The May of My Life

June 11, 2017

You Spent Your Vacation Doing What!?

I'm back in Vancouver after a month-long trip with my friend, Michael, and I've been answering a lot of questions about what I did during a whole month in Spain and Portugal. I know that my answers will sound underwhelming to some people when they realize that I went to very few tourist attractions and spent much of my time working in the apartment, and having long walks and discussions with Michael.

I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time. It had been several months where I felt like I was stagnating, and an extended stay in a new environment sounded like an excellent way to get yanked out of my normal routine and take time to reflect.

In order to get a grip on where we were in our lives, and how we should make important decisions going forward, Michael and I decided to follow the process outlined by Alex Vermeer in his guide, 8760 Hours, on planning the next year of one's life. Going through this exercise was a several days long process. I'll outline the gist here and the interested reader can download the guide from Alex's site.

The first step is to divide your life into its core areas. Previously, I always assessed my life in terms of health, wealth, and relationships. That's not bad, but it's so primitive compared to Alex's method. He uses the following categories:

  • Values and purpose
  • Contribution and impact
  • Career and work
  • Money and finances
  • Location and tangibles
  • Health and fitness
  • Emotions and well being
  • Character and identity
  • Education and skill development
  • Social life and relationships
  • Productivity and organization
  • Adventure and creativity

As you can see, this categorization paints a much more complete picture of the current state of affairs than my previous system. For each of these areas, we go through the following steps:

  • Establish where things stand right now. Answer questions like:
    • Where did I try hard over the last year?
    • Where did I not try hard enough over the last year?
    • What went well?
    • What did not go well?
    • How would I rate this area of my life?
    • What one project, if completed successfully, would make the biggest improvement?
  • Establish where things would be in your ideal world. Answer questions like:
    • What have I always wanted to do here?
    • What would this look like if it was perfect?
    • If I were to die in a year, what would I do?

Once you've completed this for each of the twelve areas — which took me several days — you're ready to plan the next year. I did not do a yearly plan. I felt like 6 months was more appropriate to take this new process for a test drive. For each of the areas, I wrote down the smallest possible thing that I could do that would have the biggest impact (following the Pareto principle). When I was done, I looked over all the projects and picked a few that I think I could do by the end of the year.

The final step was making sure we have a system that'd keep our feet to the fire, and make sure we stick to the plan and actually complete our projects. To do this, Michael and I broke our projects into several smaller goals for each month and each quarter that was ahead of us. Each month, we will get together (virtually) and discuss our progress with each project. This should go a long way in keeping us accountable.

Now, it's time to execute on the plan, and I'm sure my life will be in a better place when i complete the projects I've planned. However, this exercise has already been immensely valuable. Firstly, capturing a snapshot of my life across these twelve areas has given me a much clearer picture of where I'm really struggling and where I'm doing well. You might think this is something you'd have an intuitive understanding for. It is your life, after all. But what I found was that I have tendencies to focus on some areas and neglect others, and that my rationalization in doing so was unjustified. For example, I'm unduly obsessed with my work, career, finances, and my long term hobbies (like aikido), and these areas have never been better (because I focus on them so much). But I'm not concerned enough about health and fitness or my social life. I justify this by telling myself I need to focus on work (for various reasons), but answering some of the above questions about my future goals made it clear that there's never been a better time to shift focus away from my usual defaults.

Secondly, determining where I want each of these twelve areas to be in an ideal world, and writing it down, has given me a greater feeling of control over where my life is heading and clearer metrics on how to measure progress. The large amount of effort that I put into building the thorough mind maps that this exercise required will pay off over time. Anytime I think of a change I might want to make in my life, I can simply add it to these mind maps as an item in the backlog of things to be considered during my next major planning session.

Finally, assessing the state of some areas, like values & purpose or contribution & impact, was excruciatingly difficult. We're not used to thinking about our core values in a way that can be written down concisely. Nor do we pay enough attention to whether our existence has any meaningful impact. For these areas, I must say I basically did not know myself at all. I still don't, but now I'm paying more attention. I wrote down my values by analyzing my past behaviour in various situations and asking "what values would produce this behaviour?". The next step is to reason about whether having these values even makes sense or what other values should be on the list. To think clearly about anything, it always helps to make the implicit explicit, and this exercise helped me do that in certain aspects of my life that I had never given thought to before.

This planning process is nothing new. Product development follows a similar process. Similarly, business coaches follow a similar workflow to help ensure their clients achieve their business goals. But it's not very common to apply this kind of framework to one's personal life. And that's a shame, I think. Exercises like these are things we should have been taught in school. At least for some personality types, they are critical to to having any meaningful achievement. If that sounds like you, give Alex's guide a try.