Help me figure out my life... goals? wants? needs?
December 21, 2013 2:42 PM   Subscribe

This has been a year of change (breakup, move, deaths, grad school). I'm home at my parents' for the holidays and want to take some time to reflect on what I want for the next year and the rest of my life. I feel like I'm entering a new phase of life, and want to do it with self-knowledge and a vision of what I want it to be. This includes career, love, friendships, travel, everything. I'm hoping you can recommend exercises, readings, and approaches to figuring out what I truly want and (to a lesser extent) how to get there.

After a somewhat tumultuous year, I'm taking some time to consider what I've learned and what I want. I'm a naturally very self-reflective person and prone to depression when I'm just hanging around (as I am for the holidays), so I'm hoping to take a more structured approach to figure out even such basic things as: what do I want out of relationships? where do I want to be in five years? etc.

Wanted: questionnaires, activities, blog posts, books (though I'm not a member of the library here, I can access the when I'm back home or will shell out a bit for ebooks), etc. that can guide me through figuring out my values and using them to structure my approach to life.

About me: I'm 27, ENFP/INFP depending on the day. unmarried, no kids, in a 2 year Master's program but otherwise not bound by much. Fine with hippie stuff, fine with self-helpy stuff.
posted by c'mon sea legs to Human Relations (18 answers total) 183 users marked this as a favorite
I was going through something similar around that age and randomly grabbed 'The Happiness Project' at an airport. It is a little cheesy and the author was obviously in a different stage in her life than me, but I really enjoyed it. Honestly- I don't even think I finished the book before I took off and started my own sort of 'happiness project.' It provided a month-to-month structure for me to pursue things I always enjoyed/had an interest in but never made time for. It also helped me work on bad habits I always had avoided dealing with. I think there is a blog too, but I'd suggest the book.

'I Will Teach You To Be Rich' which is about personal finance for the younger (poorer) crowd.
'Lean In' which I think everyone (men & women) should read. Its career, family, relationships.
posted by KMoney at 3:54 PM on December 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Let Your Life Speak by Parker J. Palmer is a great tool.
posted by defmute at 4:15 PM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's not quite a book but there was an article that I read about a year ago that stuck with me about happiness, goals, and achievement. Basically, it makes you ask, realistically do I have enough? And very sweetly, very truly, the answer is often yes.

Also, TED talks are always great. I'm sure if you typed in any of you concerns you'd get some great results (sometimes they even have playlists on a topic).

Sorry if this isn't exactly what you were looking for, but seemed to at least be in the ballpark.
posted by yeahyeahyeah at 5:00 PM on December 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

My therapist had this pack of value cards that you go through the 100 or so and narrow it down to 10 or so. It was ridiculously clarifying for me. Ridiculously. I cannot find the set she used, sadly, but there's bunches of them around (this is a religious marriage one but it's got some similarities). That, more than any other personality based thing I've ever done, has had concrete effects on how I live my life. I also read The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris and that was good, but it was the cards that made me realise how badly I'd been ignoring some of my values in order to fit into what was easiest for everyone else.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:00 PM on December 21, 2013 [13 favorites]

Here's an article that I discovered today. Within the article, there's also a useful link to a PDF file article on goal setting.
posted by simulacra at 5:07 PM on December 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Good Project and this values sort may be useful for you. It's all about how to create a good life and good work.
posted by JuliaKM at 5:17 PM on December 21, 2013 [8 favorites]

You can try an exercise I read once to help figure out your goals and wants.


Imagine a typical day in your absolute most perfect life. And really let yourself have anything you want - living in a castle, five children, a prehensile tail, absolutely whatever you want. Write down the whole thing, from beginning to end - from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep on this typical day; putting in as much detail as you can. When you're done, let that sit a couple days; unless you think of anything you want to add or change, then do it.


Once you've let that sit a few days, then read it over again. And for every detail, figure out ONLY whether it's possible for human beings to have it or not - meaning, like, the prehensile tail is impossible for humans to have, but the five kids isn't. Set the "clearly impossible for humans" ones aside a minute.

Now you have the ones that are achieveable by humans. And for each one, figure out what the steps would be you'd need to get yourself there. Like, say one of those things is "win a Pulitzer Prize", but at present, you've never written anything in your life. So clearly, a first step would be to start writing - and hey, look, now you have a goal, "start writing".

Then take that goal and break it down into more manageable steps. Maybe for you, "start writing" means "make a commitment to write every day for ten minutes". Maybe it's "take a class in writing". Maybe it's both of those. But - at least you have a tangible desire and some steps you've taken to get yourself there.


Now take the "clearly impossible for humans" thing. For each one, think about what it is about that wish that appeals to you. Like the prehensile tail - what about having a prehensile tail appeals to you? Being able to fly through the air by swinging on branches? The extra dexterity? Being able to wrap it around your head because that'd look cool?

Once you've figured that out, think about whether there is some way for you to achieve the same thing more realistically. Maybe you can get the same "flying through the air" feeling by learning to do trapeze stunts. Or the wrapping-a-tail-around-your-head look can be achieved through buying a mink stole. Once you've figured those bits out - do the same "what are the steps I need to take to get that" thing as you did in step two.


If there's anything that you can do right away - do it! And do it more often - maybe one of the details of your perfect day is "brewing a cup of coffee that I'd ground from whole beans fresh", and up to this point you've been making do with Maxwell House. If that's the case, all you'd need to do is get a coffee grinder and start buying whole bean coffee instead. Even though that's only a small detail, go ahead and do it right away - you'll be that tiniest bit closer to what you want for yourself, and that'll be that tiniest bit of a boost for your mood.


This is ongoing - give yourself permission, over time, to keep changing your mind about your goals. You may find, after a few months of writing classes, that you ultimately like reading and commenting on other people's writing better than writing yourself. And if you think about it, you realize that the daydream about winning a Pulitzer isn't really doing it for you any more, but the reality of contributing to and supporting other people's writing is really exciting for you in the same degree that the Pulitzer goal used to be. If you find something like that is going on - give yourself permission to follow that new dream instead!

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:30 PM on December 21, 2013 [174 favorites]

the book 5: where will you be five years from today? looks really interesting. it has all kinds of great questions to answer.
posted by wildflower at 6:55 PM on December 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Susannah Conway has a free workbook you can download called Unravelling the Year Ahead. It's exactly what you describe! You might like her blog as well.

I've also been intrigued by tarot cards. It's like flipping a coin and suddenly you're hoping its heads, because actually you DO want to see that movie more.
posted by jrobin276 at 6:55 PM on December 21, 2013 [6 favorites]

I think a structured approach works better for shorter, simpler things. Those taken together can reveal a whole picture though. So instead of 5 years, think next year.

This structured process helps to identify wants/goals that address all parts of life and puts an emphasis on operationalization.
The categories are 'to live', 'to learn', 'to love' and 'to leave a legacy'. They split up into smaller bits, like health, fitness, work, travel, money for the category 'to live' for example. You can obviously expand on that.

After identifying wants/goals for each category and sub-category, you list barriers and make a plan how to overcome them/to achieve the goal. This is a bit like writing a business plan and marking milestone dates on the calendar. At first it might seem overwhelming, but you have the holidays to work on it. In this example it is painted in the light of new years resolutions, but it really works for any time of the year. It helps to focus ones thinking and encompasses all important areas of life.
posted by travelwithcats at 11:35 PM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Inspired by geek anacronism, I looked around online and found this value card set in PDF, if anyone's interested.
posted by landis at 1:59 AM on December 22, 2013 [8 favorites]

Fine with hippie stuff

. . . psychedelics? No, seriously.
posted by Argyle_Sock_Puppet at 5:30 AM on December 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

What is Self Awareness? (writing exercises. good luck. i found my period of self-reflection last year, after many life changes, to be incredibly helpful and productive.)
posted by tippy at 7:25 AM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Totally understand where you're at with this (as I've spent holidays alone after many years of not-being-alone). Don't let these periods get you down; I'm thirty-seven and I still go through them. I think you're on the right path -- making sure these times are personally productive will help ease inevitable depressive periods.

Do you have the financial ability to see a therapist? Picking the right one for you is important, and I've found that in my periods of dramatic personal transformation having an ally like that was pretty critical. Good example was finding out and exploring the effects being an only child had on me. I'm of the opinion that, when you get into your 30s, you've got lots of stuff to unpack, and therapy can make that a rewarding and efficient process as opposed to doing it by yourself.

I don't like to give too much advice as I still feel that I'm a work-in-progress in this respect, but a helpful thing to me was just saying "yes" to things. I could not believe how many things I was consciously or unconsciously saying "no" to, because I thought they were not possible for me. If you get the urge to try new things, keep a list and make sure to try them. For me, traveling, learning new skills (like becoming a better cook or making yourself a website for fun), and getting out in the world and doing stuff were incredibly helpful and rewarding. After all, you can't decide what you want in your life until you've lived some.

Example: this year I finally accepted that living where I currently do was just not for me. So I spent as much of the year as I could traveling around the US exploring new cities. Short term benefits were having fun in new places. Long term benefits are that I now have a lot more perspective on what's out there and where I might like to live upon relocation.

Good luck, and don't be afraid to take risks and make mistakes. You seem like a sensible person, sometimes following your gut and not being afraid to live are the greatest things you can do for yourself.
posted by MyFrozenYear at 8:23 AM on December 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

There's a rather thorough article called "How to Design Your Ideal Life", which is pretty much exactly as it says on the tin. I've found it quite thorough in helping you figure out the things that matter most to you, how to pursue them, and what it takes for you to be happy.

Complementary resources—in terms of concretely achieving your goals, I've found the books The Now Habit and The Willpower Instinct to be incredible. Both deal with procrastination and willpower in this really sensitive way—discussing the emotional factors and thought patterns that lead you to miss deadlines/goals/promises to yourself, and how to turn that behavior around. I've found The Now Habit especially effective. I'm the kind of person who constantly beats myself up about not meeting my expectations or the expectations of others, and the book addresses how to stop motivating yourself through negative emotions (which are ultimately destructive to your self-esteem and ability to persevere).

Not a reading recommendation, but a habit recommendation—I'd highly recommend keeping a somewhat-daily journaling habit. I'm also quite self-reflective, and it tends to induces a spiral of self-doubt and existential angst when I have too much time on your hands. I've generally found two things to help with this:
  • getting my ruminations out in a concrete form—it prevents overthinking, and expressing things as concretely as possible will sometimes allow your mind to move on from a particular fixation
  • keeping times when I'm likely to get depressive fairly structured—some small tasks with discrete goals (for me it's drawing objects in an industrial-design-student style) help provide tiny bits of accomplishment, and it'll keep you from getting trapped in your head
Best of luck!
posted by Sudo at 11:08 AM on December 22, 2013 [7 favorites]

I was going to suggest Susannah Conway's unravelling the year but Jrobin276 beat me too it! You can find it here though. I did it last year and despite my pttshuhing at the time, it really helped and I'm doing it again. (I've also signed up to do her journaling course in January as that is something I feel I would benefit from)

I also enjoyed the happiness project but yes, the author is at a very different stage of her life to me (and you, from your description) but I still got a lot out of it for myself.
posted by halcyonday at 12:01 PM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is possibly a little bit basic, because I used it when I was having trouble wanting anything, but, daily exercise for at least the next two weeks:
Write down 10 things you want, everyday.

It is a good test to see which of your goals are changeable, and which ones you want, day after day after day. Or at least most days.
Some days, you may wish you could go travelling to a big city, and see the lights and excitement. Other days, you may feel overwhelmed, and wish you could spent a quiet weekend at home, or camping, and the thought of travelling sounds exhausting.
Many of the goals I have, I don't really want on a day-to-day basis. But figuring out that we want them most of the time, helps. Other times, I'll flit from goal to goal, and the standout is that I keep wanting to say, learn an instrument, but on one day it's guitar, another day drums, another, ukulele.
If you feel really grumpy one day, you may have trouble putting down anything except really simple, basic things. A sleep in. A nice cup of coffee. That's fine. But you have to genuinely want it, not just put it down because you wanted it yesterday. If you are really struggling, write down the things you hate, that you don't want, and phrase them in a positive way. Your boss is terrible? I want to be respected at work, and have my contributions valued. Damp house? I have a clean, dry environment. Even just stuff like 'I want to feel like I am making progress in my life'.

Each goal should be stated in the positive. Try and add at least 3 adjectives (I regularly exercise so I feel fit, healthy and flexible is different to strong, toned and lean, or a house that is cosy, inviting and warm is different to spacious, efficient and bright).
posted by Elysum at 2:38 PM on December 22, 2013 [27 favorites]

An exercise similar to some mentioned above is Alex Vermeer's 8760 Hours. It's available free as a PDF for download at that link. It's very detailed and offers a lot of questions to help you think about your life -- analyzing your past year for successes and failures as well as realizing what you want and achieving it by making concrete goals for the future. I recommend it.
posted by switcheroo at 2:36 PM on December 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

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