Hello. If you’re anything like me, you have it all figured out but somehow, simultaneously, do not.
In the Spring semester of my senior year in college, I went full force into UI/UX design. Surprisingly, the things I learned that semester taught me a lot more about myself than about any dashboard or interface. As a twenty-something year old trying to figure out this thing called life, I wanted to pass on my process to my peers in hopes that some part of it will resonate and leave you a little less confused and a lot more patient.
The first step in my “life design” process is identifying the user and their persona. I am the user; life is my user experience. The beginning of every good journey is self-awareness and trying to design anything, including a living, without the user in mind will result in misused resources, frustration, and disappointment. Unfortunately, many people reverse this process and become aware of the user at the end of their life instead of at the beginning of it: reflecting on how they lived the life their parents wanted them to live, their community wanted them to live, society pushed them to live, but not the life that was meaningful and enjoyable for them to live.
As a designer, I always design with the user in mind, prioritizing their needs over any design features I may want to incorporate due to my personal preferences. Luckily, as the designer of my own life, I can make it all about my preferences because the designer’s preferences and the user’s preferences for once, are the same. My process for understanding the user (me) circulates around meditation, journaling, meaningful conversations with others that inspire self-reflection, and taking time to think about all of the things that have lead me to where I am now in order to understand where I may want to go next.
Unfortunately, none of us know it all. I think the sad thing is that we somehow equate that as a reason to be hesitant to start anything because we do not know everything. Once you have ideas of where you may like to go, gather information from online research, informational interviews, and discussions with friends AND THEN DO SOMETHING.
A month after graduating, I read the Defining Decade by Meg Jay trying to understand exactly what it is that I am supposed to be doing in this critical era. Ironically, that book made me realize that reading about personal development is not a substitute for developing myself as a person. The biggest takeaway was that you have to act. Now. Do not be so afraid to make a mistake that you fail to realize that doing nothing is the biggest mistake of all. You have to walk down some street. Maybe you will get lost and will have to take some turns but you will learn more about yourself and others along the way that will guide the next, seemingly unrelated step.
The Creative Brain by David Eagleman on Netflix talks about how creativity is not a phenomenon that arises out of nowhere but is the ability to connect seemingly disconnected and disparate items, experiences, and ideas and bring them together in a new way. For example, one of my favorite influencers, Gary Vee, stated that what helped him master Instagram so well was his time on SocialCam, a platform that lasted .5 seconds. The experience he gained recording selfie videos on an app that is no longer around is something he still uses on a daily basis with all of his other media. Creativity thrives in a garden of difference, not in a soup of similarity. Take each experience as feedback on how to move forward, what not to do next, or as fodder that may make your next tangential experience richer and so much more unique. Every “mistake” leads to a miracle as long as the experiencer is disciplined, not defeated.
S.M.A.R.T. goals are a fan favorite in terms of laying out a game plan.
I lean a different way when it comes to designing my goals: backwards.
In my experimental psychology course, I learned that backward planning is actually more effective than forward planning. It helps you to be more realistic about your methods as well as increasing self-efficacy. To elaborate, if you apply forward planning to something such as studying for an exam that is in two weeks, you’ll plan out which topics to study/when from today up until the day before the exam. With backward planning on the other hand, you would outline how much you need to have done by the day before the exam (or whenever your decided deadline is) and space it out in reverse chronology until you reach the present. The enlightening part about backward planning is it helps you to realize that you may not have as much time as you thought which you can then use to adjust the amount of the increments (studying two chapters per day instead of one) early on. It can also lead you to practice self-compassion and do the best with what you have, now that you know that you do not have as much (time) as you thought; perhaps both.
Backward planning can also be more motivating. If my goal is to have a million dollars by the time I’m 50 years old, looking out into the future from the age of 22 makes it all seem far off and therefore, more achievable than it really is. However, when I work backward on that million-dollar plan, I realize that even at 22, I need more income than I realized and fewer cappuccinos. We somehow fall into the trap of thinking that the person we will be tomorrow is more motivated, more capable, more well-connected than the person we are today without using the present as the bridge to become that person. Ultimately, setting ourselves up for failure. Backward planning makes us hyperaware of our greatest asset-time-while we still have it.
After outlining those goals, I run the prototypes/test the minimum viable product. For some, going full speed ahead invigorated by the energy and adrenaline of their new goals works for them. I personally cannot go 0 to 100 in one day. If I have recently been motivated to set a goal to exercise, I’ll start today with a 5-minute Youtube video for beginners. I will not hire a P90X level trainer and burn myself-and my thighs-out immediately. My action steps start out small with the bigger long-term vision in mind. Perhaps, I will become a bodybuilder one day but my experience has shown me that patience is the best fertilizer for personal growth and building momentum over time through consistent follow-through has brought me a lot farther than attempting to deep dive into self-mastery ever has.
Just do it.
Just do it! Nike was onto something: the greater teacher is experience. Life is a verb and you won’t know what could have been until you act. The worse curse is regret so do the things you’ve been thinking of today and experience the present as the magical gift that it is. Life is just a series of moments and in this moment, you need to be doing what you can to make the next moment better or at least learn something about yourself and what does or doesn’t work for you in the process.
The yardstick by which you measure whether you are successfully designing the life that you want to live is created by the needs you identified in the Empathize design stage. What works for me, will not work for another. One of my yardsticks is the size of my impact while someone else may measure their success by the size of their income. Although some yardsticks are qualitative and others are quantitative, measurement and analysis of whether the goals you have set for yourself are accomplishing what you had hoped they would is necessary. You cannot decide to pivot unless you know whether something is working favorably. You cannot decide if something is working favorably if you are not measuring its results.
One of the difficult things about measuring is deciding when to measure. If you measure too early or too often, you may conclude that the actions you’ve taken are unfruitful. When, in reality, they are still developing and have not yet had the time to manifest the intended results, despite being ultimately successful endeavors. If you are trying to become a big content creator, three months may not be enough time to decide that it’s not for you. If you are trying to improve your health, three months of consistent personal training sessions should be able to indicate if you need a new trainer, a different regimen, or a medical professional’s consultation. The rate at which to measure the results of your life has to be calibrated to the activity itself.
As you measure, you can return to the drawing board and adjust your life’s design. It’s a cyclical process and we are never a finished product.
I took a class in college called How to Live a Good Life. Although the class wasn’t all that I had hoped for, the professor said something that has stuck with me since: hope is not a strategy.
I hope-humor intended-that approaching your life as design project that you create, rather than something that happens to you, will allow you to look back on all of it with a lot more satisfaction than if you had ridden out the waves to wherever they would take you.
After you know who you are, have a starting step of what you want to do, and a game plan for how to get there, it’s time to step in the direction of your goals with action. Keep in mind that as you move, you’ll make adjustments as you discern your ability levels, resources, and desirability of your end-goal; what you set out to do may be harder or easier than you thought, require more or less time, money, connections, or products, or may end up being something you don’t want as much as you thought you did. Adjusting your goals isn’t failure; it’s wisdom.
New Year’s is in one month but it’s never too early to start moving the life you want tomorrow into your game plan today.