I’ve spent a LOT of time thinking about what to do with my life. I’ve come up with and tried several strategies throughout the years, written out in several hundred pages of text. Each and every time, I’ve come up with some good ideas and yet I never seem to be able to follow through with them. However, I have used these strategies to good effect when helping others. Let’s look at my latest life planning strategy.
We’ll be looking at life in two time frames: long-term (5-10 years) and short-term (0-5 years), and work our way backwards from one to the other. We’ll use my favorite analogy of having a journey through life. Breaking up the journey, we have a map and compass (direction), trails (paths/plans), and waypoints (goals). We’ll also look at preactions (planning for typical issues), reactions (dealing with the unexpected), and habits (shortcuts and systems to make the journey easier).
Most of us realize that there is no point in making long term plans; outside forces always seem to foul them up. However, we can choose a general direction. Starting with the long term (and moving backwards), we choose one or more directions. You could choose, “I will be professionally independent.” Or maybe, “ I will be fiscally stable.” Or possibly, “I will be the parental focal point for my children.” There are an infinite number of directions you can go in. “I will be a generalist producer.” “I will be a knowledgeable generalist.” “I will go deep into history.” “I will be a web-based technologist.” Notice how each of these directions are open enough that there are many ways to move toward them.
Note: Once you’ve selected your directions and are happy with them, do not change them for at least five years. Give yourself time to move some distance in that direction. That means that you should spend a lot of time on them, making sure they don’t contradict each other and that they do send you in a direction you actually want to go.
Based on the handful of directions you choose, and 3-4 are probably best, we come to the more difficult step: choose paths (making plans) to go in those directions. Like I said, many paths lead in the same direction. This is where you have to make the difficult choice of which paths to take and which ones to leave. Moving in the direction of being fiscally stable just means that you have a steady income, not what you will be doing. Being a generalist producer doesn’t tell you what kinds of things you’ll produce. It would be writing, drawing, programming… This is the step that takes the most amount of time. Let’s say that one of your directions is, “I want to be professionally independent.” This means that you really should not choose, “I will become a corporate executive at a Fortune 100 company.” On the other hand, you could choose to become a writer, a translator, photographer, or anything that allows you to work for yourself. All paths should point you in one or more of your directions.
Note: Don’t make the mistake of choosing a path, and then choosing a direction. Thinking that you want to be a photographer and thus want to be professionally independent might mask the fact that you really want financial stability. Or factoring in your MBA when all you really want is freedom from corporate servitude. Also don’t think one path is better than another in and of itself. Some paths are better for you now than others. That’s all.
At this point, after very careful deliberation over the course of days if not weeks, you should have a handful of paths, each of which point you in one or more of your directions. Now motivation can become an issue. What will keep you moving down your paths? One thing that can help is to find milestones for each path. If your path is to be a photographer, some milestones might be to buy a camera, learn more about photography, learn about some photo editing software, and sell your first picture. If your path is to become a corporate executive (you poor soul), then you will want to invest in an MBA. Each milestone can be broken down into smaller milestones, as well. Each and every milestone successfully reached should be celebrated. The more difficult the milestone, the bigger the celebration.
How do you work out the required milestones? Find those who have taken the same, or a similar path. Ask them what they did to get there, what they wish they had avoided, and what they wished they had known starting out. Ignore the naysayers. Ignore those who don’t know anything about the path. If I had a dime for every time a monolinguist has told me how to learn Japanese, I could easily afford a plane ticket to Japan.
Having trouble reaching a milestone? Can you break it up into smaller, easier milestones? Do you just need a bit more time? Can you take a different, but similar path that leads around the obstacle? Can you find someone who can give you that extra push? Don’t give up first thing. Give it a few tries. There are things you can do to make your paths a bit easier. These include preactions and habits. You can also moderate your reactions to reduce the number of mistakes you make along the way. Everyone will make mistakes.
Preactions, or planning, mean that you plan actions to take when common things go wrong. For example, if you plan to become a photographer, put enough in savings to cover the cost of a new camera in case yours gets lost, stolen, or damaged. If you want to be an executive, have an idea of what to do if you’re passed up for an important promotion. Habits are small, systematic actions that you take so often that they become second nature. Not all are good, but you can build up newer, better habits and replace bad ones. If you have little time in your day to work toward a path, perhaps becoming a writer, then you need to build up habits that give you a bit more time. Create a routine in the morning that minimizes the amount of time it takes to get ready for work. Make it a habit to post five photographs a week to a website. Break a habit of checking your email or social media every hour to avoid the distraction. Want to have a more adventurous life? Run/jog every morning, lift weights while waiting on the microwave or during commercials, and fit a general routine around the rest of your normal day to make adventuring easier.
Is this an easy method to use? Not really. Are there any easier ones? Perhaps. But easy doesn’t always mean better. I’m not going to bother saying that this is the one, true way to discover what you want to do with your life. If this method doesn’t work out for you, then try another. Don’t just give up.
I’ll try to dig up some of my older methods that have helped others and post them here. I’ll also post my thoughts about choosing your college major(s)/minor(s). Otherwise, I wish you well.