A few months ago, I had recognized my life changing abruptly and dramatically, so I took a much-needed day of contemplation and relaxation. I wanted to know what was changing, why it was changing, if it was changing for the better, and what I should do about it.
I began by reflecting and considering questions like What is different? and Why is it different? (Dogs are great conversationalists for topics like these.) The answers to these questions were easy, but I wasn’t figuring out if I was driving my life in the direction it should be going.
So I tried something new.
Maybe this exists. Maybe I just made it up. In any case, it was a cathartic and rewarding exercise, and it led me to the answers I sought.
I don’t have a name for it (yet), but here’s how it works:
01: List The Things You Want In Life
Begin by listing the things you want, preferably by writing them down.
List everything you want, even if you already have it. These can be people, things, intangible items, or anything else you want.
The most important thing to remember is that this is about you. Don’t think about what people expect of you, and don’t think about how your wants affect other people (unless that’s what you want). Only consider the things you want. For this to work, you need it to be personal, selfish, and honest. And, don’t worry, you aren’t going to be asked to share this with anyone.
It probably sounds like a lot. Good. Write everything you think you want. The more things you have, the more dramatically you’ll trim the list to find the things you actually want in the next step.
Side note: Coming back to this, I’ve found you can let this first step take a few days. It can be difficult to come up with everything you want on the spot, in one sitting. Feel free to build this list over several thinking sessions.
02: Ask, “Why?”
For each of the items you wrote down in Step 01, ask yourself, Why do I want this?
Answer it. Then ask again. Then answer it. Then ask again. And again. (This is related to the theory behind The Five Whys.)
Eventually you’ll get to an answer and you’ll think, Because I just do. That’s great! That means that thing is one of your purposes in life, and that’s important. Put that thing aside in a column titled Purpose(s). Then you go back to the want right before you got to the purpose, and that is a need.
That’s confusing, right? Let’s go through an example. Let’s say I started with, I want to own my own company.
I asked myself, Why do I want to own my own company?
I answered, Because I like working for myself.
Then I reworded the ask to, Why do I like working for myself?
And I answered, Because then I can work wherever and whenever I want.
And again, Why do I want to work whenever and wherever I want?
I thought a little harder, then came up with, Among many other benefits, the freedom and autonomy it provides lowers my stress and makes me feel happy.
The next question is, Why do I want to feel happy?
I don’t have an answer to that. I just do.
So, now I have one of my purposes in life: to be happy.
But, what I’ve found is that my need is not to own my own company, which is what I originally wrote down. Instead, the need is what came right before feeling happy – the freedom and autonomy to work wherever and whenever I want.
What’s interesting here is that I’ve found I can support one of my purposes in life without doing a thing I thought I needed to do. In essence, I’m helping to refocus my attention to the things that directly support my purpose, not those that seem like they are related.
Remember, this is selfish. I could have answered these questions completely different if I was thinking about what other people wanted, too. But I answered them based on my feelings alone, and that’s being more truthful to me.
And don’t worry, this won’t make you look like a terrible person. You’ll find that there are people you really want in your life, they just may be different than the people you thought you needed before you began the exercise.
Repeat this process for each of your wants. You’ll likely come to see that different wants converge to the same need – one which directly supports a purpose. Once you go through this process for each want, and you trim out any duplicates, you should have your set of needs.
You may be feeling uneasy at this point, and that’s okay. We can be quick to consider ourselves bad people if we’re not thinking what we believe to be the right thing.
I’ll give you a real example that made me feel uncomfortable. I started with, I want my pet to live a happy and comfortable life.
But when I drilled down and asked why, I found that it led to, I want my wife to always be happy and satisfied.
The pet, then, becomes a supporter for one of my needs. It’s not a need by itself. That doesn’t make me a bad person. It doesn’t mean I don’t want the pet to be happy. In fact, it’s the opposite. It means the pet supports my wife’s happiness, and therefore I want the pet to live a good life because that will positively affect my wife’s happiness.
Don’t feel bad! (Especially because it’s about to get more difficult.)
03: Rank Your Needs
This is the part where you might want to ensure others don’t find your workings. It’s honest, but it is likely to offend those who want to feel like they are an integral part of your life when they may not actually be.
Ranking is difficult.
This is far more subjective than the first step, but you must remain honest and selfish. Always start with the purpose that need supports. Then consider the extent to which that need affects (or would affect) you achieving that purpose.
I’ve called these purpose-supporters “needs” up to this point. Ranking them may help you realize they aren’t all needs. Those that trickle down to the bottom of the list, are they necessary for achieving your purpose?
Let’s go back to my two examples. If I have a purpose of achieving happiness and two needs as a happy wife and full work autonomy, what do I do?
Could I be happy without a happy wife? Could I be happy without work autonomy? Maybe. But I can’t come up with a scenario in which I’m happy without those things, so I’m going to keep both of them as needs and at the top of my list.
04: Create Actionable Tasks
Now you have your current set of needs. Moving from the top to the bottom, list 3-5 actionable items for each need, that will enable you make that need happen.
Once you have your list of actionable items for each of your needs, step back and look at what you have. It’s a list of the tasks on which you should spend the majority your time.
I’m serious. Get rid of the other noise. Maybe you need to learn how to say, “No.” Maybe you need a new job. Maybe you need to have a serious talk with your life partner. Maybe you need to sell your house. Maybe you need to move to San Francisco.
Whatever it is, do it. And for Pete’s sake, do it right now. Well, finish reading this, and then do it!
If this exercise is effective, it needs to be repeated regularly. You need to keep your tasks up to date. Some tasks you can surely check-off, and they may lead to other tasks. But others will stay on there forever (they are recurring). Regardless, every so often you need to redo the entire exercise to ensure your life’s needs (and their associated actions) are up to date.
It’s up to you how you want to handle that. I’m going to try it every six months or so, just to make sure I’m doing what I said I wanted to do, and to consider the needs that may have changed (or new needs that may have appeared).
07: Share (with me)
I’m curious. This was something that just sort of happened one day for me, and it seems to be working. If you’re not too shy, I’d love if you shared your exercise with me. I’m interested in how you organized it. I’m interested in the purpose(s) you have found. And, most importantly, I’m interested in learning about your experience. Tell me a little about what it did for you. And don’t feel the need to share any information about you, personally.