A visual metaphor for designing the life you want

If you could take a break from your life as it is, recognize the weak areas and redesign it to be stronger and more balanced, what would it look like?

Time away from ‘the daily grind’ over the Christmas break made me realise that I needed to redesign my life to be less ‘grindy’. I realised that I needed to redesign aspects of my life because I’d been (accidentally) balancing all of my efforts on a one-legged stool that was all work and barely any play. And what is the anecdote to the lack of balance? Recentering and redesigning with a better vision in mind.

Introducing… the four legged stool metaphor. Read on to find out more:

Doing what you love can backfire

I am an education geek and have always loved researching and writing. My previous job as an English and Art teacher kept my drawing/painting/photography and writing interests relatively sated but I also resented (sometimes) how I didn’t have much gas left in the tank at the end of each day for my own creative work. Similarly, as an education consultant now, my love of reading and writing about ‘all things education’ has been sated but this also becomes hard to manage when you put writing and research energy into different projects at work and, again, are out of gas for your ‘own work/own research’. There has to be more balance in the balancing act – but how does one find a balance?

The fact that my blog posts can be parked for a long time (this one has been sitting in draft form since January and it is now March) is a symptom of the ‘not enough in the tank for everything’ burn out we might all experience. In my case the burn-out/fall out is a symptom of all energy going into one place rather than considering a more balanced approach to feeding my energy carefully into other areas. So the answer to burning out needs to be ensuring a more balanced approach to future work and play, by thinking about alignment and working smarter not harder.

Time out is so beneficial

Leaving things be for a moment is a worthwhile exercise. My paintings, when left to sit, develop their own sense of being finished or not. A break or a fresh way of looking at things can offer a new perspective. Actually having a break and deliverately leaving things ‘properly parked’ instead of ‘carried in your back pocket’ can provide a new perspective on what life balance needs to look like to be more sustainable and potentially more fulfilling.

On a side note: One artist I know leaves his paintings in his hallway (often upside down) so that he can subconsciously revisit them without giving them much attention to check if they are ‘done’. I love that idea! With art and life, leaving things alone for a bit can be a magical process that can even mean that a new perspective has the potential to present itself on its own without too much active abandonment of a project.

Deliberate abandonment of the daily grind can reveal glitches in the matrix. Like returning to a draft piece of writing, time away can reveal grammar errors, phrasing and content changes, missing ideas and make for a clearer/more refined/more purposeful end product. It seems that any project can benefit from being left alone for a while to be met with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective. But what might that fresh perspective look like when we apply it to a stool metaphor?

Drawing a picture to anchor ideas to can be a really worthwhile process. Doing this while also allowing ourselves time to step can brew a stronger batch of ideas. Allow yourself to steep. Allow your brew to be stronger. Give yourself some time out to develop into something better…

The beauty of the side line and extra legs

Here is a question for you: If you took time out from the ‘big project’ (work for most), what other activities might you be freed up to explore on the side? What can you do for yourself that is complementary to the big (work) thing? What can you do to continue to keep your tank full – even when not on a break? And how can you manage it?

Here is where the stool metaphor comes in.

The stool metaphor

A three-legged stool needs three legs to support your weigh and work should only be one leg of the stool. If all of your energy goes into work and work alone, then taking a break will leave you landing hard on your butt. If you add two other legs to make the ideal triangle – work, relationships, hobby (for example) – you will have a strong three-legged stool. But this will afford you no back up. If you take/break one leg of your design, you will still be unbalanced and still fall on your butt. So for this reason we need to have a four-legged stool. We need four things to balance the life equation. And we need three other things outside of work.

Exercise, health, nature, family (if you see family as different from relationships) are ideas for the other legs. Having four things in your life is more sustainable. Four legs means that any leg can break (or you can take a break from any leg) and still have three others to keep you nicely upright. No one falls over. Your tank can keep filling. You retain balance. Nothing breaks.

Thinking in shapes

I like drawing to capture ideas. I believe that everything can be better expressed and explored through sketching as an ideation tool – convergent (concrete) thinking and divergent (creative) thinking both thrive within the process of sketching it out.

Let’s fly above the stool and imagine we are looking down on it. (A fresh perspective!).

What does your life look like if you draw it as a triangle? (This is the minimum stool design)

What does your life look like if you draw it as a square? (Four legs).

What will you write on each of the corners/anchors of each shape? (The corners represent the stool legs).

For me, if we go for a four legged approach, my life can be given an additional layer of complexity by drawing triangles into each of the corners. Layers of complexity can be added nicely this way. I can imagine this more easily as a four-legged stool with three words inscribed on each leg. I can use the metaphor to organise my thinking.

Add a category and three focus words to each leg of a four-legged stool and see what comes up for you.

This added layer is just a visual categorization technique. What do you want to focus on for each leg?

Work – thought leadership, research, user experience design

Health – yoga, running, more tramping (hiking)

Relationships – family, friends, creatives

Hobbies – art licensing, writing, textile design

The focus can be whatever you want it to be – but the stool provides us something to anchor the ideas to.

Each leg of the stool can be filled however you need it to be. The act of designing a chair and even rethinking your life as a stool and setting intentions of where you want to focus your energy is a really useful process. Even in the ‘parking period’ of drafting this post and revisiting it while I allow my thoughts to stew has resulted in some changes and tweaks. Is each leg realistic? Is it achievable? Does one word need to be broken down further? Is one leg heftier than the others? Is one leg weaker than the others? What are the connections between them? How can I connect them meaningfully? How can I make them ‘reliably solid’?

The strength test

For me, I know that I need time brainstorming with my art friends to get my full relationship fix. Family and friends fill my bucket mostly but I need certain creative project ideation stimulus to have a ‘fully full’ bucket/strong relationship leg. I know that I need time out from being a mum sometimes but that I also need focused family time. Writing the words down on my ‘relationships’ leg helps me to visualise the balance better and know which corner I need to focus on when I’m feeling wobbly (as it were). This morning I spent time with a friend on an early morning hike so I got my exercise, my nature and my friend legs all nicely reinforced in one activity.

Adding struts

Hobby-wise my creative life is important to me which is why my stool has a hobby leg. I have moved away (for now) from teaching art and this means that I don’t get to paint as part of my job anymore so it needs to be part of the life equation somewhere else. If I was still teaching art I could show this cross pollination on one of the struts because work life and hobby life connect. It used to be that demonstrating for students and sketching exemplars crossed two ‘legs’. These days I need to prioritise creative time in my hobby zone and make more deliberate space for it or it leaves me feeling wobbly. Art might be designing textiles or taking photographs, writing might be blogging, poetry or essays, sewing might be sewing something for me or for my kids – but I have given them deliberate priority by the act of naming them on the stool. Even as a thinking exercise, the process of writing them down and assigning them a place on the stool has weight.

Work-zoning and key word finding is not always as easy because our key performance indicators may not be self designed. But if you had to label three areas of intent or growth in work (that you want for yourself) what might they be? How can you fill your bucket more? Could your boss support you to add a different word to that leg of your life that you would happily carve into the wood yourself?

Clever stool/life design would add struts. The struts can be the connections between each leg. You could have one between each leg going around the stool, and even potentially a cross brace to connect the legs that are diagonally opposite…

Clever life design is when you can cover off a couple of things at once like creative brainstorming while hiking, painting while socializing, sewing while hanging out with the kids… and I know that theory dictates that a three-legged stool is stronger overall – but the four-legged stool means that one leg could be missing in action and, guess what, we would still be ok.

I love it when a simple visual metaphor can help deeper thinking. The four-legged stool metaphor is inviting you to get more balance, feel less wobbly, set clear intentions and prioritise the things that are actually important to you. It is inviting you to make the tough realization that work is not your life. It is encouraging you to design a life that is balanced and intentional.

So how might you use the four-legged stool metaphor? You only live once right?

Walk away from all the things, practise some deliberate abandonment to get a better perspective and then come back to life with the eyes of a stool designer who wants to design a great stool to perch on and admire the view.

Random grey cells at the bottom. No time to fix it and using canva on my phone, sometimes satisficing ‘making do within the time you have’ is part of keeping all the legs balanced too. Ha!
This morning’s mountain climbing and catching the sunrise with a friend was a good ‘strut’ connecting activity to strengthen two legs at once.


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