Building the Life We Dream of
We’re now coming to the last stage in the process. We have defined our objectives (or at least we know how to handle their absence), and we already knew that the end purpose was to dedicate to each activity a duration that is proportional to its impact on our objectives. So what’s left is for us to create our personal puzzle, which means finding activities leading to what we’re aiming at and combining them into a working schedule.[break]
By the way do note that if you spend more time on an activity with only limited impact and less time on another one that is more effective, as long as your puzzle in its entirety is working it is in fact ok. Yet the idea of investing time in something in proportion to its impact remains a good rule of thumb.[break]
Unfortunately as you probably guessed there isn’t any one solution that will always work since the objectives, activities and resources to launch these activities are different for everyone. Additionally it is precisely the process of searching for what to do, how to start it and how to balance it with the rest that allows us to learn and grow. Which is why it’s so important to target what we truly want rather than what seems accessible; that’s how we learn.[break]
Still, here is some general advice on how to go about dealing with this question.
The Initial Approach
You must first understand that there exists an unlimited number of activities since they represent everything we do each day that takes up some time. Moreover an objective is made up of a certain number of activities – some that disappear once completed, others that come back regularly, some we can predict or initiate and others that suddenly show up, some that cover one single objective, others that cover several, some that are sequential and others simultaneous, etc.[break]
Therefore the first step is to train yourself in linking everything you do every day (your activities) to your objectives, in order to develop the habit of consciously investing your time instead of being on autopilot all the time and letting anything and anyone catch your attention and define what you’re spending your time on.[break]
Keep it lighthearted though – this exercise should be fun and not stressful. Developing this habit is certainly essential and the realizations awaiting in the process will be key in adjusting your life, but you’re not in a hurry and it’s perfectly fine to simply list your observations and conclusions if you don’t see yet how to modify what needs adjusting. Also do remember that there are elements in your list of objectives that are implied and don’t need to be clearly spelled out, but that some of your activities will have to cover nonetheless: eating, sleeping, showering, relaxing, etc.
While in the process of creating this new habit, and after you begin to better understand what you spend your days on, it’s time to make the initial assessment of your current situation. To do so, find a quiet spot to sit with your list of objectives and your observations, and have an honest look at your current activities and their link with what you’re aiming for. You should be able to identify lacks and what should be removed or changed.[break]
If some of the actions to take are easy to implement then do it right away. However sometimes we need to wait until we have something to replace what we want to change, or everything is so tightly connected together that we must tread carefully and take it step by step, etc. So at this stage it’s enough to simply identify problems and the result we want to reach instead.[break]
Next we’re going to use the tools highlighted in the following two parts to act and create our puzzle, then keep it up-to-date (although making a general assessment once a year is never a bad idea. For instance right after you’ve updated your list of objectives).
For those wondering perhaps if the only solution to create the life we dream of is to start our own company, I’d say that the inherent flexibility of running one’s own business is definitely an advantage. However we are all different and I don’t think everyone is made for this because it demands a certain mindset, tremendous willpower and discipline, and it’s risky. More importantly, it may not be necessary depending on your goals. Indeed, in an era when work contracts are more flexible (part time, consulting, remote work…) and where quality of life is a fundamental value, there are many solutions to build up your puzzle while being an employee.
On that note: although my personal experience is based exclusively on managing my own business, I did try to write this post to make it useful no matter how you generate your income.
General Rules about Our Activities
The activities that make up our objectives should for the most part be fun. In other words the road leading to what you’re aiming for should be enjoyable to walk most of the time. So if day after day some activities weigh down on you, exhaust you, kill off your inspiration, eat up your energy, etc. then it’s time to seriously look for an alternative. And the risk is especially great for money-making activities (the “I hate my job!” syndrome) because they’re related to the one objective that won’t budge and which therefore has a higher risk of leading to uninteresting activities (while you can easily remove other activities if you don’t like them and replace them by more interesting ones, or remove the objective with them).
By the way, remember it’s perfectly possible to have a good time doing something while still striving to decrease as much as possible the time spent on it. For instance I just love my voice over work; when a job comes in I enjoy plugging my microphone, taking on a role, etc. Yet if I could generate a “typical life” level of income with one single recording per week, I’d do it. Not because I hate the recording sessions, but because there are potentially more interesting activities I could spend my time on.
Next, remember some activities leading up to your objectives will be tedious; you just can’t escape it. Therefore you must develop the ability to determine whether the path you’re taking is the right one with a bit of a slow period, or if the issue is in the road itself (which you then must change). A good test to figure out whether you’re on the right track is to remind yourself of why you’re doing X; as long as this end result is motivating then keep moving on, even if some intermediate steps aren’t so exciting.[break]
To be honest, looking for and contacting production companies in an attempt to launch my animation project isn’t the most interesting bit! But it’s just a step (among others) and the end result is my top priority. So the spirit is simply to finish what you start. Some ideas coming up are quick to implement, others not so much and so we have to force ourselves to carry them out. Because one thing is certain: what isn’t completed never leads anywhere (and what a waste it is indeed to let an objective die simply because we’re lacking the discipline to complete a boring milestone!).[break]
This is especially important when you’re progressing blindly because you don’t know how to reach a goal (see below). In this case it’s impossible to guess what will or will not work out and the consequences of giving up aren’t immediately visible.[break]
If, however, you lose sight of the destination behind the boring activities, then take a break until you’re able to decide whether it’s still worth it. If not, do something else. And if the destination remains important to you but the uninteresting activities aren’t temporary (again, the job we hate syndrome) then it’s time to change them.
Finally some activities and periods of time may not be fun, but not because of a lack of interest; because of fear. That’s what happens when you begin to leave your comfort zone (and it SHOULD happen if you’re targeting what you truly want rather than merely what’s accessible).[break]
My best advice to decide what to do in this case is to imagine your options if you don’t carry out what scares you: if you’re honest with yourself, can you see an alternative? If yes then it may mean there’s a better activity for you out there, or your discomfort is a sign that what you’re setting out to do is not a part of your path. If on the other hand there aren’t other options except giving up or settling for less, then you know you must go ahead no matter your fears.[break]
When I decided I’d move to Japan, it was a scary project. Leaving a country I knew, my friends, my comfortable apartment, my whole life for the last 10 years… And all the paperwork, uncertainty and planning ahead really weren’t encouraging. But I only had to imagine the alternative (i.e. to cancel the project and continue life in Sweden) to know there actually was no other way forward. And with that certainty, I moved the process along.[break]
Also sometimes when getting a lot of new information or perspectives, or when imagining ourselves in a brand new situation, we can feel overwhelmed (especially when it shakes our vision of the world or opens our eyes on many things we didn’t previously see) and may react by shutting off what makes us uncomfortable.[break]
To deal with this I usually give myself a couple of days to assimilate all that knowledge: I take time to get familiar with the new perspective and to make it my own, I try to estimate the consequences, I let my mind play with the new ideas, compare them with what I know, etc. And with time they become more comfortable and I may start taking small steps to act on them if such steps exist, or simply launch it for good.[break]
The best examples I have are my conversations with several acquaintances during my road trip from Sweden to France in autumn 2019. I was quickly introducing the TEDx Talk I would be giving soon, and that got them talking about their own life, and especially their career and the possibility of changing it. And I noticed that the mere thought of doing something different than what they had done for almost a decade was so scary that as soon as I suggested it they would find all sorts of excuses to push it away. Yet they were the ones telling me about their dreams, and I was simply pushing the logic one step further![break]
I ended up telling them to stop rejecting the idea simply because it was scary and they couldn’t see right away how to make it happen, and instead to let it settle in their mind: to take the time to look at it, to imagine how different their life would be, to look at the consequences (both good and bad), etc. After all this is just our imagination working and it doesn’t cost anything to think about it. And the funny thing is that simply by accepting to look at this scary perspective and to tell me about it, they slowly began to feel some excitement and to see tiny baby steps they could take to explore further (such as talking with someone in the field, or searching for information online, etc.). And that’s usually how major changes begin; a scary idea we need time to become comfortable with, that evolves into concrete actions.[break]
Now don’t use this as an excuse to avoid acting when the time is right! If the idea is big enough you’ll never be entirely ready to take it on, so the point is simply to let most of the initial confusion and paralysis go away, before looking at the alternatives (as mentioned above) and acting if this is the right way, no matter the fear left.
When Activities are Known
Now that your initial assessment is done and your mindset is focused on your activities and their link with your objectives, it’s time to create your puzzle. It doesn’t matter whether the changes to implement are huge or negligible (throughout the years there will always be times with important changes to make and times when everything is working); the first part is to look at known activities which includes your current activities, opportunities coming your way, something you wish to start while knowing exactly how to proceed, etc. The common point each time is that you can see clearly what to invest your time on, with a general idea of the duration.[break]
In this situation your job is to evaluate how the activities you’re looking at impact your objectives and then decide whether to start them or not. If you do you must choose whether they should remain as they are or if they require adjustments, before finding a place for them in your schedule (and therefore create your puzzle).[break]
Let’s look at some advice on how to go about this.
A. Two Major Rules to Follow as Much as Possible
Keep in mind the following two ideas whenever you must make a decision:
1/ Whenever an activity leads to an objective but isn’t the objective itself (for instance generating an income through activity X), we’ll try to limit as much as possible the time spent on it because what we care about is the result. That’s the rule I apply when I try to invoice per project rather than per hour; I can then work as fast as possible (and thus reduce the amount of time spent on this activity) without losing money (so the end result is the same).
In your quest for efficiency, be careful though not to maim an activity to the point that is no longer serves the same objectives. For instance, still in the business world, every time establishing a relationship with a customer is important to me I won’t try to decrease the frequency of videoconferences; it wouldn’t really impact my income-relate goal but I’d lose all benefits for my network-building goal.
However if the activity IS the objective then the time to invest in it will depend on your level of interest (basically doing what must be done until it gets boring) and the available time in your puzzle (and if you want to spend more time on it you’ll have to adjust the rest).
2/ We seek to increase the time invested in an activity only if it allows us to cover more objectives and/or to better cover them. That’s what I do for example whenever I offer to pay a visit to certain customers that are geographically close by. Indeed, my experience tells me face-to-face meetings can lead to more jobs from them on top of potentially unlocking new opportunities. So I increase the time invested in contacting these leads because it has a positive impact on my money-making goal.
However once we factor in rule number 1 exposed above we understand that we’ll always try to limit the time invested to the minimum necessary to get the results we want.
B. Two Main Tools
To help review known activities and organize them into a working schedule I use two models:
1/ The list of criteria: try to break down your objectives into criteria that allow you to evaluate how aligned with your goals an activity actually is. Some criteria are binary while others resemble a scale.
You don’t need to go into too much details; it’s enough to have a general idea of which parts of an activity you should pay attention to. And of course you must update this list every time you change your objectives (it’s then a good idea to review known activities in light of your new priorities).
In my case for instance, whenever an activity comes up I first check whether it generates an income or not. If it does I’ll check the estimated hourly rate and the level of flexibility in terms of location and schedule. I’ll also look at its ability to make me meet people that are useful to me (may it be friends of business contacts) and increase my reputation, I’ll check whether it can bring me closer to dubbing and/or my animation series project (even indirectly), etc.
This helps to judge the intrinsic value of an activity as regards to our objectives and the time it requires, by allowing us to compare them together to find out the most effective ones, before deciding whether to add them to our puzzle. It’s also an excellent method to review complex activities (such as a job offer), by focusing on the bits that matter to us to judge their efficiency (these bits then turn into items to negotiate if they aren’t satisfying).
2/ Categories and their priority: try to gather your activities into categories based on the type of activity and/or the objective covered, then give them a priority ranking following the logic “I will first invest my free time in activities from category 1. If there’s time left, I’ll spend it on category 2.” Etc. And remember that sometimes, it’s up to you to set a maximum amount of time to be invested in a given category.
In my case, when arriving in Japan in March 2020 I had 4 categories: top priority to money-making activities (category 1) until I reached the “typical life” income level (beyond that, the priority level decreased to minimum). On my free time, priority given to activities that allow me to meet friends and business contacts and to increase my reputation (category 2, whose upper limit is based on my feelings; when I have enough outings and meetings planned during the week I naturally move on to category 3). On my free time, priority given to administrative work that I must carry out alone in front of my computer (category 3, whose upper limit I set by limiting the number of items on my “to do” list to what seems the most useful). Finally on my free time I can visit Kyoto and Japan (category 4).
This is a huge help to combine all the pieces of our puzzle into a schedule that is flexible enough to include unpredictable and/or unknown activities (see next part). Moreover it helps pinpointing unbalances in our life; whenever I think I’m missing something I just go through each category and it helps me easily identify where the problem is and what type of activity I should try to start (which sometimes leads me to reversing priorities a bit, for instance by visiting the city while I’m not done with money-making activities).
At last, here too it’s a good idea to go through the criteria defining your categories and their priority level whenever you update your objectives, and then to evaluate the consequences on your schedule.
C. In Short
So, to review known activities:
1. Begin by confirming they are interesting (since we only launch activities that are fun – see previous part).
2. Split them into elements that you can compare to your list of criteria in order to estimate their impact on your objectives and decide whether the time required is adapted (if fixed duration) or estimate how much time you could afford to spend on it (if duration not set). You’ll also have to identify the activities that may have to be removed.
3. Decide whether to add the activity to your puzzle as it is, to negotiate certain points first (and which ones), or to drop it.
4. Choose which category the activities you selected are a part of and their place in your schedule.
In the real world it is of course very difficult to know the impact of an activity on our objectives before actually starting it. Therefore it’s up to us to gather as much information as possible beforehand and to decide whether to give it a shot or not. If we do proceed, we then must regularly review this impact and decide whether to keep going or not.
Feel free to completely ignore the process above if the activity you’re looking at is something you truly want. In this case the structures we’ve created don’t matter as they’re only here to help us and not to restrict our options – our desire is what leads us and it takes precedence over everything else. After all, the impact of an activity on our objectives isn’t always obvious so we must learn to trust our feelings; if we’re attracted to something then it means there’s something useful for us there, even if our logic can’t see it (it could be for instance a positive impact on objectives we haven’t consciously identified yet, as mentioned before). It’s soon enough to wait after the deed before going through what has been learned: goals that appeared/disappeared? Ideas of new activities for an existing objective? Progress in the implementation of certain activities? Etc.
I personally use a “What the Hell?” activity list where I add every idea and opportunity that don’t really belong to my standard framework but that I nonetheless wish to launch. Sometimes it leads to interesting contacts, sometimes I learn something, and sometimes it just makes yet another fun story to tell my friends! That’s the very reason why, for instance, I join movie shootings or modeling photo shoots in Japan once in a while, whenever they need a western face.
This balance between following one’s heart and a colder, more methodical approach helps to avoid jumping on every opportunity coming our way and to estimate the consequences of our choices, while still recognizing that we don’t control everything and that we must learn to experiment and draw conclusions afterwards.
When Activities are Unknown
The whole TEDx and most of this post rely on the assumption that we know our objectives and the activities to implement in order to reach them. We’ve already been through what to do if we don’t know our objectives, and similarly it’s rather common not to know how to proceed even with a very clear goal. It’s actually a good sign as it means we’re targeting what we truly want to reach and no longer what seems accessible only![break]
So although this part isn’t directly dealing with the creation of our puzzle and looks instead at how to find the activities leading to our objectives, it remains a vital component in putting together the life we dream of.
A. The Mindset to Have
We take the same perspective as when we don’t know our objectives; we must accept that our logic is unable to determine how to reach X, or that the path we do see isn’t the right one. Usually that’s because the necessary resources aren’t immediately obvious or available.[break]
At the same time we must recognize that our emotions know the way and guide us. And so we’re blindly moving forward – the goal may be clear but not the path leading to it (and therefore the activities it is made of). To discover them we’ll have to “follow our gut feeling”.[break]
Now if the objective is clear then we can treat activities we find along the way just like any known activity (see previous part), although in practice we’re mostly going to act upon them quickly since they are our only option on an unclear path.[break]
If, on the other hand, the goal isn’t clear (which means it’s difficult to use the tools introduced before to invest our time strategically since there aren’t any objectives to use as reference) we’ll just invest time in whatever activities resonate with us when they come up. And if needed, we’ll decrease the ones that aren’t as interesting, even without knowing where this is leading. That’s what I did during the summer and autumn of 2019 when I didn’t know yet where I was headed but I could feel my association and my endless search for customers had become less important than my need to travel and visit old friends.
In an effort to illustrate the mindset underlying my way of dealing with unclear objectives and/or activities I use the following image (which also helps reminding me of this perspective, especially when I start to worry, wondering how I’ll reach this or that): imagine we’re driving a train. It’s more or less always moving forward without our help (this is our life unfolding and never stopping), the final destination being our own death anyway, and so what matters is the journey and especially the stations on the way, which represent our objectives.[break]
Sometimes we’ve identified these stations and we know where we’re going, and sometimes not (to the point of discovering our destination only after reaching it in some instances!). Sometimes the rail track in front of us and up to the next station is fully visible, and sometimes we see but a couple of meters ahead. But in either case, whether we know the stations (our objectives) or not, or the path (the various activities), we’ll get there. Our job is all about reading the signposts that tell us when and where to fork in order to stay on the right course.[break]
Also remember it’s not up to us to choose the order in which we get to each station/objective, when we get there or the road leading there; we can only follow the rail track and fork at the right time. At no point do we have the ability to influence the journey (and working hard in doing so is the best way to slow the whole process down, to start worrying and to get frustrated!).[break]
This implies that rather than building the way leading to what we’re aiming at, we should instead try to align ourselves with an existing path. Sometimes it’s quite easy, especially when we don’t know our objectives and/or how to reach them (then we have no choice but to see what’s going to happen!). However other times our knowledge and resources are enough to let us see a potential path, and if the process is straightforward and without surprises (usually the case when accumulated experience allows us to be more and more successful at something. Unless it’s because we’re not aiming high enough) then all is well. But it also happens that we think we know where to go and what to do whereas this isn’t the right way: we see opportunities where there are none, we fight bitterly to take a path that doesn’t exist… As I once fought trying to convince companies of my skills, convinced as I was that I first had to be an employee because starting my own business.[break]
Next, missing a turn or taking the wrong direction can take different shapes: sometimes it’s a missed opportunity (for instance not daring to contact a key person), sometimes life starts to loop and nothing changes (for instance hearing again and again that we should do X and nothing happens until it’s done), sometimes the feeling like the train has reached the end of the track and stops (for instance my departure to Japan when nothing seemed achievable in Sweden anymore). In any case, it’s never too late to get back on the right track: a missed opportunity will come back with a different look, we just have to launch what’s blocking us to leave the endless loop or to change track to resume the journey.[break]
Lastly, to know when to fork and towards which direction we must keep our eyes open and have a clear mind to be able to follow our intuition and act on ideas and opportunities coming our way (it doesn’t matter whether they make sense or not). For we must act (there’s no way we’ll reach our objectives by twiddling our thumbs!), but at the right time. And all the negative emotions that disturb our peace of mind are like fog and rain, making it harder to see the signposts that tell us when and where to turn.[break]
In practice, for some of my objectives that are clear but that I don’t know how to reach, I simply follow ideas popping up and opportunities that resonate with me (which means following the signposts telling me to fork, without knowing the whole itinerary, when I’ll arrive and from where). And whenever my mind is confused, I start by searching for inner peace before taking any new decision.
B. Feeling Good to Know Where to Go
When we don’t know what the next step on our way is, the first thing to do is to feel good, because that’s how inspiration and ideas come, that we are able to recognize opportunities and have the necessary energy to catch them.[break]
Back to the image of a train, it’s like letting the storm pass until we can see the landscape clearly again. And to do so I’ve found four methods I always go back to (usually in the order below):
1/ Gratitude: I strive to notice and be thankful for all the small things I like each day. However most importantly, every evening I offer my thanks for the best thing that happened to me that day. It’s a habit I created after reading Rhonda Byrne’s “The Magic” and the idea is to force ourselves to look at all the positive things (to pick the best one) and to forget the negative ones.
If it’s not enough I take time to list 10 things I’m thankful for having in my life (I go into enough details to feel grateful). It’s especially effective in order to take some distance from our worries because when something isn’t working or worries us we tend to only see that, and learning to distance ourselves in order to look at everything we already have helps us to accept what’s missing, to make it a priority but without attaching negative emotions to it.
2/ Visualization: I look at the future imagining I’ve succeeded at getting what I’m missing. As a matter of fact I only allow myself to look at the future this way. If I find myself thinking of failures, lacks and so on I either transform those images, or I stop and go back to being thankful for what I already have (see previous point).
3/ Meditation: when my mind isn’t peaceful enough to imagine a beautiful future or when I don’t have enough energy to focus on what’s working despite frustration, worries and other negative emotions, I just start meditating. This allows my thoughts to rest and helps me disconnect my emotions from them, to find inner peace.
4/ Letting emotions out: sometimes sorrow, despair or anger are so strong nothing works. When this happens I grab my notebook and my pen and I give free rein to my emotions (usually with a fitting musical background that helps bringing them to the front). This helps me empty my mind and finding a form of peace (in no small part due to exhaustion).
5/ Remembering death: if all else has failed, there’s one last trick I have that always works if done correctly. But it should be used sparingly lest you paralyze yourself with fear and indecision or completely lose any sense of purpose and motivation. And that powerful yet dangerous tool is about reminding yourself of your own mortality. Not by mindlessly repeating meaningless words but by stopping everything you’re doing, sitting back, looking around yourself here and now, and imagining that by the time you’re done doing whatever you’re doing, or when leaving the room you’re in, or whatever very concrete and impending deadline you can set, you’re going to die.
If you’re doing that exercise for real and truly manage to convince yourself, I can promise you’re going to see your life in a completely different way (perhaps for the first time ever). Everything around you will take on a new meaning, everything becomes more vivid, more intense, your worries fade away. Of course you may also scare yourself senseless, but since in this exercise there’s no escaping your own death, it’s also useless to fear it. You should instead fully enjoy every single second, because that’s all you have left.
This exercise is going to burn everything cluttering your mind and preventing you from being peaceful and happy. Additionally, when (hopefully) you don’t die after the deadline you set is reached, you’ll be thankful for the amazing gift of being alive a while longer… while knowing that the deadline has only been pushed – not removed – and by an unclear amount of time. Because although this is only an exercise, it’s actually based on a very deep truth. More on that in the conclusion.