How To Get Off Of The Hamster Wheel

getting off the hamster wheel

Have you been bemoaning the fact that you have so many things to do that you don’t want to do, but have to do? Do you also have a lot of fun things that you want to do, but believe you don’t have time for?  Do you feel like the proverbial hamster on the exercise wheel?

The answer to this problem starts with examining the hamster. That little guy loves running on his wheel! We always talk about the hamster as if he is stuck on that wheel and just can’t get off. Au contraire! The hamster gets off the wheel when he is done and then sleeps, eats, or visits with his human or his fellow hamsters. This ideal life has been much maligned!

The trick is not to get off of the wheel, but to make running on the wheel something you love to do!

running in a human hamster wheel

What is your hamster wheel?

Let’s figure out how to get off the wheel of what we “should” be doing, and get on the wheel of things that add meaning and joy to our lives. When we are on the right wheel, the running is fun, and we can do it all day long! (Or all night long, if you are a “night owl” like me– or a hamster!)

“Rules” about what we should be doing are everywhere, and they have been with us since we were toddlers. You should share your toys; you should get good grades; you should have lots of friends on Facebook; you should wear a certain type of clothing (but not the same thing two days in a row, no matter how perfect it is!), you should drive a nice car and have a nice house; you should be thin and odor-free; you should make a lot of money; you should have perfect children, and– my personal favorite– you should be young.

How many of the steps on our wheel are made up of these “rules”?

Often we have been following the “rules” for so long that we don’t realize we actually have a choice.

roadmap for a life of joy

Here’s how you can create a roadmap for a life that will bring you joy and make you want to run round and round!

1.Clarify your values.

This is the longest step, but it is critical. Take some time to sit down and jot some notes about the things that matter most to you. Here is a guideline for you to get started. Look at each of the following categories and think about specific goals for each of them. Goals that are important to you, no matter what everyone else thinks.

Family– What does family mean to you? Is it family of origin, extended family and friends, or mostly your own partner and children? How often do you want to connect with various family members? What feels right to you, regardless of what your family expects you to do?

Work– are you doing work you love? If not, is there something you love to do but are afraid it won’t make enough money/be prestigious enough/be secure enough, etc.? What single step could you take toward making the thing you love a career?

Or, if work is just a job (hey, everybody’s got bills to pay!), how do you experience creativity in your life? What do you do that adds meaning beyond your own life? If you don’t know yet what you want to be doing for your life’s work, what is one thing you can do in the next week that would be creative or meaningful to you?

Intimate relationship– Is your relationship all you wish? (If so, call me! You can write my next blog post!) What one step could you take to improve your relationship?

The truth is, we don’t always know what step to take to improve our relationships. In that case, the first step might simply be to spend some time researching relationship help, or to call a therapist and ask some questions. Many therapists will spend 15 to 20 minutes with you to help you figure out your next step.

Health­– Are you as healthy as you would like to be? If not, how would you like to feel about your health? What is one step you could take toward a more healthy lifestyle and healthy body?

Religion and Spirituality– Do you participate in an organized religion? If not, how do you feel connected to the universe and your fellow humans? What is one way you could express this connection that feels true and nourishing to your soul?

Other values some people have on their list are Friends, Nature, Art, Music, Adventure, Politics, and Aesthetics.

Once you have your list filled out, put your values in order, with the most important ones at the top.

Now you have your roadmap! Keep this list close by, maybe on your phone.

2. Weekly planning

weekly planning

 Plan a time each week to sit down with a calendar and put in each of the “one thing you can do” items on your list. You will be surprised at how much more satisfied you will be at the end of the week when you can look back and see progress toward the things in life that really matter most to you.

Of course, after the first week you will need to come up with new “one thing you can do” items in each value category. If you have more than 5 Values categories, you may just want to pick 4 or 5 of them every week to add to the calendar, and rotate around each week which areas you choose. Make it easy to succeed!

3. Daily planning.

This gets easier and easier once the overall values and weekly goals are in place. Set aside 10 minutes to plan each day, either first thing in the morning, or the night before. It can be a perfect accompaniment to your morning coffee, or, if you are like me, you prefer to jot things down the night before and go to sleep with a clear head.

You start with your “to do” list that you have always had (okay, maybe you never wrote it down before, but it was always kind of in your head, right? Now you are going to write that puppy down!)  Evaluate each item against your list of values.

THIS is where the rubber meets the road.

Every time you feel yourself gritting your teeth (or whatever your own personal somatic response is to negative stimuli) you know that this item is something you feel you “should” do, not something that brings you joy. Go back to your list of values. Think long and hard about whether or not there is some way you can change this activity a bit so that it reflects the things you value most.

There will always be some things you can't make fun or meaningful (my daughter suggested that getting a Pap smear is one of these things, but I must say that I do have a good time joking around with my doctor, so it's not a total loss. Cleaning toilets, however...) The point is, that at the end of the week you can look back on the way you spent your time and know that there are many things you did that reflect your own true values. This is a wonderful feeling.

Here is a concrete example of how this can work in real life:

Entertaining friends at my home was always anxiety-producing for me. When I finally sat down to figure out what exactly made me so crazy about this, I realized that A. I value having friends over, but B. I don’t really like to cook, and C. I was always spending hours cleaning my house beforehand, which put me in a bad mood– not to mention my poor husband!.

I had connected entertaining to cooking and cleaning without ever questioning if all three of them were values to me. The connection among the three was a cultural and family value that I had absorbed, but that didn’t have personal value for me, and was, in fact, leading to considerable frustration.

barbeque with friends in Los Angeles

Solution– Focus on the parts of entertaining that I do enjoy and let the rest of it go. My guests arrive, and I rush them straight through my messy house (I do tidy up the guest bathroom!) to the back yard. We pour drinks, throw some meat and veggies on the grill, break a loaf of bread, serve ice cream or fresh fruit for dessert. Sometimes I even (gasp!) order takeout!

No one has ever complained. In fact, I think some of my friends are relieved to know that if they have me over to their house, I won’t be judging their cooking or cleaning.

I have also re-evaluated the grocery shopping chore (which I despise!) by doing my grocery shopping on my bike (which I love) with my husband (whom I love even more than my bike!).

When you can combine different values: friends, exercise/health, intimate relationship– and eliminate others that are NOT your values: cooking and cleaning, then you know this system is really working for you!

These ideas are not new. Minimalism, the Kon-Mari Method, and the Tiny House Movement are all based on the idea of paring down to what is really important and reflective of your own values.

I have been fascinated by these movements, but have come to realize that my own life may never be that simple. I have four kids who are coming and going and moving all over the world, a husband who has many hobbies– each requiring roomsful of tools and gizmos, and a career and a hobby or two myself.

My life may never be exactly simple, but the more time I spend planning for and living my life according to my values, the more I love running on that hamster wheel!

Do You Need A Little Extra Help Finding Ways to Get Off Of Your Hamster Wheel?

Clarifying your values and living your life according to what brings you joy can easily be confounded by lessons we learned long ago as children. These lessons can be so ingrained and subconscious that they keep us from seeing the wonderful options we have to live a life of meaning and happiness. Therapy can help you identify these blocks, and remove them so that you can build a life that reflects your own values and goals.

Please call me at 323-999-1537, or email me at for a free 20 minute consultation to learn how you can find the ways to live your best life right now!