When life gets stressful – and it does – our bodies respond. It’s part of our biology: If we feel threatened, hormones get released into our body and our sympathetic nervous system kicks in. Digestion slows down, and more blood goes to our muscles. Once the danger passes, our parasympathetic nervous system takes over and our bodies return to a state of equilibrium.
But our response doesn’t always have to be so physiological, and the kinds of things we respond to don’t always need to be life-threatening to have an impact on us. Something as simple as disrupting our morning routine could feel threatening, and in that case our body responds emotionally as opposed to physiologically.
In this post, I wanted to unpack how I think about finding, and maintaining, my equilibrium.
Note: This is a lengthier post, but it’s split into three steps and each has its own ‘nuggets’. If it helps, read them as three separate parts. In fact, I’d even recommend giving yourself pause between each step, and following along by doing each step in sequence with me. 🙂
Over the years, I’ve realised this about my own emotional response:
When something feels really hard or stressful, or a seemingly small problem has a disproportionately big impact on my mood, that thing is usually not the problem at all. It’s typically not the root cause. Instead, one of my pillars are being threatened, and that’s shifting my equilibrium in all other areas of my life.
Until I get back to that state of equilibrium, I’m not going to feel better or find balance in my day-to-day. And trust me: I get irritated at myself a lot when this happens. For example, I might get feedback on something I produced, and on any other day I’d see it as a chance to learn – but, maybe because I haven’t been eating as well as I want to, my equilibrium is off and my first response is to feel incapable and stupid.
Needless to say: This is no way to go through life.
In order to work on this on a more daily basis and in a more manageable way, I’ve set up what I call my own health metrics. They’re normally what startups use to track progress – I’m using them to track where my equilibrium is. They help me understand why I’m feeling the way I’m feeling, and know where to focus in order to maintain that equilibrium. Here’s how I got there.
What I’d like you to get out of this post:
- What pillars and anchors mean to me, and how they relate to my equilibrium
- Why (I think) they matter so much
- How I’ve defined them, and how I’ve built them into my daily routine
Finding your equilibrium
It’s taken a while for me to truly understand where my emotional equilibrium is, and be able to check in on it usefully. But I’ve tried to outline the three steps I used to get there.
- Know your pillars
- Define your health metrics
- Build a habit
Step 1: Know your pillars
There are lots of ways to define what your pillars are, but I based my framework off of this TED talk by Emily Esfahani Smith (a truly wonderful speaker, I would highly recommend watching her!).
In her talk, she speaks about the four pillars of a meaningful life, which she outlines as: Purpose, Story-telling, Belonging, and Transcendence. I’ve translated these for myself as follows:
- Purpose: This is the stuff that gets me out of bed in the morning. It’s the stuff that feeds my motivation, but – and perhaps more importantly – it’s the stuff that I enjoy without validation or affirmation. It’s the stuff I do for me. It’s the stuff that lets me go to bed feeling like I’ve done something worth living for. Note: This doesn’t have to be my day-job. It might be, but it doesn’t have to be.
- Story-telling: This is how I tell myself my own story, and get to know to who I am. It’s how I meet myself, where I meet myself, and how I show-up for myself. It’s my relationship to myself.
- Belonging: If Story-telling is my relationship to myself, then Belonging is my relationship to others. It’s how I interact, it’s how I find my sense of belonging, and how I hold those most important to me in my life.
- Transcendence: Finally, this is how I connect to the outer edges of what I know, and what I can hold in my consciousness. It’s the stuff I can’t express. It’s what takes me out of the noise of the day-to-day hustle and bustle, and lifts me to a higher reality, beyond the physical world. It’s where I reconnect to my other pillars, and where I find new perspective and insight.
But that’s all very high-level. Let me show you how I’ve written these down for myself on a very practical level…
Where I put them: I use a .txt file on my computer, but I used to use the Notes app. Both work pretty well. All I need is simplicity and portability: It should be very bland and have very little design choices, so I can’t spend time on how it looks, and it should be something I can plug into it wherever I am.
How I format them: First and foremost, under each pillar, I have one word that captures what fulfilling that pillar means to me at that moment. This changes as I grow, but I try and look for a general way to capture the details of the pillar later on.
For example, under Purpose I have “fulfilment = growth”; under Story-telling, “fulfilment = reflection”; under Belonging, “fulfilment = connection”; and, under Transcendence I have “fulfilment = freedom”.
The idea with these is: If nothing else, what is the driving force behind this pillar? Where do I want it to take me? What is it holding up in my life?
Then, I define each of the things within that pillar that matter to me at the moment. These also change, and that’s kind of the point:
Your pillars are the fundamental areas of your life that keep you standing upright no matter the weather; the things within each pillar, then, are the paint, the patterns, and the embellishments that make each pillar unique, and define that pillar in each moment of your life.
Trying to explain how to phrase these is hard – but it also almost defeats the point: You should define each pillar for yourself, rather than look to others for what they should be. But I know it’s hard to know where even to start, so my advice would be to limit it to three for each pillar, and use verbs. Constraints and actions.
Incase it helps you find ideas for how to define each pillar, here are mine as they are currently:
But why have pillars at all?
Pillars help me check in with myself. They give me a yard stick against which to measure how I’m feeling. When I’m really stressed out, or feeling really sad, I have a thing to point to, which lets me check my pillars and do a stocktake.
For example… “Dammit, I’m tired and irritated all the time, and I’m snapping at my partner often… But they’re not doing anything to upset me, so what’s going on? Let me check my pillars: Am I fulfilling my Purpose with creativity and meaningful work? Yup, cool, then that’s OK. Am I connecting with people that matter to me? Hm, haven’t spoken to my family or friends for a while. Actually, I kind of miss them, and I’d like to find out how they’re doing but haven’t been able to make time for them. Maybe I just feel dislocated and disconnected.”
In this way, I can diagnose each pillar one by one, see where they’re really faltering, and prioritise what matters without overwhelming myself by trying to improve everything all at once.
The next step for this to be useful, though, is to define my health metrics.
[ If you’re going to take a ‘pause‘ between steps, do it here. Let the above settle in, and make time to translate what I’ve said into your own pillars. And make sure you enjoy it! It should be fun! 🙂 ]
Step 2: Define your health metrics
(If you’d like to make a copy of the Google Sheets template I made for this, click here – that way, you can follow along and fill in things as I go along)
Once I know my pillars, I can start defining the things I’d like to track and check in on. But, just before we dive into the ‘how’, I’d like to start by spending a few sentences on the ‘why’:
Your pillars are great. They are the solid supports that you have decided are the things that are most important to you to right now. They may change, they may shift, they may stay the same for a long time – but as you have them right now, they are really hard to measure.
For instance, I have Be creative as an important component of my Purpose pillar, but how do I know if I’m building that up or breaking it down? Does it mean that I need to paint a picture every week in order to keep my equilibrium, create a new logo design every day, or do a 1-minute sketch of a random object before I go to sleep every night? Think of it like this:
If pillars help point to the things that matter to you, then health metrics help you know if what matters to you is doing OK, or in need of attention.
In other words, health metrics tell you if your pillars are strong, cracked, or crumbling.
Before defining my health metrics, I started by picking 8 things from what I wrote under my pillars. These are the things I’d like to focus on right now. Ideally, I want to get that down to about 4 or 5 (maybe even 3) – but I’m still practicing this, so I’ll shave it down as I go.
In some cases, I grouped like items together (for example, yoga and meditation are simply “mindfulness” in my health metrics), but I intentionally tried not to cram all of them into my health metrics. And this is really important to remember: Health metrics are meant to change every so often, based on what you’d like to focus on, whereas your pillars change as you go through life, learn more about the world and yourself, and figure out what matters to you.
After I’ve picked those things where I’d like to focus, I define each using “states” to help me know what green, amber and red would be. I’ll use my Family one as an example to show you what I mean:
- Green = at its best. I am trying to stay in touch with my parents, as well as reconnect with overseas family, so I’ve defined a green score for this as: See / speak to parents at least once per week, and connect with one overseas family member per week
- Amber = shaky, but OK. Not ideal, but amber is fine. I’ve define an amber score for Family as: Only see / speak to parents at least once per week, no contact with overseas family.
- Red = burning. This generally means I’m really failing at the thing. For me, a red score for Family is defined as: Don’t see or speak to parents in a week, and don’t contact overseas family.
Pro-tip: Use binary conditions as a way to define your health metrics so that there is a clear “yes” or “no” result (ie. “I need to do X” – and either you did, or you didn’t), and don’t make your green scores completely unachievable or idealistic. You don’t want to end up stressing yourself out just to maintain green scores; green should help you keep an equilibrium, not be a constant struggle.
[ If you’re going to take a ‘pause‘ between steps, do it here. Let the above settle in, and make time to translate what I’ve said into your own health metrics. And make sure you enjoy it! It should be fun! 🙂 ]
Step 3: Build a habit
Now that I’ve defined my health metrics, it’s time to build a habit around tracking them.
Personally, I use both daily and weekly tracking, which I’ve built into my routine using daily 5-minute journalling sessions, and one weekly review on a Sunday. You’ll have to see what works for you, and fit it into your routine as it suits you best. The Google Sheets I linked at Step 2 has the templates for both daily tracking and weekly tracking, so just adjust that as you want to.
Daily tracking: Each morning, I spend 5 minutes (usually less) taking a moment to check in on the day before. I format this exactly as the image looks above. I put a green, amber or red dot next to each health metric based on whether or not I met one of the conditions. More often than not, it’s green or red – since my conditions are binary, it’s either a “I did it” or “I didn’t.”
Weekly tracking: On a Sunday morning, I spend a little more than 5 minutes (and normally with a coffee on the couch) averaging the colours to represent what I scored for that week. Again, I refer back to the definitions just to make sure I scored correctly. I then plot the colour for that health metric into that week, and after a few weeks end up with something like this:
Ignoring how red my finance line is, this is a really cool way of visualising things over time. It gives me an easy way to see where I’ve been, and also gives me things to focus on. For example, I might decide that finances need to turn amber, and I’m willing to let fitness become amber if it means I can make my goal to get rid of all the reds.
But this part is about building a habit so that you can keep regular track of things. And building a habit isn’t easy. So, either you read Atomic Habits by James Clear – which I would highly recommend in any case – or you start my making it easy to do, and remove as many barriers as you can. Here is how I do that:
- I stacked this habit onto something I already do. I always have a coffee in the morning, so doing a quick health metric check in with that is simple.
- I pinned my health metric tab to my browser. By doing this, I remove the step of needing to first type it into the search bar or go and find it on my drive. It’s always there, and always open, so it’s way easier to do.
- I set a daily reminder to do health metrics. The satisfaction of marking it as “done” is enough to get me to do it. So, that’s a winner for me.
There are many other ways of turning this into a habit, but again: You have to make it work for you, or you aren’t going to do it – or rather, you might start, but you won’t be able to keep it up.
There’s a lot more I could touch on, but this post is already lengthy. If you do any of these already, or if you try it out, please let me know how you find it! I’d love to share ideas, and see whether anyone else finds this as valuable as I do.
It’s taken time to get used to, but it’s really helped me a) understand myself a bit better, and be able to express – even if just for myself – what matters to me the most, and b) know what’s really wrong with me if I’m not feeling myself. Both of those are really powerful tools.