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3 Steps to Get a Life

Work-life balance requires having a life. Here are some tips on creating one.

Key points

  • Understanding how we are multifaceted can help us be more resilient.
  • Start by making a list of who you are and use that to help you make a list of who you will be.
  • Grounding your future self in your current values and identities makes the future more attainable.

In one recent week, a friend had her father's funeral and sent her youngest child off to college. "Everyone's leaving," she said. Such is the life stage we Gen Xers are in: defined by change, loss, gain. First we were latchkey kids, then slackers, then the sandwich generation taking care of children and parents, and now we face a new stage of identity according to Erikson's life stage model—"generativity and reflection." Here are three steps to moving forward gracefully.

1. Make a list

Way before there were "listicles," Gen Xers have been making and enjoying lists. Formative years were spent watching Letterman's nightly Top 10 and we even had books (and movies) about lists: High Fidelity was all about top 10 lists of music (for those on the Boomer cusp) and of course 10 Things I Hate About You (for those on the millennial cusp). So, as you step into the void, make a list. Social psychologists call it the "20 Statements Task" (Kuhn & Parkland, 1954) and it is a way of self-description and self-discovery. Essentially, start with a clean piece of paper (or empty screen). Then take the root phrase "I am..." and fill in the blank 20 times. Try to avoid pure physical descriptors (e.g., I am tall) and choose words that describe who you are. For example, I might start with:

  1. I am a mother.
  2. I am extroverted.
  3. I am a professor.
  4. I am a runner.
  5. I am a friend.
  6. I am a dog-lover.

It is not an easy task and you may find yourself struggling to finish all 20. But, keep going and get through all 20. This list of 20 self-aspects becomes your blueprint for your next stage.

2. Check your list and check it twice

Social psychologist Patty Linville (1987) originally defined self-complexity as the number of self-aspects a person might have. The more self-aspects a person has, the more self-complexity they have. Greater complexity and maintaining greater distinctions among self-aspects buffers against stress and creates resilience. Complexity leads to resilience because it allows for balance. If a negative event or lack of opportunity occurs in one area, people are able to focus attention on other areas. For example, if you are injured and unable to run, your view of yourself as a runner could suffer. In response, you could increase effort and attention to other important self-aspects. Increasing positivity in one self-aspect can balance out negativity in other self-aspects.

Return to your list and sort your answers to see how many self-aspects you have (it may be less than 20, as some answers cluster under a single self-aspect). As you do this, consider which of those items are changing or are likely to change in the future. These represent your past and future selves (Peetz & Wilson, 2008). As you see some parts of yourself receding into the past, identify parts of self-aspects that could use more attention. For example, as your efforts and responsibilities as a parent decrease, greater attention and weight could be applied to developing physical fitness and other hobbies.

3. Create a "to-be" list

Now, it is time to use that list to plan for the future. Once you've reviewed your list and considered what parts of our self might grow and might recede, it's time to plan for the future. As shown by Abe Rutchick and colleagues (2018), explicitly tying your present self with who you will become increases your likelihood of reaching that future self. So, take a moment to think about who you will be five years from now, think about the topics and self-aspects that are important and dear to you, and how you see your life continuing into the future. Then, sit down with a new clean sheet of paper and answer the question "I am..." 20 times for yourself as you will be in five years. These answers give you a road map for seeking volunteer opportunities, sharing with friends and family in-person and via social media, and learning new skills.


Peetz, J., & Wilson, A. E. (2008). The temporally extended self: The relation of past and future selves to current identity, motivation, and goal pursuit. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(6), 2090-2106.

Linville, P. W. (1987). Self-complexity as a cognitive buffer against stress-related illness and depression. Journal of personality and social psychology, 52(4), 663.

Rutchick, A. M., Slepian, M. L., Reyes, M. O., Pleskus, L. N., & Hershfield, H. E. (2018). Future self-continuity is associated with improved health and increases exercise behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 24(1), 72.

More from Camille S. Johnson Ph.D.
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