Another Perspective on Our Life
The Usual Models
I do like the words Lifestyle Design because they explain rather well what this subject is all about. But most importantly they help us name, and therefore recognize the existence of, a piece of our life we don’t always stop to study and consciously work on.[break]
Indeed, many summarize « building one’s life » as a set of rules we impose on ourselves, as taking our pick among options that seem within reach at any given time, or more simply we just don’t think about it and go with the flow. And so changing our perspective on our life to recognize the need to clarify what we want it to look like, followed by constant monitoring isn’t necessarily obvious.[break]
Yet the idea is far from new and I can think of at least two examples of questions and thoughts that just about anyone has faced at one point or another, and that deal with Lifestyle Design:
1/ The question “what will you do when you grow up?”, or its version for adults “what do you do in life?”
2/ The thoughts and decisions regarding work/life balance.
The common point of both models is their attempt at pushing us to consciously define what our life should look like. They simply differ in their level of restrictions. Indeed, asking a child what she wants to do when she grows up, or an adult what he’s doing in life, restricts their “life” to a career (since this question is seldom asked to know more about their family, free time, friends, etc. Although they’re of course all part of life). Besides, that career has to be very specific: medical, legal, some public services such as the police or firefighters, etc. So whoever is looking for a trade that isn’t part of this list and/or a life that isn’t just a career will have a very hard time building their life by asking these questions; the framework of thought is not adapted.[break]
Meanwhile, discussing work/life balance encompasses everything that isn’t career-related, on top of covering just about any type of career. And that’s an important distinction because nowadays most jobs are made of a title given to someone in charge of tasks X, rather than a clearly-defined trade with dedicated education programs, etc. (Which is why it’s so hard for many of us to explain what our job is all about!) Yet it maintains a clear distinction between our “private” life and our “professional” life, the latter usually being a single money-making activity. If this isn’t the life we want to implement then the problem remains: the framework of thought is not adapted.
For many years following my studies I tried to use both models as frameworks to decide what I wanted my life to look like. Feel free to check out the TEDx Talk for more details about that period but what matters is that these were in fact the wrong questions. And it’s pretty obvious we can’t hope to find the right answers by asking the wrong questions…[break]
Now, with hindsight, I found an image that I think illustrates what I mean; imagine you’re facing a wall blocking access to the answers you’re looking for. There’s no opening, no way to move forward. And as long as you keep walking forward you’re going to hit that wall. However if you take a step back and move slightly to the side, you discover that this is but a panel placed slightly forward compared to the rest of the wall. From there it’s easy to slip behind it. But if you ever go back to your initial position you’re still stuck.
An impassable wall? (Front view)
Not if you change your perspective! (Top view)
This was precisely the issue I was facing when asking the wrong questions; it didn’t matter how much I’d push because what I was looking for was only accessible if I changed my way of looking at the problem.
This notion of changing our perspective to solve seemingly impossible problems is extremely important, regardless of its relevance in this post. And so next time you’re stuck, I strongly encourage you to learn to pause your attempts and to instead take a step back, look at the problem as a whole and try to figure out whether there could be other angles of attack.
Another very concrete example I faced in the past was job hunting and the unsolvable equation of HR asking for experience in a field while refusing to give an opportunity to acquire it. From there we can of course just rush forward and send dozens of CVs (who knows, by striking that damn wall hard and often enough we might well end up breaking it down? But how much time will it take? And what will be the cost?), or we can pause the process and turn instead to expanding our social network among people in the field we’re interested in, and especially among smaller companies where it’s easy to reach the decision-makers, until we unlock the job we’ve been looking for.
What matters most to me is the variety of what I do. I need several simultaneous projects in various fields, without trying to define what’s professional or private. And that’s the very reason that gave birth to the alternative model I’m offering (although it can be used for all lifestyles, as we’ll see in a minute).[break]
Therefore in order to build the life we dream of, I’m proposing that we forget the previous two traditional models (or whatever else you’re using as framework) and that we instead look at the following three notions:
• Time: you have 24 hours a day (let’s round it down to 12 useful hours to account for the time spent sleeping, eating, taking a shower, etc.), 365 days a year. That’s it.
• Your objectives: what you want to do, be, experiment, see, own, create…
• Your activitties: everything you do each day that uses up your time. It doesn’t matter if it generates an income or costs money, if it’s for leisure or business, alone or with others, creating or consuming, etc. I’ve actually picked the word “activity” because of its neutral meaning.
The link between all three components is rather obvious: each and every activity costs a certain amount of time and brings us more or less close to our objectives. The most insightful readers (or those who watched the TEDx!) probably already see where I’m going with this; in order to build the life you dream of you must ensure that the time you spend on each activity is proportional to their impact on your objectives. And so the more time an activity demands, the more objectives it should cover. Or explained differently: the more objectives an activity will cover and the more time you’re allowed to invest in it (on the other hand you must seriously consider reducing or removing the ones that have little to no impact on what you’re aiming for).
During the TEDx I quoted examples of how I used that model in my own life so feel free to have a listen. However my objectives have changed since then and some of them are no longer relevant so I’m going to quote new ones here (which, by the way, highlights just how flexible this model is; it provides a frame whose content can be changed any time. We’ll discuss this some more later on):
• My main money-making activities (voice over & translation) usually only do that: generating an income. Therefore they’re very flexible in terms of timetable and location and I organize myself so that they only take up a few hours each week.
• Since coming to Japan I started taking acting and modeling jobs as well, which are definitely not flexible at all BUT allow me to meet people and expand my professional network (which is another one of my objectives). And because my current priority is to find my place here rather than traveling around, blocking my schedule isn’t an issue so I’ll probably increase the time spent on these activities.
• The animation series based on my novel has become a main goal. And so on top of a weekly timeslot dedicated to it I decided that any progress on that front would supersede anything else (including having to move and leave the country).
• Outings with local friends help me expand my network and find my place in Japan. So I catch just about any opportunity popping up but only on whatever time is left after working on money-making activities and the animation series project. On the other hand doing some tourism by myself isn’t a priority so I only do it on whatever time is left after everything else.
In the end this is about each of us creating a puzzle of activities that work well together and cover our objectives, and then keeping an eye on it to make sure we’re always aligned with our current priorities.[break]
You probably noticed by the way how easily I can describe my life as a series of activities taking up more or less time and covering objectives X, but it’s much more complicated for me to answer the question “what do you do in life?” or to divide between professional and private life… Which is precisely what I was talking about earlier with the image of the wall you have to bypass.
Those of you who will try and look at their life through the three notions introduced above will quickly notice changes in the questions you ask yourselves, in what you’re looking for, in how you evaluate what you’re doing or opportunities coming your way, etc. Again, that’s a sign of the shift in perspective I’ve discussed. The exact consequences will depend on each person (based on your objectives, current situation and so on) but I’ve identified three which I believe are common to everyone since they are a part of the model itself.
A. Becoming Aware of the Value of your Time
When you begin to connect the time invested in an activity to its value, you also naturally begin to notice everything you do that wastes your time or uses up too much of it. Quite simply you become aware of time being a limited resource, which never comes back once gone, and that is indeed your most important resource since you can do everything with it. Don’t obsess over this though (such as thinking “I haven’t planned anything meaningful for the coming hour, it’ll be lost!”) but use that newfound understanding to invest your time in what truly matters. Which, by the way, does include leisure (there’s nothing wrong with deciding to do nothing for half a day)![break]
Feel free to watch the TEDx for a very concrete example related to video-games. Meanwhile here’s another one: I always have a “to-do” list with administrative tasks I must carry out alone, in front of my computer (updating my site, accounting, contacting or following up on business leads, updating my voice demos, blog posts to write, etc.). Before coming to Japan that list was never-ending and so I spent a lot of time at home working on it. I knew that when coming to Kyoto that would mean a lot of time spent at my coworking space, which was an issue because there was plenty more I wished to do (starting with meeting new people).[break]
After a quick analysis of the content of that list and how I added tasks to it, I understood I wrote down just about anything that seemed even remotely useful. And given the number of ideas that constantly cross my mind it’s no surprise there always was something to do, which sometimes demanded a lot of time… for only marginal gains.[break]
So I decided that a “useful” idea was no longer enough; instead the usefulness of an idea must be proportional to the time needed to carry it out. And so I ended up dividing that list between what must indeed be completed, and what is optional, which includes things that are useful but demand too much time for what they give me. The underlying logic is that I can invest that time in something else more valuable, which may happen to be completely different. For instance I put aside LinkedIn online trainings, which are interesting and useful without a doubt but take up too much time in regards to what I gain from them. Instead I can visit the city, join events on Meetup.com to meet people, improve my Japanese abilities, etc.[break]
By the way, for those of you facing a similar issue, realize that it’s probably due to the fear of having nothing to do. Yet we must learn to face an empty schedule in order to take a breath and let new ideas and inspiration come. If we’re constantly shoulder-deep in things to do we can’t look at new solutions, we miss opportunities, etc.
B. Perceiving Activities as Bundles
When you begin to estimate how valuable an activity is based on the objectives it covers in your list, you also naturally begin to “break down” everything you currently do, every opportunity coming your way and everything you try to proactively launch into smaller pieces. And so you start to look at each activity as a group of small pieces that take up X hours, rather than a big, fixed chunk that must be judged in its entirety. This improves your decisions because you can tell precisely which elements they are based on and thus which bits you need to keep your eyes on in case of changes. And if you need to adjust something you clearly know what to focus on (rather than throwing away the whole thing).[break]
Here again the TEDx covers an interesting example related to how we look at job offers and starting one’s own business. However more recently I began to work with a new customer on a very big project that consists in reworking the French version of their animation series. During the negotiations, the more I learned about what had to be done and the budget, the more I wondered if it was really worth it, without being able to get a definite answer. That is, until I took the time to split this upcoming activity into pieces that I compared to my objectives. From there I was able to realize it would allow me to generate a very flexible income, just like my regular money-making activities, while also expanding my network and reputation (a combination I thought was impossible up to this point). Then the nature of that network (i.e. in the field of animation) was extremely valuable to me and the project itself was interesting. The time to invest would be higher than usual and the money proportionally lower but all the other elements made the decision pretty obvious all of a sudden: I had to give it a shot (which I did). And I know what elements my decision is based on and therefore what I must keep my eyes on when regularly checking whether I should keep going or not.
C. Creation of a Flexible and Resilient Structure, Unrelated to Life Events
Because this model is like a mold each of us should fill up with their own objectives and then use to create their own activity puzzle (i.e. it doesn’t dictate a given content), it can adapt to the changes that are part of life and allows to implement an infinite variety of lifestyles, including variations over a certain period of time for the same person. And because it is based on elements that will always be there (time, the notion of activities and our objectives – which may be unclear or even disappear during a crisis, but will always come back, identical or different from what they were), it can still be used when you need to rebuild your life. What are my objectives and priorities? What are my activities? Is the way I currently invest my time still relevant? If not, what needs fixing?[break]
You’ll find another concrete example by watching the TEDx (mostly focused on rebuilding after a crisis), but the very fact that the cases I took in this article are different from the ones in my speech is proving my point; the model I’ve used since 2018 in Sweden, while in a relationship, with a stable life, in a country I knew, is precisely the same I’m using in 2020 on the other side of the planet, in a country I know little about, alone and where I almost started everything from scratch again. And it was still the same model I used in 2019 during the transition period. The differences between all three periods are my objectives, the activities I picked to reach them and how I organized them into a working puzzle, but not the underlying structure.