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Lifestyle Design and Your Ideal World

Warning: this will be a long post!

There are no funny pictures of cats, comic strips, or post-election opinions in this one. It’s just good information that can help change your life if you let it.

In the manifesto that has now been downloaded more than 100,000 times, I wrote about how many people have no idea what they want to get out of life. The answer to the question, “What do you really want?” tends to trip a lot of us up.

In this post I’ll help you get closer to your own answer to that question, using three different perspectives. If you’ve never done much in the way of lifestyle design before, the end of the year is a good time to start thinking about it. Monday is also a good day to start the week off well, so while we’re looking at long-term well-being, try to find at least one or two ideas here that will help you this week.

Perspective #1: Creating Your Perfect Day

In this classic exercise, you write out your idealized, perfect day in great detail, beginning from what time you get up and what you have for breakfast all the way through what you do for each hour of the day and who you talk to. The more detail you can add to the plan, the better.

Then you begin to make plans to adjust your life to get closer to the perfect day you’ve designed for yourself. If you take this exercise seriously, you may begin making more conscious decisions about how you spend your time and what you focus on. Even if you don’t make a lot of changes, you’ll learn a lot about yourself based on the information you acquire. I do this exercise once a year in December and always end up making a lot of improvements the next year.

Perspective #2: Radical Goal-Setting

As I said, the Perfect Day exercise is a classic of the lifestyle design literature, and it can help you a lot if you’ve never thought much about what you really enjoy doing. There are two major weaknesses of this exercise, however, and if you don’t compensate for each of them, you can make significant improvements in your life… but you’ll still find yourself wondering, “Is that all there is?”

The first weakness is that in the end, it’s not all about you.

You have to do more than create the perfect day for yourself, because most people really don’t want to spend every day in a castle with someone bringing their perfectly-buttered toast to them in the mornings; they want to do something meaningful with their talents. They want to make the world a better place. They want to find a way to help that is unique to their own abilities. Without addressing this concern, I believe, most of us will not be able to live life to the fullest.

The second weakness has to do with the goals themselves. Where are they?

The Perfect Day exercise, for the most part, doesn’t touch on goals at all. You define what kind of work you do, who you interact with, and so on, but goals are not included. Therefore, you have to add goal-setting to the plan somehow. I tend to think if something is worth doing, you might as well do it all the way – so thus I’ve added “Radical Goal-Setting” to my own unconventional life planning. I usually break it out like this:

  • 1 Year Goals (this list gets reviewed a few times a year, and I create next year’s goals each December)
  • 5 Year Goals (this list gets reviewed once a year)
  • Lifetime Goals (this list gets reviewed once a year, and make sure to include some really big ideas for your lifetime goals)

I divide each list into these categories: Health, Friends, Family, Writing, Business, Travel, Income, Savings, Giving, Service, Spiritual, and Personal.

(When you do this for yourself, you should probably have many of the generic categories, and at least 1-2 categories specific to your own situation.)

Perspective #3: Planning for Serendipity

I frequently schedule multiple, major projects at the same time, and I am seemingly the only defender of multitasking left out there in the blogosphere. (Hellooooo… it’s lonely in here.)

For me, if I don’t have a lot of plates in the air, I get bored. We’ll look at how that works some other time, but the point I want to make now is that a lot of people express amazement that I can do “so much.” Well, I don’t speak for all the organized people in the world, but I’m going to let you in on a secret that pertains to many of us: we’re not as super-disciplined as you think. Really.

What many of us have done instead is create a structure around our work that allows us to improvise. We do take goal-setting seriously and do work very hard, but any discipline that comes about is usually a result of building a good structure to begin with.

Some of my most fulfilling experiences have been on days when I haven’t had a lot planned. I’ve taken off for long runs in dozens of world cities without a map or any knowledge of the local language. I’ve watched the sunset without an agenda in Zambia and the Faroe Islands. Almost every time I experience something like this, I always think to myself, “Wow. Life is good. I am so thankful to be alive.”

Nor do the experiences have to be exotic to be serendipitous. I also enjoy sleeping in a couple of times a week, going out for coffee almost every day I’m at home, playing video games, and deciding on a whim to do something completely different one day.

Another way to think of it is this: in the long-run, I want to be focused on the goals, my ideal world, and helping people however I can. In the short-run, I have to take steps to ensure those things are happening, but it’s not a highly regulated environment. If anything, it’s a flexible-but-purposeful environment. You don’t have to give up serendipity at all. Instead, when you work towards building your Ideal World, you’ll usually end up with more time to be spontaneous, and more energy for the “fun” things you like to do.


This mind-map illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of each approach – click to enlarge or download. In case you were wondering, I use MindJet software (free trial here) to do this kind of outlining.

Financing Your Life

Commentaries on lifestyle design usually fall into one of two camps – those that pretend that money doesn’t matter, and those that act like money is everything. Naturally, both of these positions are problematic.

Of course money is important; how else can you pursue the life of your dreams if you have no income or savings? It’s hard to buy groceries on dreams alone. I am a renegade entrepreneur who believes in creating my own freedom through self-employment and personal responsibility. This requires hard work — it does not usually just fall into place somewhere.

But yes, it is also true that money is not usually the biggest obstacle that holds people back from greatness. As I said way back when I started this site, whenever I head out for a big trip, I always end up talking with someone who “wishes” they could do the same but feels unable. More often than not, if they really wanted to travel around the world (or pursue their own goals, whatever they are), they could probably do so. What holds us back, more often than money, is fear of the unknown and priorities that we have placed elsewhere. In other words, the passive decision to join the world of the unremarkably average.

Where is the balance between ignoring the reality that we need money and stressing over it to the point of obsession? I think it lies in a) clearly understanding how much money we need to do what we want (as precisely as possible), and then b) making a plan to get that amount of money.

Begin Where You Are

Last and most importantly, never underestimate the power of small choices. I get emails once in a while from people who say they are too in debt to do what they want, too young, too old, or otherwise unable to create their ideal lives. I always say, start small. Do something different this week that will get you a little bit closer.

Have you ever known someone who transformed a completely sedentary lifestyle into a completely active one? One year the guy is an overweight smoker who drinks and eats too much. The next year he undergoes a remarkable transformation where he quits smoking, radically improves his diet, and becomes a fitness freak.

We see people like that and think, “Amazing!” On a personal level, it is amazing. But the most amazing parts are the first steps. Somewhere along the way, momentum kicks in and never stops. Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho has a theory about why this is the case:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

You can take that or leave it as you see fit. All I will say is that momentum is real. It carries marathon runners from Mile 24 to Mile 26.2. It can help you get whatever you want, but first you need to be very clear on what exactly that thing is.


Photo by Laura