During a particularly overwhelming chapter in my life, I had a silly nightmare that ultimately became a powerful metaphor and tool that I now use regularly to restore perspective, priorities, and equilibrium. If you are finding that your plate is too full, or that you can't seem to find the time for something important, or that work has a vice grip on your life, or that you just aren't feeling balanced or whole, I hope this technique can work for you, too.
In the dream I was packing for a trip. I didn't know where I was going but I was packing furiously. The suitcase was overflowing and I couldn't fit everything in. I kept unpacking and repacking it, trying the shoes on the bottom and then on the sides, trying my clothes folded neatly and then in little rolls, changing what was in the outside pockets. I was distraught. There had to be a way to make it all fit. Well, there wasn't, and I woke up in a sweat and on a mission to change my life situation.
That day I searched for a photo of an open empty suitcase like the one below, printed it out on a tabloid size piece of paper, and started scribbling all of my responsibilities, obligations, assignments, hobbies, social events, etc. onto it. Everything I was - or wasn't - doing with my time. If I was finding the time for it, it was listed inside the suitcase. If I wasn't, it went outside the suitcase.
The resulting visual - as I'm sure you can guess - was bleak. Inside the suitcase were things like heavy administrative burden at work, household chores, and doing my taxes. Outside the suitcase were exercise, date nights with my husband, and the new initiative I really wanted to kick-off at work.
That I was out of alignment may seem obvious, but let me tell you it becomes a heck of a lot more obvious when you turn it into a visual. It also gives you a very clear roadmap.
You can use this exercise at 30,000 feet if you need to fully recalibrate, or try using it as a journaling method for 1 week, writing down what you did and didn't fit in at the end of each day. When you have your time visualized, ask yourself the following questions:
1) What am I doing that is just not worth it?
Ditch these things without hesitation. If you are going on a hiking trip, you wouldn't keep your heels in the suitcase at the expense of room for your hiking boots.
2) What am I doing that someone else could do for me?
The gig economy has made it easy to outsource grocery shopping, running errands, gift buying, house cleaning, research, and so much more. And before rejecting this idea on cost, try to place a value on the things that are currently sitting outside your suitcase.
3) Are there any direct trades I can make or things I can combine?
For example, swap out a day at the gym to pick up a class or team sport that fulfills both exercise and social needs. Like the sweater that works dressed up or dressed down.
There isn't room for everything in the suitcase of life. But as you make tough decisions, remember that this is YOUR suitcase. You aren't packing for anyone else; you will wear what you put in it. Pack well.