(May 2021 update: You can also watch my video about life planning.)
Seizing the day is great. Seizing all the days is even better.
If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would you choose to spend your time the way you have been? How about if you died a year from now? How about ten years from now?
Most people do what they feel like doing in the moment, not what they say they really want to do. In my case, that meant this:
Me: I want to learn 3D modeling and animation with the software called Blender!
Also me: Why yes, this endless Facebook scrolling is essential to my creative process.
This went on for six years.
Then, I wrote a life plan. By following it, I’ve stopped all scrolling, and I learned enough to make the 3D illustration above. It’s awful. I’m so proud of it.
A life plan is not a list of things you want to do. It’s a list of things you want to do, plus times you want to do them, shaped into the metaphor of a lighthouse because I was told metaphors are sticky.
Now I want to show you how to make one. We’ll start with some background principles. Then I’ll give you step-by-step instructions, including a template you can copy. Last, I’ll show you an example life plan. It’s not going to be quick, because your time is too valuable not to invest some of it in learning how to make the most of it.
How do we know this will work?
As in all those engineering problem sets, I’m stating our assumptions:
When-to-do beats to-do. Willpower won’t get you far. You have to put things on your agenda. Your life is made of time, and if you want to make changes to your life, you have to make time for those changes.
Here are three types of “when”:
- At a certain time (e.g., 8 a.m. next Thursday)
- After a certain reliable trigger (e.g., after you brush your teeth)
- In a place where you’re guaranteed to see it at a certain time (e.g., on a widget on your phone)
And here are three things that we will absolutely not count as “when”:
- When I’m ready
- Once I scroll to the end of my social media feed
You can use writing to think outside your brain. Language is our most fundamental invention, and writing is our most fundamental technology. The brain is very good at forming thoughts and very bad at holding onto hundreds of them at one time. By externalizing your mind into words or drawings, you can not only record your thoughts but also rearrange them to create something you wouldn’t have been able to just by sitting and thinking really hard. Writing also lets you time travel: you can hear from yourself in the past and talk to yourself in the future.
Practice makes better. Neuroplasticity means you can slowly shape yourself into who you want to be. Implementing your life plan will take effort at first, but if you stick with it, it’ll get easier and easier until it becomes natural.
The building blocks of the plan
Your life plan should be one document that has these fundamental building blocks:
- Your purpose. Also known as a mission, a vision, your raison d’être. It’s the thing that you feel like you were put on this earth to do.
- Qualities of ideal life. What your best life would look like.
- Goals with deadlines. Major milestones you want to hit on the way to your ideal state.
- Habits. Specific actions to get to your goals, and specific “when”s for doing those actions.
- Advice. Lessons you want to remember.
- The part that everyone forgets: The meta-plan. This is the plan for the plan, a predefined feedback loop to keep the plan updated and a predefined set of rules to keep you following the plan.
These sections build on each other: You use the advice you hear to shape your ongoing habits, which let you finish concrete goals, which lead you to your ideal life. Your purpose is your guiding light, and the meta-plan is the central column inside the lighthouse that holds everything together (okay, it was supposed to be a central staircase, but I’m not that good at Blender yet).
Next, I’ll show you how to build your own life plan lighthouse.
First, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Just kidding. If you’ve made it this far, you’re already on fire.
Start by downloading or making a copy of this life plan template (if that doesn’t work, you can copy and paste this text into a document you can edit). Did you do it? If so, there you go — you have your first draft of your life plan!
Now, instead of building the lighthouse from top to bottom, we’re going to begin with the part that holds everything together: the meta-plan.
The plan to end all plans (I mean, start them)
Your first draft of your life plan doesn’t have to be perfect — that’s what we have the meta-plan for. It basically makes your plan self-updating.
The meta-plan also keeps you on track every day. While it draws inspiration from other productivity systems like Getting Things Done, it’s specifically designed to help you make progress on everything from one-time errands to multi-year goals. We’ll focus on the core components of a meta-plan, but you can always expand your life plan to use more advanced productivity systems if you want.
The meta-plan is detailed by necessity, so let’s look at it one chunk at a time.
What supplemental tools will you use?
Your phone may be your vice, as it was mine, but you should think of it as a powerful servant that can hold things for you and, in a way, even think on your behalf by sending you reminders. You don’t even need fancy to-do list apps or folder systems. All you need is an app for taking notes and an app for sending you reminders.
Fill in this part of your template with the names of the apps you want to use while you’re out and about:
- For writing things down at any time, you will use: ____
- To set reminders, you will use: ____
It’s possible to implement a life plan on paper, but be honest, are you really going to bring a journal everywhere you bring your phone?
What will you do when you have a new brick for your lighthouse?
Your life plan might change over time. So, when you think of something new, here’s what you’ll do:
- If you can, put it in your life plan immediately.
- Otherwise (or as the coders say, “else”), put it in a note on your phone called Life Plan Edits. Later in the meta-plan, you’ll instruct yourself to review this once a day.
What about small one-time tasks you have to do later?
You’ll probably run into cases where you think of something you have to do, but now is not the right time to do it. In those cases, we’ll pick the best “when” for the task:
- If it can be scheduled, set a reminder. I recommend having a few default times that correlate to points of your day, so you don’t have to think too much about what hour to pick; e.g., 11 a.m. for tasks at work, 7 p.m. for tasks at home.
- If you don’t want to set a reminder but can do it the next time you have downtime, put it in a note called Downtime Tasks. If your phone allows it, you can use a widget to stick this note to your home screen. You could also have different notes for different situations, e.g., a Desktop Tasks note specifically for things that are too tough to do on a phone.
- Otherwise, put it in a place where you know you’ll see it later. For example, a post-it note you stick to your laptop. This is the least reliable “when”, so it’s a last resort.
Then, if you get a reminder but can’t do the task at the scheduled time, either pick a new time to do it or use one of the other “when”s (put it in Downtime Tasks or another place where you’ll see it later).
How will you seize every day?
The way life works, you’re probably not going to be able to spend every waking moment working on your larger life goals. Having several uninterrupted hours of high-quality work time at a desktop computer is different from having ten minutes of low-quality downtime as you wait for the train.
Here’s how you’ll spend your time every day:
- In the morning, review your life plan and update it based on any changes to your Life Plan Edits note. You could make the morning “when” more specific, like “As I eat breakfast”.
- During high-quality time, work on a larger goal. For me, “high-quality time” is 20 minutes or more at a big screen.
- During low-quality time, open Downtime Tasks. For me, “low-quality time” is when I’m away from a computer, but I have my cellphone. Because of this line in my life plan, I’ve trained myself to open Downtime Tasks instead of social media.
If reviewing the plan daily is too much for you, too bad. Try it.
The rest of the lighthouse
The other sections of the plan are highly personal, so you should fill them in based on what makes sense to you. Here are some tips to get started:
- Your purpose. Only you can know it when you see it. What makes you feel alive? Some common (but no less valuable for being so) purposes are: help others; create; become an expert at something; make a mark on the world.
- Qualities of ideal life. Where do you want to be, physically and mentally? Who do you want to be around? What do you value? How do you want to be spending your days? What emotions do you want to feel?
- Goals. These should each have a headline and a deadline. If you can’t think of a deadline right away, that’s okay, just write down the goal. If the goal has a lot of details, create a separate document and link to it from within your main life plan. That way, your life plan won’t get overwhelmingly long (you are going to review it every day, after all).
- Habits. Any vices or virtues you want to unlearn or learn (hopefully in that order). Unlike goals, which can end, habits should be ongoing.
- Advice. Think about who you admire, then write down what you admire about them. If that doesn’t work, look to the cheesy inspirational posters of the internet (“Shoot for the moon, and even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars”).
Don’t worry too much about what goes where. You can always change and add things over time.
Wait a second, don’t I have to make things measurable?
If you’re as obsessed with productivity (slash time management slash life optimization slash self-improvement) as I am, you may have noticed that I hadn’t used the word “measurable” once in this article. That’s because I haven’t found the pros of measurement to outweigh its cons. If we go too far, then at some point, we’ll be spending more time measuring things than doing things. If you disagree, go ahead and build “measurable” into your lighthouse and share how it works for you.
Example life plan
At this point, if you’ve been following along with the template, you should have your first draft of your life plan. Congratulations! If you’re still having trouble, no worries. Here’s an example life plan that might give you ideas:
Life Plan For the Person Who Doesn’t Feel Fulfilled But Doesn’t Know Where to Go From Here
What I’m meant for: To help others.
2. Qualities of ideal life
I want to get to a place where:
- I’m surrounded by people I love and who love me.
- Others describe me as one of the kindest people they know.
- My vices don’t have control over me.
3. Goals with deadlines
- Sign up for a volunteering organization this weekend.
- Eat healthy 50% of the time this month and 100% of the time by next month.
- Start a nonprofit within 2 years.
- In the morning, meditate for 20 breaths before checking my phone.
- When I open a social media site, close it immediately. Instead, do research for a goal.
- If I have a lapse in willpower, forgive myself and get back on track.
- I can’t wait for my ideal life to begin. I have to live every day as if it’s my ideal life.
- Pareto principle; 20% of my actions will have 80% of the impact.
- Look for best practices. It’s good to learn from my mistakes, but it’s even better to learn from other people’s mistakes (especially those of the author of this article, who made all the mistakes before figuring out life planning).
- For writing things down at any time, I will use my phone’s Notes app.
- To set up reminders, I will use my phone’s Reminders app.
If I have a new brick for my lighthouse (e.g., a habit, a goal, an ideal quality, a piece of advice):
- If I can, put it in my life plan immediately.
- Otherwise, put it in a note on my phone called Life Plan Edits.
If I have a new one-time task I can’t or shouldn’t do right now:
- If it can be scheduled, set a reminder.
- If I don’t want to set a reminder but can do it the next time I have downtime, put it in a note called Downtime Tasks.
- Otherwise, put it in a place where I know I’ll see it later.
If I get a reminder but can’t do the task at the scheduled time, then reschedule it, put it in Downtime Tasks, or put it somewhere else I’ll see it later.
- When I get out of bed, review my life plan and make any revisions based on Life Plan Edits.
- During high-quality time, work on one of my above goals.
- During low-quality time, open Downtime Tasks.
The only resolution you need to make right now
It can be intimidating to commit to every single thing on your life plan, so I’m only going to ask you to commit to one thing: Look at it every day.
That’s all it takes to start. As you build the plan over time, it’ll get more useful (my life plan is 8 pages long). And as you look at the plan every day, it’ll get easier to follow. It might even fix your life.
May every day be the best day of your life so far!