Work-life balance failed me so I planted some trees

Seeking work-life balance led me on a fruitless path. I made a huge breakthrough when I threw this quest away.  This very popular phrase pits “life” and “work” against each other like they are opposing forces. The phrase implies work is against life, and therefore work is bad. I love work, and so I needed a new paradigm. Ultimately I discovered work is life and life is work, and teasing these apart is a fool’s game. 

Work-life balance is ultimately about priority. Its quest is to solve how too much work does not destroy the rest of your life. Or a way to continue your work even when other pieces of life need more attention. 

When I transitioned from finding work-life balance into finding priority, I ended up with 5 Big Trees. But before visiting the trees, I need to talk about the rocks in which they grow on top.

Stephen Covey teaches about “big rocks” in the following video:

When my life is growing, each of my Big Trees is healthy. When my life is stuck, one of these trees is sick. 
The big rock concept was a game-changer for me. Discovering, exploring, and tracking my “big rocks” helped me tremendously. The metaphor stopped working as life shifted and grew. Rocks are static, and they are independent of each other. My priorities are always growing and going through cycles, and my priorities are dependent on each other. 

So I discovered trees are a more accurate metaphor. If my life is a forest, then there are 5 Big Trees that the rest of the forest depends on to give nourishment, protection, and shape. Trees in a forest compete for sunlight and space, just like our priorities compete for time and energy. When I nurture my Big 5 trees, the rest of my life flourishes.  

5 Big Trees

  1. Health: The most critical tree. My life is built on my physical, mental, and spiritual health. When any of these areas of health fail me, life falls apart. Ultimately this is the tree that matters. 
  2. Home: The tree that gives protection. This tree is about caring for myself and the people I live with. It includes shared resources of food gathering and preparation, shelter, and security that we share. It also includes nurturing the relationships of my immediate family. I’ve learned managing shared resources is a big part of supporting our relationships. 
  3. Career: The tree that gives resources. This tree is the symbiotic relationship of doing something useful and getting paid in return. It can make a positive impact on the world. More importantly, it provides the resources needed for the other trees. This tree includes the education that will allow for career growth. The most important part of this tree is that it gives resources.
  4. Life energy: The tree that manages time and money. This tree includes managing calendars and budgets. More importantly, it is the financial planning and life goals planning. It is mapping how I want to spend my time and the resources needed to accomplish these goals.
  5. Purpose: This is the impact I make in the universe. This is the work that lights the energy inside me. This tree is the discovery and creation that excites me when I wake up and brings satisfaction when I go to bed. Creating cubicleMonks is a big piece of my purpose. Finding the distinction between the Purpose tree and the Career tree was a powerful discovery in my life. 

The trees are in priority order meaning the higher the priority, the more it will block my life if the tree needs attention. For example, if I’m sick and have poor health, the rest of the trees will also suffer. It makes no sense to focus on the Life Energy Tree if my Career Tree needs more attention since my work funds my investments.

While there is a priority order of importance, all trees need to be healthy to achieve a thriving life. If my purpose tree is dying and not getting attention, it doesn’t matter how well the other trees are doing. I will be dissatisfied with life.   

When I plan my day, week, month, year, I review these trees in this order, which can quickly bring to light what needs the most attention. 

The trees depend on each other.
This metaphor’s fruitful gift is discovering how the trees support each other. Finding the ways the trees support each other is where I get the big wins and move beyond work vs. family’s false dilemma. Good health provides the energy to do the work of the other trees. Working with family on shared dreams will support the Home Tree, Life Energy Tree, and Purpose Tree.  Taking a non-violent communication class nurtures the Family Tree, the Career Tree, and the Purpose Tree. Taking a walk in nature at lunchtime while talking to a friend about investments can water each of the trees at once. When I decide where to invest my focus, I take a critical assessment of which trees need attention. When life is inflow, I’m very strategic in finding ways to nurture multiple trees at once.  When life hits me hard, it is one of these trees that is sick and needs critical attention. Until I can bring that tree back to health, the entire forest will be suffering.  

Trees support the squirrels and flowers. 
If I give all my attention to just these five areas of life, what about the other important things like friends and extended family, hobbies, travel, etc. I call these areas of life the bushes, flowers, and wildlife. There are many squirrels to chase and berries to pick in a healthy forest. Healthy trees create a habitat for an abundant life. The beauty of focusing on my 5 Big Trees is that I have more time and energy for the other beautiful pieces of life. 

When life is in flow, I have extra energy for doing the other things in life that bring comfort and joy. Listening to music with a friend brings me a lot of joy. But this activity isn’t available to me if one of the trees in my forest is sick. Or worse, it is destructive to listen to music with a friend if my Home Tree needs attention. Learning this distinction between the Big Trees versus the squirrels and flowers brought a significant life shift. Even if joyful and nurturing, chasing shiny things turned healthy activities into harmful distractions if a Big Tree was sick. 

Discovering your Big Trees.
It took many years to get specific on my 5 Big Trees. Ultimately, it was following wisdom from other sources that brought me to these trees—also, a lot of mistakes. For example, I invested too much focus in the Career Tree, and I became a workaholic that poisoned the other trees. 

My biggest mistakes always came from putting trees at a higher priority than my Health Tree. I believe everyone needs to have the Health Tree as their most important focus. At the end of the day, all we have is our health. 

Because the tree discovery takes a long time, I recommend starting with my 5 Big Trees. These trees cover health, relationship, work, time, money, purpose, which are some of the most likely struggles we all face. The critical piece here is not the trees but the reflection on the trees. You can do your daily, weekly, monthly, annual reviews by starting with these trees. Is your life growing? Is your forest healthy? Studying your forest’s health considering these trees will help you discover your Big Trees. 

The Forest
When all of my Big Trees are nourished, my forest is alive and joyful. Giving focus to nurturing a forest can be overwhelming. Instead, I focus on these Big Trees, and everything else falls in place. I can look back and giggle at my past attempts to find a “work-life balance.” 

Thoughts, questions, ideas? Please reach out to me: