You know when you hear an analogy about life and it clicks?
It never leaves you; it perfectly sums up what you're thinking and feeling.
Yeah, I have a few of them.
My favourite of them all is the life bucket analogy. It was my husband who first told me about this brilliant concept, something he learned from his year twelve English teacher, of all people.
His teacher described our lives as a bucket.
I imagine little me holding this yellow bucket like I'm going to the beach. In that bucket is everything in my life; relationships, work, career, family, my body, friends, and my obsession with Garfield.
I can see how I've filled the bucket a little bit like a game of Tetris. I have placed everything in with such care, ensuring my entire life fits neatly in the bucket.
It's light enough for me to carry but heavy enough to be meaningful.
That's the perfect bucket. Balanced, and healthy, but there is zero room for anything else.
Some years ago, when a loved one of mine faced a mental health crisis and I added carer to my bucket, suddenly it was overflowing.
Everything came pouring out and I was unable to catch it. It was almost like someone halved the bucket. Or some evil person drilled holes in the bottom.
I never want this to happen to me again, nor to you, either.
When it does, you don't feel like you can breathe. Suddenly, everything you know how to do becomes a life-ending challenge. What should be easy is now hard.
From the experience of having my life bucket overflow, I've learned how to manage my life to avoid it happening again.
Here's what I do.
I keep my relationships realistic
This is going to sound harsh to the people in my life, but not all relationships are created equal. And as a result, not all relationships take up the same amount of space in my bucket.
The smaller relationships are the friends I only see once every six months, for example. Other relationships are more significant in size. The one I have with my husband takes up a lot of space, for example.
Now, this isn't about priority or space in the bucket; it's not a competition over who gets the largest spot.
Nor is it about how many relationships I have. I'm not saying I have a bucket capacity limit. But when life becomes tough, you realise how fragile your time and energy are.
Things change, too.
You can't manage relationships in your life bucket like when you were eighteen. That was a time when you could have hundreds of friends and keep them all close in their own special way.
It's more about keeping relationships that are sustainable and add to my life, rather than keeping people around who keep stealing space in the bucket from other people.
To make sure I don't overcommit myself and have relationships I can't maintain, I do the following:
- Cut off toxic friendships - Relationships that make my life harder and pull from other relationships don't stay in my life. I'm not ruthless; I don't cut someone after one argument. But I do evaluate who is around me more than I did in my youth.
- Communicate when life is getting hard - People don't know you're going through a hard time and need space unless you tell them. I don't let them guess how bad or good my situation is; I tell them. That way when I need space and to reprioritise, they understand it's not them. It's me.
- Resolve issues - Arguments with the people I love causes me stress, and then stress causes my life bucket to overflow. The longer these arguments prolong, the worse the stress grows, too. I now have the argument, clear the air, and move on. Whilst it fills the bucket up, it's only temporary.
I keep my health in check, as much as possible
The health portion of my life bucket is pretty fluid. So is yours. You're always filling and draining it.
Your health is rarely perfect; you're always doing something to better yourself.
But when that section of the bucket overflows, it's bad. A couple of years ago, it was one bad pap-smear result that did it for me. Or ten years ago, when one scan proved it was time for my gallbladder to come out. Surgery followed both situations.
What I'm always actively avoiding is letting the health portion of my bucket overflow. Though I can't always control what happens to my body, I can do my best to avoid the avoidable. I do this by:
- Never letting a health concern get worse - Any lumps, bumps, or bruises, I don't let the issue get out of control. I'm not rushing to the doctor every day, but I make sure I don't ignore something that's presenting itself on my body. I exercise basic self-care and self-nursing, but I acknowledge when it's time for the experts.
- Habitually looking after myself - I prioritise exercise and a balanced, healthy diet. Without my gallbladder I'm also prone to gut issues so if I want to avoid major flare-ups, this is a given in my daily routine.
- Follow-up with doctors - A doctor once asked me to do follow-up testing twelve months after my last appointment. I booked ahead. I showed up on the one-year anniversary, shy of one week. No one was going to remind me. I had to be my own doctor.
I don't let my work consume me
I love my career; not my job, but my career. I don't see what I'm doing as a job to earn money. It's so much more, and something I want to be doing for a long time.
I have to be careful though because not everyone shares my ideals about working and building a business idea.
And I would be lying if I said my career doesn't monopolise considerable sections of my bucket. I could let it entirely take over my life if I wasn't careful.
Despite loving what I'm doing, this career comes with stress, pressure, and high demands. This can impact parts of my bucket without too much filling.
This is my biggest filling juggling act, so to speak.
It also doesn't help that I've always worked from home, for the last 7 years. It can make this section of my bucket feel blurry at times. That's why I:
- Separate work and play - I have work hours and personal hours. As much as humanly possible, I keep the two separate. I'm not always good at this but with self-evaluation, I reign myself in. I know what it's like to lose days, weeks, and months of work days to my personal life. I want to avoid that happening again by cutting off the cycle before it starts.
- Set my work to autopilot - What I can automate during my work day, I do it. For example, I eat the same things for breakfast, lunch, and snacks on work days. No guessing what's to eat stops wasting time making a decision. It's a small thing but it helps.
- Stop what isn't working - My bucket is prone to overflowing when I'm doing the wrong thing over and again. That leads to a mess I need to clean up later, a mess I don't have space in my bucket for. Constant evaluation is a priority of mine; I make sure I'm not creating a situation for myself that I can't fix quickly.
I confront problems head on
You could say everything else in my life falls into this problem section of my bucket.
"Problem" isn't a negative concept; the word denotes anything that doesn't quite fit into the major parts of my life - relationships, health and career.
We all have problems, good and bad.
What lives in the problem part of my bucket is often administrative. It's the decision about what to buy for dinner, where I will live in ten years, and what I will buy my sister for Christmas this year.
Finding solutions can take up space in my bucket. The bigger the problem, the more space it takes.
As a positive, the problems can be temporary. But some can stick around for a long time until I find a solution. What I've come to learn is that these problems might never leave your bucket. They do shrink, though, as you learn to better manage them.
Yet, problems can stack up. To avoid this happening, I:
- Don't shy away from problems - If I have an issue, burying it in the bucket doesn't help me. It only seems to get bigger. As I've matured, I'm learning to move problems to the top of my bucket, deal with them and move on. I'm not perfect at, not at all. But I keep reminding myself of the alternative.
- Learn to understand size - The problems we all face aren't equal in size. Each issue takes up a certain size based on how impactful it is to your life. The death of a family member - huge. Returning a library book - small. I've learned to evaluate the size and importance of the problem and prioritise its place in my bucket. This is how I've learned to let go of what I can't control, as well as avoid taking on other people's problems, too.
When do you need a new bucket?
Sometimes it feels like we all need a new bucket. It feels like the one we have is cracking under the pressure of our problems and all the parts of our life.
There are days when I don't know how I will carry my full bucket anymore. I don't know how any other problems and responsibilities can come along.
I don't have the space, right?
What helps me the most when I'm thinking about my ever-expanding life is this one concept about my bucket; it will never be empty.
I will never reach a moment in my life where it's completely empty. I will always have problems, good and bad. Managing my bucket is what we do in life. It is life.
I'm only going to hurt myself by trying to constantly empty the bucket. Because it's an exercise in futility and not a life I want to live. If I can avoid the overflowing, I've done a pretty good job.
And that's all I can hope for.
For you, too.
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