If you were designing a custom home, your dream house, the house that you have always wanted, where would you begin? Chances are that you would begin by contacting an architect who would help you put your ideas, your vision, on paper. The architect would ask you, “What kind of house did you have in mind? What did you envision?” The process would begin with an idea of what you wanted. You would literally see the house in your mind, whether it was a house openly connected to the outdoors or a formal house in which you felt secure. You would have some idea of how the rooms would be connected to each other and the areas of the house that you would use for entertainment, for sleeping, for eating, and so on. In short, you would have a concept of what you wanted the house to represent. From the preliminary conversations with the architect to the sketches, to actual blueprints that would be sent out for bids by a contractor, you would see your ideas develop into a concrete plan. And this plan would guide the contractor to build your dream house. You would not be surprised if it took months to develop this plan or even years, depending upon the degree of complexity and the details that were to be included in the house. The more details, the less likely there will be problems along the way.
Yet, when it comes to building our lives, rarely do we hear people say that they have a “life plan.” Most people spend little or no time to develop a plan for their life. Fewer even consider writing a life plan. Most people’s lives look like they have been developed without having a plan. People’s lives look like they have been thrown together haphazardly in the hopes that they would work. People have lives that don’t have architectural integrity; they don’t hang together as a whole. Parts of their lives work, while other parts are falling apart. Much like a house that’s built without a plan, the living room may work, but the kitchen doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the house. The rooms seem off, skewed as if they were simply banged together like so many boxes.
Imagine what your life might look like if you actually designed it in the same manner as you would design your dream house.* Imagine if your life had the same attention to detail, the same integrity, and the same sense of craftsmanship as a custom-built house you would love to own and live in. Imagine how you would feel living that life, as you would feel living in your dream house.
The question is, “Are you willing to put in the time and effort to design, plan, and construct your dream life?” Henry David Thoreau declared that most people live lives of quiet desperation. There is no doubt that the folks to whom Thoreau was referring did not design their lives. The truth is that most of us simply fall into our lives. It sort of develops around us as we are pursuing our careers, motherhood, or merely trying to make ends meet.
We often admire other people’s lives, homes, careers, events, etc. and think that we could not have anything that even resembled theirs. The only reason those “others” seem to have what we want is because they took the time to plan for it. They put in the energy to be creative. Regardless of how much money they had, they designed their situation with maximum attention to detail. You do not have to have the best that money can buy; you can have the best that your personal circumstances permit. It takes desire, time, commitment, energy, creativity, discipline and the motivation to make one’s dreams come true. As Napoleon Hill proclaimed, “conceive it, believe it, achieve it!”
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I operate from the assumption that a life based on a well thought out, detailed, and the integrated plan will be more gratifying and fulfilling than one that is not. I further believe that having such a plan, in writing, and following it, while at the same time making adjustments as needed, will be more rewarding and more balanced. If all of the parts of your life are integrated into a whole, you will experience an extraordinary sense of power. You will be able to reach a higher level of mastery over your world and realize more of your human potential.
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*Throughout this essay I will be comparing building or remodeling a house to the process of designing and creating a life for yourself. This is a convenient analogy. I recognize that a while there are many similarities between home building or remodeling to building and planning a life, there are many significant differences as well. A home is static, while a life is dynamic. However, the concept of planning, designing, building a life is analogous to building a home. In both instances one must plan; one must be conscious. All of the parts must work together in order to have a well-constructed life or home.
When we think about designing a home, we often have to confront the issue of whether we should remodel our current residence, buy another home, or build a new home. When it comes to our lives, however, few of us have the choice of whether to create a totally new life or re-model the life we have. We certainly cannot go out and buy another life, a life that someone else has already lived! We cannot simply discard the life we have and start anew; we are already living a life. We cannot say, “Stop the world; I want to get off!” so I can build a new life for myself. Therefore, we have to resort to re-modeling the life we have.
Once we decide to remodel we should do a thorough inspection and evaluation. This inspection will help determine the vision and the plan for what we want to accomplish and determine the parameters of the life that are possible within the constraints of our circumstances. The inspection includes an evaluation of the infrastructure and foundation. We must examine our personality, our history, our beliefs, our values, our aspirations, our hopes, and so on. This personal inventory will significantly influence the life we construct. Sometimes it is necessary to do some serious soul-searching; sometimes it may require that we call in a consultant to help us work through some psychological issues that affect our functioning. The point is we cannot remodel our lives on a shaky foundation any more than we could remodel a home on a shaky foundation.
When remodeling, we must have a plan in mind and it must be put in writing. Writing out the plan keeps us focused. It keeps us on track. We can make notes as we go along, correcting and modifying as needed. In architectural terms, these are called field changes, i.e., changes made in the field to take into account new information. Hence, flexibility is necessary.
A Life Vision
So now that we understand the concept, how do we begin designing your life? As with any other design, designing a life begins with a vision. If we are going to have a vision, the vision should be complete. It should cover all areas of your life, as you would like to live it. Your vision should be vivid, crisp, so much so that when you visualize yourself in your life you can almost feel it as though it were real.
There is no sense visualizing a sloppy life. If you were visualizing yourself playing golf, you wouldn’t visualize bad shots. You would visualize yourself playing the perfect game. Every shot would be solid and true. Similarly, when you visualize your life it should be solid and true. In order to visualize your life, you must know what goes into a well-balanced life.
A Well-Balanced Life. Most researchers agree that there are eight areas that make for a balanced life. The data is derived from explorations of high achieving individuals, studies in self-actualization, and research into what makes for highly effective individuals. These areas are:
oHealth and fitness
oFamily and social life
Personal growth refers to activities that are geared toward developing the individual as a person. It is a combination of psychological, intellectual, and emotional development. Activities such as personal exploration through psychotherapy, self-reflection, educational activities, self-help groups, etc. would be included in this sector.
Spirituality includes, but is not limited to, religion. In fact, religious beliefs may or may not be included. Spirituality refers to activities that enhance one’s experience of being part of something that is larger than oneself. It is a heightened state of consciousness that can be achieved through meditation, prayer, experiencing nature, pondering the imponderable questions as to the meaning of life, increasing one’s understanding of the nature of the universe and even through metaphysics. Spirituality is the indefinable experience that often occurs when we view a sunset or majestic mountain, or when we connect with another human being. It is the sense of renewal that comes from inside, from what might be called, our soul. Recent reports have indicated that there is a positive correlation between spirituality and recovery from illness, rapidity of healing, and longevity.
Recreational activities are those in which we participate on a regular basis, but not necessarily daily or weekly. These activities could be sports or hobbies that enhance our sense of well-being, give us respite from the everyday activities, and a chance to renew ourselves in a relaxed way without pressure. The activities may be physical and outdoors or sedentary and indoors. Such activities as golf, photography, collecting, climbing, hiking, biking, and sailing all fall into the recreational category. To be recreational, the activity would have to be regularly enjoyed rather than only once in a while.
Health and fitness concern itself with how we eat, how we take care of our body and mind, and how we exercise. Food is the fuel that runs the machine that creates the life we want. People often take better care of their cars than they do of themselves. They would not think of putting cheap gas and oil in their high-performance automobiles, but they eat fast foods with high-fat content. Exercise is an important component of a balanced life. There is abundant evidence indicating the positive effects of diet and exercise on emotional and physical well-being.
Community involvement is positively correlated with happiness and even with physical health. People who participate in some form of community activity, such as volunteering with nonprofit agencies, being active on a city council, becoming involved in a political campaign, or other political or community involvement, live happier, fuller, more rewarding lives with fewer illnesses.
Career satisfaction plays an important part in one’s overall feeling about oneself. We identify with our work and our profession. When we enjoy what we do for a living, and derive satisfaction from doing a job well, we feel better about ourselves. For most people, money is not the most important reason they work. Researchers asking the question as to why people work, found that job satisfaction, feeling appreciated and valued, feeling competent, all ranked higher than money in importance. However, when these issues are not addressed, we often seek more money to make up for it. If we feel trapped in a job that we do not like, despite the money, we feel distressed and discontent. People need to feel connected to what they do for a living. Hence, one’s fulfillment with their work can affect their entire life.
Family and social life are major contributors to our sense of fulfillment, happiness, and satisfaction with our life. If one is lonely, unhappily married, isolated from family and friends, it affects one’s entire emotional state. Unhappy relationships affect our physical health, our productivity, our ability to concentrate, our feelings about ourselves, and even our very sense of self. The more content one feels in one’s relationships and family, the more content and meaningful one’s life will be experienced.
Financial security is another important factor contributing to one’s sense of well-being. Finances are separate from one’s career. You can love your career, but if you are not able to pay your bills, you will be very distraught. Similarly, one can feel very financially secure, but if you hate your job you will be likewise distraught. Keeping one’s financial house in order is extremely important for a sense of well-being, contentment, and happiness with one’s life.
Designing Your Life
These are the eight sectors (rooms, if you will) in a person’s psychological house. Many people spend far too much time developing one sector at the expense of the others. They live in a one-room apartment rather than an eight-room house. Or worse, they live in one room while the others decay from neglect. Men are notorious for doing this. They spend a great deal of time developing their careers, professional life, or business, often to the neglect of their families, their health, or any other area of their life.
There are inherent dangers to this approach. First, they may lose their families because their spouse may become dissatisfied and decide to dissolve the marriage. Second, if their health suffers, they are not able to continue their careers. Third, if they lose their jobs due to layoffs or economic changes, they have nothing to fall back upon. A person with a balanced life has seven other sectors to fall back upon in a time of crisis in any one area. The same could be said for any of the other sectors. A woman builds her life around her family. This is the only sector in which she spends her time. A tragedy strikes. Her husband dies, loses his job, or runs off with another woman. Or her children simply grow up; she is no longer needed as “supermom.” What does she have left?
While everyone’s life will have the same eight sectors, the sizes of the sectors will vary (Just as all houses have similar rooms that vary in size). Some people will spend more time and energy in their health and fitness room or community sector, while others will spend more time in their career and finance sectors. The important thing is that all sectors must be furnished, however sparsely. Some basic activities (furniture) are required in each sector. For example, there should be at least daily exercise and healthy eating in the heath and fitness sector.
What kind of life do you want for yourself? What is the overall purpose of your life? What does it represent? Lives, like houses, come in all sizes, shapes, and styles. If we fail to design the life we want, we run the risk of ending up with a life that we don’t find satisfying, rewarding, or meaningful. Hence, it is important that you think about what do you want your life to represent. Designing your life requires that you consider how large each area will be relative to other areas of your life. It will also require that you consider how each area will work to support other areas, just as you would consider where do you want certain rooms of your house located relative to other rooms. Once you have made these decisions, you can then begin to furnish each sector with the types of activities you wish.
A Clear Vision
Now that you have an idea of what goes into a vision for your life, it is time to construct one for yourself. Begin with a series of statements that clearly represent the life that you want. Include in it statements about how you see yourself living that life. Your vision should allow you to actually “see” yourself, as you want to be, living the life you want to live. This vision serves as the blueprint for future action. You will have to ask yourself, “Am I doing all that I can do to make my vision a reality?” If you are not, then ask why not? Ask yourself what you are doing that moves you away from your vision and why are you doing it?
A mission statement for your life serves as an overarching principle that gives your life coherence and integrity. When you have a mission statement, you are able to ask yourself whether the decision you are about to make or the direction you are heading, honors your mission statement. Your mission statement becomes the acid test for all decisions and actions. If what you are about to do, how you are behaving, or the decision you are about to make, does not honor your mission statement, then you must ask yourself why you are doing it. A mission statement gives purpose and direction to your life. It is based on principals and values that represent you. It is a declaration of your highest ideals, letting the world know what you stand for. Having a clearly stated mission statement can serve as a guide directing your life.
Making the Plan
Now that you have a clear vision, a mission, and an idea of what sectors are needed for a balanced life, it is time to “furnish” your life. For each of the eight areas previously discussed, make a list of activities that you would include in each area. Think not only about the activities in which you are already engaged but also of those activities in which you might wish to become engaged. Let your mind wander outside of the box. Do not think of practical constraints such as time, money, or skill.
Personal growth: joining a self-help group; psychotherapy; taking classes at a local college; participating in a study group; learning meditation; reading non-fiction
Spirituality: meditation; prayer; exploring nature; quiet contemplation; going to church or temple
Recreation: hiking; biking; playing chess; collecting; tennis or golf; antique hunting; attending movies or plays; hobbies of any kind
Health and fitness: going to the gym; jogging; biking; planning one’s diet; avoiding toxins; yoga; participating in a regular fitness program
Community involvement: local, state or national politics; volunteering at a non-profit facility; participating on a committee to advance some social cause
Career: working at a job that creates value; doing the job with integrity; gaining satisfaction from doing a job well; finding right livelihood that enhances one’s self-esteem; working with others cooperatively
Family and social life: participating in regular family activities; dinner with the family; recreation and vacations; participating in daily family life; family conversations
Financial security: planning one’s finances carefully; keeping a budget; regular savings and investments; planning for retirement; living trust; having a will; having a living will; planning for your eventual death
Once you have listed some ideas for balancing your life, you should go through the list again. This time, think about your vision; think about your mission. Each item listed in each of the eight categories should be tweaked so that it comports with both your vision and your mission. Each item should further your vision while honoring your mission. To the extent possible, try to have some items work in more than one category. For example, similar items may work in both recreation and family insofar as the recreational activities are done with your family.
You do not have to fill each area of your plan immediately. Quite the contrary. You should take your time. Spend time thinking about how you would like to furnish your life. Do some reading. Collect information. Just as designing your life takes time, furnishing it takes time as well. It is a work in progress. The important thing is to maintain a consciousness of your life. Reflect upon yourself and the life your building. Think about what you are doing and ask whether the action moves you in the direction of honoring your vision and respecting your mission. In time, with discipline, dedication, patience, and consciousness you will have designed the life you want.