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Redesigning Your Path Forward

October 07, 2016 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

Plan your trip, get in your car, put on your seat belt, and hit the gas to enjoy life's road trip

When we each went through the heartache of losing a spouse, respectively to divorce and death, we gradually found our way forward through friendships, therapy, and sheer resilience and determination. However, continuing to navigate a new course forward as a solo periodically proved daunting. 

In trying to support ourselves, sometimes we found what we were doing most of the time was: WORK. We neglected our HEALTH,  time to PLAY, and LOVE our closest family members, friends, and especially that someone special who entered each of our lives. 

So when we heard about a brand new book, Designing your Life (Alfred A. Knopf), based on a course Bill Burnett and Dave Evans were teaching at Stanford University--and which had become its most popular course, we knew we had to consider their take on building a well-lived, joyful life. Their program is easy to follow the best sort of road map. 

First, they advise taking stock of where you are emotionally, not geographically, and analyzing your metaphorical life dashboard for  work, play, love and health. There are three levels—filled, empty or somewhere between. 

Barbara knew that she was working at a frenetic pace, sometimes 24/7 because of her freelance writing assignments and speaking engagements for two recently published books. She was trying to earn as much income as possible. In the process, she had given up the weekly watercolor painting classes she loved and was reading fewer books because she was so tired at night. It was easier to turn on the TV. She was also exercising less, though still working out, and squeezing in time for her beau and family. It wasn’t enough. Friends were seen and called but not with the same vigor and time she once reserved for them. 

She felt she was sinking into unhealthy waters, and knew she had to shift direction to regain the balance she loved. Going into a new gear, she made a plan to talk with her financial advisor to determine how much she really needed to earn to maintain her lifestyle. Next, she made a dinner date with a gal pal she hadn't seen alone for a while  She decided to carve out time for her painting class--three hours once a week, and pledged to exercise religiously, for which she allotted one solid hour per day. The regime included a weekly Pilates class or two, work-out at her gym, a long walk of at least 10,000 steps, and two weekly sessions with her trainer. In addition, she would climb stairs in buildings rather than take an elevator and go up and down the stairs more often in her own two-story home. 

After talking with her financial adviser, they agreed Barbara would update her personal financial statement for a close review. She made a list of wishes for the near future. This falls under the PLAY category on her dashboard. Her two main goals were to plan a nice yearly trip with her beau and also plan for a time when she could afford to redo her kitchen. Although she had undertaken three kitchen remodels in prior homes, her current kitchen has proved hard and not joyful to work in over the last six years. She’d like better equipment since she loves to cook and entertain. Rather than sit at her dining table alone, she’d like a place to sit at a counter and grab a meal alone, read the newspaper or watch TV. Taking these steps felt empowering, and she promised herself to do a six-month check up to see how she fares. 

Shortly after Margaret’s husband died, she felt financially strapped. Although she was loath to go back to her full-time writing job for a large non-profit, her boss needed her. After six weeks of grieving, feeling paralyzed, and hiding in her house, she returned to work. It was a familiar routine around people she liked, and for 10 hours a day, it took her mind off her loss. At night and on weekends, she took on freelance assignments to augment her income and to keep herself so busy she wouldn’t have time to be sad. She had to squeeze in time for family—her three grown children, three siblings, and aging parents and her mother-in-law. There was little time or energy on her dashboard to PLAY, although many good friends reached out and took her out. Most nights she couldn’t wait to get home to be alone to sulk. And forget dating. That kind of LOVE wasn’t anywhere even close to being on her dashboard. 

The first year after loss, she was in a fog. Her HEALTH was ignored. She lost way too much weight, drank too much wine, skipped meals, and subsisted on a diet of sweets. The second year, reality set in and in many ways, it was worse than year one. With good grief counseling and a grief support group of wonderful folks, she began to shed her old skin and take on a new one. It was time to re-program her dashboard--plan, eat healthier, schedule a reasonable work routine, take time to walk each day at least 30 minutes, and even consider dating. 

It’s been a tough balancing act to find the time between WORK, family, friends, exercise, volunteering, and classes to PLAY, eat HEALTHY as a solo, and love again. Meeting with a financial planner helped. She put Margaret on a budget and advised her that if she stuck to it she could retire. Margaret left her full-time job two years after her loss, cleaned out 37 years of stuff in her house, and moved to a condo close by. LOVE came softly when she ran into a former high school boyfriend. Now she consciously is making time for herself and for her guy friend. She loves to cook for him and to entertain her and his friends. She is taking on just enough freelance work to have the time and the money to travel to see her kids, and a vacation with her guy friend (a trip to Napa is in the works). She walks every day and volunteers to read with young children twice a week. She gets more out of it than the children probably do, she says. This fills the three other categories: PLAY, HEALTH and LOVE. 

And both women know that even when all seems good--even if the job is perfect or the watercolor classes result in paintings to frame, "stuff will still hit the fan," as the book authors write. There is a silver lining. When you have mapped out where you're going, are at the wheel with eyes straight ahead, have built your team and community to help if you veer off course (you will periodically), and live fully, you can't fail. "It does not mean that you won't stumble or that a particular prototype will always work as expected," the authors write. 

Like most writers who need to edit or re-write their copy from time to time, we make periodic corrections and move our (life) stories forward in a new direction. It’s empowering. We've each had big detours, but as we hit the road each day, we’re stronger now and are enjoying the scenery more than we had anticipated. 



1 comment

  • Donna

    Oct 07, 2016

    Appreciate hearing how you got back on track after your losses!


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