January 2018 is life planning month around here.
In preparation, I spent a lot of time imbibing a lot of different resources on life planning. Books, articles, videos, online courses…pretty much anything you can think of, I was there.
My original plan was to learn the basics and then find the best resource and follow it 100% A to Z.
The first problem I encountered was that most resources mixed up the questions of who you want to be and what you want to do.
Answering the question “Who do you want to be?” requires a very different approach to answering the question “What do you want to do?” They’re both very important questions when thinking about the big picture of your life. But they need to be addressed separately.
The second problem was that the resources that addressed the “What do you want to do?” question all took pretty much the same approach. There were variations, of course. Everyone has their own slightly different spin. But they all broke down to essentially the same three parts.
Three Questions to a Better Life
In mapping out your life to achieve everything that you want to achieve, you only need three pieces of information:
Where are you?
Where do you want to go?
How do you get there?
These three questions are simple, but can pack quite a punch.
If you want to plan out where to go with your life, you need to break your life down into pieces and think through these three questions with each little piece.
Where to Start
While the questions that you need to answer about your life are surprisingly easy, deciding what to ask them about is surprisingly tricky.
What areas of your life should you address? How broad or narrow should your view be?
Here I like to start with the outline laid out by Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy in their life planning book Living Forward. There, they recommend starting with the following broad categories:
From here, you should feel free to zoom in or out depending on how important each topic is for you.
If you have multiple jobs and you want to zoom in on each, then give each its own analysis. If you have subcategories of “social” that you want to explore, feel free. If you want to lump marriage and parenting in together, fine. If you don’t value spiritual or intellectual aspects of your life as standalone entities, then feel free to exclude those.
Ultimately, the goal is to focus on whatever is important to you.
When to Start
Once you have your categories laid out, slowly and methodically work your way through the three questions for each.
Where are you?
Where do you want to go?
How do you get there?
Even though there are only three questions, it can take a long time to answer fully for each category. Make sure that you give yourself a sufficient window to cover a topic before diving in.
My original plan was to follow the instructions in the Hyatt exercises to the letter. However, the Hyatt exercise said to block out a full day and comprehensively address each area of your life.
I didn’t have that kind of time. At least not in the near future. And I decided it would be better to get an imperfect start than to wait until I found a prefect time to start with a full day.
I recommend that approach to you as well. If you can take a whole day, then great. But if you’re like me, block of an hour and get to work examining one little piece of your life. You’ll feel better having done it and it is far better to get a little bit done well enough than to get nothing done at all.
For my own approach, I actually punted on a few categories.
Having partially mapped out my writing schedule for 2018, I know that my health will get its own month. I know money issues will get their own month (at least). I know that my relationships will get their own month.
For each of those months I intend to start with an analysis of where I am, where I want to go, and how I can get there.
However, knowing that that is coming down the road means that I can ignore those aspects for now and wait until they have my full attention later in the year.
If you plan to follow along with me this year, feel free to put those categories aside for now, as well. If not, then make a plan for working your way through each area of your life.
If you are taking the latter approach, then make sure to start with the most important areas or the areas that you think need the most work. There’s always a risk that projects get dropped in the middle. Make sure that you make progress on the most important parts of your life at the beginning in case life gets in the way later.
Asking the Questions
Once you’ve picked your first area of examination, it’s time to ask the questions.
Where am I?
Write down everything that you can think of about your current situation. I found it helpful to start with all of the positive aspects and things that are going well before moving on to neutral or indifferent, and wrapping up with the negatives or areas that need improvement.
For example, I started analyzing my day job by thinking through the things that I liked. I wrote about my hours, my feeling of expertise, my autonomy, my great supervisors, and the rest.
Then I moved into what I called the “Meh.” These are things that have pros and cons, including the work itself. I examined the aspects of the work that I enjoy and that I get excited about and passionate about. I wrote about the areas of work that I dislike or that stress me out more than necessary.
Finally, I moved on to the negatives. The money, while good relative to the country as a whole, is much lower than in private sector legal jobs. More importantly, I don’t often feel a sense of greater purpose, as I rarely see how my work is specifically helping others.
Where do I want to go?
This is where you define the traits of your ideal situation. What aspects are most important to you? What good things that you have now would you keep? What bad things would you fix?
Using my job as an example again, I would ideally keep a lot of the good traits and add more direct helping of others.
More money would be great, but is not a high priority. I would much rather have all of the other good traits than a higher salary. If I can keep everything else and get a higher salary, then great! If not, it isn’t worth the trade-offs to me.
Your priorities here may be different. This is where it is helpful to look back on how you answered the question of who you want to be. We can’t have everything, so we need to decide what is most important to us. It helps to know what would be most important to the ideal version of us and what would be most useful in becoming that person.
How do I get there?
This is where we look at our map and create our route. We know where we are and we know where we want to go. Now we need to build a plan to get from A to B.
It sounds easy. And sometimes it is! If I want to write a novel, then I can put together a plan relatively easily. Map out a plot, develop characters, write a draft, get feedback, write a second draft. The plan will change as I go, of course, but I’ve got a starting point.
Sometimes it is much harder to map out your plan, though.
Let’s go back to my job for a moment. There are a lot of things to balance.
I want to more directly help more people. I want to keep all of the good traits. I don’t need more money, but ideally would not want to take too much of a pay cut for this ideal job.
I also have a bit of a unique situation in that I am enrolled in a Public Service Loan Forgiveness program at a time when the Department of Education is trying to cut out groups that were previously considered to be public service. This means that if I want the loan forgiveness, I need to stay in a job that is completely and unambiguously public service, which limits my outside options.
I do want to note here that everything is always an option. When considering ways forward, you should always consider everything, even options that seem like bad choices right off the bat. Sometimes our instincts are wrong and we are closing doors that don’t need to be closed.
With that said, I am not closing off the option of going to the private sector and losing loan forgiveness. However, doing so means that I would also need to find a way to make up for the $300,000 in loans that would need to be paid off. This is just one more thing to consider in weighing my options.
Alternatively, we can look to supplement our gaps from other areas of our lives.
If I like most aspects of my day job, but don’t feel like I am helping enough people, then I can fill that gap by doing more outside of my day job to help people. I could donate more money to good causes. I could volunteer more. I could pick up pro bono work for good causes. I could use my platform to advocate for policies that would help people that need it.
I could also implement those changes while looking for a different day job and adjust as I go.
This is all to say that sometimes the answers aren’t as simple as they may seem. Take your time and think through every option. It is possible to fill your gaps and to better make your life reflect your priorities.
Join the Conversation!
Phew! That’s a lot. And I will tell you that it took me much longer to do these exercises than to write about them. It will take you longer to do them than to read about them.
But it is worth it.
We spend so much time trying to get by and address our day-to-day struggles that we never take the time to step back and get our life under control. Let’s change that in 2018.
Let’s create the lives that we want to be living.
Are you in? Have you done exercises like this before? What have you found? Have you tried others that you found useful? Share with us in the comments!
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