Roughly a year ago, I felt aimless.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d had one overarching goal that was driving me forward for a number of years — a goal, which I also didn’t realize, I had finally accomplished.
And in the accomplishment, I was left unmotivated and dissatisfied.
I didn't know why I felt as frustrated as I was. I knew I was lost... but I didn't know what to do about it.
A lot of well-meaning people offered their various bits of advice. But none of it ultimately helped much.
In hindsight, I can see that what I needed was:
- To get clarity on where I was.
- To identify a new aim, a new “why” — a new thing to reach for that would drive me forward.
I tried LOTS of ideas, some of them useful, some of them not. Eventually, though, I carved out the process that’s laid out in this article — I call it my “life sketch.”
I hope it helps anyone going through what I went through.
It’s incomplete. It’s useful — but it’s only one tool for getting the job done. Nevertheless, I hope it helps.
Creating a Life Sketch
A few words of introduction:
The purpose of this activity is to develop some clarity on where you are and what’s important to you across the breadth of life. It’s a geolocating system meant to help identify as three-dimensionally as possible where you are, and it highlights a next destination (which may surprise you).
It also reveals blindspots, which may otherwise get in the way of your movement forward.
This was derived primarily from a process in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), as I’ve learned it from Drs. Stephen Hayes and Russ Harris. I highly recommend their further resources if you find this useful.
Who’s this for?
Those who feel a bit lost, unclear about where they’re aiming to go or why.
How long does this take?
First, there’s the process laid out in this article. Total, it should take you ~4–8 hours, depending on how thoughtful vs. active/experimental you want to be.
Second, there’s the implementation. I recommend drawing a line at 4 months, and committing to experiment with these small steps until that clock has run out.
Note: for some of the steps, I’ve included a time constraint. Use these to help you keep moving forward, so that you don’t spend too much time on any one question.
If you’re ready to try this out, then let’s get to it…
I recommend setting aside 1 hour for getting started.
1 | The Four Domains
I look across four domains:
- Work + Education
- Health + Personal Growth
- Play + Lifestyle
2 | Make it Visual
I like to draw them out in a color-sorted grid (but that’s me — I like columns and tables and colors). You may prefer creating a mind map. Or four separate lists. Or freewriting. Or something else.
It doesn’t matter how you visualize it; what matters is that you find something that works (for you).
Here’s how I lay mine out:
Note: the 4 rows will become relevant later.
3 | Get out some Scratch Paper
I like to move back and forth between scratch paper and my grid. You’ll probably want a few sheets.
4 | Pick a Domain to Start
Choose the domain that is most interesting to you.
This is how I conceptualize my four domains...
- committed relationships
- intimate friendships
- your casual network
- new acquaintances
WORK + EDUCATION
- your professional trajectory
- negotiations & difficult conversations
- training & development
- irreplaceability (value-creation)
HEALTH + PERSONAL GROWTH
- physical health
- financial health
- home management
- intellectual stimulation & development of your thoughts
- competitive game play
- transcendent moments
PLAY + LIFESTYLE
- fun & laughter
- an intentional lifestyle
- bucket list
These are very broad categories. They’re intended to cover every aspect of life.
You may prefer to modify them, to fit you, however… Maybe you rename one or
more, so that the category’s title is more meaningful for you. Maybe you
conceptualize them differently than I do. Maybe you add a fifth to the list. Do
what you need to mentally re-organize these so that they become useful for you.
5 | Uncover What‘s Important to You
time: 10 mins.
You’ve picked one domain that’s most interesting to you.
Now ask yourself the following questions*:
- What matters to me about this domain of life?
- What doesn’t matter to me about this domain?
I recommend going through this exercise at least twice, on two separate occasions, for each domain (10 mins. each day, per domain). Why? Because the first session will only scratch the surface. The second session is more likely to reveal surprising insights.
Write your answers down somewhere. Passively thinking about an idea never generates the same results that active engagement with an idea does. As a bonus, get up and walk around while you think, instead of sitting and writing. It engages your brain differently.
I’m working on developing a full set of questions for each domain. If you’d like to get an alert once I have that ready, let me know here.
6 | Rank Order Them (optional, but recommended)
time: 5 mins.
You’ve listed out the things that matter to you (within the first domain). It can be useful here to rank order them — and don’t allow yourself to give ties.
Because you can’t be pulled in multiple directions at the exact same time and expect to make any real progress.
When your values conflict with one another (and they will), it’s useful to have thought through your valuation order.
Note: it’s ok to not have 100% confidence in your answer. The goal is to have an answer. Once you’ve accomplished that step, then you can change it later.
Write it down (don’t second-guess), and move on.
7 | Repeat #4–6 x3
Repeat Steps 4 through 6 in a new domain.
Take a break if you need to, but set aside some time
when you’ll pick this up again.
(Give yourself an hour for the next section.)
time: 10 mins.
You now have four sets of notes in front of you: they detail the things that you do and don’t care about within each of your four domains.
Now choose one domain.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What’s on my bucket list (for this domain)?
- Is there anything I desperately want to accomplish (within this domain)?
- What do I not care to do? What things might be important to others that just aren’t important to me?
Write as much or as little as needed.
Again, you may find it beneficial to go through this part of the exercise on two separate occasions. At a minimum, however, you’ll find yourself thinking of new ideas later, which you can always add to your list, or you can remove or modify the things that you write during your first session.
9 | Repeat x3
Repeat Step #8 for each of the other three domains.
10 | Put On Your “Time” Goggles
This is where you start to make it real. This is where you take those deep longings that you’ve started to unearth, and begin to make realistic commitments for the purpose of bringing them to life.
Return to your chart (or whatever you’re using) from Step #2.
Label the rows with these time frames:
- 6 months
- 1 year
- 2–5(ish) years
- 5+ years
In a chart, these become your rows:
If you’re creating a mind map, you might link out a new bubble for each time frame…
11 | Pluck out the Big Ideas
Looking at all of the goals you’ve defined in Steps 8 & 9, intuitively pull out the things that call out to you the most. Don’t overthink it or rationalize your choices, just start pulling them out and plotting them (roughly) on your chart.
For each goal, ask yourself: When in time would you like to see this thing a reality, realistically?
Pencil it in on your chart.
Note: most of your aims will probably go into the longer-term buckets. The shorter time frames might even be empty. That’s fine — put things wherever you think they belong, and don’t try to force everything to be even.
12 | Fill It In Until You Can Sit Back And Smile
Do this until you’re somewhat satisfied with the “life sketch” in front of you.
This isn’t going to hold every answer — your life will be an incredible adventure that’s far more than whatever you have written on this sheet of paper. But whatever’s written in front of you should show some major highlights of the story that you want to be able to tell about your life.
You should be able to sit back, look at it, and smile — like yes, that’s what I want.
13 | Consider What Happens If Nothing Changes
time: 5 mins.
You’re not done yet.
Hopefully, this new life sketch inspires you.
But at this point, you should pause.
What will your life become if you don't change anything about what you're doing right now?
- Write down the story of where things lead from here, if you make no changes. How bad does bad get?
- Imagine as vividly as possible.
The stakes are high.
This isn’t a game you’re playing around with — this is life. You have one. You don’t get a second chance.
And passivity isn’t neutral: it’s destructive.
14 | Break Down What Needs To Happen Between Here & There
Now that we’ve laid the hammer… *friend face*
The step here is to begin identifying what the progression might look like between here and there.
Do this for each of your major aims.
For example, in the Relationships domain, you might have an aim of developing an unbreakable, do-or-die friendship with someone.
Aim: to find a “do-or die” friend
Between here & there: There will be some thresholds in the relationship, where you develop a closer and closer bond. The progression might look something like: a new acquaintance > an interesting friend > someone I spend more and more time with > someone I open up with on the deeper things + who opens up with me > time + vulnerability deepen the relationship further > someone who I would give anything for, and who would give anything for me.
This should be rough and probabilistic. Don’t obsess over getting it perfect — you just want your outline to be pretty close to accurate.
Next, identify where you are right now.
When I look at the stages laid out above, is there a person in my life who currently falls somewhere on that spectrum, who I could see potentially progressing further along the sequence?
If yes : then you have a place to begin experimenting: try finding ways to spend a bit more time with that person or begin having more vulnerable conversations or doing more interesting activities together, and see how things continue to progress.
If no : then you also have a place to begin experimenting, and it’s at the beginning: how can you meet more people? Where are some places you can go or some groups you can join where you might bump into someone interesting?
- This step isn’t meant to make things rigid; it’s meant to give you a map. The nice thing about maps is that you can always reroute mid-journey, as you learn new things.
- You don’t need to detail out every specific thing. This is supposed to be useful, not anxiety-inducing. Do your best to identify the bite-sized pieces between here and there that *seem most likely*. You’re not being tested. You don’t need to get the prediction 100% spot-on… You just need to generate a useful outline.
Once you’ve identified your place to start, you can imagine how you’ll experiment.
If accomplishing your major aim is moving from A to Z, then let’s wonder how we might move from A to B.
As in the example above, brainstorm some ideas on how you might move from A (where you are now) to B (stage 1 in the progression).
What are specific places, times, activities, things you can say, people you can reach out to, or classes you can take in order to potentially move from A to B?
Repeat Steps 14 & 15 for each of the major aims you previously identified.
16 | Sketch Out Your Next Few Months
Time to return to that chart again (from Step #2).
You’ve added your major goals already.
Now let’s zoom in on the “6 months” time frame…
Ask yourself: In what ways am I going to experiment over the short term, in order to move toward these larger goals?
Begin to write out specifically what you’re going to do.
If we look at our example again, some specific action steps might be…
- Try out 2 new groups per month
- Talk to 1 stranger per week
- Research some classes or resources to learn skills to help with social anxiety
- Reach out to any 2 friends/acquaintances per month and suggest an activity to do together
Be as generous as you need to be with these. Make them as easy as you need to, until they don’t scare you at all.
Remember that you can always do more than whatever you’ve decided on. Keep your numbers laughably small.
17 | Make A Commitment
You’re almost there.
Now you’ve got to make it real.
✔️ You have a sense of what's important to you in life and why.
✔️ You have a sense of what it's going to take to make it there.
✔️ You have a collection of tangible things you can do in the near-term to move in the right direction
So let’s make the commitment real.
Pull out whatever calendar tool you use — it might be an app or a paper calendar on the wall (this is actually great, because it’s visual and always there).
Write in the things that you’re going to track.
Digitally, I prefer using reminders rather than calendar events, because I have to check them off before they go away. But use the tools that work for you. Just find some way to track your progress that you’re actually going to use.
For each activity that you’re committing to experiment with, try filling in the statement: “I will [action] at [time or place]. If something gets in my way, then I will [alternative action].”
For example, maybe you plan to do 5 jumping jacks each day. Your statement might read: “I will [do 5 jumping jacks] [after I brush my teeth in the morning, before I get dressed]. If I’m running late and don’t do it, then I will [do 5 jumping jacks when I get home after work, before I eat dinner].”
Now go, do!
Try the things that you've decided are probably the most useful things to try. Stick to it for four months.
Stick to it for four months, and see what results you get.
- Did you make any progress?
- Did anything not play out the way you expected it to?
- Did anything exceed your expectations?
- Do you need to go back to the drawing board on anything?
I recommend checking in with yourself and with your tracking ~bimonthly (twice/month) to see how things are going, and if any adjustments need to be made.
If you've stuck with me this far, you're serious about moving forward — and that gives me hope that you will move forward..
Here are my final words of advice...
- Celebrate how far you've come, and celebrate the potential that exists where you are.
- Every great distance traveled begins with a single step, so don't discount small beginnings.
Thank you for reading, and I wish you well! I hope this helps you move along on your great adventure :)
I’m working on a full set of questions to help you better understand yourself in relation to each domain. If you’d like to get an alert once I have that update, you can sign up here. I'll send it out as soon as I can.
Each week, I do a deep-dive into the question of living meaningfully.
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