Building a Meaningful Life from the Bottom Up

One of the biggest struggles of modern life is the search for meaning and purpose.

Most of the time, we go through our day-to-day lives just accomplishing the things we need to get done and relishing the spare time that’s left over. It can feel a lot like jogging on a treadmill, where life is running backwards and we’re running just to stay in place and not fall off the back end.

I know that there are been large periods of my life where I have felt this way – and those feelings still pop up from time to time. My to-do list of the tasks I have to accomplish by the end of a given day often feels incredible.

How We Get Sidetracked from Our Life Goals

Take my to-do list for today as an example. I have to get an article finished for The Simple Dollar, another one finished for U.S. News and World Report, and submit a draft of a book chapter, plus I have to take my daughter and oldest son to taekwondo practice, go to a community board meeting, and go to my youngest son’s t-ball game. That doesn’t include housework or parenting requirements.

Completing those things doesn’t seem to get me ahead. It seems to just let me stay in place.

Over time, I often lose track of what the point of all of it is. I keep running in place, but I don’t know why. I feel deeply disenchanted, but I keep running only because I feel like I’m supposed to.

That’s a dangerous place to be in. It’s a place where you’re going to splurge on your discipline. You’re going to make giant spending mistakes. You’re going to end up wasting a lot of time simply because you feel like you should “burn” some time in order to feel in “control” again.

I’ve been there. I’m willing to bet there’s a good chance you’ve been there, too.

There are lots of time management tricks that make a big to-do list more workable, but it doesn’t really help with the overall problem of wondering what the point of all of it is.

My Solution – Build a Life Pyramid

I’ve really only found one good solution to that problem. It’s something I worked out after reading a lot of books, most notably David Allen’s great book Making It All Work, which I reviewed in detail a while back.

I call it my Life Pyramid. It’s a process I go through roughly every three months, and it takes about two or three hours. I do it in a quiet place where I won’t be distracted.

What is a Life Pyramid?

Building a Life Pyramid is a process designed to take time out of your regular schedule to crystalize and refine your values, principles, vision and life goals that you want to achieve. By doing this, you can re-assess if you actions and current path are consistent with this overarching vision.

I find that whenever I go through this process, I walk away feeling as though my day-to-day life has a lot more meaning than before, and that change manifests itself in a lot of ways.

I don’t feel the need to waste as much time. Instead, I usually want to find something productive to do in my spare time (something which this process provides).

I don’t feel the desire to spend as much money. I’m usually more caught up in accomplishing things than buying things.

I feel happier. I wake up in the morning and feel like I have a genuinely useful day ahead of me. I go to bed feeling like my life actually took some steps forward today.

There’s really no other way to put it: the Life Pyramid has profoundly changed my life in a positive, lasting way.

Continually Reassessing Life Goals with the Pyramid

The first thing that you’ll notice is that I go through this process every three months or so. Why doesn’t something that’s so life-changing last forever?

The reason is that we all change as people all the time. As each of my children grows up, my relationship with them changes. My own interests and passions change and evolve. My professional responsibilities grow and change. The landscape of my life might appear smooth, but over time, it changes quite a lot.

Doing this Life Pyramid process calibrates things to the way your life is at the moment you do it. However, it doesn’t stop your life from changing. It won’t keep your kids (or your grandchildren) from growing up. It won’t stop your interests from changing. It won’t stop your friendships from growing or shrinking. Those things will continue.

Over time, the Life Pyramid gradually becomes more and more distant from your life. The further the landscape of your life is from when you did this, the less meaningful it is and the more worthwhile it is to do it again.

I’ve found that doing it every three months is useful for me. It’s just about perfect for the change of pace in my life.

What Do You Need?

So, what exactly do you need to develop your own Life Pyramid?

The first thing you’ll need is two to three hours of solitude. No cell phone, no computer, no people walking in and distracting you. I usually do this process in the quietest corner of the library with my phone shut off – that spot works well for me.

You’ll also need a good pen and a bunch of paper. I usually do this in a journal. It works really well to have all of this material in a book format to look at later.

One last thing – and this is probably the most important ingredient – you’ll need to bring full honesty to the table.

So often in our lives, we tell ourselves that something should be important to us when it’s really not all that important. We allow others to try to force what they think is important into our lives and all it does is end up making our own life miserable.

This is all about what’s important to you. It’s not about what other people tell you is important to you. It’s not about what you read about in a magazine that someone else finds important. It’s just you.

That’s why you might want to keep the notes private when you’re finished. I’m going to share some of my own notes from the last time I made a Life Pyramid with you, but I’m not sharing all of them for that reason. It’s an honest look at the core of my life, and that honest look is one that belongs only to me. I don’t want anyone else judging them – and you shouldn’t either.

Let’s get started.

Building Your Life Pyramid

The Top Level – Your Purpose and Principles

Take out a single sheet of paper – or open your journal to the first page – and list three to five things that you want to have accomplished – or you want people to think of you – at the end of your life.

This is a rather daunting task, for several reasons.

First, it’s really easy to be dishonest here. People often think of something they hold in high esteem and they believe it should be one of their life goals, but it’s not something they truly believe in for themselves.

What you’re really looking for are the things you take pride in and make you feel complete, regardless of what anyone else says or what anyone thinks.

It’s usually good to pull these three to five life goals from different areas of your life – spiritual, marital, parental, social, mental, professional, emotional. For example, if you have a spiritual life goal that’s deeply profound for you, that might be one of your goals, but all of your goals shouldn’t be spiritual.

You’re simply trying to define your three to five core life principles in whatever terms feel most comfortable to you.

My Purpose and Principles

I’ll share three of my entries in this section with you right now. I actually have five, but I’ll leave the others for myself.

To be a good father In other words, I want to help my children develop into independent and self-reliant people with a rich inner life. If they have a strong relationship with me, that’s a secondary bonus.

To build strong relationships with as many people as possible I don’t want a bunch of acquaintances. I’d rather have a large handful of strong friendships and relationships with people, where they feel they can rely on me and that I can rely on them.

To maintain and grow an active mind I want to be challenged intellectually every single day so that I’m always as aware of the world as I can be and I’m always ready to solve problems.

Some Tips

For starters, don’t be afraid to spend a lot of time on this. You can even carry around the thought of this part in your head for several days before you sit down to tackle the rest of this process. It’s not an easy question, nor should it be.

You don’t have to word it perfectly. It’s often hard to express a broad life principle in a simple phrase. Don’t worry about perfect wording. Just find enough words to capture what it is you’re thinking and feeling so that you can recall it later on.

Don’t be afraid to cross off initial ideas. The simple act of putting words on paper can make you rethink things. Don’t be afraid to cross things off and write new things to replace them. This isn’t some final draft that you have to submit for a grade. It’s a tool to help you grow.

The Vision – Your Purpose and Principles In Ten to Twenty Years

The next step is to take each of those principles and visualize where you would like to go with them over the next ten to twenty years of your life. You don’t have to worry about an exact timeframe; you’re just looking at a point that’s out of reach of your everyday life but still before the end of your own natural life.

I often quote Lao Tzu when I state that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This part is all about defining those journeys in your life. These are long journeys that, in the end, will go a long way toward achieving those life goals that you defined in the first step.

I start off this section with a fresh page devoted to each of those three to five purposes and principles that I defined in the first part of this exercise. I simply write that purpose or principle at the top of the page and then focus just on that single thing.

On each of those pages, I come up with, again, three to five “journeys” that will guide me toward achieving those purposes and principles in my life. Each of these are long journeys and they’re often vaguely worded. They’re not things I expect to achieve tomorrow or this year, but they are each things I can work towards in the future if I put my mind to it.

My Vision

My “vision” page for “building strong relationships with as many people as possible” looks like this:

I have a positive and lasting impact on as many lives as possible. It is this element that has kept me writing The Simple Dollar, for example. While this doesn’t necessarily build strong relationships, it does foster connections with a lot of people (from which at least a few strong relationships have grown) and it has had a positive and lasting impact on a lot of people. Writing the earnest type of advice mixed with personal experience that I write on The Simple Dollar might not be the flashiest, it’s reached many people. Also, this journey goes far beyond just The Simple Dollar.

The people I have a strong relationship with know that I care and why. The people in my life know that I care for them. They know why I care, too. This requires me to regularly swallow some pride and admit some very personal things to people, but it’s almost always rewarding. This isn’t just a single action, it’s a lasting pattern.

I foster as many strong relationships as possible. I’m not as interested in building acquaintances and weak relationships. I want strong, reliable relationships with people. This is challenging for me because I’m introverted, which means, again, I have to push out of my shell a little bit.

On the actual page, the only parts that are written down are the ones in bold. The other comments are the parts I hold in my head. They’re the “background” for those key points.

I have similar “vision” pages for each of my life purposes and principles.

Some Tips

First, each thing you write down in this step should be challenging to your current life in some fashion. It shouldn’t cause you to restart everything, but it should provide a pretty strong push against your current behaviors in the direction of better choices.

Again, perfect wording isn’t vital. You likely have a complex idea bouncing around in your head. Find the words you need to recall that complex idea; that’s all you need to jot down.

Don’t worry at all about what comes next after these visionary items. If you do achieve them, your life will be in a different state than it was beforehand and you’ll see different ways to move forward. You might even be subscribed to different life goals. Don’t worry at all about the next step.

The Goals – Your Visions Made Real in Five Years

You should now have somewhere between nine and twenty five “vision statements” that you developed in the last step. I personally wound up with thirteen such statements the last time I worked through all of this.

The next step is to make a fresh page for each of those vision statements. Write down a vision statement at the top of each page, then under that, come up with three to five goals that you could achieve in the next five years that would push forward that particular vision in your life.

This is where some overlap starts to pop up. As your mind winds through this process, you’ll probably come up with goals that achieve two (or even more) of these vision statements. Don’t be afraid to list the same goal on multiple lists. I do this several times.

For example, you might have a goal that’s both related to a professional vision as well as related to a personal growth vision, like learning a powerful new skill. It’s fine to list that goal in both groups.

I’ve often suggested that people create a picture of their life in five years as a thought experiment to help them set goals. This is essentially what you’re creating here, but you’re coming at it from a different angle.

My Goals

Let’s take a look at the goals I defined for “fostering as many strong relationships as possible”:

Identify people in the communities in which I participate. You can’t build strong relationships if you don’t have people to build them with. I need to find ways to seek out people in my communities to build up a relationship with. How? We’ll figure that out later.

Take steps to start building relationships with many of those discovered people. As I find people that I might connect with, take steps to start making that relationship possible. This likely means things like inviting people to dinner, looking for social occasions to share, and so on.

Find ways to congregate with them. Whenever you bring together people you have strong relationships with that do not know each other, you might help them build new relationships, which does nothing but help out all of you. Communal situations with people can be incredibly powerful. This means things like planning dinner parties, figuring out larger group activities, and figuring out friends that might synergize well.

For people who are extroverted and are good at building relationships, this might seem rather… mechanical. However, building strong interpersonal relationships is a pretty stiff challenge for me, so I need to think of it mechanically, at least to a certain extent.

Some Tips

As I hinted at above, you’ll often find yourself breaking down things into mechanical steps. This can seem particularly weird with things like relationship building, but that’s fine. You are intentionally addressing elements of your life that don’t come easy for you, so you will probably have to break them down into concrete steps.

Your goals should have at least somewhat clear endings. It should be at least somewhat obvious exactly what you want to achieve. You don’t need to include numbers here, but if you simply added a number to these goals, it would be extremely specific.

Look for synergies as you’re doing this. Great goals are ones that simultaneously take care of multiple life visions at once. You don’t need to stress out if you can’t find overlap, but it’s always a good thing if you can find them as you’re going along.

The Projects – Moving Forward on Your Goals in Three to Six Months

As I mentioned at the start of this, I re-do my life pyramid every three months or so (I suggest doing it every three to six months, depending on the specifics of your life). The reason for that, as I stated, is that my life shifts enough in a three month period that it sometimes changes the elements in this process. If I look at my life pyramid from a year or so ago, it is actually fairly different from what my most recent one looks like.

The “project” level is where you worry about that three to six month timeframe. You want to write down elements that you could reasonably complete in three to six months with only small fractions of your week devoted to them.

For this step, I just create a single project list. I try to define one project that’s associated with each of the goals I created in the previous part. You’ll probably have somewhere between 20 and 50 different goals that you defined in that step, with many of them popping up two or three times.

For each distinct goal, define a single project that you could complete in the next three to six months that would move that goal forward. Try to make the goal specific, meaning that it’s clear what you should be doing, and also try to make it realistic because you’ll likely only have a few time slivers a week at most to devote to it.

You’ll end up with a project list of 20 to 50 projects at the end of this – and, if you’re anything like me, that list is going to make you feel really empowered. It is the project step where I begin to feel really excited about things and optimistic about the near-term future.

That’s because not only are the projects really tangible and easy to grasp, they’re also deeply tied to what you really care about in your life. That’s some powerful stuff.

My Projects

For the items on my goal list, I added these three projects to my project list.

Identify five people in my communities with which to build a stronger relationship. This means that I need to figure out exactly what kind of traits I’m looking for and connect those traits with people that I know. If I don’t know enough, I need to find ways to seek them out.

Invite each of those people to a social event at my home. This likely means five dinner parties or game nights with new people. I’ll have to plan each one and execute it this summer.

Host a larger gathering of some of these new people and other friends at summer’s end. This means we’d host a large cookout or party of some fashion at the end of summer, inviting at least some of the new people as well as a number of older friends.

Some Tips

Projects should be really concrete. It should be really obvious what has to be done to consider a project “complete.” If it’s not, then it’s not a good project.

Numbers often help make projects complete. If you’re having a hard time turning a goal into a project idea, think of how a number might make that goal into something specific. Is there a certain number you can achieve in the next three to six months?

If you’re still struggling, move on. You’ll often find that defining projects related to some goals will make it easier to define projects for other goals. This whole process is very, very synergistic because everything is so interconnected. After all, it’s all about your life.

The Next Actions – What Will You Do This Week?

Here comes the part I consider to be great fun.

Now that you have this list of projects – and you’re probably hyped about it – you need to make one more list. It’s the “next actions list.”

On a fresh new page or piece of paper, start a next actions list. For each project on your project list, define one simple action that you can take in the next week to move that project forward.

It can be something simple that might only take five minutes. It might be something that takes an hour. I’d highly suggest avoiding things that take more than an hour, though – things on the shorter end of the stick work better.

Make these things into very concrete actions. You want something that, when you see it, you know immediately how to do it without any real question.

Whenever you finish one of these tasks, before you cross it off, add a new item to your list. Ask yourself what the next action on that project is after the one you just crossed off, then add that to the bottom of your list. Again, that new item should be something you can do in an hour or less – and preferably something quite short. If there is no “next action,” then you’ve completed that project! Awesome!

Now, here’s the real magic. You’ll find that this list feels incredibly empowering. Every time I first set up this kind of list, I am really excited and it’s all I want to do for a while. It tends to knock other spare time activities right out of the way because I’d rather be doing stuff from this list.

At the end of each day when I’m really active with this “next action” list, I feel great. I feel incredibly proud of what I’ve accomplished.

My Next Actions

Choose one person in my communities with which to build a deeper connection. I just need to identify one person, which should be easy. A bit of time reflecting on my social groups should help me find one person pretty quickly.

Make some social effort toward that person, building toward inviting them over for a social event in a few weeks. I’ll give some thought to this person, then send them an email in an effort to start building a stronger friendship. This usually means leading with some questions to encourage that person to talk about themselves a little bit.

Pick a weekend and a vague plan for an “end of summer” party. What major events occur in August and September in our area? A weekend that avoids Labor Day, community festivals, and any major sporting events would be a good one to choose.

Each of these actions tie directly to the projects I wrote down above.

Some Tips

Don’t make these actions too long! That’s the biggest danger I’ve found when it comes to next actions. If it takes more than an hour, break it down a little more. You want a step that you can ideally complete in the smaller part of an hour.

Don’t forget to replace each item you check off. When you check off an item here, make sure that you add the next logical step in completing that project to your list.

Keep this list available to you all the time. If you have a “to-do list” manager that you use, these are the items you should put into that manager (I use Things at the moment).

Refreshing Your Life Pyramid

What I find is that as time passes, I slowly become less enthusiastic about the “next actions” list. I’ll usually finish off a few of the projects that really click with me and the items that are left are less vital. That’s okay – that’s to be expected. This process is showing you the parts of your life that really resonate with you and the parts that do not.

At the three month mark or so, I sit down to refresh my life pyramid.

The first thing I do is look at which projects I completed and which ones I failed to complete. I don’t view this as failure, but as a glimpse at the things that deeply matter to me. The items I completed are usually connected to things that really matter, while the ones I didn’t complete are the areas I should reconsider.

I usually give that a few days to rumble around in my head, then I simply re-do the whole pyramid, starting with life purpose and principles. I toss out all of the uncompleted projects and forget about them (unless there is some exceptional reason to keep them).

This time around, if there was a project from last time that I didn’t complete, I try not to make any projects that are anything like it. Instead, I’ll try to conceive of a new project. Usually, I find that the vision and goals related to that project have changed anyway, so it’s usually not a problem at all.

At the end, I have a new list of projects and a new list of next actions to get started with – and I usually feel great. This new list is now re-centered on my life, so I’m ready to get going.

A Real “Purpose-Driven Life”?

I’ve been slowly developing this “Life Pyramid” system for the last several years and, over the last year or two, it’s really come into its own for me. It’s not a “finished” system by any means – I’m sure I will keep evolving it – but it has worked incredibly well in this form.

It gives me countless things to fill my spare time with that are actually meaningful, because I’ve reviewed how they connected to my life goals in the very recent past. That makes these tasks exciting and fulfilling. Most of the time, I’d rather be knocking stuff off this list than watching television or other minor leisure activities.

It grows with me because I review it regularly and restart the whole system, flushing out the elements that describe my life before the most recent changes and rebalancing based on where I’m at now.

I can look back on the changes in my life over the last year or two and really feel good about them, too.

It has really changed my life. I hope that it will change yours, too.

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  1. Kathy says:

    Love the really good “how to” information here. My mind was working overtime while reading with how to apply to myself.

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