In an earlier post, I wrote about my Thanksgiving Moment of Clarity (TMOC), where I decided I had to make some major life changes. I was fairly unhappy for where my life was headed if I stayed on my current course, but before Thanksgiving, I had no idea how to change things. What the hell could I possibly do, especially with how busy I was at the time? I came up with the idea of writing out a Life Plan. I'm waiting for the skeptics to come out on this one.
"OK, D.J., what hokey book that you read told you to do this?" Honestly, it didn't come from a book. I just thought it sounded like the right thing to do to get the ball rolling. Maybe it's a function of my dad planning out all of our family trips on detailed itineraries when I was a kid, but there was some connection there between writing the words on the page and making the ideas seem more "real."
"That's great and all, but between the job and my friends and family, I don't have enough time to think through all of the potential things I want to do." Of course not—if you would have sat me down at the end of Thanksgiving weekend and asked me to write one out, I would have been completely at a loss. However, in the month-and-a-half after that, I somehow went from clueless to confident enough to write it down. It's a multi-step process, for sure. Here are some steps that should get you writing your Life Plan in a month or two, give or take.
1) Start writing good ideas down as they come to you. These can be business ideas, or things that you see on TV or out and about that you want to try as hobbies. They can be ideas for creative works, be they photos, screenplays, movies, books you want to write, or whatever. The beauty of this one is that modern cell phone technology should make it easy to jot things down in a smart phone. If you don't have a smart phone, or want to make sure your ideas aren't stolen, carry around one of those little 60-sheet mini notebooks and a pen (it's really not that difficult). As I said above, writing it down makes it more real. It will also build confidence in your writing ability and make writing ideas down habitual.
2) Identify and Pay Attention to Experiences and Hobbies that Make You Happy. This should be fairly easy, but if it's not, see my previous post. Write these down, too, as it will identify what you should really be working toward.
3) Start Reading Books and Blogs on Topics that Interest You. Hopefully this is one such blog! If not, I won't hold it against you. One excellent book, mentioned before on this blog, is The Four-Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferriss, and its accompanying blog. No, I am not being paid by Tim in any way, nor are our sites related by any affiliate relationship. My life was quite simply transformed by reading the book, and I am trying to proselytize people to its cause as much as possible. Even if the stuff about streamlining and outsourcing at work doesn't apply to you, the section on creating side-ventures is eye-opening, and almost a mini-MBA for those interested in such things. It's just one humble writer's opinion. The books certainly don't have to be related to business—the important thing is that you learn about topics that interest you, and try to start developing an expertise in an area that you find enjoyable.
4) Identify What You are Dissatisfied with in Your Current Life (and Write These Things Down). Think of it as a modern airing of grievances. If you're totally content and happy, congratulations and feel free to skip this step. Most people, though, write a Life Plan because they are dissatisfied with some area of their life and want to make affirmative changes. I spent roughly three pages on things that I wanted to change in my life (Yeah, I was pretty fucked up). This is somewhat different than…
5) Identify Reasons Why You Want These Things to Change. This is different from why you are dissatisfied. This gets more to your goals for the future, and where you see yourself one, two, five, ten years down the road if you don't make any changes. It can be as simple as "I've identified the direction that my life is going, and I don't like it." You could also write down something like "I want to have a family and I don't see myself getting there as my life currently stands," or "this is a dead-end job and I don't want it anymore." What you need here is a justification for the changes you want to make so that your future self can read it, reflect on it, and (hopefully) agree with it. In short, it decreases future self-doubt.
6) Write Down Your Goals For One, Two, and Five Years Down the Road
Again, these could be anything. Financial goals, professional goals, goals from hobbies, romantic goals. Just write down things that you want to accomplish in the next one, two, and five years. Why these intervals? One year should be fairly easy. Two years should tell you if you're on the right track. Anything more than five years is too inherently unpredictable to be useful, though don't be afraid to have a "very long-term goals" section. Don't be afraid to think big—one of my "very long-term goals" is "own an NFL franchise." Odds are that I'll never reach it, but it gives me a target to shoot for while I'm trying to accomplish all of the other, closer goals. Such grandiose goals also have the unintended effect of making what you thought of as "hugely insurmountable goals" seem far more manageable. One thing I cannot stress enough: If you don't reach all of your goals in the allotted time, you are NOT a failure! So you didn't hit all of your goals, or even most of them. If you can tick off even one or two of them, that's one or two goals that you otherwise weren't going to accomplish without the Plan!
7) Research and Write Down the Affirmative Steps You Will Take to Reach These Goals. It could be something like getting involved in online dating, or starting a side business, or writing that book you've always wanted to write, or quitting your job. Think long and hard about what steps you will need to take, and research them appropriately. Want to write a book, but have no idea where to start? There are hundreds of blogs out there about getting representation, putting together a query letter, and submitting to publishers. Here is one. Here's another. It doesn't have to be writing a book, but my point is there is plenty of readily-available, free information out there from knowledgeable people. You just have to put down the remote for a second and run a focused search for it. Once you've identified the steps you need to take, write them down. From there, you'll need to…
8) Create a Formal Timeline for Implementing Changes
This is where you merge the goals that you set out above with the steps you're going to take to get to those goals. Realistically plan out how long it's going to take you to reach each goal. For example, if one of your goals is saving up for a trip to visit the pyramids in Egypt (not right now, hopefully), do the math and realistically determine how long it's going to take you. Similarly, if you're writing a book, don't necessarily assume that it will be accepted on the first go-around. Plan for re-writes, contingencies, and just plain bad luck. Also, plan for good luck. I would like to expand on this more, but right now, I can't. Just trust me when I say that good luck can have an equally interesting impact. Finally…
9) Pull It All Together In a Persuasive Document
Write the Life Plan as if your greatest detractor will be reading it. You're aiming to convince them not necessarily that you're 100% right, but rather that you've put some time and thought into this, and they should be able to understand where you're coming from. Not that you should show this to negative people by any stretch. No, it's for when you most doubt the choices that you've made. Believe me, you're going to second-guess some of your choices, especially if they involve major life decisions. Go ahead and write a little note to yourself at the end of it reminding you how good visualizing yourself going through this plan felt. A lot of times, things can happen that make us feel overly comfortable in our day-to-day lives, even if those same lives make you feel lousy. Remember why you wanted to change in the first place! If not, it's incredibly easy to fall back into bad habits.
It's okay if your Life Plan changes. I wrote mine back in early January, and a lot has changed since then. To be honest, I wish I could just publish mine as a post, but for various reasons that will become apparent later, I can't do so right now. I will as soon as I can, I promise. Just trust me when I say it's okay to deviate from your plan somewhat. I'm already changing some things that will leave me a month "behind" in some regards, but far ahead in others. Just remember, your life plan is not meant to control every aspect of your life, but it is meant to give you some guidance to get you where you want to be. Once you have a path in front of you, it's much, much easier to take steps in the right direction.
Questions? Comments? Wondering why I can't publish my own Life Plan yet? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.