Changing your Life When You Want

Photo: Joshua Davis / Flickr

You’ve got 20 minutes to change your life in 100 ways. Go.

This is the premise of an exercise I tried once, when I was feeling stuck in life. I wasn’t sure what was amiss, but the routine I had fallen into was not satisfying the inner voice in me that insisted there was something else out there for me.

After trying (forcefully) to understand what was going on, reading self-help books, filling out aptitude tests, and working with busines, I was given a suggestion that became a catalyst for some pretty big personal changes.

Here is how you can change your life in 20 minutes, step by step:

  1. Clear all distractions. Turn off the phone, the TV, the computer. Lock your door, and go to a quiet place.
  2. Sit down comfortably at a desk or table, with a blank piece of paper and a pen in front of you.
  3. Set a timer for 20 minutes.
  4. Go. Write down 100 things you want to do. Or careers you want to have. Or people you would like to meet. The sky is the limit.
  5. Don’t be realistic. Dream big. Write down the craziest things you can think of, as well as the things that you don’t even think bear mentioning because they are so simple. Write it all down.
  6. Work quickly. 20 minutes isn’t very long, and you have 100 items to get through, if you can. Don’t think about whether or not to write down an idea — just write. Write everything that comes to mind, even if it doesn’t make sense. Just keep on writing, and don’t stop until that timer goes off.

Something happens after about 10 or 15 minutes if you employ the exercise to its full potential. You stop caring about what specifically the ideas are, and you start to release an inner creativity that may have been locked away for a while. In an effort to get through 100 things in 20 minutes, you start to write outlandish things down that you aren’t even really sure you want, but that are ideas that came to you nonetheless.

Ding! The timer goes off. No matter where you are in the process, or how many items you have written down, stop. (OK, if you are really on a roll and have a few more to write down because the juices are flowing, keep going. I won’t tell.)

Leave the list alone for a day. Try not to look at it, and certainly don’t revise it in any way. The following day, sit down and look at your list. How many of the items on it are feasible? Can you see your way to accomplishing any of it? Did anything come out of the list that you hadn’t actually really thought of until you wrote it down in a hurried attempt to get to 100 items in the time limit? Any surprises in there?

The point of this exercise is not to create a giant and outlandish “to-do” list that never gets ticked off. Instead, it is simply to open up your mind to the idea that anything is possible, and to give you ideas that will help you to become unstuck in life.

Personally, after feeling stuck and making out my list, I identified a few ways to make positive changes in my life at the time; I joined Toastmasters because an item I wrote down was to become a public speaker. I also eventually started a blog to satisfy an inner wordsmith in me that has blossomed into a career. And ultimately, the list helped lead me to the decision to sell off everything I owned to live out my dreams of travel and adventure now.

And it all started with 20 minutes and 100 ways to change my life.

Defining Success: If You Don’t Know What You Want, You Won’t Know When You’ve Gotten It

When it comes to your life, what do you want? How does your money fit into that?

If you can’t answer these two questions, you won’t ever know when you’ve been successful In fact, it might be worse than that: you might achieve what you thought you wanted, or what all of your friends want, and suddenly realize that it doesn’t satisfy you. In order to make sure you’re going the right direction for you, it’s important to figure out what you want from your life (to find your definition of “success”).

Why It Works

We’re all going after something. That’s part of being alive. As long as we’re living and acting, we are headed towards something. Even if we don’t want to live, we’re going towards our goal (yes, death is a goal!). Our lives are going somewhere. We’re caught up in the stream of living and we’ll end up somewhere.

Luckily for us, we have some say about where we can end up. Sure, we all die in the end, but we have the abilitiy to decide what is important and make choices towards that end. If you’re saying, “Sure, Sarah, we all know that. Make this entry worth reading, already!” then tell me what you’re living for. Go ahead, tell me what your life’s goal is. Tell me why you’re on this earth and how all the different parts of your life fit into that.

If you can do that, you’re ahead of most of us. Deciding what we want, what we’re about, takes a lifetime of deliberate, focused introspection. But we can figure out different parts of this whole at different times in our lives, and we can live deliberately towards them.

How it Works

If you’re not sure how to get started in this process, here is a process that helps.

1. Take out a blank sheet of paper. In 10 minutes, list as many things as possible that you have not done, that you would regret not doing if you died tonight. To the best of your ability, don’t stop writing and don’t censor or even think too hard about anything. Just write. You might find some crazy things coming out the end of your pen, and that’s OK. Let them be.

2. Read your list. Notice any internal reactions you have to different items on the list. Note these in the margins next to your list so you can remember them later.

3. Step away from the project for 3-7 days, except to read your list once a day. This lets the list percolate in your mind. Often, writing down our desires brings to the forefront things that we haven’t thought about in a while, or voices things we avoid voicing any other time. It can take us a few days to become accustomed to these thngs being a reality in our lives. We learn to accept, “Yes, I am the person whose life won’t feel complete if I never help the refugees in Darfur,” or, “Yup, I’m the busy entrepreneur who really wants a desk job so I can spend more time with my kids before they leave home.”

4. Come back to the project and read the list again. Note any internal reactions that have changed as you let the ideas percolate.

5. Start pulling the different items on your list together and write a statement that encompasses what you’re about. In the beginning, this can be a list of more general cateogories that cover all of the items on your list. For instance, my list would containg such items as “helping people grow” and “working with groups to help them better understand and support each other.” My larger category might be, “working with people, as individuals and in groups, to help them better understand and support the growing process in themselves and others. Eventually, this statement will be less like a list and more like a sentence or two, but the list is fine to start.

6. Write down and commit to one step you can take this week! today! right now! to help move your life more in line with your statement. Make sure that this is small enough to be achievable and is something you can maintain.

7. Repeat stps 3-6 until you have a statement that feels right. Most people know when they’ve hit on the one that’s right for them. It moves many to tears, but some also feel joy or peace when they find it. Continue with the small goals until your life looks like what you want it to be.

8. Live the life you’ve designed. Achieve your definition of success.

Plan for your wants

Budgets tend to focus on needs–food, shelter, heat, light, transportation, and (of course) taxes.  They also provide for wants, but generally the smaller, shorter-term wants–cable TV, a magazine subscription, an occasional restaurant meal.  Instead of a budget line, the larger, longer-term wants are covered implicitly when your budget spends less than all you earn.  Somewhere, though, those big, long-term wants deserve a plan.

Having a long-term plan to satisfy your wants is an important tool for keeping your budget focused on your needs.  Satisfying a few of your little wants is what makes your life luxurious and splendid, but it’s very easy to let the amount of little luxuries in your life grow until they devour the surplus that might have paid for the big luxuries.

That’s where a plan comes in.

Make a list.  Or several lists.  Brainstorm with all the members of your family.  There are the wants that are almost needs–sending the kids to college.  There are the wants that are perfectly affordable, if you make them a priority–a house with a yard.  There are the wants that can wait a long time, if that’s what it takes–a round-the-world cruise.  There are the wants that you may never satisfy, unless careful planning meets extraordinary good luck–a racing yacht.  Write them down and sort them in different ways.

You can produce a strictly ordered list, with the most important want at the top, and then knock them off one at a time, if that’s how your mind works.  Alternatively, you can put just the top three or four wants in a “this year” list, with the rest of the wants in no particular order on list marked “the future.”  Maybe the cheap wants go on one list and the expensive wants go an another.  Find a way that works for you.

These lists do several things:

  1. They remind you, when you’re tempted by a transitory want, what your important wants are.
  2. They help you structure your spending when you get a windfall.  Maybe the next item on your want list is where that money should go.  Or maybe it should be invested against some larger want that’s further down the list.
  3. They help you structure your spending when see a sale on something you want.  If a great price makes one of the top items on your want list affordable, maybe you should just buy it.  On the other hand, if the price isn’t all that great, or the item isn’t near the top of your list, maybe you shouldn’t.

If you include some cost notes in your list, you can estimate just how far off the fullfilment of any particular want might be–and you can compare them to one another.  How much sooner could you take your trip to Fiji if you quit eating lunch out every day?  If it just means you could go in August rather than February, maybe keep the indulgence.  On the other hand, if it means you could go next year instead of three years from now, maybe those lunches out are costing you more than they’re worth.

Making and maintaining these lists, by the way, is a good deal of the fun.  My wife and I are contemplating renting a garden plot from the local park district and have reached the list-making stage.  It’s a small want–use of the plot from April to October will cost $20–but there’s plenty to plan.  We need to investigate what grows well here and then match those possibilities with what we want to grow and what we want to eat.  We’ll have to buy (or acquire some other way) a few tools, some seeds and some seedlings.  Now, at the turn of the year, is the time to read books on gardening.

Depending on your nature, these lists might change all the time, or they may be quite constant from year to year.  Not too long ago, I came upon a list of wants I’d made in my last semester of college.  I’d just become interested in money and investing, and one thing on the list was an expensive subscription to a financial newsletter.  I remember that I did get that subscription.  I read (and reread) those articles for several years in the early 1980s–a want satisfied with pleasure that I remember with great fondness.  (And stuff I learned in those articles informs my writing here to this day.)  Also on the list, though, were wants I’d long forgotten.  Some I’d satisfied along the way, but that I don’t remember with any special pleasure.  Others I’d forgotten without them ever having made it to the top of the list.  Looking at old lists of wants can give you real perspective when you start feeling like you’ve got to have the top item on your current list right now.

It’s your plan; use it however you like.  Maybe you want to put one big want–a sports car, a two-year sabbatical, a cottage by the lake–on the top of the list and focus on it to the exclusion of all else.  Maybe you want to juggle many large and small wants in one big list.  Maybe you want two lists, one with the small wants and one with the big wants.  However you structure it, though, remember that its purpose is to support your budget.  The plan to satisfy your wants is what you come to when you’re tempted to blow out some line item on your budget.  Look at your list.  If this is something that belongs right at the top, then scribble it in there.  If not, scratch it in wherever it goes.

Then, live that way.