"Where do I begin?" is a question we hear about creating the good life. Often it's when someone is experiencing a voluntary or not so voluntary change in life, such as having a child, divorcing, or retiring. During these times of transition we have the opportunity to reevaluate what we want and how our lives are structured. Other times, it's a more gradual realization that parts of our lives are not working the way we want. However you get there, deciding to create the good life is an exciting and sometimes daunting prospect. So, where do you begin?
The first step is to assess what is and isn't working for you. The more you are able to identify exactly what is going on and what you want, the better. As part of this process we recommend using the Good Life Assessment Flower to focus on the qualities of life that truly contribute to fulfillment: things like balance, connection, meaning, and time. These are the core qualities we want to enhance as we make changes in our lives.
The next step is to look at the different areas of our lives such as housing, career, relationships, and health and consider how these contribute to or detract from these core fulfillment qualities. In other words, how does our job relate to our sense of . . . sufficiency? balance? connection? meaning? etc. It is valuable to develop a holistic picture of all these factors and how they affect our well being. Our lives are a complex system made up of many interrelated factors, and we have a greater chance of success if we have a clear and complete picture of how the whole shebang fits together.
When it comes to actually creating the good life, we have identified three key components: awareness, design, and practice. These factors help us tailor the good life working with our unique personality and circumstances and in ways that are flexible and adaptable over time. After all, at best, our good life should fit us like a glove today, and be something we can modify as we change and grow.
Our awareness defines what we notice, feel, and think about ourselves and the world. In essence, we are our awareness. Over time, our awareness develops as we have new experiences and learn new things. Think of how you perceived yourself and the world at age six, then at age sixteen, and compare those to now. Our awareness expands and deepens over time, hence older and wiser. In addition to this natural growth, we can also learn to become more aware in specific areas ("Look, the toilet seat is up!"), as well as learn to direct our attention for a specific purpose ("I am feeling sleepy, very, very sleepy?").
For example, say you have been feeling a bit sluggish and you'd like to get more exercise. You remember how great running made you feel both mentally and physically. You make time in your schedule to run three times a week, but after the first week, you find you are only running once a week. Drat! This is where some self awareness can come in handy. What really motivates you? What are your competing priorities? What is the best way for you to develop a new habit or routine? What do you find stops you on the days you are scheduled to run? The more aware we are our selves, particularly our patterns of thought and behavior, the better we can design our lives in ways that fit us well.
Upon reflection, you decide to set some running goals for yourself and to go to work early on the days you run to relieve your anxiety about taking time off to exercise. (Epilogue: Eventually you quit going to work early as you realize how much more efficient you are now that you are running regularly.)
Despite what you may think, design does not require colorful throw pillows, aloofness, or cool eyewear (though the latter may help designs look better.) We are all designers, and we design all sorts of things every day: meals, wardrobe, schedules, and all the other activities that make up our lives. The more design know-how and skills we have, the better we can design things that work and meet our needs emotionally, physically, aesthetically, etc.
For many of us, designing our lives so that we use less stuff is a win-win strategy. By eliminating excess and waste we have more time and resources to devote to those activities that are most fulfilling. A design principle from Permaculture called "stacking functions" is just one way to go about this. Stacking functions is when we achieve several objectives or goals with a single action. By stacking functions we can save resources (e.g. money, time, energy, etc.) as well as create some awesome synergies.
Now let's apply this principle to our running example. You are now running regularly and meeting your goals, but you are still pressed for time, especially on weekends. Also, you realize you need some variety to help keep you motivated. While brainstorming possibilities, you come up with the idea of running with your dog, Gus. Now running is not just about improving your mental and physical health, it is a chance to spend time with Gus in a way that is fun and provides exercise for both of you. You then decide that since you are actually saving time by not having to walk Gus, you have time to run with him in your favorite park a little farther from home where the air feels fresher and you can enjoy the changing seasons. You also realize that there are a few errands near the park as well. Congratulations! You have just designed a great activity that stacks a whole bunch of functions and offers you many rewards with fewer resources than if you had tried to address each issue separately.
This is where you combine both your awareness and design abilities, and act. How you go about this varies depending on your personality and the context you are in. For some people and in some situations, planning and strategizing can be beneficial. At other times, an improvised and intuitive approach works best. Exploring and experimenting can be a part of practice as we take preliminary steps and try out smaller, lower risk actions. To be successful, practice usually entails a degree of commitment and, paradoxically, flexibility if we are to stay on course as well as course correct as needed. At some point, reflecting on what is happening is helpful to the whole process. What's the impact of what we are doing? Should we do it more, do it less, or change it? What have we learned? What is now possible?
Back to our example of the healthier and happier you. As winter approaches, you find that running isn't quite as fun and easy as before (cold feet, wet paws). You start going to different dog parks to meet other folks with dogs. Eventually you meet someone who asks you to join him and his dog for hikes on the weekend. You are interested in this opportunity to develop a friendship and to explore more of the region. You are stacking some different functions as you combine health with friendship and your connection to where you live. You realize that you are enjoying changing your routine and finding different ways to exercise that involve others. You are beginning to think about some new options for spring. Life is good.
The process of building awareness, design know-how, and practice is iterative. One builds on another in a continuous cycle. The more you do it, the better you get, and growth in one area improves the process even more. In addition, there are a bevy of ready-made tools that can help you to enhance awareness, design skills, and your practice abilities. Finding the right tool that works well for you makes creating the good life that much easier and rewarding. So what starts with "Where do I begin?" becomes a life long dance of growth and renewal as you create the good life, over and over again.
Looking at your filled-in Good Life Assessment Flower, is there one area you really want to make better? If not, is there a particular issue in your life that you would like to redesign so that it is better in some way?
Place that quality or issue in the center of a paper and label each quadrant:
Awareness: self/world Design: know-how/skills/creativity
Quality or Issue
Practice: planning/flexibility Resources: tools/skills/energy
In which quadrant do you feel you have the most to bring toward creating something better? Are you very self aware and experienced? Are you good at designing? Are you good at doing? Do you have lots of resources to bring to a solution?
Think of a time when you made a change for the better in the past. What were your strengths then? In which area do you think you are encountering the most obstacles?
Being able to see why we are where we are is one of the best ways of understanding how to make something better.
Use your strengths to address areas where you are not as strong. For example:
Decide how you can use one of your many strengths to make a positive step towards addressing your issue or quality. Now take that step. If you are not ready or don't do it, check back with it each week and see if anything changes.
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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