Can you actually design your lifestyle?

In 1974 the highly respected Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis published an article titled The unsuccessful self-treatment of a case of "writer's block" by Dennis Upper.

The article contained 0 words.

This delicious irony is compounded by comments from "Reviewer A":

I have studied this manuscript very carefully with lemon juice and X-rays and have not detected a single flaw in either design or writing style. I suggest it be published without revision. Clearly it is the most concise manuscript I have ever seen - yet it contains sufficient detail to allow other investigators to replicate Dr. Upper's failure.

In this case, Dr Upper clearly demonstrated that his unsuccessful attempt at breaking writer's block resulted in, well, nothing.

It's a little bit like that when you think of designing your lifestyle - there's a lot to dream about, but actually getting there seems to be something that only those who've already made it can achieve.

So what is this thing - this "lifestyle design" - and can you actually design your life?

The promise of lifestyle design

Try Googling "lifestyle design" (with the quotes) and you'll find over three million results. Amazon has over four thousand results for books about "lifestyle design". Clearly, this is a topic many of us are interested in, because the promise of "designing" your life is so enticing.

In short, the promise of "lifestyle design" is that we can actually design the lives we live. You can live how you want, where you want. You can work when you want, doing the things you like doing, with people you like doing it with. And if you choose not to work, you can design that too.

At least that's the promise.

As the thousands of books and millions of hits on the Internet already indicates, this is something that many of us (if not all of us) are interested in. We would like to live a life without worry, without fear, taking joy in everything we do.

But very few of us get to live the lifestyles we would have designed. There are just too many barriers.

The barriers to living the life you want

Some people seem to have been born into the lifestyle we would want for ourselves. They were either born rich or somehow fell into a life they are completely content with. Those are the few we admire from afar.

For most of us, the life we would have designed for ourselves seems out of reach. We have constraints - we were born poor, disadvantaged or the wrong colour. As a result, we struggle so hard to just keep our heads above water we can't even think of beginning to swim to shore.

Even if we don't have the disadvantages many others have to struggle with, we're caught up in a world of growing up, learning something, getting a job, having a family and paying off a mortgage. Very first-world problems, but that's what we have to cope with.

Even with the promise that "lifestyle design" holds out for us, actually designing and living that life seems almost out of reach.

So can you design your lifestyle?

A better question is actually can you design your lifestyle, and then make it real?

The answer is yes - you can. But there are a couple of caveats.

Caveat 1: Know what your ideal life looks like

We all have dreams of what our ideal lifestyle could look like. But for most of us, they remain just that - dreams. Images of working on the beach, lazy days by a pool, parties with friends - whatever your dreams are, for most of us they just remain dreams.

But as long as something remains in your head, it just remains a dream. So you need to take the first step to making your dreams come true - and that step is very simple:

Write down what your ideal lifestyle looks like.

When you write down what your ideal lifestyle looks like, you're actually moving a step forward - a step towards your ideal lifestyle. You've moved one small step forward from dreaming to making it real. If you don't write it down, your dreams will remain dreams.

Caveat 2: One small step at a time

Getting to your ideal lifestyle doesn't start with a bang. It starts with one small step. One thing you can do - this week - to move closer to your ideal lifestyle.

Let's see how this works.

Designing your lifestyle - one (small) step at a time

So let's say you've taken that first step - you wrote down what your ideal lifestyle looks like. And let's say that one of the things you imagine in your ideal life is more time with your family.

What stops you - right now - from deciding to work less and play more? Have more time with your family?

Most of the time, we feel we can't take more time off because we have to work hard to make ends meet. But as you probably already know, work will expand to fill available time. The more time you allocate to your work the more work you will have.

If you decided that, for example, you're not going to work weekends any more, you have less time to do your work. That's going to force you to get your work done in less time - and that means you have to be more productive. You're going to have to find ways to get your work done before the weekend so you can take the time off - and that's a good thing.

If you manage to do this (or whatever small first step you decide to take), you've moved one step closer to your ideal lifestyle.

Even small steps move you forward

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" is a common saying that originated from a famous Chinese proverb. (The quotation is from Chapter 64 of the Tao Te Ching ascribed to Laozi.)

This saying teaches that even the longest and most difficult ventures have a starting point; something which begins with one first step. Taking the first step to your ideal lifestyle doesn't require you to pack up your bags and move to some tropical paradise - it only requires that you take one small step.

And after you've taken that first, small step, you take another step. A small one.

If your goal is to spend more time with your family, you may start with not working weekends. Then you may decide to limit your working time to fewer hours during the day so you can spend more time with your family in the evenings. And then you can book vacations six months ahead of time (and pay for them so you don't have an excuse to cancel or postpone them).

Each small step you take towards your ideal lifestyle takes you closer to your ideal lifestyle. You don't have to boil the ocean to get there; you just need to do one small thing that moves you closer. One this month, and one more next month, and so on.

And before you know it, you will be half-way there.

A journey of jumping over barriers

Along the way, there are going to be many barriers. If your ideal lifestyle includes travel, you're going to have to travel on the cheap or build up the reserves you need to travel in a little more style.

Each step forward may reveal more barriers. The good news is that every barrier can be overcome - some more easily than others. But if you persist, you can get over the barriers. It may take time, and you won't always succeed the first time.

But you can get there. One step at a time.


The promise of lifestyle design is that you can design your ideal life so you can be happier, more fulfilled and yes, have more stuff if that's your thing.

The first step you have to take to make it real is to write it down. Until you do this, your dreams will remain dreams. Then you need to take one small step towards that goal. Every small step moves you one step closer to your ideal lifestyle.

And then you will have to overcome the barriers life puts in your way. In some cases, you will have to rethink how you make a living. In other cases, you will have to rethink how and where you spend your time. But each barrier can be overcome.

Knowing where you want to be, and taking one small step at a time towards that goal, will get you there.

Overcoming your own (writer's) block

Like Dr Dennis Upper, we may feel that we are unsuccessful at overcoming blocks. In his case, his attempt at overcoming writer's block was unsuccessful and his article contained 0 words.

But you don't have to look at your ideal life and see it always the same distance away. You can make it real - one step at a time.

What you can do now

  1. Write down what your ideal life looks like.
  2. Take one small step towards that life.
  3. Identify the barriers holding you back.
  4. Overcome those barriers (easier said than done, I know - but you can do it).
  5. You're one step closer. Rinse and repeat.

And enjoy every step of your journey.

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