Developing a Real Plan for a Better Life

For the last few years, I’ve done something of an “end of the year” review of my life. I take some time to sit down, take authentic stock of my life, look at what the last year has changed about me and my life, and figure out where I want to go from here.

I do this in the form of a written “life plan.” I invest the time to actually write out my thoughts of where I am in each important part of my life and where I want to go in the future (with “the future” being a bit vague but somewhere in the five to ten year range).

The first time I did this, I followed a scripted recipe based on what I picked up from a few personal development books and I didn’t really feel it. In fact, I more or less dropped the idea after I did it – it didn’t really have any impact on me and I just filed it away and went on with my life.

It wasn’t until I tried it again the next year in my own way, and then revised it again in my third attempt the following year, that I really hit upon something meaningful. That third attempt was at the end of last year and I felt that it led me into a deeply meaningful year.

Over the past year, I feel like I’ve really moved forward in positive ways in almost every area of my life, and I attribute that to having made a really great life plan at the end of last year. It’s something that I’m really relishing this year, so I thought now would be a great time to discuss what I did last year, what impact it had, and what I intend to do this year.

My “Life Plan”

In roughly November of last year, I took two half days and set them aside to write a draft of a life plan. The purpose of this plan was to simply outline what I wanted out of life in several major areas.

The actual process was simple. I simply made a list of the major areas of my life and then wrote out where I thought I was in each area – what was good, what was bad, what made me happy, what made me sad.

Then, for each area, I wrote out a description of what my life would look like in five or ten years or so if I saw some significant success in that area – nothing world-breaking, but something I’d be very happy with. I tried to focus on changes that would be largely under my own control.

After that, I tried to make a list of five to ten specific things I need to do to move my life from where it is right now to that vision of a good future. What action steps and projects would I need to take on?

I wrote out this plan entirely in longhand in a notebook, and I did it in mid-November of last year. I then put that first draft of a plan away in a desk drawer and pulled it out a month later, close to the holidays, and I revised it. What I found was that during the month, I actually thought a lot about what I had written and I revised the plan significantly, eliminating some unrealistic bits, adding some details, modifying the action steps, and so on.

I then simply embarked on several of those actions and projects, intentionally choosing ones I was excited about and that hit upon multiple areas at once. I made a big list of about ten of them and decided that this year would be the year of those things.

Each and every day, I took a look at that list of things I wanted to get out of this year. I thought about what I could do today to move each of those things forward. It became something of a morning routine for me.

So, what did I achieve this year? A few tidbits:

We had the best family vacation we’ve ever had, thanks to a lot of detailed planning and extra effort from me.

I lost about 25 pounds and got myself into much better physical shape thanks to starting taekwondo.

I read more books in a year than I ever have before since I started counting them, and many of the books were deep and meaningful.

I built up and reinforced a bunch of relationships and reconnected with several old friends.

I completely revised my professional routines in a way that feels much more fulfilling.

Our family’s net worth hit an all time high.

I attribute almost all of those things to my life plan for the year that I started last November, and now I’m about to start the process all over again.

So, how can you do this? Let’s take a look!

The Areas of Life

The first part of all of this is to commit some devoted time to doing this. While it’s great to give this process some off-the-cuff thoughts, the whole plan turns out far better and far more realistic and meaningful if you actually wall off some time to make a good plan. This year, I’m devoting a full “workday” to writing a first draft and a half day to revising it.

One thing you can do to get ready for your session is to think about the key areas of your life. There are lots of lists of such areas and I think different lists work well for different people. For me, there are ten areas I really care about.

Physical refers to the state of my body. Do I feel good when I wake up? Do I have plenty of energy? Am I happy with how I look?

Mental refers to the state of my mind. Am I content with my life or envious of what others have? Do I have control over my thoughts and emotions? Am I able to focus when I need to?

Spiritual refers to my sense of connectedness to the world and things bigger than myself. Do I understand of my place in the world? Do I operate with a clear sense of values and morals? Do I feel a sense of inner peace?

Social refers to my relationships with others. Are the relationships that matter most to me strong ones? Do I have a lot of solid relationships with a lot of people? Do I have a place in my community that I’m happy with?

Marital refers specifically to my relationship with my wife. Do we have a good marriage? Am I a good husband? Do I take the time to care for my wife in an appropriate way?

Parental refers to my relationship with my children. Am I a good parent? Do I have a strong relationship with each of my children? Am I using that relationship to build a backbone of strong values in my children?

Financial refers to the state of our money. Do we have clear long term financial goals? Are we making long term moves to approach those goals? Are we acting in the short term in a way that moves us closer to those goals?

Vocational refers to my professional career. Am I happy with my work? Is it fulfilling? Am I meeting the needs of the people I work for and work with?

Intellectual refers to the acquisition and integration of new knowledge and ideas. Am I constantly learning new things? Am I integrating those ideas into what I already know? Am I really challenging myself to expand what I know and understand and what I believe?

Avocational refers to my hobbies and interests and leisure time. Do I devote adequate time to my hobbies and personal interests? Am I getting personal value from the things that I do?

Over the next week or two, give some spare thoughts to each of those areas – at least, the ones relevant to your life. What would your life look like in several years if you took charge in that area and really put in the work to achieve some things that you wanted? Let those thoughts rumble around in your brain. (This happens to be exactly where I’m at right now with my latest plan revision.)

Writing a Plan

As I mentioned earlier, it’s a really good idea to set aside some significant blocks of time for actually writing your plan. I’m setting aside a full workday to do this, which may or may not be possible for you.

Take your list of areas of focus and, for each one, write a paragraph or two (or more, if you wish) outlining where you’re at with that area. Think about these questions as you do it.

Are you, on the whole, happy with this area of your life? Do you feel generally good about it, or not so good about it? Why?

What parts of this area are going well right now? What’s good about this area? Try to come up with a thing or two at least.

What parts of this area aren’t going so well right now? You may be able to list a lot of things, which is fine, but make sure you’re not just rewording the same difficulties again and again.

I often adopt three paragraphs for this part in each section, but I’m a writer who likes to go on at length about things. I devote a full page to each one and write double-lined so I can add in notes and changes later on.

I usually go through all of the areas first, writing a “state of this area” section for each one.

At this point, go back to the start and for each area, write a few paragraphs describing what your life would be like in a few years should you find reasonable success from your own efforts in that area. Don’t write about things that would result from events largely or completely outside of your control. Focus on a good life that you could actually build without your fairy godmother visiting you.

Here are some things to think about.

If I put in a few hours a week into this area of my life for the next few years, what might I achieve? For example, if you were to exercise for three hours a week for the next five years, what would that look like in terms of your physical body?

If I put in that effort and had reasonably good (but not incredibly good) outcomes from the things outside of my control, what would things look like? Don’t imagine a series of unfortunate events, but don’t imagine a charmed life, either. Just imagine reasonable but generally positive outcomes from the things outside of your control. For example, if your goal is about dating, imagine that you’re building a meaningful relationship with someone you’d enjoy, but not the most perfect person in the world. If you’re writing about your marriage, don’t envision a perfect Instagram marriage, but a healthy and realistic one with some give and take to it.

You’ll find that, as you’re doing this, some of the sections have some significant overlap. You might be writing about one area but recognize that some aspect is almost as much a part of another area as it is a part of this one. That’s okay. Don’t sweat it. You can include the same part in both sections if you want. For example, if I write about hiking, it can pop up in multiple sections at once – physical, avocational, mental, spiritual, and even social.

Once you’ve written a couple of paragraphs about your view of the future of each area, go back to the beginning and do a read-through and revision. Edit the areas by eliminating stuff that doesn’t make sense and adding things that you thought of later on while writing about other areas.

Once you’ve done that, go back through each area and make a list of ten to fifteen actions or projects that would help you move from where you are now to where you want to be in that area. What can you do over the next few years that will help move you from point A to point B? Focus on your actions; don’t think about things outside of your control.

You’ll notice that some of those things you come up with touch nicely on multiple areas of your life. That’s great, but it’s not strictly required.

What will happen as you move through this process is that you come up with a lot of things you could do to build a better life – an overwhelming number, in fact. Don’t worry about it yet – you’re not done.

Let It Rest

The best thing to do at this point is to simply let the whole thing rest for a while. A month is a good period of time.

Why do this? Why not take action now when all of this is fresh? The reason is that while this plan might be exciting, it’s also still fairly rough. It’s full of great ideas in the moment, but you shouldn’t commit your future to something you considered deeply only that day. Your plans will fall flat if you do that.

Instead, let it rest. Give some of the sections a thought in your head, but don’t brood over it. A lot of the work here will be done subconsciously.

You might have a big revelation or two during that month, and that’s great. Just pull out your draft and jot down that idea, then put the whole thing away again. Wait. Give it time.

Revise the Plan

After a month or so has passed, it’s time to revise the plan a little and then tie it all together. Give yourself an afternoon to do this.

First, simply sit down with your plan with a pen in hand and read through it. Whenever you see something that strikes you as not quite right, edit it. Strike out sentences. Replace words. Add new sentences.

What you’ll find again and again is that your first draft was good, but not great. It took you to a point that was in the ballpark, but it wasn’t quite there.

That feeling comes from the thinking you’ve done over the last month, where you internally refined your thinking. That refinement is invaluable. It takes something that’s merely interesting and solid into something that really strikes a deep chord with you.

You might even find that a couple of passes through the whole document is the right thing to do here.

At the end, it’s time to come up with a conclusion. Go through all of those action steps and choose ten or so big things you can work on in the next year or so to move you forward in the various areas of your life.

Look for ones that really ring out to you as exciting and meaningful. What ones really seem as though they’d produce great results? What ones seem like they’d be incredibly powerful to actually execute?

Action steps that line up with multiple areas are good, of course, but, again, they’re not necessary. However, you’ll likely find that most of the ones that really ring your bell are ones that have a lot of overlap across spheres of your life. If you nail that action, you’ll move forward in several areas at once.

When you’ve chosen ten or so, make a nice, clear list of those actions. Consider these your goals for the coming year. It’s a good idea to make sure these subscribe to the “SMART goal” rubric: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. Is it very clear what you want to do? Can you easily measure your progress (an easy way to do this is to have the goal involve a number)? Is it something you can actually pull off in a year?

Implement and Review

Take those concluding ten or so big actions or projects and print off a few copies of them. Put them in several places around your home.

Each and every day, at the start of your day, look at those ten big things. Ask yourself what you can do today to move forward on each of them today.

For example, one of my big initiatives for the last year was to meditate for ten minutes each day for spiritual and mental benefits. Whenever I looked at my big list, I simply added “meditate” to my to-do list for the day. I thought about how it was really important to me and I blocked off time for it.

Make these a big priority in your life. Spend less time on “time wasting” things and make sure that you’re doing something each day to move forward on these things. Remember, of course, that at least one or two of these things should be heavily avocational, which means that you should be filling at least some of your time with things you purely enjoy, and other things should be deeply fulfilling. This should not feel burdensome, but exciting (at least, that’s how it’s been for me). I usually enjoy doing those things and I feel like I’m really making my life better on the whole when I move forward on each thing.

Once a week or so, review the full plan. Read through it and give it some thought as you go about your day. This only takes ten or fifteen minutes or so – I often do it on Sunday morning.

What I’ve found is that after several months, the plan does fade a little bit. I’ve changed a little. The circumstances of my life have changed a little. I might have completed some of the actions, and some may now be completely normal parts of my routine. Most of the actions are still relevant, of course, but it’s clear that they’re starting to get stale.

That means it’s time to revise the whole thing. In the past, I’ve just tossed out the whole plan and started from scratch, as I’m doing now.

Final Thoughts

This process has been one of the most meaningful things I’ve done for myself over the last several years. It’s helped me fill each day with meaningful things I’m excited about doing. It’s helped me feel as though I’m really moving forward with my life in directions that I want to be going in.

Most importantly, I feel like I am in a better place right now than I’ve been at any point in my adult life when considering all of the areas of my life as a whole. Things are good, and I attribute a big part of the growth over the last few years to this type of planning.

Give this a try. This is the perfect time of year to do it, as it sets you up for a new year of new things, but you really can do this any time.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.