us feel nervous, anxious and stressed.

We may be speeding through our list of tasks and feeling productive during the day, but when we get home at night, we realize that we are tired and unfulfilled. This is because we worked on arbitrary tasks that had no significance and meaning to us, and we focused on doing more and staying busy, instead of generating results that matter to us.

Assess Categories of Fulfillment

Before diving into setting goals, let’s gain some clarity on where we stand right now. On a blank sheet of paper, try this:

1. List out major areas of your life that are the most important to you. Come up with 4 to 8 areas. These are your major life categories. List them in no particular order.

Example 1, here are my categories:

  • Relationship & Family
  • Professional
  • Financial
  • Personal Development
  • Physical Health
  • Emotional Wellbeing
  • Spiritual Growth
  • Household & Living Environment

Example 2, categories of a friend:

  • Family & Intimate Relationship
  • Emotional & Spiritual Wellbeing
  • Intellectual Development
  • Time Management / Daily Routine
  • Friendships
  • Physical Development
  • Financial Health
  • Career Development

2. Do it quickly. You don’t need to over think this. You can always come back and redo this step.

3. Draw a large circle. Divide the circle up like a pie chart, where the number of pie pieces is equal to the number of life categories from above. (Alternatively, print out a blank chart with 8 categories: Image | Word Doc | PDF )

4. In each piece of the pie, write the name of one life category.

5. For each of the life categories on the circle, assign a rating out of 100% based on where you are today and where you want to ultimately be for that life area. How do you feel about it, versus how you want to feel in an ideal scenario. A 100% rating means you are completely satisfied, and 0% means you are completely dissatisfied. Write the percentage number down within each piece of the pie.

6. Draw a line within the pie to represent the percentage number in relation to how much of the piece of the pie has been filled up. The center of the circle is 0 and outer edge is 100.

7. Shade in the areas. This gives you a picture of where you stand in each of the life areas that are important to you.

As an example, here’s one I created for myself a month ago (Click on it for larger image):

life-wheel-example-mini.gif

Again, you can print blank pie charts with 8 categories here:
Image | Word Doc | PDF

Having this picture in front of us, we can clearly see the life areas we need to focus on in order to feel balanced. In reality, we can’t abandon any of these life areas for long without feeling imbalanced and unwell.

Now imagine that this is a wheel. How well will it roll? If it isn’t round, or close to being round, it will tip over, right?

What I love about drawing this picture is that we can capture and visualize the stress and psychological imbalance we’ve been feeling and carrying around with us. Having a visual representation helps to release some of that energy we’ve been grasping onto.

Pick one life area that makes you cringe. Alternatively, pretend you have this picture on the wall for all your friends to see. Which one makes you want to tear the picture off the wall? This is the area you should focus on first.

 

Step 1: Brainstorm Feelings

Let’s first connect with the feelings you want to experience this year.

On a blank sheet of paper, start jotting down all the feelings and personal impacts you want to experience this year. List them as they come to mind. Write them down without editing. Don’t worry about completeness or grammatical correctness, the main purpose of this step is to capture feelings in alignment with our desires.

melissa.jpg
Photo by Melissa Webb (See more images at her flickr stream)

You can use these questions to guide yourself:

  • How do I want to feel?
  • What do I want to experience?

Here is a blurb from my own brainstorm:

Clarity, organization, inner peace, improving the lives of others, authenticity, stress-free financial abundance, joy, living my passion, love, intimacy, laughter, changing lives for the better, connecting with my higher-self daily, tranquility, fulfillment, dancing, compassion, emotional mastery, simplicity, to help others, to surrender to the moment.

In writing down these feelings, not only are we glazing the stages of our lives with positive intentions, but we are also inadvertently creating visions for how we want the year to go.

Step 2: Select an Emotional Driving Force

Review your list from step 1, and underline 1-3 words that you connect with the most. You can either string them together or write a statement that includes these words (or feelings they imply) – the shorter, the better.

You can use these questions to help you:

  • If I could choose one feeling or state of mind for the entire year, what would that be?
  • What is the most important state of mind I would like to have regularly?

For example, I had, “Clarity & Inner Peace”.

Write this statement at the top of a new page. This is the most important state of mind you are after. Having identified this helps us focus on the emotions most important to us. Seeing this, also makes it convenient for planning and creating outcomes that provide these feelings.

Step 3: Capture Outcomes for the Year

Next, in bullet points, list outcomes, results, and achievements you would like to experience for the next year. We’re just capturing them on paper. Don’t worry about making it perfect.

Here are some of my personal outcomes for the year:

  • To give engaging and captivating speeches in front of people. Training for public speaking.
  • To feel connected with my inner self and live consciously on a daily bases.
  • Become an early riser – starting the day feeling refreshed at 6am or earlier.
  • To participate in a triathlon or similar event.
  • To establish a productive, effective and healthy daily routine.

I recommend breaking up personal and professional outcomes into separate exercises.

Step 4: Planning Each Outcome

Let’s drill down into each outcome, and how we can make it a reality. Go through the outcomes from step 3 and for each outcome, fill out the following on a new page.

  1. Number it – Title it with an outcome number. ie. “outcome 1”
  2. Outcome Statement – Write the outcome next to the number. You can either copy what you had from step 3, or rephrase it using less words, or words that better capture what you want.
  3. Purpose – The reasons why realizing this outcome is important. List as many as you can in bullet points. Use words and phrases that excite you, that move you, and that inspire you.
  4. Categories of Fulfillment – From the wheel of life exercise above, we identified some major life categories. If this outcome was realized, which of these life categories will it contribute towards? Which category’s tank will it fill up? Feel free to list additional categories, even if it wasn’t identified on your wheel of life.
  5. Actions – List action-able items you must do to make the outcome a reality. Break these actions into smaller chunks or steps if necessary. Ideally, each item should take less than 1-2 hours to complete.

Please note that if your outcome is too vague or too big, it will be difficult to measure or remain motivated. Be specific and measurable (if possible). Use numbers and measurements.

If your outcome is big, or consists of many categories of to-dos, then we must break each sub-outcome into its own outcome block. For example, if you are planning a large wedding, you may have many areas that need to get done, and each area needs to be grouped as an individual outcome: booking a beautiful location, finding a flattering outfit, perfect accommodations for guests, etc. Similarly, if you are planning to elope, your may not have that many to-dos, and they can all be grouped under one outcome: An incredibly intimate and memorable wedding.

design-life2.jpg
Photo: Thomas Hawk

Here is an example of an outcome planning block for myself:

  • Outcome 3: Continuous Learning & Intellectual Development
  • Purpose:
    • To expand my horizon, to pickup new tools for my emotional toolbox, and to enhance my understanding of human transformation to better serve my readers.
    • To be regularly motivated, inspired and challenged.
    • To live a rich and fulfilling life with growth, contribution and purpose.
  • Categories of Fulfillment: Emotional Wellbeing, Personal Development, Professional Growth.
  • Actions:
    • To read something for at least 30 minutes, everyday.
    • Come up with a list of books I want to finish for the year.
    • Organize my book shelf.
    • Schedule tentative books I want to read each month in my calendar.
    • Write down at the end of each day, what I learned or improved upon or contributed towards in that day.

Step 5: The Most Important Outcome

Give yourself a pat on the back for making it past step 4!! I’m so proud of you. And if you haven’t done it, take some time, go back and do it for yourself. Trust me, you will benefit from it.

Review each of your outcome blocks, especially each purpose and category of fulfillment. Pick the top 3 outcomes you really want to work on. Pick ones that will give you the biggest rewards for your efforts. Pick ones that contribute towards the life categories that need to be filled up the most.

These are the most important outcomes for the year – if you just got these outcomes done, you would feel like a complete rock star! Make these outcomes a priority.

That’s it! You’re done with the designing phase!

Tips for Following Through

Now that you have a beautiful year ahead of you, a plan for achieving the outcomes you want most, and reasons for why each outcome is important, the rest lies in your ability to follow-through and take consistent action towards results that mean the most to you.

design-life3.jpg
Photo: Kevin Russ

Here are some tips:

  • Weekly Review and Planning – Spend a set amount of time to review which outcomes you will work on this week. Evaluate your results from previous weeks. I will cover the weekly planning process in more detail in another article.
  • Momentum – Take action every week (everyday if you can) regardless of how small, to keep momentum.
  • One Outcome – Focus on just one outcome at a time. You can have other outcomes, but only work on them when you’ve completed tasks for the most important outcome.
  • Review Often – Read over your written outcome blocks as often as you can in a day, in a week. Especially review the purpose, to be reminded of why each outcome is important to you.
  • Visualize Outcomes – Before doing something, it helps to close your eyes for a moment to visualize the end result. When the outcome is a reality, how will you feel? How will you celebrate it? How big will you smile? Feel the feelings of excitement in your Being.
  • Tell People About It – We are more likely to do something when we feel accountable for it. Let other people know what your up to, and you’re outcomes.
  • Visual Reminders – Post your outcome and its purpose up where you can see them – walls, bathroom mirror, on your desk, etc.
  • Find a Buddy – Find a buddy who is also working on something important to them. Become each other’s best support and motivator. Tell each other what you are currently focused on, why it is important and the actions you plan to take. On a regular basis, review your results with each other.
  • Divide Annual Goals – Where would you need to be in 6 months, in order to achieve a particular outcome in a year? Where would you need to be in 3 months? In a month? Keep dividing annual goals, until you have a more realistic target to shoot for in the short term.
  • Reward Yourself & Celebrate Successes – When you’ve succeeded in taking action or you’ve completed your outcome, don’t rush to work on the next outcome. Jump up and down! Treat yourself to something you enjoy (web surfing time, a snack, a stretch, a movie). Celebrate and give gratitude for your wins!

Parting Words

The art and act of designing your life is not just limited to the start of each year, nor is it set in stone. You are in control of your destiny. Instead of living in constant reaction and drifting between urgent demands on our to-do list, we have a choice to design and create a life with meaning and purpose.

It’s never too late to start drafting your life based on the areas that matter most to you. And you are free to adjust the sail at anytime as you navigate to sea. Instead of working off a big list of action items and arriving at an unpredictable outcome, start with a clear vision of the outcome you want, understand why it’s important to you, and then list the actions necessary to get that result.

Your destiny is in your hands. How will you design it?

 

** What are some of your most important outcomes for the year? Share your thoughts in the comment section. See you there!

[01/11/2009 Update]: The “wheel of life” technique came from the Tony Robbins UPW live seminar and the OPA (Outcome Purpose Action) planning technique came from Tony Robbins’ The Time of Your Life audio program on time management. The author does not claim credit for these concepts, but is merely iterating what has been helpful in her own life.  Step 1 and 2 of this article are original concepts from the author.

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About the author

Tina Su is a mom, a wife, a lover of Apple products and a CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) for our motivational community: Think Simple Now. She is obsessed with encouraging and empowering people to lead conscious and happy lives. Subscribe to new inspiring stories each week. You can also subscribe to Tina on Facebook.

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82 thoughts on Design Your Life

  1. Wow Tina, you’ve done it again! I never thought of creating a balanced pie chart like the one you’ve shown us, but it’s brilliant! I always make lists, and like you said, those never end. I’m going to be putting your advice to good use today!

    My goals for the year: to settle down in a great place with my boyfriend, and start a home, and work on my business goals. :)

  2. A few years ago, I saw an old highschool girlfriend on an airplane. As it happened, we were both heading home to visit family for the holidays and sharing catch-up life stories. She shared with me how her exercise craze had her using the stairmaster so much, she did her knees in. Now, she can no longer get physcially-fit on her favorite gym machines as before. She admitted to me that she became so focused on running and using her physical body in the gym that it became an obsession for her. Her message to me was do things in moderation. I nurture this philosophy even today. Rather than go all out to extremes as a New Year’s Resolution, it makes more sense to review your lifestyle and learn what feels good all year round. It may seem like a trial and error process, but you can have fun with it.

    I love your chart and all the inspirational ideas. The more interested people become with their lives, the more they will integrate this kind of thing on a regular basis. It does not have to be like a diet you use to lose weight and then discard. It can become a mindset and lifestyle to take better care of yourself in a holistric and well-rounded way.

  3. Hao

    Nice article, to-do lists are good but many times it’s not enough. I always particularly stress the importance of finding a buddy and letting others know. Sometimes other people will criticize you for being a “dreamer”, and others will definitely support you. In any case, those who support you will be a great motivation, but those who don’t will be an even greater motivation, to show the world that you will take action!

    @Tina: typo at “Let other people know what you’re up to, and you’re outcomes.” don’t forget to delete this part I hate to nag about this

  4. The title of this article caught my attention right away – I was writing a similar article on, How to Design Your Life – synchronicity, I guess :)

    I love the chart and it definitely gets the message through, regardless of how shocking it is to see after I complete it :-)

    In appreciation,

  5. I don’t think I’ve seen such a nice, comprehensive list of ways to follow through on your resolutions.
    New year’s resolutions seem almost designed for failure. I’m a neuroscientist and you’re tips certainly gel much better with the way human biology actually works. (momentum = reinforcement, finding a buddy = positive social pressure) In the end it breaks down that vague “too big to handle” New Year’s resolution into a series of micro-resolutions.

    Patrick

  6. Hi Tina,

    This is an great article for helping us to create our ideal life. I love your idea of the pie chart and it really lays out our life and see what we should be working on in order to make sure that our life will be more balanced and better.

    Cheers
    Vincent
    Personal Development Blogger

  7. Thanks for your excellent points – I particularly enjoyed the section on how to follow through with working towards outcomes.

    Your sub-head “Live By Design, Not By Default” gave me a bit of a start – that’s the very phrase that launched my own blog and my first post there was “Are You Living by Default or by Design?”

    The internet can be a lonely place to work but your articles have always made me feel like I had company – this one especially so.

    I’m off to Stumble it…

  8. Really really really great post Tina, it must have taken you ages to put together. I’m putting together a similar post on steps to find out what to do with your life so I’ll link here as they compliment each other nicely.

    Just out of curiosity did you put the word & pdf logos in there yourself or did a plugin do that? It looks cool ;)

    Cheers,
    Glen

    *******************************************
    REPLY

    Aww… Thanks Glen! I really enjoyed putting this post together, as this planning process is something I’ve been actively doing for the past few weeks.

    I put the pdf and word logos in myself in css. No plugins there.

    Tina

  9. The law of attraction strikes again!

    How uncanny. I was working on my “life by design” post — to take the best of the best of what I’ve learned about software engineering life cycles and NLP and how they apply to shaping your life.

    I had even used the equivalent of “Live By Design, Not By Default” line. Which also happened to show up in a success book by Edward De Bono I was glancing through. It’s a great message, when distinguishing the paths of goal vs. river people.

    Well, all good paths, lead to the same destination.

    Beautiful write up and I like your proactive ways for better days.

  10. Live by design, not by default.

    I like this. In addition:

    Happiness by default, not result.

  11. It’s soooo important to make conscious choices in life. Otherwise you’ll just end up doing what other people or the television tell you to do. I find that people need a theme or a direction to help them make choices in line with their own values, so I teach them to select a compass direction for their year or even their lives.

    For example, in 2009 my direction is “Reach Out.” I am working on forming more connections both online and in real life. Whenever I have to make a decision, I will choose the option most in line with my direction. It eliminates a lot of inner tension and the need for a long range plan that will be obsolete in a few weeks anyway.

  12. Resolutions show clearly that many people feel the need to make changes, even the desire to make them. The poor follow through rate demonstrates the need for something more than wishful thinking. Established behavior patterns create an emotional set point that can’t just be wished away, obviously more is required. Anyone wanting to accomplish lasting and meaningful change can and should print this article out and put these principals to work in their life. There is no need to struggle over creating a workable action plan, Tina has done the hard part. Just plug in you particulars and go for it.

  13. Good article, I’ve got a simple tip for KEEPing your resolution to exercise on my blog
    Thanks!

  14. Tina, I believe you’re doing a great service to all of us by writing about New Year’s Resolutions and following through on them.

    You’re distilling all of this valuable knowledge and the core essence of it and reaching out to people who might have otherwise not been exposed to these Goal Setting technologies.

    It’s the most opportune time to do so as people are still fuelled by the fumes of “NYR’ahol” and run out of steam before January ends.

    I have a question for you though. Why, WHY are you not crediting your inspiration for this beautifully written and grammatically correct piece of work?

    Is that not PLAGIARISM?

    A sobering thought that even the most prominent of self improvement bloggers are is infallible as anyone else…

  15. Thanks Tina.

    I loved this article since it is totally my kind of system – to take something, tie it down to our emotions(heart) and then make a plan (in the head). You still number the outcomes – but only after tying it down to something more important ….

    That is the only way long term lists work – by that I mean lists that need us to be constantly inspired to act and achieve what is on them.

    I wish you the best in 2009!

  16. Hi Tina-

    Extremely insightful post. I myself no longer do resolutions and this year I decided to do something different and write in a word document my 2009 vision. I listed my top life values and under each value I wrote a detailed description (in the present tense) of how I am authentically living that value. What I have found to be amazing is that the more I type the more I feel that my 2009 vision is going to happen. I also noticed that my creativity and focus have sharpened and I have been able to clarify some goals for my business that I plan to launch in a few months.

    Another thing I did differently is create a mini vision board in my planner. I carry my planner everywhere and so whenever I feel a little disconnected (especially at work as I sit in my cube starting at my laptop) I flip to the page in my planner that has my mini vision board and I instantly feel at ease. I love having my mini vision board on hand to remind me of my 2009 vision :)

    I totally agree with the follow up part of your post. Sundays are now “My Self Sundays”. Sunday has always been my favorite day of the week (I guess because to me it is the start of a new week and that feeling of newness just never dies). On My Self Sundays I do those things that allow me to feel in alignment with my 2009 intentions. Of course I strive to do this everyday but with a full time job, classes and launching a new business it is not always so easy. Having this one day to myself is a great way to start my week and keep me grounded for the week ahead.

    Happy 2009!

  17. for men who want to change there life …the only thing I can recommend is to read “the game” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Game_(book_on_Pickup_Artists)) anything else will look easy in comparison … note! reading it is not enough you have to “get it” get it!

  18. Ken

    Great article, I think it works so well because you ease us in to getting stuff out of their mind and on to paper through easy steps at first. Then once we’ve invested a bit time doing this we are more likely to do the hardest and most important parts (action points + prioritisation).

    Nice one.

  19. Another great post by Tina Su. I am totally tweeting this. Looking forward to your next post.

  20. Amal

    Digged! Great Post

    Amal – Cochin

  21. Chad Upton

    Great post. I am just watching “Into the Blue” and while it’s not an award winning film, there is a great money vs love and morals dilemma.

    It seems like so many people are chasing things that don’t matter and forgetting to enjoy the simple things, myself included. There is a great line in the move, “You should ask yourself, what is missing in your life that money will get you?”

    Laugh and Love, so you can live.

  22. Hi Tina,

    Thank you once again for such excellent advice! It’s absolutely creative and innovative!

    Cheers~

    Mark

  23. You hit all the right notes with self improvement as a daily process rather than a yearly one, and the visual analogy of life-as-rolling-wheel (how very Zen), but don’t you get the sense that this may be a little convoluted?

    The system you have made for yourself seems to be a to-do list with emotional bits dangling off all of the checkboxes. Surely the way should be to eschew paper and lists completely, as life is rarely so easily captured or systematically executed (nor should it be).

    The fair thing for me to do with my criticism would be to offer an alternative, but I don’t really have anything in mind – it’s just that within good time I’d have to make a resolution to keep my lists all in order if I were to follow these instructions.

    Doesn’t take away from the good points, though. Top stuff.

  24. Rob

    Man is a goal seeking animal. His life only has meaning if he is reaching out and striving for his goals.
    – Aristotle

    I always have long-, medium- and short-term goals; the short-term tend to be what I set out for the next 3-6 months. However, I always allow for flexibility, the unexpected and regular assessment of whether the goals I’ve set are still the correct ones for me.

    Without goals, I get quickly demotivated, so I make it a point to set my goals regularly. This is crucial to my success at many, many levels. It’s also important to acknowledge when we’ve achieved our goals – something that often gets overlooked.

    As the old saying goes, we don’t plan to fail, but we sometimes fail to plan.

    In summary:

    1. Prioritise using performance profiling: identify desirable characteristics which will help you to achieve your goals and rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 on each. This will help you to identify which areas need the most work – a good starting point.
    2. Don’t overwhelm yourself: focus on a few areas at a time.
    3. Set measurable and specific targets: if you’re dealing with abstract concepts, such as confidence, rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 and decide where on the scale you’d like to be. Think about what would make that difference, and be specific, e.g. in which situations do you feel like you’re lacking in confidence?

    I posted about goal setting in more detail:

  25. This is a great post! Your circle of life diagram is a great analogy for getting a visual on where you are on the things that matter to your life. There’s a new personal growth site (http://noomii.com) that helps people build an interactive ‘wheel of life’ like you suggest. I use it and its been pretty neat to see it in action. There is no real need to use something beyond pen and paper. It’s key to just focus and get those thoughts out of your head and into something tangible to see the balance or lack of balance in the different areas of your life.

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