Friday, 25 November 2016

Designing a life that makes you as happy as possible

I’m proud of the life I’ve designed for myself. “Designed” might seem a bit too moulded (how much can we really control?) but I think it’s the right word.

This piece is about how I’ve created the best framework for my life, creativity, and wellbeing by making the right choices available to me. It’s about doing what we can to design and manufacture our perfect day and letting the universe take care of the rest.

Of course, books were my chief companion in my own life design adventure, especially these pieces of non-fiction:


“Designers don’t agonize. They don’t dream about what could have been. They don’t spin their wheels. And they don’t waste their futures by hoping for a better past. Life designers see the adventure in whatever life they are currently building and living into. This is how you choose happiness.” – Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

After a year or so of conscious and unconscious life design choices, here's what I'm doing now to make my day-to-day as joyful as possible. Will it change? Almost certainly. But for now, I'm very glad about the decisions I've made. 


I moved to the mountains


All hail the freedom of being unmarried, childless, and having a Swiss work permit. I know this isn’t something that everyone can do, but what’s your version? What can you do? 

When I’m done with work, I come back to my own peace and quiet in a town in a Swiss valley with a population of 4,000.

I have time and space to sit and read, think, and write. I have plants I like, tea I enjoy brewing, and a few favourite books.

I pay more rent than I perhaps should, but I maintain that it’s a good deal. Having my ideal living space adds so much to my base levels of calm and happiness.



“Mountains, according to the angle of view, the season, the time of day, the beholder's frame of mind, or any one thing, can effectively change their appearance. Thus, it is essential to recognize that we can never know more than one side, one small aspect of a mountain.” ― A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

I changed my approach to habits

Read: Your own instruction manual (or favourite novel – that might also work)

Next up: habits. I started reading Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, but it didn’t do much for me. I didn’t like how everyone had to be a certain Type with a Capital Letter. I decided to take habits into my own hands instead and I’ve done alright.

What I’ve found for me is that everything has to slot together. If I just want to build a habit of spending half an hour on Duolingo every day, it doesn’t happen. But if I slot it in after a habit I’ve already formed, it does.

For me, a “first comes X, then Y and Z” approach works for building habits. For a maximum for 3 tasks slotted together as a group. For instance, in the morning I get up (1), brush my teeth (2), and then turn on my laptop to settle down for some writing time (3).

The view from my dining room table of the Swiss Alps is better entertainment than any television.

I designed my day with happiness-bringing habits


The habit that adds the most to my happiness is something that I knew was important since I was sixteen. Waking up between five and six o’clock in the morning to do my most important work: creative, thoughtful work that has nothing to do with my 9 to 5. 

Despite knowing how much I love early mornings, I’ve kept straying from the habit and have only just nudged myself back. As soon as I did get back to it, I knew I needed to keep myself here. Even if it means telling people I love that I can’t speak to them after 9pm because I need to wind down for bed. And not letting my routine slip when staying with friends or going on trips.

One of the main incentives to get back into my early rising - and using the time to get back into writing - was reading The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. I’d heard about the book three or four years ago and dismissed it a bit as same-old personal development, but it really is good. One of the top books I’ve read in 2016, in fact. 

Read it and keep asking: “What's the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” You can see my book notes over on my other website.

"Instead of a to-do list, you need a success list—a list that is purposefully created around extraordinary results". – The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

Now that I'm almost done consolidating my morning writing habit, I’m thinking about what habit is up next. Meditation, perhaps? I know that’s also good for me. It’s just so easy to let it slip without having a habit in place.

I let myself be me (even in unsociable quantities)

Read: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

"Faking it never works. If you don’t believe me, read Richard Wright. Read Charlotte Brontë. Read Joy Harjo. Read Toni Morrison. Read William Trevor. Read the entire Western canon." – Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Another way I’m designing a happy life is to just be me. It goes without saying that I’m not a huge fan of socialising. I cherish my alone time. And sometimes I can come across as a bit rude. But as long as I'm happy, I cultivate my important relationships, and I approach life kindheartedly, I think it’s ok. 

If you listen to the people who say you’re the sum of those you spend the most time with, then I must be becoming more of a peace-seeking, occasionally adventuring bookworm every day that I hide out in my house. Ahem.

Staying at work to drink cheap alcohol doesn’t add to my happiness. Nor does it let me live the life I want to be living, or create the things I want to create.

One of my main guiding pillars is to create useful things and share what I know. I know this gives my day-to-day most meaning, rather than trying to be someone I’m not to please people who aren’t close to me.

I put my creative work where it belongs

Read: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
The ONE Thing by Gary Keller
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

“Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.” ― Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

It is first thing in the morning when I do the work that makes me feel happiest and most useful. There’s little that makes me more unsatisfied than focusing solely on my job: waking up, going to work, working my ass off, coming home, and going to sleep. Especially when I feel that my work isn’t always valued fully.

I’ve found that for me, it’s crucial that I put my creativity and writing ahead of my job and give it the time and attention it deserves. I tried writing in the evenings, but I don’t have the time or energy. But now, with my early rising habit, by the time I leave for my “proper job” at 8 am I feel like I’ve had a productive day already. My “own work” is done, and my best energy supplies have contributed to something I can really feel proud of. That makes me feel incredibly happy and leads to truly brilliant days.

Find out when your willpower and commitments are most conducive to working on your projects. For you, it might be working in the evenings or during your lunch break. And protect that time with steel reinforcements. Guard it with your life. Otherwise the rest - that other stuff outside your control - becomes your life.


What would your perfect day look like?

What decisions have you made lately to make your day more fulfilling? What about less stressful? Are there any small changes and tweaks that come to mind which could make a big difference when done habitually?

To help you with your own life design projects and ongoing tweaks, the Myers Ideal Day exercise is also a useful tool to set aside an hour to do. It asks questions such as:

  • If your life could be anything you wanted it to be, what would it be right now(Where would you live? Who would your friends be?)
  • How would you spend your time, if you could do anything you wanted?
  • Would you work? If so, what would you do? If not, what would you do?
  • What do you want to learn? To know? To be? What else would be a part of your perfect life?

The PDF seems to have been taken down from online, but there seem to be a few similar versions online. Here's a good post by Tiny Buddha for starters. To say the obvious yet unhelpful, it's also easy enough to get started without the aid of the internet. You know yourself and what's important to you better than anyone else. Well, and there are also the books cited at the top of this piece.

For me, I found it most helpful to ask these questions:
  • In my perfect day, when would I wake up? Where? What would I do in the first hour after waking?
  • What would my perfect evening look like? When would I fall asleep? How long would I spend winding down and how would I do it?
  • In my ideal day, what creative work would I do every day without fail? What else would be non-negotiable?


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