A little taste of Life Design
Several months ago, the strangest feeling came over me. Life started to feel really stale. The things that normally are fun seemed boring and monotonous. The things that normally spark a feeling of energetic curiosity seemed worn-out and overdone. Things just felt kinda gray and boring, including me. I had entered The Blah, and I spent several weird weeks there.
Recipes for happiness
A long time ago I heard a saying that you only need three things to be happy:
something to do (that’s meaningful to you)
someone to love, and
something to look forward to.
Loads of self-reflection has also taught me that in order to be happy, I need two additional things too:
to feel like a creator, and
to feel like I’m learning.
As a facilitator of workshops, experiential learning encounters, and community-building groups, I’ve designed experiences for groups of people ranging in size from 5 to 500, though usually in the 10–25 range at any one gathering.
I’ve led and co-led sessions ranging from one hour to one week, and have seen the power that intentional experience design can have on people of all ages and walks of life, in nearly any setting, with nearly any amount of time.
As a UX and Product Designer, I also get to design software interaction experiences for millions of people. I’ve helped design products that help people manage their educational finances, that help them carry out their day to day life efficiently, that help them stream and enjoy music on lots of different devices, and that help make their working life simpler, more pleasant and more productive.
Designing for other people’s experiences is a core component of my life. I think about it almost every single day of my life.
…But I realized in the midst of The Blah, that I had fallen into autopilot and had stopped applying the same practices of intentional experience design to my own freaking life.
I suspected that I could break out of The Blah’s rut by taking a few specific and concrete steps. I call them The Experiments.
The Experiments are the open-ended design and incorporation of experiences that expand and transform my conception of who I am and what I can do.
I wasn’t completely positive that The Experiments would work (because The Blah also comes with a good dose of jaded skepticism) but I figured that they would be enough to shake the dust, and that alone would be a welcome gulp of fresh air.
Experiment #1: I committed to DO 2 new things each week.
It didn’t matter if that new thing “wasn’t me” or “wasn’t the kind of thing I do” — the more unlike me, the better, and the higher likelihood of breaking the spell.
- Example 1: I don’t like Zumba. This is strange, because I love world music and I love dancing, but something about Zumba really irritates me. So one day, my challenge was “Be the kind of person who goes to Zumba.” So I went to the gym and completed 1 hour of Zumba. It didn’t kill me and I actually felt slightly better afterwards (I’m sure getting any form of exercise would have brought on that good feeling though, tbh).
- Example 2: I’m not a runner, but on another day, my challenge was “Be the kind of person who is just starting to train for a marathon” so I got on treadmill and ran three miles. Just to see what it felt like, just to try something different.
- Example 3: Different day: “Be the kind of person who writes letters to friends before going to work in the morning.” So halfway through my commute, I pulled over, parked in a sunny spot by a park, wrote a long card to my friend in Austin and then dropped it in the mail on the way to the office.
After each of my Do experiments, I felt refreshed and a little lighter, bouncier, awake in a different way. This was working.
Experiment #2: I committed to LEARN at least 2 new things each week.
This didn’t have to be anything major or ongoing like taking on a new language or field of study. Just something definite, that would have a clear sense of completeness and accomplishment at the end. Something with a checkbox. And to make this experiment satisfy my desire to feel like a creator, I often chose things that resulted in tangible or edible outcomes.
- Example 1: I’ve never made bread pudding, but I like it, and it’s kinda rare to find. So I got in the kitchen and doctored up a regular bread pudding recipe with a heap of ginger and apricots. This experiment inspired me to the next one:
- Example 2: Harvest plums in the backyard and make plum jam.
- Example 3: Succulent container gardens make me feel like 😍, and when I see them, I always think, “I could make that.” So on another day, I decided to start. So far I’ve given a couple as birthday gifts, and even participated in a popup shop where I got to be the person selling them instead of mulling over the possibility of being the maker. I was the maker.
At the end of each of my Learn experiments, I felt inspired and energized, eager to learn and try more new things.
How it worked out
These are just a few examples, and I know they sound hella simple, but they actually worked.
The inviting thing about The Experiments is that they don’t say, “Hey you, start being an entirely different person forever starting right this second.” That’s too much pressure and way too freaky. They just say, “Hey, let’s try this new thing, just for today. The point of trying it is just to see how you feel.” Easy.
If you like it, maybe you keep doing it. If you hate it (like when my body was aching the day after my “pretending-I’m-a-runner” experiment), no bigs. You don’t have to keep doing it if you don’t want to. The important part is being willing to explore, busting out of your autopilot ruts, and expanding your self-perception.
After about a week or two into my Experiments, the fog of The Blah was clearing away. Surprising yourself is a rad feeling.
By committing to The Experiments, each new experience sparked not only a sense of accomplishment and interest, but more curiosity and wonder about what else I could do. The Experiments also reminded me of a 2-year experiment I did in 2011 when which I committed to a new habit every 30 days. More about that in another post.
If you ever find yourself feeling like the volume on life has been turned down by the gray clouds of The Blah, I suggest setting a timer for 30 days and adding The Experiments to your own life. Do two new things each week, and learn two new things each week. If you try it, I’d love to know how it works out for you in the comments below.