Tools Review: Buckets
Welcome to The Slow Down's first dedicated tools review! This will be a regular feature here on the blog, in which I'll break-down personal development/self-care systems developed by other folks, while applying an intersectional lens to make it all more relatable, useful, and applicable for daily life.
In this past year’s journey of personal development research and practice, I’ve encountered two tools that provide especially helpful starting points for making much-needed life changes. For short, I'll refer to them as “Buckets” and “Gauges.”
The first tool, Buckets, comes from Jonathan Fields and his new book How to Live a Good Life. Since I’m both poor and a podcast-aholic, I haven’t yet read the book; but, I listened to an in-depth interview in which he describes the Buckets tool in great detail.
The other tool, Gauges, comes from Designing Your Life -- which I have read! -- and it largely overlaps with Fields' Buckets system but is meant to be used in tandem with other practices created by authors Dave Evans and Bill Burnett. Here, I'll review the Buckets tool and how I've applied it in my own life since learning about it (and I'll cover Gauges in a subsequent article). As always, my aim is to contextualize these personal development/self-care tools for folks who aren't, like the authors of these materials, wealthy white cis dudes.
Fields's system is pretty simple, distilled though, as he notes, from years of work in lifestyle/wellness. It frames life's priorities in terms of three buckets. And, in order to live a "good life," your only task is to keep these buckets as full as possible.
Easy! Except, not actually -- since life inevitably roughs you up along with your buckets, causing them to leak. Leakage, I'm sure, is even more aggressive for those of us who live at the margins. Besides functioning as a "good life" prescription, this system is also a helpful self-check-in tool.
Contribution is how you interact with the world, namely through your work/vocation. For me, this includes my day job (minus the menial tasks, like booking my boss's hotel accommodations because he doesn't feel like doing it himself), this blog, my art, and my activism. Side note: vocation has Latin origins and most literally means "calling." Your paid job might not be the same as your calling, which can be totally fine, as long as you're aware of and okay with that. Also, you may have more than one vocation/calling and that's great!
Fields explains this bucket as:
“[...] How you contribute to the world. How you bring your strengths, your gifts, your capabilities and abilities, your values and beliefs -- the things that spark you -- to the world.”
He discusses how “generative” is a great keyword when reflecting on your Contribution bucket. I also love this term because it really helps distinguish work I do that is rote/meaningless versus work that is impactful and actually brings something new into being.
To help identify your contribution, especially if it's not directly related to your paid work, Fields recommends asking your friends: “what do you thank me for?” Which sounds kind of awk, but is actually super helpful. I've tried it myself, albeit with different wording, and the answers were illuminative -- and helped give birth to this very blog! Ultimately though, you must look inward, with intention and honesty, to figure out how to define your Contribution and to, well, contribute to that bucket.
As for the impact of your contribution, Fields discusses ripple v. wave approaches. Essentially, some people are better wired for making a a huge wave, a complex, perhaps even newsworthy, impact on the world. These may be the “big idea,” entrepreneurial types (i.e. Steve Jobs). But just as legit and just as needed are the folks whose contribution to the world is much more like a ripple, or a "highly condensed drop in the pond." These people can make their splash in simpler ways, perhaps even at a slower pace. Less flashy but still very effective. To do this, you must embody your values as you work. Maybe it's my introversion's influence, but the "ripple impact" type really resonated with me. I found this an encouraging frame through which to view my various vocations, especially since American society fetishizes the Steve Jobs approach (to the point where his actual story has been polluted and warped into a sort of Capitalist mythology).
The second bucket, Connection, represents your relationships with others. Fields describes this bucket as “cultivating deep and meaningful relationships” -- again, “starting with self-knowledge.” I really like that he emphasizes introspection so much, since we live in a culture that generally discourages it and tells us to look outside ourselves for answers. As I've mentioned before on this blog, as long as you’re not ruminating, introspect as much as you want!
Here, Fields also highlights the importance of community.
This is something I've personally struggled with since moving to a big(-ish) city roughly 5 years ago. While my most immediate personal relationships (boo and fam) are pretty solid, I really feel the emptiness in this bucket. My yearning for community is pretty complicated, but suffice to say that community and a sense of belonging are actually pretty tough to find in adulthood, especially if you live at the intersections of several identities. And in the Modern West, our societies have become less community-oriented and much more hyper-individualist over time, as our social ties are increasingly severed. I definitely want to explore the whole finding-community-struggle in a later post, but for now I have no special recommendations beyond those you can find elsewhere online. Sorry y'all.
Having a sense of belonging, feeling like we are a part of something “bigger” is so critical to our well-being. Beyond community, this could look like recognizing that you're a part of the universe, nature, etc. For me, I like to consider my ancestors as part of my community and this whole bigger-than-me network. I believe they are supporting and guiding me throughout my journey, and I'd like to think that we've collaborated on making this life of mine into what it is today. Also, no one can know my life's trials better then them, and I'm confident that they've worked to mitigate as much trauma as possible, even before I got here. This linkage between Connection and spiritual health segues nicely into the third of Feilds' buckets: Vitality.
The final bucket has to do most directly with your health. Filling your Vitality bucket looks like “optimizing your state of mind and body,” according to Fields. For me, this means (accessible) healthy eating, simple exercising/moving my body, meditating, and practicing my rituals/spirituality. In short: I know that if my head ain't right, my body will find a way to point it out-- and visa versa. Psychosomatic stress manifestations are no fun. It's great that Fields discusses the feedback loop between the mind and body, a connection which is increasingly emphasized in modern medical science.
AND...described as “good life meta-skill” that especially helps with filling the Vitality bucket, is our good friend MINDFULNESS.
I'm so glad Fields discusses mindfulness in this way, since it is indeed a skill that must be developed and practiced regularly, much like exercise builds and strengthens a muscle. This is encouraging to folks who, like myself, get frustrated that their meditation practice doesn't automatically solve All The Problems. Since beginning my mindfulness work roughly 4 years ago, it has been indescribably helpful in coping with my anxiety disorder and improving emotional regulation -- although those benefits were reaped incrementally. Thanks to Fields' contextualization of mindfulness, I'm actually even more motivated to further enhance this skill and ensure that it is a regular habit, baked into my daily routines.
Rules for the Buckets
Fields identifies a few rules for his Buckets system.
Buckets leak. As life roughs us up, our buckets get battered too and develop holes. Even if you can manage to top off your buckets, they will leak eventually. You cannot just fill a bucket, and forget about it; each bucket needs regular attention and conscious filling. This is the daily practice of living a good life. This concept is probably my favorite takeaway from the interview.
“The height of any one bucket will always be capped by your least full bucket.” What Fields means by this is that you cannot fill your Contribution bucket to the top if you're neglecting your Vitality or Connection buckets. If you're working a lot and neglecting your health for example, your will not be able to reach your full potential in your vocation until you attend to the needs of your body + mind. The same would apply if your Connections bucket was low; you cannot be maximally healthy (Vitality) or successful in your work (Contribution) if you're cutting out your family and friends. Fields also explains that you can't hustle your way out of this problem by increasing your efficiency and productivity. Sounds familiar, eh?!
Though he doesn't designate it as a rule, a running theme throughout the interview is the importance of living your life intentionally. This is obviously easier for some than it is for others. People with more privilege and therefore greater access to options and resources can probably re-arrange their lives more readily and with less disruption, in order to better align their day-to-day with their values. For others, wresting whatever control you can in order to create as much of this alignment as possible is still a very worthy effort. I offer examples of how to do this this in earlier posts (here, here, and here especially).
How full are your buckets?
In Fields's book* he provides a "Snapshot" assessment that can help you discover how full each of your buckets are. When I took it, I was shocked but not necessarily surprised at the levels in my buckets. In fact, even the order in which I reviewed the buckets here in this post parallels the order in which I've been filling my own: Contribution ranked highest, Connection was is second place, and Vitality was too close to empty. If you listen to the interview, Fields actually orders them the complete opposite way! This was a helpful reality-check on my priorities and how I can better work to embody my values and improve my self-care practices.
So, how 'bout y'all? Do you find this Buckets tool helpful? Was there anything that surprised you? Did you take the Snapshot or Fields' book? Let us know in the comments below!
* (...and elsewhere online, although I don't want to incur a copyright violation for linking to it!)