We usually take our workplaces for granted, don’t we? But skyscrapers are colossal achievements. Architects must design them with variables like winds, earthquakes, communication, traffic, and the surrounding environment in mind.
It’s impossible to imagine building one without architectural plans. But here’s the thing: The lives of everyone working inside those towers are infinitely more complex.
Our daily existence requires coordinating a million variables: just think of all the personal and professional obligations and aspirations we constantly juggle. Yet most of us do so without a plan.
Building Without a Plan
Instead, we cobble bricks together, hoping nothing will jostle them down. But it’s a constant struggle, and we usually have few long-term goals for our activity.
Research indicates we gain significant satisfaction from making progress toward meaningful goals, so the more we grind without an endgame, the more our quality of life suffers.
And that’s not the least of our troubles. Others, including bosses, parents, friends, and spouses, seem determined to add their own bricks to our building regardless of whether they fit.
How are we supposed to bring structure to all the external demands and requests so they integrate with our internal desires and hopes? One solution is to become the architects of our own lives. We can start getting the balance and direction we need with a Life Plan.
A Blueprint for Your Life
My friend Daniel Harkavy and I detail the Life Planning process in our new book Living Forward. To architect our own lives, we need to keep three elements in mind.
1. Our Vision
Architects don’t start by arranging bricks or drawing plans. They start with a vision. “[G]reat buildings are often the result of a single—and sometimes very simple—idea,” says Witold Rybczynski in How Architecture Works
Architects can stand back and envision the entire structure. They can imagine how the different elements and materials will come together for the final effect. It’s the compelling picture of the completed building that inspires and informs the plans that follow.
A life plan works exactly the same way. In Living Forward, we recommend taking a full day to fill out the picture of your life, considering all the aspects: health, relationships, career, finances, everything. Until we get a vision for what our lives can be in full, we can only approach them in fragmented, reactive, haphazard ways.
2. Our Priorities
Whatever the vision, an architect must work in a particular setting on a particular site. “[A]rchitecture is always part of a particular place,” says Rybczynski. The ground, plot, slope, and surroundings—not to mention physical laws—all limit what’s possible.
A great architect can find inspiration within these constraints. It’s the same for us. We’re not working with a blank slate. We have certain realities and commitments already in place. Some are essential to what we’re building. Others we can work around. Some we can change.
The trick is to start ranking them in order of importance. How important is your career compared to your family, for instance? Or your finances compared to your health?
Bringing our vision to life means devoting the appropriate resources to each of the many areas of our lives. If we don’t know where the constraints are, we’ll end up with a lopsided building.
This also helps determine how others interact with your building project. By determining your priorities, you’ll know what fits and what doesn’t.
3. Our Actions
Once you have a vision for your life and can prioritize what goes into it, you can set relevant, actionable goals. A plan without a to-do list is just a daydream. What are the steps you need to take to enact your priorities? Chunk them down to something doable, preferably starting immediately.
What would it take to move the needle in your health, deepen your most important relationships, advance your career, secure your finances? Don’t just list them, calendar them.
And take it one step further: Do some advance planning. Let’s say you want to establish better boundaries at work and deepen relationships at home. Leaving at five is one way to do that. But you’ll get interrupted on your way out the door, and you’ll be tempted to stay and deal with the requests.
Scripting your responses in advance makes it easier to follow through in the moment. “I’d like to help,” you can respond, “but I’ve got another commitment.” Out the door you go, and your bricks are still in place.
What matters is our determination to follow through with our vision. “An architect must hold strong convictions in order to create,” says Rybczynski. That goes for life architects too.