BookWatch: This simple strategy will help ensure you get what you want out of your life
We create plans for everything: new businesses, product launches, vacations. Why not our lives?
A few months after Melinda and I married, we pulled out a six-foot-long sheet of butcher paper. I asked her how long she thought she’d live (88 years), and I estimated 78 for myself.
We wrote the current year on the left and the estimated years of our deaths on the right. All of a sudden, we could see our lives visually, and the years and decades we had ahead. We started writing down milestones and then dreams and wishes.
Soon we started sharing pictures on Facebook of our Intentional Life Planning process, and our friends went wild. They asked us to teach them, which we did. Briefly, here’s how the four-step process works:
Step 1: Uncover your life wishes
Before you can begin a plan, you need to do some digging. Let the creativity and spontaneity begin, and have some fun with it. What’s your life philosophy? What do you view as your purpose here on earth? What makes you happiest? What’s not working?
Consider your happiness, career, finances, home, family, obstacles, aging, sex and more. Don’t duck the probing questions.
It can be hard for some people to access their life’s dreams, so we recommend some ways to unblock old hopes—even those things you may have dreamt about as a kid. Start journaling, hiking and dictating. Meditate. Create lists. See a therapist.
Couples may need special help. There are two separate lives, and each person may have different goals, which they should equally be able to pursue. Take a few days for this digging, and then take a few more days to let the experience sink in.
It can be done in a half-day, but you want time to get those memories and passions flowing. In my journaling, I suddenly remembered a dream of mine as a sixth-grader to own a truck with a camper and to travel around the country interviewing people in small towns. That thought led to a rewarding career change.
Many of our workshop couples have found sharing their dreams extremely intimate, reconfirming their commitment to their relationship.
Step 2: Build your timeline
Next, take those notes and set aside three or four hours one Saturday (or during a romantic weekend getaway) — by yourself, with a friend, or with your spouse or partner. Don’t answer the phone or look at a screen.
What do you want to do with your extraordinary life? What are your big goals? Find a new job? Learn Korean? Camp with the kids? Start a new business? Ride a motorcycle through Patagonia?
Calculate your life expectancy and then get planning. At the end of the process you’ll have an Intentional Life Plan, which we want you to hang someplace visible in your home.
We are visual creatures, and there is magic that happens when you write down your goals on a timeline and have it in front of you every day. We have workshop alumni with their plans hanging in bedrooms, bathrooms, stairway landings and hallways.
Read: What would your 90-year-old self tell you to change today?
Step 3: Turn your timeline into an actionable plan
We’ve all read stories about people quickly casting aside their New Year’s resolutions. To actualize your life plan, we want people to set an achievable number of life goals each year and use S.M.A.R.T. goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) to help reach them. That realistic number is somewhere between 3 and 10 life goals annually.
We create action plans at work to get things done. Do the same for each of your big yearly life goals, then get them scheduled on your calendar.
One of the hardest parts can be the very first step. Want to remodel your house? Where do you begin if you’ve never taken on a remodeling project? If you can’t figure it out, ask for advice—take a friend to lunch who has, or ask your friends on social media. The key is breaking down your goals into achievable steps. For couples, be equal in this—discuss, divide and conquer equally.
Step 4: What to do when you fall off track
When I worked at Nike, we had weekly project check-ins with our teams to review our progress against our action plans. We coded our plans green (done), yellow (in progress) and red (stopped), and discussed our progress, issues and next steps. It kept us on track.
Similarly, keep your life plan on track, but make it fun. My wife and I meet monthly on the weekend to review our goals for the year. Sometimes we make it a lunch out. We celebrate what we’ve accomplished, talk about what’s next and discuss blockages. This year, we’ve accomplished nine of our 10 goals, including paying off our house and successfully saving more. (My wife still hasn’t spoken to her mother about her end-of-life wishes, which was one of our goals this year.)
As you accomplish goals, check them off with a thick pen, but leave them on your plan—you’ll then be able to look back on what you’ve done.
As each new year begins, recalibrate your plan. Move goals that you didn’t accomplish this year later on your life plan. If you’re never going to take that English literature class, take it off.
We do fall off track at times. Your life plan is flexible, but what’s important is to stay focused on your big goals. You don’t want to be lying on your deathbed regretting you never went to Paris.
Where do my wife and I stand? We have already achieved 90% of what we wrote in our original life plan, such as taking our daughters on a family trip to Italy and moving to the Columbia River Gorge and starting a business together. Since then, we have added many goals around home improvements and travel (Nantucket this year). Looking ahead, we’re also discussing when we transition our business, different careers we might want, and imagining what retirement might look like. Some goals are no longer important—I’m not going to climb Mount Hood and the carport isn’t going to happen either.
We only get so many trips around the sun
A life plan not only gives you a vision for the life you want to create but helps set your long-term financial goals, prioritize your dreams and even assist in end-of-life and estate planning.
At the end of the day, this is about making the most of our time here on earth. My daughter gave me a Mr. Jones watch that on the hour hand reads “Remember” and on the minute hand reads “You will die.”
Use your time well.
Lee Weinstein is the author of “Write, Open, Act: An Intentional Life Planning Workbook.”