Today I want to share with you a simple exercise that has brought me great insight into my personal priorities this week. The beauty of taking a big, long break from my normal plans, as I did in December and early January, is that things look different on the other side. Not only do interesting things emerge, like the new-found interest in painting digitally that helped to create today’s image, but there is also an opportunity to revisit, reassess and reprioritize all of the things in my life with a different point of view.
So earlier this week, as I sat down in my journal, I came up with this little exercise to look at my needs and my activities and see how they were aligning. Some really interesting insights have come out, which have helped me shed some things and look at other things in a new way. I will walk you through it step-by-step, because you might benefit from it too.
Step 1: List out Needs
The first step is listing out my needs. I consider “needs” those things that I personally must have to be a balanced human being. These aren’t priorities, which are, I think, an externally imposed idea of what I need. These needs are the things that I will subconsciously arrange my activities around, whether I want to or not. If these needs aren’t met, everything is out of whack for me — I’m unhappy, grumpy and awful to be around. Understanding myself enough to identify and categorize these needs has been the subject of much personal exploration and growth over the last few years, so I don’t suggest that coming up with your own list is an easy thing. But when I made up my list, it felt right, and I could see how these fundamental needs drive my choices, conscious or not.
I’ll share my list of needs and explain them as an example. I expect your list of fundamental needs would be different. This list is not in any sort of priority order. They all exist for me, and need to be met.
Physical Well-Being – This need addresses the basics of food and shelter, but also physical health and care of myself and environment. It’s about my physical self, and all that is needed for my body to be well.
Emotional Well-Being – This covers the non-physical essence of me. I named it “emotional well-being” but it includes the mental, spiritual and personal — all of the needs around well-being that aren’t just physical. It’s kind of hard to encompass all of that in words, so hopefully you know what I mean here.
Growth – If there is one thing that I know I need, it’s growth. Growth in any area – intellectual/mental, personal, artistic – I will continually strive for growth in some area of my life. I’m most excited and engaged in life when I am learning something new. If I don’t consciously feed my need for growth, I will unconsciously put myself in challenging situations that force me to grow in some way. I would rather acknowledge my need for growth and choose the path I take to growth, when I can. Then I can observe and learn, not only about whatever new “thing” I am learning, but also about my self, along the way.
Achievement – There is no way around it, I fundamentally have a need for achievement. I am hard-wired to accomplish things. This is another area where conscious choice makes a big difference. If I don’t consciously choose what “achievement” means – both the end goal and the path – then I will unconsciously pick up definitions of achievement externally and strive toward those. There are so many places these can be picked up – parents, teachers, mentors, society in general. This one has been a constant challenge for me, I think partially because I feel like I shouldn’t have this need or I should be able to eliminate it if I don’t want it. By acknowledging that there is this need at my core, however, I’m starting to see that I just might be able to choose the path AND meet the need.
Connection – This is the need for connection to things external to myself. Not just to other human beings, which is the initial and primary way I defined this need, but also to other living creatures, like my pets. I’m also thinking this need may encompass connection a larger idea or movement, but I haven’t thought through that as much. I just know have a need to connect to something outside myself.
Those are my fundamental needs. They feel right, and I can map just about everything I find myself doing – consciously or not – back to more than one of them.
Do you know yours? Try to list them out. This could take several days of journaling, and making and revising lists. I found that I listed a whole lot more things at first and then started to coalesce them into a shorter list as I worked with them.
Step 2: List your Activities
The next step is listing out all of the ways you spend your time, the groups of people you spend your time with, and the activities you do. I listed them out and then found that some of them fell in natural groups. My final list was:
Art (this contained all of my activities related to art, including teaching, exhibiting, guild activites, etc.)
Family (both my immediate family of husband and son as well as extended)
Input (this was all of the activities I do around personal growth – reading, journaling, writing, etc.)
What are your activities? As you start to list them out, you may find there are general categories that group nicely together or there are ones that need to remain separate. As you do the next step, you might come back and refine your list.
Step 3: Map Activities to Needs
On a sheet of paper in the landscape orientation, list your Needs along on the left hand side. Leave space between them and fill the entire height of the left side of the page. On the right side of the page, list your Activities in the same way. You might want to use a different color for each activity, or as you draw the map lines, it will get hard to read.
Now, for each Activity, draw a line to each need it helps to fulfill. On the line, write how that activity fulfills that need you mapped it to.
For example, I have a line between my activity “Corporate Job” and my need “Physical Well-Being,” and on the line I wrote “food, shelter.” In a physical sense, it’s my Corporate Job that provides the funds for those things.
Another example, I drew a line between my activity “Art” and my need “Achievement,” and on the line I wrote “completing works, sharing, exhibiting, selling.” These are all the ways that my artistic practice feeds my need to achieve.
Continue with drawing the lines and writing the reasons for the lines until you feel that you have nothing more to add. As you work through each Activity, you may find that you need to go back and add lines for other Activities, because you see connections between Activities and Needs in a new way. You might also find that you want to draw a line somewhere, but you don’t have the right Need to map to. You can add or revise Needs and Activities if you find there is a gap like this as you map.
Yeah, it’ll get messy. Let it be messy and scribbled. The mess is the point. This is the part of the exercise where you are just trying to get it all out on the page — organization and understanding comes later. Don’t put any value judgments on what you are doing. Make the lists, connections and reasons as honest as you can. They should feel right.
Step 4: Review for Insights
This is the part where things get really interesting. There are insights to be found, when you start to look closer.
First, if you had any “aha” moments as you went through the mapping, capture notes on what those where. Maybe you realized that there was a need or an activity missing. Why didn’t you capture it the first time, do you think? What did you feel as you added it later?
Next, look at your map and ask a few questions:
For each Activity, how many Needs does it map to? All? A few? One?
Which Activities map to the most Needs? Are you surprised?
Which map to the least Needs? Are you surprised?
Were there interesting reasons that came out as you drew the lines?
Were there lines that you needed to draw but it took some time to figure out the reason?
This is where the insights lie.
I’ll use the example of my Activity “Corporate Job.” It maps to every single Need on my list. Now, I’ve known for a long time I like my Corporate Job. Even with all I do with my art, I have no desire to leave my Corporate Job. I knew it provided me with things that are different from my Art, but this exercise helped to clarify just how it was meeting my Needs in essential ways. Now, even though it maps to all of my Needs, it doesn’t completely fulfill all of them. But, if the only Activity on my list were “Corporate Job,” I would have a miserable existence because these Needs would only be partially met. That’s why I like working part time, because it gives me the opportunity to have more on my Activity list which fulfill needs in different ways. This exercise showed me how this one Activity fits into the whole for me. I understand myself and my choices better – it’s moved from unconscious feeling to conscious knowing. That’s always a good thing!
Another example I’ll give is on my Activity “Hiking.” As I was mapping it to my Needs, I felt that there was an element that mapped to my Need “Connection.” Since I initially defined “Connection” as with other human beings, that didn’t make sense. But I do fill a greater sense of connection with my dog Zoey when we go hiking, and I get great satisfaction and enjoyment out of that. I also feel a connection to the greater world around me through being in the forest. It brings me outside of myself. So my definition of my Need “Connection” expanded and I see how my Activity of “Hiking” has a broader impact to me as a whole. (Now, if the Activity were “Working out in the Gym,” for me that would only have one line on the map – to the Need “Physical Well-Being.” That’s probably why I’ve never been able to stick to an exercise routine that involves only the gym.)
A final example I’ll give is under my Activity of “Art.” I originally considered listing all of my external-facing art-related activities as separate items, such as Kat Eye Studio, PhotoArts Guild, Corvallis Art Guild, Philomath Open Studios, etc. because they are something specific I do with my time. But after working through this exercise, I realize they are really a subset of my overall activity of “Art,” fulfilling the Need of “Connection.” It all works together.
I won’t go into more detail than that on my results because many of the insights were very personal in nature, but hopefully you get the idea. Take some time with this portion of the exercise. Journal about it, over days if necessary. That’s what I have been doing. I keep looking at the map and finding new things to consider.
Step 5: Make a Plan
Now that you’ve pulled out the insights, you have the opportunity to make conscious and positive changes. If an Activity maps to a large number of Needs and seems essential to you, but you aren’t spending much time on that Activity, then look for ways to readjust your schedule. If an Activity maps to few or no Needs, then consider if you really want to spend your time in this way. Or figure out if there are ways to make and Activity you must do connect to more Needs.
For example, my Activity “Yoga” originally didn’t map to my Need “Achievement.” The yoga I do is incredibly gentle and relaxing, and didn’t initially fit what I think of when I think of achievement – meeting goals and milestones. I mean, I’m not pushing myself to do back bends or headstands or anything. But in thinking about it, I realized I can fulfill the need of “Achievement” by setting a goal for the number of days I attend yoga in a month and tracking. I do have an unstated, internal goal – to go to class every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning I can – so why not track it? Then I meet this Need too, and don’t get the achiever part of me niggling that I’m wasting my time because I’m not “progressing” toward anything. One more line drawn on the map means more confidence and commitment to my chosen Activity.
I think Step 5 of this exercise is much more long range. I’m still doing work in Step 4 and am only starting on making a plan. But I feel I have better insight into how I want to align my activities and needs, and the knowledge to make conscious choices is the important thing.
I hope this is helpful to you! Let me know if you work through this and find it valuable. I never know when I post this stuff if anyone is interested, but I figure if it connects with one other person and makes a difference anything like it has for me, it’s worthwhile.
Have a great day!