Lifestyle Design and Your Ideal World

Lifestyle-Design-and-Perfect Day

Warning: this will be a long post!

There are no funny pictures of cats, comic strips, or post-election opinions in this one. It’s just good information that can help change your life if you let it.

In the manifesto that has now been downloaded more than 100,000 times, I wrote about how many people have no idea what they want to get out of life. The answer to the question, “What do you really want?” tends to trip a lot of us up.

In this post I’ll help you get closer to your own answer to that question, using three different perspectives. If you’ve never done much in the way of lifestyle design before, the end of the year is a good time to start thinking about it. Monday is also a good day to start the week off well, so while we’re looking at long-term well-being, try to find at least one or two ideas here that will help you this week.

Perspective #1: Creating Your Perfect Day

In this classic exercise, you write out your idealized, perfect day in great detail, beginning from what time you get up and what you have for breakfast all the way through what you do for each hour of the day and who you talk to. The more detail you can add to the plan, the better.

Then you begin to make plans to adjust your life to get closer to the perfect day you’ve designed for yourself. If you take this exercise seriously, you may begin making more conscious decisions about how you spend your time and what you focus on. Even if you don’t make a lot of changes, you’ll learn a lot about yourself based on the information you acquire. I do this exercise once a year in December and always end up making a lot of improvements the next year.

Perspective #2: Radical Goal-Setting

As I said, the Perfect Day exercise is a classic of the lifestyle design literature, and it can help you a lot if you’ve never thought much about what you really enjoy doing. There are two major weaknesses of this exercise, however, and if you don’t compensate for each of them, you can make significant improvements in your life… but you’ll still find yourself wondering, “Is that all there is?”

The first weakness is that in the end, it’s not all about you.

You have to do more than create the perfect day for yourself, because most people really don’t want to spend every day in a castle with someone bringing their perfectly-buttered toast to them in the mornings; they want to do something meaningful with their talents. They want to make the world a better place. They want to find a way to help that is unique to their own abilities. Without addressing this concern, I believe, most of us will not be able to live life to the fullest.

The second weakness has to do with the goals themselves. Where are they?

The Perfect Day exercise, for the most part, doesn’t touch on goals at all. You define what kind of work you do, who you interact with, and so on, but goals are not included. Therefore, you have to add goal-setting to the plan somehow. I tend to think if something is worth doing, you might as well do it all the way – so thus I’ve added “Radical Goal-Setting” to my own unconventional life planning. I usually break it out like this:

  • 1 Year Goals (this list gets reviewed a few times a year, and I create next year’s goals each December)
  • 5 Year Goals (this list gets reviewed once a year)
  • Lifetime Goals (this list gets reviewed once a year, and make sure to include some really big ideas for your lifetime goals)

I divide each list into these categories: Health, Friends, Family, Writing, Business, Travel, Income, Savings, Giving, Service, Spiritual, and Personal.

(When you do this for yourself, you should probably have many of the generic categories, and at least 1-2 categories specific to your own situation.)

Perspective #3: Planning for Serendipity

I frequently schedule multiple, major projects at the same time, and I am seemingly the only defender of multitasking left out there in the blogosphere. (Hellooooo… it’s lonely in here.)

For me, if I don’t have a lot of plates in the air, I get bored. We’ll look at how that works some other time, but the point I want to make now is that a lot of people express amazement that I can do “so much.” Well, I don’t speak for all the organized people in the world, but I’m going to let you in on a secret that pertains to many of us: we’re not as super-disciplined as you think. Really.

What many of us have done instead is create a structure around our work that allows us to improvise. We do take goal-setting seriously and do work very hard, but any discipline that comes about is usually a result of building a good structure to begin with.

Some of my most fulfilling experiences have been on days when I haven’t had a lot planned. I’ve taken off for long runs in dozens of world cities without a map or any knowledge of the local language. I’ve watched the sunset without an agenda in Zambia and the Faroe Islands. Almost every time I experience something like this, I always think to myself, “Wow. Life is good. I am so thankful to be alive.”

Nor do the experiences have to be exotic to be serendipitous. I also enjoy sleeping in a couple of times a week, going out for coffee almost every day I’m at home, playing video games, and deciding on a whim to do something completely different one day.

Another way to think of it is this: in the long-run, I want to be focused on the goals, my ideal world, and helping people however I can. In the short-run, I have to take steps to ensure those things are happening, but it’s not a highly regulated environment. If anything, it’s a flexible-but-purposeful environment. You don’t have to give up serendipity at all. Instead, when you work towards building your Ideal World, you’ll usually end up with more time to be spontaneous, and more energy for the “fun” things you like to do.


This mind-map illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of each approach – click to enlarge or download. In case you were wondering, I use MindJet software (free trial here) to do this kind of outlining.

Financing Your Life

Commentaries on lifestyle design usually fall into one of two camps – those that pretend that money doesn’t matter, and those that act like money is everything. Naturally, both of these positions are problematic.

Of course money is important; how else can you pursue the life of your dreams if you have no income or savings? It’s hard to buy groceries on dreams alone. I am a renegade entrepreneur who believes in creating my own freedom through self-employment and personal responsibility. This requires hard work — it does not usually just fall into place somewhere.

But yes, it is also true that money is not usually the biggest obstacle that holds people back from greatness. As I said way back when I started this site, whenever I head out for a big trip, I always end up talking with someone who “wishes” they could do the same but feels unable. More often than not, if they really wanted to travel around the world (or pursue their own goals, whatever they are), they could probably do so. What holds us back, more often than money, is fear of the unknown and priorities that we have placed elsewhere. In other words, the passive decision to join the world of the unremarkably average.

Where is the balance between ignoring the reality that we need money and stressing over it to the point of obsession? I think it lies in a) clearly understanding how much money we need to do what we want (as precisely as possible), and then b) making a plan to get that amount of money.

Begin Where You Are - Image by TYM

Begin Where You Are

Last and most importantly, never underestimate the power of small choices. I get emails once in a while from people who say they are too in debt to do what they want, too young, too old, or otherwise unable to create their ideal lives. I always say, start small. Do something different this week that will get you a little bit closer.

Have you ever known someone who transformed a completely sedentary lifestyle into a completely active one? One year the guy is an overweight smoker who drinks and eats too much. The next year he undergoes a remarkable transformation where he quits smoking, radically improves his diet, and becomes a fitness freak.

We see people like that and think, “Amazing!” On a personal level, it is amazing. But the most amazing parts are the first steps. Somewhere along the way, momentum kicks in and never stops. Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho has a theory about why this is the case:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

You can take that or leave it as you see fit. All I will say is that momentum is real. It carries marathon runners from Mile 24 to Mile 26.2. It can help you get whatever you want, but first you need to be very clear on what exactly that thing is.

Coming in December

Each December I spend the better part of a week thinking about this process, completing a number of other life planning exercises, and setting my goals for the next year. This time, I’ll share most (if not all) of the process with you. I had thought about turning this into one of my paid products, but I decided I would rather open it up to as many people as possible.

If you get started thinking through the exercises and ideas above, you’ll be ahead of the curve when we get into more details next month. Good luck! (Not that you need luck.)


Image: JessieFish

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  • Pace says:

    That Paulo Coelho quote reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

    “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” — Goethe

  • Rick says:

    Another great post Chris.

    Goal setting is so important. We do it in large corporations at every level – corp., division, department, individual – but somehow I never get around to it in my personal life.

    When I was in my last year of undergrad, I had a professor that stressed career planning. He led us through some steps to identify what we might like to do and then assigned us to write a five year career plan. Through the identification process I came upon a career that was quite different from my major. I wrote the plan solely to get a good grade – not really intending on following it. Four and a half years later that paper was still on top of my desk (even through multiple moves) and I had achieved everything on the plan. I knew at that time that I needed a new five year plan but sadly twenty years later I have not taken the time to do so.

    Those four and a half years were the most productive in my career – I was always moving toward one set of goals. I’m not unhappy with where I am in my career, but I wonder where I might be had I planned the rest of the trip.

    You’ve inspired me, I will start a planning cycle in my life – if nothing else I can start planning for my retirement.



  • says:

    Great post, Chris! I get the same comments from folks all the time about how I’m able to “do it all.” I guess I’ve learned how to focus on the important and do my best to ignore all the rest.

    As far as lifestyle design, you’ve opened my world up to an entirely new way of thinking in this regard and I’m looking forward to 2009 being my year to walk away from the corporate world to pursue my passions and dreams.

    I look forward to sharing our plan with you once a few more things are put in place. Keep it up!

  • Chris says:

    So glad you guys like the post! I knew at least a few people would read all the way to the bottom. 🙂

  • Marshall - bondChristian says:

    Wow. I totally like your focus on building the perfect day for others. What a radically inspiring idea.

    I’ve had a problem with self-help info for a long time because it focuses on just that – SELF-help. It’s so selfish. So yes, the others-centeredness is refreshing.

    Thank you for bringing that up, Chris.

  • BEK says:

    It is GREAT! I started reading your posts about 2 months ago and I continue to be drawn back to read more- you had me at hello.

    I’m working on one of those life changing plans now that will impact the world. I can make a small change in my town that will change the world!

    Keep you posted…

  • Jon Meek says:

    The quote from Paulo Coelho and the idea of momentum remind me of a personal project I undertook several years ago. I was investigating the idea of a satori moment. You know, those little flashes of perception, spontaneous glimpses of enlightenment. For example, the feeling you get from jumping 25 feet off a cliff into an ice-cold river stream, or the thrill of a first kiss. What I discovered is that it is not the rush of the fall into the icy water or the kiss itself that leads to the satori moment, but it is in the moment of committing to the act. If you have ever stood on such a cliff as you prepared to jump, you know what that space is like. In the moment when your body first crosses the point of no return, that is when you feel the internal reward of such a moment. It is in committing to the movement toward your goal that the first real satisfaction is felt.

  • The Wyman says:

    As we have come to expect, another thought provoking post.

    I read Paul’s free goal setting ebook. Pretty intense system. He also has a $10 e-book called “A Fortune at Your Finger Tips” How to organize and monetize all the tons of stuff you accumulate in your PC. The best book on getting organized I have ever read.

    Once I start publishing my 101 success principles blog, I pray I’ll be disciplined enough to write a short article every weekday as you do with your 3/week.

  • Gretchen Wegner says:

    Chris, I knew I had a response to your post flitting around inside of me, but it took washing the dishes to figure out what it is.

    I’ve always had trouble actually following through with year-end goal setting, but this year feels different to me. I notice a welling excitement about establishing a long range plan, and I think it’s because of a decision I made a week ago: to give away a portion of the proceeds of my new business, Muse Monkey. I’m a former teacher turned entrepreneur, and so the thought of giving away my money to public education thrills me! Now, my business is not about me anymore (even though it started being about me, as I found myself craving freedom from outdated schooling structures). Now it’s about hitting my goals so that I can be happy, AND so that I can make a BIGGER difference than I could as a single classroom teacher.

    I’m totally thrilled with this realization, and even more excited to work through your process with you (since you’re giving it away this year…thanks so much!). I’ll probably add some artful process, too, like collaging and vision boarding.

    Count me in!

  • Nathan Hangen says:

    Hey Chris, very informative post. I’ve found that I really enjoy “the perfect day” exercise and I excel at goal setting, the problems occur when it is time for the hard work. Many times I’ve simply felt like I was wasting time and effort, but I’ve realized that if I just keep it up I will eventually find my rhythm and start to figure it out. This is the first time that all 3 of those are coming together for me.

    Money is important, but I enjoy the process of making it as much as I enjoy having it. My purpose and motivation is to have time to spend time traveling the world with my family. I can feel it coming…

  • Michael Deutch says:

    Great post Chris. Gaelen at Mindjet just turned me on to your blog. I look forward to more posts.

    I added a nice map on the bottom of the following page to help people capture and prioritize their life goals, 3-5 year goals, etc…It was inspired by David Allen’s Horizons of Focus. You can can find it here.

  • Rohan says:

    I am a 19 year old college student from India. I came across your site while i was searching for Travel Blogs on google. I am so glad I stumbled across this page because the whole idea of non-conformity out forth in this blog appeals to me and is what I’ve believed in. I am happy to know that there are people out there who are actively trying to spread this as a philosophy.

    Anyways, its my dream to go backpacking across countries and meet new people, experience different cultures. What SCARES me the most, is the money generation aspect – I dread doing a job i hate just to earn money to travel.

    Looking for exploring your blog further.
    Have fun!

  • David Masters says:

    Thanks for including serendipity as a key component of working out what a good life would look like. It really helped me to realised that it’s okay to improvise and have fun – I often forget, even though I write a blog on being playful.


  • David Masters says:

    P.S. I know you’re planning a redesign for your site, but I really like the current design. Did you put it together yourself, or do you hire a web designer?

  • Internet Strategist says:

    Many people say “I wish I could” this or that but they don’t really mean it. If you offer to give them what they “wish” they will decline. What you spend your time, money and efforts on IS your life; it IS your priorities. If you don’t make what you claim is most important the highest priority in your life, you aren’t being true to yourself.

  • Peggy says:

    Really excellent post. And long as you promised! If you ‘wish’ you could do something different then you have to take steps to actually accomplish it. It ain’t like magic raining down upon you. The universe conspires to help, but you must do something to let that help in.

  • Eli says:

    I am just constantly, every day fascinated about human beings wherever we are geographically. Ever since this blog revealed itself to me (cos that’s what happened I didn’t look for it) I’ve been reading everything on personal development, because of my strong wish to make a clear and specific strategic planner for 2011.And I’ve been struggling with the delivery ever since I had the idea. What a lesson!Yesterday,I was reading Chris’s post on how to conduct your own annual review and it hit me. Everything is a process.And it’s all about the discipline to really implement all the small things that we discover about ourselves and the world in everything we do, however small.We cannot jump the natural stages..sometimes we can but it has to come naturally.As Chris says it is not easy to be true to yourself but once we’ve discovered the possibility and the difference we have a choice to act from that space or not. This post is the perfect answer to my learnings from yesterday!

  • Bennatomanolo says:

    Hi Chris, I’m a new fan of your writing but just wanted to offer this criticism if you don’t mind. For a self-professed non-conformist to suggest the end of the year is a good time to set new goals or a Monday is a good time to start things seems a bit out of whack! My advice is, if you (the collective ‘you’ now) feel that things are off in the middle of the years or the middle of the week, do something right then and there to revamp things and get going in the right direction. I’m happy to say I’ll be taking some of your useful goal-related advice and implementing it RIGHT NOW 🙂

  • Jayanthi says:

    Fantastic! I’ve been wanting to do something but so far it has only been wishful thinking or passive visualization. This article has helped me understand what it really takes to make a difference. Thank you.

  • Andres says:

    Great post! It didn’t seem long at all.

  • Sanchia says:

    Hi Chris

    Would you be able to share with us what your typical day/week looks like?

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  • Susan says:

    Hi Chris,

    I only just recently came across this post, it’s wonderful. Just wondering if you have the link to Paul Myers perfect day book and the mind map?

    I’m doing all this planning as we speak – it’s so important to bring this to front of mind.

  • madison@pickmyheatingpad says:

    Hallo! You have shared an amazing post. this is my first time to know about it. I Got some good idea about this topic. thanks for these awesome post.

  • Lindsay Ebenhack says:

    Yes, do you have a link to that workbook or other similar? I would love to see it and that original link no longer works.

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