What do you want to do with your life?
Many of us haven’t stopped to ask the question. When we try, we find the answer doesn’t come so easy.
Why? Our lives are filled with opportunity. We can move to any city, work in any profession, and pursue just about any hobby. 1
At this level of optionality, where do you start? It gets more confusing too. As you contend with these choices, an invisible hand biases all of your decisions. This is the hand of society: through prestige and status, it can get us to do just about anything.
Yet, we only live once. Should we spend our lives following the whims of society, thrown about in this tempest of choice? How can we silence the noise and find what we uniquely want to do?
Here’s how I think about it.
Start bottom up. Instead of surveying all the choices ahead of you, just ask yourself: what are you doing right now?
Take a few hours and jot down all your to-dos in a document. Maybe you need to send a gift to a friend, call a family member, or finish a feature. As you jot these to-dos down, you’ll build up a snapshot of what your priorities are right now.
Here’s how this looks like for me:
(There are about a hundred other tasks like this)
Once you finish jotting the to-dos down, clean them up and clarify them. Work over them until you feel like you know exactly what’s ahead. When you finish, you’ll feel a sigh of relief.
At least for the next few weeks, you know what to do now.
Now you see a few weeks ahead. You can stop here, or you can go further. This snapshot can serve as a foundation for your longer-term goals.
Go through the to-dos once more, but this time look for patterns. Do some to-dos clump together?
Take note of why: Maybe you’ll notice that a lot of to-dos clump towards relationships. Or you have a clump about improving your craft. Or finance. Or family.
Once you finish, you’ve just revealed your active “themes” in life. Like it or not, these themes are what you are prioritizing and are likely to impact over the next year or two.
Now, let’s tame them.
How are you doing in each theme? Where do you think they’re heading over the next year or two? Do you like where they’re headed? Are there some themes that are unimportant to you, that you should drop? Perhaps most importantly, are there some themes that you want to impact, but they don’t show up in your priorities?
Answer these questions, change the themes around, and you’ll end up naturally forming your goals over the next few years.
Here’s how these look like for me:
We started off with to-dos, sprouted themes, and even have goals for the next few years. We now have a much better sense of what we value.
Can we take it further? What about 5 years or further?
We face the same challenge: the world is so dynamic it’s hard to think about what 5 to 10 years ahead looks like. Here’s a different way to look at it:
Pick some age that’s interesting to you, maybe ~5 years ahead. Now, instead of thinking about all that you’ll have done by then, ask yourself: what does an ideal day look at that age?
You’ve reduced the solution from all achievements to just one slice: a day in the life. To figure this out, you can start with grounded questions: What time do you wake up? Where do you wake up? Is someone with you? What does your house look like? What do you look like? What’s the first thing you do?
And so on. Here’s what this looks like for me:
As you write this, you’ll constantly surprise yourself. The themes you figured out will start coalescing into long-term direction, and sprout up in the essay. You may start with apparently frivolous things, and discover that they represent a much deeper idea.
The best part is, that these documents react to each-other. You may find new themes that sprout up in writing your this reflection, which will affect your mid-term goals, which will affect this reflection all over again.
You now have a vision at least 5 years ahead. Because you started with your real to-dos, you know it’s grounded in reality, and since you pruned based on how you felt about each theme, you know you’ve avoided at least some of the trappings of society.
Wow, from just to-dos we’ve gone 5 years ahead. What do we do from here?
As you experience reality, you’ll get more and more information about what you intrinsically value. You’ve thought so deeply that you can more confidently ask the larger questions life: from what’s important in society to how you can help. To get a sense of what this kind of information can look like, here’s a question to get you started: who are the people you respect, and why?
Keep these documents alive. Integrate your experience and evolve your ideas. You may go in directions you would never have thought of. I doubt the 5 year plan will work out as you expected when you write it. But, it can help you reveal your preferences, your values, and act as an anchor in the tempest of change.
You have only one life. I hope you live it doing what you love, amongst people you love.
A lot of people and a lot of books have influenced my thinking on this. I think David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”, and “Making it all Work”, are responsible for many ideas in this essay. Ramit Sethi influenced the “focus on now”, and PG influenced “bottom-up design”. I no longer follow GTD (my productivity looks much more similar to pmarca’s advice), but I suggest diving into all of these authors 🙂.
Thanks to Jacky Wang, Ian Sinnott, Irakli Popkhadze, Davit Magaltadze, Joe Averbukh, Daniel Woelfel, Alex Reichert, Sean Grove, Alex Kotliarskyi, Sepehr Pariokh for reviewing drafts of this essay.