What To Do With Your Life

There's a feeling that's very unpopular; the hangover. Oh, and the existential question of what to do with your life. Yeah, that escalated quickly.

People confront themselves with that question everyday. Some people can answer it very quickly, but most people take weeks, months or even years to figure it out.

Answering the question isn't necessarily permanent either. People frequently change their minds, or their situation changes it for them. I see it happening all the time.

If you find yourself questioning what to do with your life, embrace it. You're getting your own attention. You're telling yourself that you're not living how you should be. You're pushing yourself to do something about it. 

Nobody can tell you what to do with your life, only you can decide that. But here are my three suggestions on how to approach one of life's biggest decisions.

Avoid drifting without purpose or drowning in possibility
People procrastinate, and we're very good at it. We put off hard decisions and important tasks because it's easier. Why do you think Netflix is so popular?

Drifting without purpose is what happens when you take a job that's convenient, date someone you're not that into, repeatedly go travelling to 'find yourself' or drink diet Coke to lose weight. You're settling for doing something that's in the shadow of what you're actually supposed to be doing. Doing that can be practical (even necessary) in the short term, for example taking a job just to pay the bills or build up your experience. But you need to clarify your real goals and map out the steps to reach them as soon as possible. Start by breaking down these steps into years, then months, and then keep going until the steps are clear enough for you to meaningfully work towards them. Don't drift into old age with regrets of undefined goals and unfulfilled dreams. 

Drowning in possibility is even more unproductive than drifting without purpose. It's when you become paralysed by the seemingly endless choices you have. So you do nothing and naively hope it will all work out, or you try to do everything and spread yourself too thin. Neither solution is likely to keep you afloat. Focus on one thing, give it your full time and effort, assess the results, then either continue with it or move onto something else. As the wise saying goes, "the man (or woman) who chases two rabbits catches neither." Obviously, the same is true if you don't even try to catch one rabbit.

Diagrams usually bore me, but this one's useful for framing your thoughts on what to do with your life:

Listen to yourself and ignore the noise around you
Despite what you may hear from others, and despite the planned, staged and filtered photos you see on social media, nobody’s life is perfect.

Maybe that expensive car was paid for by an unsatisfying job with long hours. Maybe that perfect couple is covering up arguments and infidelity. Maybe that glamorous travelling lifestyle is lonelier than it looks. Or maybe it’s all genuine.

Everybody’s on their own journey. They have their own starting points. They have their own paths. They have their own destinations. You don’t know what’s really going on in other peoples’ lives, so focus on what’s happening in yours.

The past, present and future of each person's life is unique, so comparing yourself to anyone but yourself is pointless. As the famous clinical psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson advises, "compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who somebody else is today." Focusing on doing what you think is right means you're accountable, competing with and staying true to yourself, rather than being led astray by a fixation on others.

Negotiate with yourself to get what you want
Whether you're figuring out what to do with your life, or you already have and now you're pursuing it, there's something you always have to do. Negotiate with yourself. 

You're not going to accomplish everything you want precisely when and how you planned it. The clearest example of this is the countless number of people who make a new year's resolution to get fit, but end up using their gym membership just twice that year. Another classic example is people wanting to do their coursework well in advance of the deadline, but end up pulling an all-nighter the night before it's due. The mistake both groups of people make is that they believe they'll be able to force themselves into achieving their expectations. The relationship you have with yourself can't be forced. You're a partnership between what you want to do and what you're going to do, and each side has to listen to the other. 

So have a conversation with yourself. Decide what your priorities are across every dimension of your life, and understand why they're important to you. If you don't understand why they're important, you won't maintain the focus or the motivation to achieve them. The best way to do this is to think about your priorities from two perspectives; the best case scenario of achieving them and living the life you want, and the worst case scenario of not achieving them and living an empty life. One perspective pulls you forward with the excitement of success, and the other pushes you forward through the fear of failure. That's a strong combination. 

Finally, you have to translate those priorities into a realistic schedule that you're able and willing to follow. One that allows you to fulfil every dimension of your life; your career, relationships, wellbeing and happiness on your terms. People are often too hard on themselves and pack too much into their schedule, and then get frustrated when they don't complete it. Or they have an imbalance of too many responsibilities without sufficient reward. This is where the negotiation between what you want to do and what you're going to do is so essential. Once you understand what you need to, then plan it in a way that ensures you're going to do it. Schedules shouldn't be a source of discomfort, they should be a platform to help you have the day you want so that you're further ahead than you were yesterday.

Don't worry if you're overwhelmed by the decision of what to do with your life. Everyone has to go through it, and it's what gives our life meaning. No matter how challenging you find the decision, you can always be grateful that it's yours to make.

Leave a comment