When things get too busy and hectic, it’s natural to wonder if life has to be this way. Have you had this thought? Great! It means you’re slowing down. You’re noticing you’re alive — and you don’t want to waste your one precious life in a fog of reactivity, allowing people and circumstances to dictate your choices. You’re realizing that somewhere along the way, you forgot that only you get to decide what you want.
I’ve Been There
My life has had its share of upheaval. In my hardest moments, I began to believe that Fate was in charge, and I was just along for the ride. I felt I didn’t have the power to apply the brakes nor alter the course in front of me. Choices felt like luxuries. And yet, the quality of my life depended on making them!
I’m a person who loves certainty, continuity and creativity in safe spaces. The fact that I had no idea how to go about changing things for the better felt scary. This was exactly the opportunity I needed for some deep learning.
The Benefits of Designing Your Life
Here’s what I learned: When you take the time to design your life, you transform your own experience.
You find yourself inspired in your career, taking more time off, and enjoying better relationships in all parts of your life. You notice inner peace and an abundance of possibility. You actually like what you’re living.
It’s a magical feeling to realize that your actions and values line up with who you are. It feels like coming home—to yourself!
Listen to Your Gut
Trust your intuition. You can rely on it to tell you the absolute truth about what is right for you. What is it saying to you as you read this? Are you prepared to act on that message?
Sometimes uncertainty stops us from making choices for ourselves. Instead, we let things happen to us—and find ourselves missing out on the best parts of life. We miss the joy and beauty in the faces of small children. We miss the softness of moss under our feet and the fresh scent of cedar. We miss the lessons that develop our inner wisdom. We get to the end of our lives wondering, “Did I live the life that was most meaningful to me?”
So, how DO we create a better life?
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not about making our lives easier — although there is nothing wrong with that! Designing your life simply means taking charge and paying attention to it all the way along. It requires a deeper knowing about what you value, who you are and what you want to remember at the end of your life. Once you know all this, choosing it consciously – over and over again – is the key to designing the life you want.
No Road Map Required
Designing your life does not mean you need a complete roadmap for the rest of your life. Our brains don’t work that way. For example, a 20-year-old’s brain cannot conceive of how the 40-year-old version will see the world.
When I was 20, I saw my life as a series of carefully thought-out steps: law school, then law practice. It was narrowly defined, prescriptive and safe. At 40, I recognized that a more authentic career choice would draw on all my strengths and interests: intellectual, emotional and spiritual. I realized there had been no wrong turns—just a series of best choices in any given moment.
This internal process is messy but powerfully helpful.
Your own personal process will be unique to you. However, there are some common guidelines that may help you find what you want for this next part of your well-lived life.
Give yourself permission to consider these very slowly and thoughtfully. You deserve your own attention.
1. Invite Yourself to Sit with Your Discomfort
Don’t be afraid of discomfort. It holds a wealth of great information about what is true for you and what is not. Trust the struggle. Then ask yourself the following:
- Who do I want to be?
- What am I pretending not to know?
- What would I love to do if I knew no one was judging me?
- If I knew I couldn’t fail, what risk would I take?
- What am I avoiding by staying on my current path?
- What permission do I need or want in order to move forward?
2. Dive into What is Most Meaningful to You
Positive Psychology has identified certain benchmarks for a happy life. Chief among them is to work towards something bigger than yourself. “Use your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are.” – Martin Seligman (2002, p. 263)
Ask yourself the following:
- What is bigger than me?
- What matters deeply?
- When I feel warm and fuzzy, what am I doing?
- When I feel inspired and energized, what am I doing?
- What is happening in my life when I feel connected?
3. Look at What you Actually Do
To choose mindfully is to create the life you want. But first you need to know what it is you’re actually doing.
Ask yourself the following:
- What do I actually spend my time on?
- Do I surround myself with positivity or negativity?
- How present am I in any given moment?
- Do I consistently overbook myself?
- Do I pay enough attention to my loved ones?
4. Take Action – Today
You don’t need to wait for just the right conditions before taking action. The truth is: the best time to act is now. Now is all we have.
Action includes changing your self-talk from “I don’t see how this is going to happen” to “I can and I will!”
It can also mean taking small actions when the larger goal seems overwhelming. For example, if you want to change your job, start with doing some research. At this point, all you have to do is explore and imagine. You’ll know when you’re ready for the next best action.
5. Be Open to Detours
Designing your life is about keeping the goal in mind but being flexible in how you get there. You don’t have to make the perfect decision. You can always change your mind! Engineers, designers, therapists and teachers all know that developing anything of value includes constant twists and turns along the way. The key is to learn from these detours and see them as opportunities. You can learn from them, too.
6. Love, Love, Love
Heap as much love on yourself as your heart wants to bring. You need love to do this work successfully. Learning, stretching and growing require safety, acceptance and compassion.
“Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
– Mary Oliver