- Holly Muir
5 Exercises from "Designing Your Life": How to choose a fulfilling life
Updated: Mar 6
How do you decide what to do with your life? Perhaps you have had long-term ambitions since childhood, or maybe you follow unforeseen opportunities wherever they happen to take you.
This article provides a step-by-step guide for deciding what to do with your life, no matter how far along you are through it. We think it will be most helpful for people who have big-picture uncertainties about what their life should look like and want to explore how they can find more meaning and fulfillment in their day-to-day existence.
In 2016, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans published a book based on principles that they taught in a popular class at Stanford University called Designing Your Life. While the class was aimed at helping students develop fulfilling career plans, the book seeks to support anyone who is motivated to build a meaningful life: readers work their way through a number of exercises to help them reflect on the existing condition of their life and design a future life path.
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We have taken what we think are five of the most valuable exercises from Designing Your Life and presented them here as a step-by-step guide for deciding what a meaningful and fulfilling existence might look like for you. Each exercise involves some reflection, evaluation, and idea generation. You can try them in the order provided, or skip to just those that seem most useful to you. The overall goal of these exercises is to help you figure out what a well-designed life means to you. Examples of the outcomes for each exercise are provided in blue boxes throughout the article.
Breakdown of the guide to designing your life
1. Identify the problems in your life
Make a list of open-ended problem questions.
Evaluate whether each question is a gravity problem, a moonshot problem, or a surface problem.
Reframe the questions to make them actionable.
2. Collect data on your chosen life problem
Determine which area of your life you'd benefit from collecting data on.
Record and score information about the activities in this area daily.
Reflect on patterns in your recorded data and make a list of the positive and negative features of your life based on these reflections.
3. Generate multiple solutions
Pick three positive features from your data and create a mind map for each.
Expand each mind map concentrically three times.
Circle a few words from each map that stand out to you and combine them to make a potential solution to your life problem.
4. Develop your three best solutions
Write out three long-term solutions based on the solutions you generated in the previous step.
Establish what answers you need to obtain to determine the feasibility of these solutions and what resources are required to implement them.
Consider whether it's necessary to pick only one solution (as opposed to implementing multiple solutions simultaneously or sequentially).
If you can only pick one solution, then:
(a) Consider how each of the solutions connect with your intrinsic values.
(b) Embody each of the solutions for a few days.
(c)Test out a mini version of each solution.
3. Pick the best solution or combination of solutions!
If you want to explore these ideas further, we recommend getting the book which inspired this article by clicking here.
Step 1: Identify the problems in your life
According to Burnett and Evans, good designs are innovative solutions to important problems. A well-designed life, then, is a life filled with activities and decisions that solve the problems in our lives. The “problems” that the authors have in mind are things like:
“How can I make money doing what I enjoy?”
“How can I spend more time with the people that I care about?”
“How can I make my work life more fulfilling?”
“Where should I choose to raise a family?”
“How can I positively impact the world with my career?”
“What should I do when I finish graduate school?”
You’ll notice that these problems don’t have simple “yes” or “no” answers. The Designing Your Life framework is best suited for problems that can be posed as open-ended questions.
The first step in building a meaningful life, then, is to identify what your “problem questions” are. These questions will address the parts of your life that you feel unsatisfied with or uncertain about. Even if you already have a good idea of the parts in your life that you’d like to improve, you might still find the following exercise helpful.
Exercise 1: Identifying the right kind of life problems
Based on the areas of your life that feel unsatisfying or that you are uncertain about, make a list of open-ended problem questions similar to the example list we provided above. Open-ended questions often start with “Who”, “What”, “Where”, “When”, “Why”, or “How”.
Evaluate each problem question against the following criteria:
Is your problem a gravity problem? Gravity problems are problems that are impossible to solve or successfully take action towards, so named because gravity is something that we all have to live with. These problems are facts of life or unavoidable circumstances that can only be accepted or reframed.
Is your problem a moonshot problem? Moonshot problems, described by Burnett and Evans as “functionally unactionable” problems, are problems that are possible to solve but would require so many resources (e.g., time, money, or emotional labour) to do so that solving them is essentially impossible. These problems can also be accepted or reframed in the same way as gravity problems.
Is your problem a surface problem? Surface problems are those problems that don’t address the actual root of the problem in our life. They’re often very specific and involve a solution to another problem.
For the problem questions that you evaluated as gravity problems, moonshot problems, or surface problems, reframe these questions so that you can actually take action towards them or tackle the underlying issue. You can choose one of these problem questions to focus on in the next exercise.
Step 2: Collect data on your chosen life problem
Before you get into brainstorming solutions for the problem question that you want to work on, the authors of Designing Your Life propose collecting data on your lived experience of this area. This data is intended to give you reliable evidence on which elements of your routine might contribute to the difficulties in your life and which elements might provide solutions.
For those who want to identify a fulfilling career or life pursuit, Burnett and Evans encourage paying attention to how engaging and energising day-to-day activities are. Engaging activities are immersive in such a way that you reach a flow state and energising activities leave you feeling motivated and excited about life. Designing your life so that most of your time is spent on these activities is likely to lead to more satisfaction and enjoyment.
Depending on what your life problem is, it might also be valuable to collect data on the features of your environment that make you feel comfortable, how you or another person react to certain stimuli, or which activities are most and least valuable in your day.
Exercise 2: Collecting data on a problem question
Determine which area of your life you'd benefit from collecting data on based on the problem question that you have chosen to focus on.
Start a daily activity log to record information on this part of your life at a set point every day for at least three weeks. This should involve a simple scoring system for rating the experiences that you have day-to-day. For example, you could rate activities on a three-point “engagement score” and a three-point “energising score”.
Once a week, reflect on the patterns in your activity log and write down your conclusions about the activities that you have been engaging in. Make sure to pay attention to the activity, the environment, the interactions you had, the objects you used, and who else was involved.
At the end of this exercise, you should be able to make a clear list of reliably positive and negative aspects of the area of your life that you were collecting data on.
Step 3: Generate multiple solutions
Once you have a sense of how the various features of your chosen problem question contribute to your life satisfaction (or dissatisfaction), the next step is to generate multiple options for solutions to your problem based on this data.
This stage requires prioritizing quantity over quality so that you have as many options as possible to choose a good solution or combination of solutions from. The authors of Designing Your Life suggest using mind-maps to generate these options. Mind-mapping involves free-associating words from an initial prompt (the word or idea at the centre of the mind-map) in a non-judgemental and spontaneous manner.
Exercise 3: Generating solutions with mind-mapping
Pick three positive features that you identified from reflecting on the data you collected on your problem and make them the centre of three different mind-maps. Make sure that they are all quite different from each other.
For those who have not done the previous exercise, choose three positive features of your lived experience that you think will be relevant to answering your problem question and put each one at the centre of a mind-map.
For each mind-map, write the words and ideas that your chosen feature brings to mind in a circle around the centre, connecting them to your central word or phrase with lines. These words and ideas might be explicit answers to the original concept (e.g., “educating children” or “living by the ocean”) or they might be descriptive associations (e.g., “high-energy” or “relaxed”). Each additional entry should be between one and four words. When doing this exercise, make sure to suspend all judgement about the quality of the associations that you come up with!
For each mind-map, perform this exercise again for each word or concept that you have just added. Then, complete this exercise a third time for each new word or concept that you have just added to your mind-map. See the illustration below for an example of what this will look like.
Choose three to five words that jump out at you from each of your mind-maps. You might choose these words either because you feel intuitively drawn to them or because they seem to form a coherent theme.
Combine each of these chosen collections of words into a possible solution to your problem question. This solution might be an ideal job, an ideal living situation, or an ideal social schedule. Put aside practical concerns and try to imagine solutions without taking into account the resources that they would require or the societal expectations you might feel.
Image Credit: Designing Your Life worksheet
Step 4: Develop your three best solutions
The next step involves taking the possible solutions from your three mind-maps and using them as inspiration for creating three concrete, substantially different, long-term (e.g., five-year) solutions to your problem. Designing Your Life calls these long-term solutions “Odyssey Plans”.
While these long-term plans will be more coherent than the solutions generated from your mind-maps, try not exclude any options or ideas just because they are unorthodox or new to you. The aim of the previous mind-mapping exercise was to promote outside-the-box thinking and to help you realize that a meaningful, satisfying solution to your life problem could look very different from what you expected. So be careful not to discard these insights, no matter how wacky they may seem!
Exercise 4: Brainstorming concrete solutions
Write out three long-term solutions to your problem question, or an “Odyssey Plan”, using the mind-map solutions (the combinations of words you chose from mind-maps) that you selected from each mind-map. Make sure that these solutions are not variations on one theme or ranked in order of preference: they should be substantially different and equally appealing.
For those who haven’t done the previous exercise or who are struggling to generate long-term solutions based on your mind-map solutions, use the following exercise to generate three separate, long-term solutions:
Write a long-term plan based on what you think the most likely solution to your problem question is.
Write a long-term plan based on what you would do if the previous option was impossible.
Write a long-term plan based on what you would do if your resources were unlimited and you could disregard social norms or expectations.
For each of your long-term solutions, list (a) the resources (e.g., time, abilities, or money) that this plan requires and (b) the uncertainties that you have about this plan.
Step 5: Commit to a decision
If you have completed the previous exercise, then you will have a list of three concrete, substantially different, long-term solutions to your life problem. The aim of this final step is to choose and implement one of these long-term plans. You can also perform this final exercise with any combination of options or solutions that you are trying to decide between.
Some of the information that you generated in the previous exercise will be helpful in making this decision; it might be that one of your long-term plans requires too many resources to be realistic, or that you need to collect more information on it before making a decision. If you want to reflect more on these aspects of your choice, try out our Decision Advisor tool.
Exercise 5: Choosing a long-term solution
After reviewing the three long-term solutions that you have generated, ask yourself if you really must choose only one of these solutions. Reflect on the different ways that you might be able to combine these long-term plans, or whether you might be able to pursue each of these plans sequentially.
If you do need to choose only one of these solutions, then:
Consider which long-term solution might best reflect your values. It is easy to choose to pursue a particular plan because it promises some kind of safety, stability, or conventional definition of success. However, it is most important you personally believe that this is the right solution for you. Try to identify which solution or combination of solutions best reflects your true values.
Embody each of your three long-term solutions for a few days. This involves living life as if you have genuinely chosen one of these options. You can allow yourself to get excited about moving forward with this solution and note how it feels to be (almost) committed to a particular plan. This exercise may reveal that you feel especially excited and relieved to pursue one of the long-term solutions that you generated.
Pursue a mini-version of your long-term solution. If it is feasible to test out a mini-version of your solution (e.g., an internship, changing your schedule for one week, or renting a flat in the city you’re considering moving to for a month), then this may provide you with valuable data on whether this solution is truly a great fit for you.
If you’re still struggling to choose one of your long-term solutions after trying out the previous steps of this exercise, it is likely the case that they will all be a great fit for you and lead to a satisfying and fulfilling life. You could make your choice based on a secondary preference, like how it will affect other people in your life or what environment you prefer to be in.
Once you have made a decision about which long-term solution you will pursue to improve your life, do your best not to question yourself! You can set a time in the future (e.g., in a year or two) to reflect on how successful your plan was at improving the area of your life that you wanted to work on. If things don’t seem like they have improved, it might be time to test out one of your other plans or generate some new ones using the process in this article!
Final thoughts on designing your life
The “life design” solutions that you generate using these steps will not remain great solutions for the rest of your life. Since life designs are solutions to problems, and our problems shift over our lifetimes, you will have to generate new solutions as new problems arise. Burnett and Evans also emphasize that there is no one best solution or life design for any individual; there are multiple ways that each of us can lead meaningful and fulfilling lives. Which solution we choose is less important than taking time to generate good solutions in the first place.
If you want to read more about the exercises featured in this article, check out the book Designing Your Life.
We also have a full podcast episode about Life Experiments and Philosophical Thinking that you may like:
Click here to access other streaming options and show notes.