Focus on Five – a system for practicing a more balanced, contented life

You’ve probably seen at least one version of this advice floating around the internet:


“Three Hobbies” has always bothered me, for two reasons.

The first is that for those of us running our own businesses, the distinction between a hobby and a business is super important. If you want to write off your business expenses on your tax return, for instance, you’d better make sure the tax authorities don’t deem your business a hobby! (I’m not going to cover this in any more detail here, but do check out the link above for more details on the critical difference between a hobby and a business.)

The second issue is that “Three Hobbies” is INCOMPLETE, almost to the point of irresponsibility, when it comes to business owners. We know how common burnout, anxiety, and depression are among entrepreneurs. While running businesses, we might also be exercising and creating obsessively… all while totally disconnected from other human beings, or a sense of connection to what is driving all this activity in the first place.

And so I’m trying on a slightly different system for cultivating — as in, actually practicing — a balanced life.

Focus on Five

Nope, you can’t just focus on your business or your work. This is not sustainable. “Three Hobbies” acknowledges that. But adding creativity and physical fitness to your money focus isn’t enough, either.

Focus on Five practices, or habits, to live a more balanced, happy life: 

  1. One that makes you money. This might be your business, if it’s at the point where it can sustain your financial needs on its own. But until your business gets to that point, your money-making focus might very well be your day job… the one that comes with a regular paycheck. 
  2. One that keeps your body moving. Bonus points if your movement of choice gets your heart rate up and/or includes weight-bearing exercise, but even just going for a 30 minute walk during lunch breaks can keep your enthusiasm up, your nervousness down, and promote a sense of being more relaxed during the workday.
  3. One that keeps you creative. This could be some form of art, or it might be cooking, building robots, compiling Spotify playlists… that’s the great thing about creativity – you get to be creative about how you do it! If you tend toward perfectionism, it can be nice though to focus on the process itself lest you get stressed out about needing to create something that’s actually “good.”
  4. One that gives you perspective. I believe it’s crucial to develop a reflective practice that gets you out of the Doing and into a state where you can remember your goals and intentions, AKA the reasons why you’re doing all the things you do. This might look like spending time in nature, meditating, attending religious services, talking to old friends (the kind that will really keep you accountable) on the phone, journaling, listening to inspiring podcasts, etc. 
  5. One that keeps you connected to other people. Some of you might read this one as a call to spend more time really being present with your family. Others might recognize a need to spend more time with friends, with your spiritual community, or even other business owners to exchange stories, ideas, and support.

Some Focus on Five practice notes

In this system I’m imagining that we get to spend as much energy as we want to on any one of our Focus practices, but only to the extent that it doesn’t prevent us from practicing the others. Paying attention to — and actually practicing! — all Five means it’s a lot harder to get consumed by any one Focus to the point where it becomes exhausting or feel like a drag. 

As a side benefit, I’ve found it really helpful to use my Five to support me in saying NO to other opportunities, something that had previously been challenging and led to burnout; if it’s not related to my Five, I don’t say yes unless I know I’ll be able to fully address my Five first.

Treating each of the Five as a practice (a habit that you consciously develop, and something you approach in an ongoing way) rather than a hobby (which you might pick up every now and then, but not necessarily consistently) is important. Balance isn’t something that just magically happens TO us. We have to practice it. Even if something feels weird at first, the more we do it, the more it comes naturally.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
–Annie Dillard

And the point isn’t to try to tick off all Five of your Focuses every day. If you can, great, but aim for at least one good session of each every week and see how this affects your ability to stay happy, healthy, and generally ENERGIZED. Adjust as necessary.

What about using one practice to address two Focus areas? I haven’t had much success with this, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. That said, if you’re a creative person who uses your design skills to make money, for example, see if you can pick something for the creative Focus that’s not directly related to the creativity you get paid for, such as field sketching or photography. If you must choose a double-duty Focus, remember that it has TWO purposes. Be honest about whether you’re truly able to address the intentions behind both Focus goals; are you accidentally neglecting one of your Five?

A warning about social media: if you’re using it as your Connection Focus, be really honest with yourself about whether or not you actually feel more connnected when using it. Research shows that people expect that they’ll feel better after using Facebook, but the opposite ends up being true. I personally took the step of deleting my Facebook account, but many people tell me they need to use social media for work. If this is true for you, notice if you find yourself lingering longer than necessary in hopes that you might find that sense of connection. If that does happen, no worries; see if you can redirect that energy into your chosen method of Connection.

Is it time to shake things up?

It’s certainly not necessary to stick with the same Five forever. I’ve had balanced practices in the past that are completely different from my current Five, and I’m sure some will be different a year from now, too.

I’ve found it helpful to use some of my Perspective time to evaluate how things are going, and whether anything needs a shakeup. Of course, you need to actually practice your Perspective habit for this to work, and if you’re not doing that, you might not realize why things seem to be falling apart! That’s what happened to me at the end of 2017; I had let my yoga teacher training (and then teaching) eat up all my energy and spare time outside of my job. I had neglected to make time for reflection or creativity. I was feeling over-extended, drained, and started approaching just about everything in my life with a fight-or-flight, victim-y attitude.

It wasn’t until the holiday break that I finally gained enough perspective to realize I needed to start actively cultivating balance again. (In fact, that’s when I started playing around with a system that eventually became Focus on Five.) I started the New Year determined to re-balance my priorities, very consciously choosing my Five Focuses.

Here’s what my practices looked like last year, compared to what they look like this year:

FOCUS ON FIVE 2017 Practices 2018 Practices to date
1: Money My job My job
2: Body moving Biking to the office in the 1st half of the year, then home yoga practice Yoga classes during lunch break + regular massages
3: Creativity Taking lots of photos I didn’t do anything with Writing + making videos + painting
4: Perspective A bit of journaling, but not nearly enough Lots of journal time + meditation
5: Connection Yoga Teacher Training, then teaching Buddhist studies + time with my sangha

It took me a few months — developing new habits takes time! — but I finally found my groove again. I’m so much happier treating yoga as self-care for ME rather than trying to hold that space for other people. Paradoxically, since I dug up my long-neglected art supplies and started actually using them again, it seems like I have MORE extra time after work; not only have I been painting, I’ve even had the sewing machine out several times in the last few weeks. Issues at work don’t bother me as much. I’m a lot more present in my relationships, rather than constantly leaning on everyone around me for emotional support. And I’ve made some great new friends at the Auckland Buddhist Centre, which has become like a second home for me.

What are your Five?

So that’s the Focus on Five method I’m testing out to practice work-life balance. It is definitely a work-in-progress, based on my current understanding of my answers to the questions:

  • When do I feel really balanced?
  • What’s going on in my life when things are really FLOWING?

When you think of your life priorities through the lens of Focus on Five, what are your current Five? Which ones might need to shift a bit? I’d love to hear how this system resonates with you (or how it doesn’t), so please let me know!