Before I became very sick (but when I was on the way down and didn’t know why), I was working on lifestyle design – choosing carefully what I wanted to have in my day to day life, and eliminating the things that didn’t meet my goals or bring me pleasure. I tried experimenting with various ideas over most of a year, and found out some surprising things about the way I wanted to live. I thought I’d share with you some of my process, to inspire you in case you’d like to do similar work on your own life.Before I became very sick (but when I was on the way down and didn’t know why), I was working on lifestyle design – choosing carefully what I wanted to have in my day to day life, and eliminating the things that didn’t meet my goals or bring me pleasure. I tried experimenting with various ideas over most of a year, and found out some surprising things about the way I wanted to live. I thought I’d share with you some of my process, to inspire you in case you’d like to do similar work on your own life.
I’ve read some fantastic books and websites that have given me great fodder for designing the best lifestyle for me. Here’s a run down of my favourites.
While I love being an artist, the thing I hate the most is the admin involved, which can take many, many hours per week. According to The Abundant Artist, if you want to sell your work, you need to spend 50% of your time making and 50% marketing. The latter half is not fun for me. Tim Ferriss showed me how to make the admin part of my life as efficient as possible. Key ideas he gave me include:
- Do admin tasks in batches (eg, take photos of artworks, answer emails), and move the batches further and further apart.
- Never start the day with emails or you’ll end up vague and unfocussed. Put a time limit on emails.
- Do the most important thing first each day.
- Every few months, do an 80%-20% analysis of your life. For example: Which 20% of things bring you 80% of stress? Eliminate! Which 20% of clients bring you 80% of your income? Focus on them.
- Go on a data diet. For seven days, don’t read social media, newspapers, watch TV, listen to podcsts… By removing these items from your life, even temporarily, you can open up headspace and time for things that are more important to you.
After reading this book, I cut down my admin time to five hours per week, and hired an assistant to do some of the routine jobs I really didn’t like. The very process of handing over to an assistant was incredibly illluminating. I wrote out specific steps to follow when a certain kind of email arrives. Do you know what? If I had done this to hand over email-management to myself, I would have saved myself heaps of time, instead of re-inventing the wheel every day and writing the same stuff over and over.
Rubin spent a year reading research about what makes people happy, and trying out the ideas on herself. Some of the ideas, which she thought wouldn’t work or would be too hard, turned out to really improve the quality of her life. Other ideas she decided were not for her. One thing Rubin does is use charts to track her progress. Each month she followed a theme, such as working on her relationship, or improving her work life, and she would assign herself several relevant goals to try out for that month. Each day she’d tick if she achieved it.
One important criteria she discovered for her own happiness was to be herself. She noticed, for example, that she often engaged in activities she thought she should like rather than ones she actually likes. After reading her book, I set myself the goal to ‘Do what I want, not what I should,’ which often amounts to the same thing. I am actually surprised to see how often I don’t do the thing I really want to do because I’m aware of what people might think of me for that.
One month, Rubin read the book No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty who started NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month). It inspired her to write a novel for fun, without worrying about making it good. This idea resonated with me so intensely that I immediately bought the book and embarked on exactly the same project. And it’s brought me a great deal of joy. When I was a teenager I wrote unself-consciously and prolifically, but when I was 18, I set the bar so high for myself that it became impossible and I stopped. Being a professional writer now requires me to be careful and thoughtful, and that often makes writing hard. My aim for my novel was to throw that out the window and just write what I wanted. It’s been glorious!
In considering lifestyle design, Rubin’s book is great because it examines in detail numerous areas in which you might want to make changes, and helps you feel that if an idea doesn’t work out, that’s okay.
I’ve blogged about my journey to declutter and reorganise my things according to the KonMarie method. It has indeed been life-changing. Interestingly, one of the first things that Rubin did when she started the Happiness Project is put her life in order, to reduce chaos. Just having my things uncluttered and organised, and all my outstanding tasks caught up, and memorabilia sorted, made my life vastly better, and made it much easier to find, use, and put away my things. But the true magic of the process is that by assessing with every single item that you own whether it brings you joy or not, and learning to discard it if it doesn’t, you train yourself to do that with every part of your life. This process was a key part of my own lifestyle design.
According to Anushka Rees, the idea of minimalism is that you remove things that don’t add value to your life to make room for the important things. Less: clutter, time commitments, negative thought patterns and toxic relationships. More: time, space and energy for the things that really matter to you. Rather than letting everything pile up so that we respond reactively, or allowing others to dictate how we spend our time, we make conscious choices and live with intention.’
Anushka’s blog has lists of questions you can ask yourself to help you decide how you want to live. A key idea is to define which 3-6 things are most important to you right now. Ensure that these become your day to day focus. Like Rubin and Kondo, she recommends decluttering and organising your belongings, and like Ferriss she suggests we cut down on unnecessary email and social media. There are also reminders in there for things I had let lapse, such as mindfulness, meditation, and not complaining.
The suggestion she makes that I found most helpful was to identify your stress triggers. While I tried to practise gratitude and focus on the positive and not complain, I realised that it meant I wasn’t paying much attention to the negative things in my life. Thanks to the previous steps, I’d gotten rid of a lot of things that stressed me and which I didn’t enjoy doing. What was left that made my life unpleasant was arguing regularly with certain people in my life. I decided for a while to write down the details of every single argument, asking myself what happened, why we fought, and whether I could have handled it differently. I was truly gobsmacked by how helpful this was. I noticed clear patterns and found I could break the cycle simply by changing my response to them. This transformed my day to day experience of stress at that time. I’m not saying it’s always that easy, but it’s a good example of how sometimes doing the thing that shouldn’t make you happy (dwelling on the negative) can actually bring about positive change. As I learnt with Rubin’s book, it’s important to try out ideas and find out what’s a good fit for you.
I’ve noticed a new trend – bullet journaling. You can learn about that here if you are not familiar with the concept. Bullet journaling is a simple method for managing task lists, organising your inspiration, tracking progress with goals, and planning day to day activities. If, like me, you are obsessed with lists, bullet journaling might appeal.
I have actually developed my own systems for managing my to do lists and organising inspiration, and I don’t think bullet journaling as an entire package is quite right for me. But where I think it really comes into its own is with tracking progress with your goals.
Research shows (I’ve read this over and over) that if you want to make a change, tracking it is highly effective. Even if you don’t set specific goals, just monitoring your own progress can yield improvements. Want to change a habit? Track it. Want to eat better? Write down what you eat. Every time I’ve tried this, the results have been impressive.
Tracking stuff that isn’t specifically related to goals is helpful too. For instance, I tried for a while to divide my day into portions. I would study Norwegian flashcards, then journal, then write my novel, then do a painting.. And so on. By the end of the day I would have furthered every one of my goals. I set up a chart to track this. The experiment didn’t work at all. I simply cannot work in bite-sized chunks like that. I found I was far better to work for a whole day or two on my novel, then let it rest for a while. Dive into painting for a while and then do something different. This kind of flow suits me much better, but I’ve had trouble accepting that. When I do my 5th hour of Norwegian study in one day, there’s this nagging voice saying ‘Hey, you should be painting now!’. By tracking what I was working on I started to see a pattern. I’d spend 2-3 days on a goal then be ready for a break and shift to the next one. By simply trusting my intuition and letting the flow occur, I would work on all my goals, but over the course of a couple of weeks, rather than a couple of days. Without tracking, I didn’t know this about myself. Now I can plan accordingly, and I’m doing better at getting rid of the nagging voice that says I should be doing something different.
I’ve taken inspiration from several bullet journals I’ve seen on Pinterest, to create my own tracking system which helps me stay on track with living the life I want to live.
CREATING A MANIFESTO
After trying out lots of ideas, tracking my progress for a while, and tweaking endlessly, I eventually created a manifesto for how I wanted to live my life. I knew at the time it was just for then, that I would change it as my circumstances and needs changed. My life now is totally different, but I’ll share it with you because it shows the kind of thing you can do with a manifesto.
The reason I made a manifesto was to remind me of the things I wanted to include in my life. There were so many things I found helpful, but I noticed I quickly forgot about them. For instance, I read this amazing article in FLOW magazine about this woman whose life was transformed by giving something away each day. I could certainly become better at giving, I reckoned. While I wasn’t going to be super-strict and make sure I gave something every day, by having this as a part of my manifesto, I was reminded to give things to people regularly, in a more organic way. I was also reminded to meditate and do the Tibetan 5 Rites exercise programme, which is supposed to bring you more energy – both things I often forgot to do. It’s a kind of ten-commandments for life, only in my case there were more like 25.
Want to see my manifesto?
Do the most important task of my day first. Follow my inner flow and work on the project I want to work on (within reason!) Do what I feel like, not what I should (also within reason!) If a job takes one minute or less, do it now. Do domestic and admin tasks in batches. Tidy my desk every day.
Don’t do email or Facebook before 11.30am, except for once per week. When I do email, deal with everything immediately, then close my email program. Aim for three times a week and keep it quick. Have only three Facebook sessions per week, and enjoy them! Clock off from admin at 7pm. When I write, enjoy it! (Don’t push on when exhausted.)
Do Tibetan 5 rites. Walk 8000 steps or more. Do some other exercise as well, a few times a week, such as skipping, swimming, or playing ball.
Rest when I’m tired. Enjoy movies and TV guilt-free. Try knitting to see if it is restful and restorative. Work on my health – research what’s wrong and try out new ideas. Go sugar-free some days. Meditate. Get enough sleep.
Have fun with and connect with the people in my family.Be a good friend to my special people. Give a gift. Be careful what social commitments I make.
Journal about my feelings. Identify stressors. Write what I’m grateful for. Don’t complain.
The manifesto was the foundation for how I wanted to live. I couldn’t achieve it every day. Some days I complained. Many days I didn’t give anything to anyone and I forgot to meditate and couldn’t be bothered to exercise. Sometimes things came up that required me to break all my digital rules. That’s okay. This was just a guideline for me to come back to that reminds me what I felt was important.
You’ll notice that making art and creativity are not part of my manifesto. Thas because they were so deeply ingrained in my life and work that my creative activities formed the core of what I did. If you want to be more creative, then ideas to help you do that should be included in your manifesto.
While the manifesto reflects how you will live your daily life, your goals reflect what you are actively working on. Ask yourself, what are the 3-6 most important things you want to do in your life right now? These should form the core of how you spend your days.
Here’s a sample list of my goals at that time:
- Work on my novel, Future Girl.
- Prepare for my upcoming exhibition.
- Make lots of small artworks for Christmas markets
- Study Norwegian.
- Exercise more.
- Rest a lot.
Once you’ve established your key goals, you might want to break them down into specific tasks you can add to your to do list. For instance, while ‘rest a lot’ might seem like a strange goal, something was wrong with my health and I had to spend a lot of time resting. Since I was not used to that, it was a challenge for me to find activities that were restful and which I enjoyed so I didn’t become bored. Thus ‘resting’ was an active project requiring experimentation and creative thinking. I could brainstorm ideas for how to rest, try them out, and record how restorative they are.
I had a tendancy to be very obsessive with my goals, to work extremely hard on them for fear that I might not achieve them if I didn’t. I set deadlines for myself and expect myself to meet them. I was trying to change this, to reduce stress. Rather than saying that I’ll finish the next draft of my novel by a specific date, I simply made it one of my focus projects, and made sure I worked on it several times a week.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
As you can see, creating a life manifesto and setting goals for yourself can form an enormous platform for your life. To make it work, I suggest you don’t try to make too many changes all at once. My manifesto consisted of items I’d slowly added over time. In my experience, making three changes at once is doable. More than that can be overwhelming. Some people say it takes 30 days to change a habit. In my opinion, it’s more like three months. After three months of working dedicatedly on a new habit, it often settles in to become sufficiently routine that it doesn’t need my focus or attention any more. That said, if a new habit is going well, you could add in another one after thirty days.
That’s not to say you can’t revolutionalise your life more dramatically. In The Happiness Project, Rubin set herself 8 goals per month to work on. If you are going to do that, expect making the changes to become a major life focus, a goal in itself, rather than just a habit tweak. I also did this when I changed my admin life after reading The Four Hour Work Week. It took about three months of being my major focus and was a very intense experience.
To create your own manifesto, ask yourself questions about every aspect of your life. Consider whether what you are doing now is helpful, makes you feel good, and fits with your goals. Think about what stresses you and whether you can eliminate these items or change them in some way. What makes you happy? What small activities bring pleasure to your day?
Tracking how you spend your time, hour by hour, for a whole week, can be very illuminating. It can show you what you’re actually doing with your time so you can consider whether this reflects the things that are important to you.
Here are some web pages which can help you consider the big questions as you develop your manifesto:
- Social media worksheet
- Happiness project
- The 4-hour Work Week by Tim FerrissWhen you’ve got a list of ideas to try, think about how they might fit into your life. Select a few at a time to incorporate into every day, and as you do so, reflect on whether these changes make your life better or worse. Is it a good fit for you? If it’s not working, why not? Maybe you need to tweak it, or fit it into a different part of your day.
TRACKING YOUR PROGRESS
Let’s face it, I was not going to read my manifesto every day. In fact, I only got around to reading it very occasionally. Which meant it was easy to forget what was in there that I wanted to achieve. But there’s a simple way to stay on track, and that’s through tracking. For every single goal or change you make to your life, find a way to track it.
The items I tracked had three categories:
- Some are satisfied with a simple tick or cross. For example, did I meditate today?
- Some were answered with a word or number. For example, I took 7965 steps, or I’m working on my novel.
- Some needed a lengthier examination. For example, what stressed me today and how did I handle it? You can create a simple chart for the first two categories, making sure to allow larger squares for the ones that need a word or number.
A simple chart:
By creating a chart you can quickly fill in each night, you set up the perfect system to remind yourself on a daily basis of what you want to achieve.
For the final category, I keep a list of prompts with my chart, and write the answers in my journal. I like this organic approach because I don’t need to answer all the prompts every day, and it allows for me to write as long (or as short) as I want on each topic.
• What are you working on?
• What stressed you today? How did you handle it and how could you have handled it differently?
• What are you grateful for?
I hope you’ll find something in here that inspires you to make your own life more how you want it. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing thing. Just take the bits that appeal and give them a go. I’d love to hear your experiences with lifestyle design in the comments. What works for you? What doesn’t? What are you inspired to try?