Designing Your Life

How to Build a Well-Lived Joyful Life

Bill Burnett, Dave Evans

The book teaches us how to use design thinking principles in our personal life. The main idea is to think like a designer, embrace ambiguity and focus on prototyping and testing various life designs. One can't simply 'plan' life. Life is a series of experiments.

Key Learning #1: Embrace you have multiple lives worth living in you

Those of us fortunate enough to live in the modern world with access to some degree of choice, freedom, mobility, education, and technology spend most of our time immersed in a world obsessed with optimisation. There’s always got to be a better idea, a better way — even the best way.

That kind of thinking is pretty dangerous to life design. The truth is that all of us have more than one life in us. And if you accept this idea — that there are multiple great designs for your life, though you’ll still only get to live one — it is rather liberating.

Key Learning #2: Adopt beginners’ mindset and prototype often

There are two main traps in fulfilling life design.

The first is committing to an idea when we have the least information. We choose a degree, go to work, get promotions, and then realise we don’t like what we are doing.

The second trap is focusing on thinking over doing. With so many possible ways to live and build our careers, what’s the right choice? We overthink.

It’s not hard to imagine that if we added up all the hours spent trying to figure out life, for some of us they would outweigh the hours spent actually living life. Really. Living. Life.

We can avoid both by prototyping often. Think about your potential career paths or life decisions, and rather than deciding based on assumptions or not deciding at all, figure out what’s the easiest way to test both solutions.

Examples of life prototypes:

  • Interviews: Considering choice A vs B? Talk to people who made these choices before and learn from them.
  • Experiences: considering a career as a writer vs designer? Then commit 20h to one and the other and see how it makes you feel. Ask your friends to take you to work with them if possible.

Stop overthinking life. Start experimenting.

Key Learning #3: Grokk it

Sometimes we have to make significant, one-way door decisions.

Say we have two job offers — frontend developer or product designer. Hopefully, we were able to run a few experiments before and have a rough idea of how we feel towards them. Yet, we still can’t decide.

‘Grokking it’ might be a solution. The game is simple.

  1. For 2 days, imagine you have decided to take the first offer. When you brush your teeth, imagine you are brushing your teeth as a developer, you get a developer’s salary, etc. When you commute to work, imagine you are going to your new company, and you will write code most of the day. Try to do as many programming-related activities as possible. When you fall asleep, think about how did you enjoy your day as a developer. Preferably even write code.
  2. Then have a break. For 2 days, go back to your usual self, and reset your way of thinking.
  3. Then do the same thing, but imagine deciding to accept the role as a product designer.

Observe how both experiences made you feel. Which choice felt better?

Additional Insights
  • Problem finding + problem solving = well-designed life. Many people focus on solving their problems but deciding which problems to work n may be one of the most important decisions you make. People can lose years (or a lifetime) working on the wrong problem.
  • Avoid solving ‘gravity problems’. If a problem is not actionable, accept it as a fact of life and don’t fret about it.
  • To be able to design your life, one first must understand where they are. Answer the question “how is it going?” concerning work, play, love and health (on a scale) to see what’s the starting point.
  • Use ‘Good Time Journal’. Occasionally, record all your activities and score them in terms of engagement and energy. Look for activities that boost engagement/energy or drain them. Use these insights to guide your life-design process.
  • You never finish designing your life — life is a joyous and never-ending design project of building your way forward.
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