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Your life story— A design exercise

Using design thinking to prioritise your life goals — plus one trick that makes big decisions easy.

A human life is finite.

At best, you’ve got, let’s say, 90 good years. That’s if everything goes well.

How are you going to make the most of that time?

I have a way of making big decisions. Should I move across the world or stay in Sydney? Should I quit my job to travel or stay here and work on my career? Actually, it works for mid-level decisions too. Should I work on this assignment, or go to the party?

If I find myself facing a decision like this, that can feel like it’s got me bound with two options equally huge and awesome and awful all at once — if I’m deciding between the big jump into the unknown and the but what about everything I’ve planned?

In this scenario, I do some time travel.

I imagine I’m 93 years old, sitting in the last home I’ll ever have. I’m looking back at my life. The finite thing that has been my life. My ±93 years on this planet.

What decision now would make that encompassed whole of my life a better one? Which would I regret not doing?

It boils down to one question.

What decision now gives me a better life story?

This question tends to put things into perspective pretty quick.

It’s made it easy to boldly jump into the unknown — to leave things that weren’t really making me happy, to flip the table of my life and try new things, to operate bravely in a state of uncertainty and trust that things always get better in the end. To trust that change is always positive, in the end.

Of course my life story would be better if I’d walked across Spain on a medieval pilgrimage than if I stayed in Sydney and just worked for those 6 months. Of course my life story would be better if I tried living in a totally different country and not just Australia my whole life. Of course my life story would be better if I spent all those years going to parties and creating crazy memories and seeing the weirdest side of humanity than if I got an 80 rather than a 70 on that one assignment in second year of uni.

So, I am a huge design nerd. I work as a user-centred design consultant as my day job. I’ve learned some things about making hard decisions in a state of uncertainty. A lot of it boils down to regularly reassessing that you’re still on the right track, looking uncertainty in the eye, and then basically psychologically tricking yourself into making crippling decisions when you have no way of being sure you’re doing the right thing.

This is where design thinking workshops come in! These exercises are created to bring people to make a decision and move forward when a decision is really hard to make.

Of course, to live life is to operate in a state of extreme uncertainty. Any stability you have is probably pretty tenuous, no matter how stable it might seem. I can’t help but think every day — I could die at 29. I could die at 40. I could die at 93. There’s no way to know, so I need to make sure I’m doing the best thing I could be doing with my time! Like, urgently!

So I have always had a lot of big life goals. So many things I want to do before I die. I came up with a workshop to get it out of my head and onto paper, and I’ve shared it with a few friends since then. I would love to share it with you, too.

A workshop to design a life

Let’s jump in. You’ll need:

At the end, you’ll have a way better idea of what’s important to you in your life, and a list of things to start doing to get there.

Brainstorm, by Jurek Mazurek

1. Brainstorm.

Take a pad of Post-it notes, a pen, and brainstorm on this prompt:

“I don’t want to die without having done _______”.

I don’t want to die without having seen the pyramids. I don’t want to die without having had grandchildren. I don’t want to die without having seen what I look like with a 6-pack.

Somehow, this way of phrasing the question — I want to do this thing before I cark it — throws things into sharp perspective.

If I think “life goals” I could be thinking just the big stuff… I could dismiss something like see the pyramids as pretty unimportant, when it comes downt o it. But man, the truth is, I couldn’t imagine being on my death bed and thinking, oh my god Nicola. You never saw the pyramids. What a sad state of affairs. I can’t let that happen.

2. Put them on a 2 x 2 axis

Now create, on a wall in your home, an axis (perhaps made from masking tape, if you have some handy). Label the axes as so:

From top to bottom: Higher impact on quality of life / Lower impact on quality of life. From left to right: Harder to make happen soon / Easier to make happen soon.

Place all your goals on the axis.

The higher towards the top, the greater the impact on the overall quality of your life that item would have. The further to the right, is the easier it would be to make that thing happen soon.

Place all your notes on the axis. This is what it might look like.

Okay, now you have everything up on the board. Take a step back and look at it. Depending where you’re at in your life and how crazy your goals are, it could be focused towards the top right, the top left, or maybe you’re one of those indecisive types and everything is clustered on top of the lines. (If this is you, consultant Nicola says no putting things on the line! Pick a quadrant).

Look at your goals. You now have them in 4 quadrants.

In the top left, you have things that are hard, but will have a high impact on life. These are probably your big things… write a novel, buy and do up an old house, start your startup. These are your Make a plan goals. It’s going to take hard work to get there, but that work will be worth it.

In the top right, you have things that have a high impact on life, and are easy to make happen soon. These are your Make it happen ASAP goals! The things that you can start to tick off in the next weeks or months. These could be things like see the pyramids, see the northern lights, try fasting. This is the stuff that you can make happen, soon.

In the bottom left, you have things that have a lower impact on life, and are harder to make happen. These are your Reassess in 6 months goals. It might be things like Work on an archaeological dig and Trans-siberian railway. It’s hard — but shelve these things for now. They seem amazing, but you yourself have prioritised them as being less worth the effort/money/time it would take to make them happen. Don’t throw these away — come back and reassess their location on the 2x2 later. Things change.

In the bottom right, you have things that have a lower impact on life, but are easy to make happen. These are what we call Seductive Distractions. Things like see a glacier or go to Luminate festival. They’re pretty easy to make happen, but where you’ve placed them means you’re questioning whether they are the best place to spend your precious energy. Perhaps they’re not. Shelve these for now too.

3. Prioritise

Now — take all of those from the top right corner. This is your first list: the do ASAP. You’re going to take all of them and order them, from top to bottom, into a list.

And choose one or two from the top left corner. These are your big goals. You’re going to need to come up with a larger plan to work towards each of these individually.

Look at the first list. You now have a set of goals that, by your own reckoning, are really important to you and also not hard to make happen soon.

Please remember… cheerfully… you could die tomorrow. You could get hit by a bus and become a paraplegic. You could find out you have cancer and have 6 months to live. The time to make this stuff happen is now!

4. Book in time to review your goals, every 3–6 months.

I live and die by my calendar, so I have a time booked in every 3 months to remind me to come back and look at these again. Every time I’m doing that, I want to be able to move at least one or two things from “to do” to “doing” or “done”!

5. Look at your big goals

So you picked one or two big, make a plan goals to work towards. Maybe things like Be a published author or Run a communal living space. These are the kind of things that take lots of steps and hard work, maybe over years, to make happen.

I recommend recording your lists somewhere: what works for me is Trello, because I can use it on any device. I find myself adding new things to the list probably on a fortnightly basis.

I recommend creating a separate column in your Trello board with the big goal as the title, then making a list of things to do to get you there. Make them small and achievable. Be a published author is way too big to tackle. But Publish on Medium every fortnight for 3 months is doable. Write a book proposal is doable. Write the first chapter is doable. Start working towards these, one at a time, and see yourself progressing, slowly but surely, towards that big life goal you have.

6. Do it!

This step I leave with you. How are you going to make all those big and little things happen, to make your life story amazing?

Life, by Shell Xiao

So, how’s it working out for me?

In the 6 months since I first did this exercise, I’ve ticked off a couple of life goals. I’m going to speak at my first conference soon. I got a ton of views on my writing. I’m working towards two of my big goals too. I‘ve done a bunch of work towards understanding the process by which awesome culture is created. I’ve booked in 5 weeks to work on a big project over summer too… but you’ll have to wait and see to find out more about that.

What do you think? If you decide to do this workshop, I would love to hear how it worked for you. Let me know here or on twitter: @nicolarushton

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