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The Happy/Sad List

"Happy" list

Part of my "Happy" list.

I took myself on a solo retreat this summer. My intention was to get in touch with my priorities. To identify what’s important. To figure out which part of my life needs concentrated attention.

I love to float around in the world of big-picture ideas, noting patterns and metaphors, writing lists and imagining goals. Unfortunately, I also tend to ignore (or get overwhelmed by) the pesky, mundane details involved in actually accomplishing these goals.

While I was eating dinner at a local pub, soaking up the last of the summer sun and gazing at the Columbia River, I stumbled upon a way to capture my thoughts in a way that would focus my mind on action: The Happy/Sad List.

The Happy/Sad List is remarkably simple, organic and fast. It’s just this: you write “Happy” on one page and “Sad” on another, and you start writing words, drawing pictures, capturing ideas or noting anything else that makes you feel either of these ways. Fast, without much thought or judgement, just write stuff that comes to mind. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make much sense. Very right brain.

What makes you happy? What are you doing when you’re happy? What does happy look like?

What makes you sad? What brings you down? What physical or emotional states come along with sadness?

All sorts of stuff came out, like how much physical clutter affects my mood. How personal connection — with friends, family, mentors, my community, my readers — MUST be central to whatever I do. Most of this I already knew, but seeing it there on the page was powerful.

I don’t consider myself particularly artistic, but I have discovered that I’m a visual learner. I found myself embellishing my “Happy” and “Sad” pages with sketches and symbols. I stopped when I felt done. Interestingly, the pages ended up resembling mirror images of each other, which makes sense, as “Happy” can sometimes be simply the absence of something “Sad.”

When I was done, my Happy/Sad list was like a laser pointing at what I needed to do next in my life. I identified the Big 3: one (just one) goal each for Home, Work, and Self that would make the biggest difference to my overall happiness. I spent the rest of my retreat figuring out the steps it would take to reach those goals.

I’m proud to say I’ve already accomplished one of my goals (launching the redesign of Parent Hacks), and have made significant headway on the other two. This is HUGE. I’ve never even attempted anything like this. And it feels amazing.

I don’t profess to have prioritizing and goal-setting figured out. I’m a rookie. But this worked for me. If you’re looking to add a little more “happy” to your life, perhaps it might work for you, too.

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