Being lost happens to a lot of people. It’s natural when we have so many stimuli coming at us from so many different sources. Trying to slice through everything and nailing down what we really want to do can be very difficult though, because our minds are constantly buzzing with the possibilities of what we could do, or what we shouldn’t do.
A few months ago, I was in this same boat. I was depressed, desperate and looking for some answers. I had a million different ideas of what I could, but I found it almost impossible to sort through everything and try to focus on what would make a future for myself. I felt like someone trying to catch dollar bills in a wind tunnel. It was not going well and I was falling further into depression as my failures racked up.
After listening to an episode of Cortex in which CGP Grey talks about going to Amsterdam and completely reworking his priorities and how he gets things done, it got me thinking. Could I do something like this? Could I lock myself in a room for a few hours, or days, and figure out what I wanted to focus on? Could I figure out what I needed to focus on to make myself not only a better person, but potentially a successful self-employed person?
Sure, of course I could. I did just that.
Here is a guide to help replicable the single most helpful exercise I have ever done.
Supplies (yes, you do need things.)
– Legal pad or notebook
– Lots of printer paper
– Fine tip markers of at least 5 colors (possibly more depending on your life)
– A large empty spot on your floor
– At least a few hours to yourself for the first part, but preferably a few days just to yourself if you can make that work.
Step 1: You need to get somewhere that you are not going to be bothered for at least 24 hours, but preferably a bit longer if you can. A hotel for a night in the city you live in is a great choice. It’s not too expensive and you can easily get to it, but having an office with a door on it will also work great. Since it is only 1 day, you should be able to work something out with your significant other to watch kids if you have them. My wife works as a nurse and had to work a few days in a row which means she is gone or sleeping for about 20 of the 24 hours in a day those days. Perfect for this kind of thing, really.
Step 2: Prepare your work space. Whether you are at a hotel, or just locked in an office (like I was) you need to prepare your workspace to have enough room to make this useful. You are going to have large piles of papers all over the floor and eventually you are going to have papers in long rows. So, space is going to be most helpful, especially so that you can walk amongst your ideas and papers without tripping over anything. The idea is to make this as easy as you can.
Step 3: Get out your sharpies and printer paper. I had 5 colors of sharpies for this, because I view my life as have 5 main areas that I need to account for when deciding how to make my life better. You might have more, and that’s fine, but make sure you have enough colors for each category of your life. My categories were as follows: Potential money-making ventures, long-term goals, things I can do to make my life better daily, things I need to stop doing to make my life better and then a random category.
The point is to get everything out of your mind that is in there. If you have an idea; to put it in some kind of category. Whether that fits nicely into one of those, or gets put in the random pile. This is a brainstorming session and you want to make sure that if it’s an idea it at least gets put down on paper. We can, and will, discard things later. There are no stupid ideas in this session. Make sure you don’t start making value or viability judgements in this session as well. We just want ideas, because sometimes when you get everything out there, you will see patterns or definitive ideas that you wouldn’t if you censored yourself.
Here’s how I thought about each of those categories:
– Money making ventures: This is essentially ways that I can make money from things for my future. It’s not about how I can make money in the next month, but where I want to be going long term, say 1–5 years out. They are things that I want to try to see if they are going to be viable in the long term for me. I did put normal 9–5 job on one of my sheets, because as I will say many times, you put everything that is an option.
– Long-term goals: Here I put the things I would like to accomplish long-term. Many of the things from this list ended up on my impossible list. Things like traveling, reading a certain number of books, attending specific events. They are the big dreams I have that are not career oriented.
– Things I can do to make my life better daily: This one was a lot of the stuff you hear from everyone telling you how to live a better life. Less blue light, meditate, clean the house and a few other things. The great thing here is many of the ideas take almost know time, but help a lot. This was my favorite pile.
– Things I need to stop doing to make my life better daily: These are even better than the other category, because they will free up some time. Anything you feel is having a negative influence on your life right now needs to go in this pile. We won’t be able to tackle all of them, but at least get them down, because when we rank things, it will be good to know where you stand on them.
– Random: pretty much exactly as it sounds. If you have an idea, but you can’t find a home for it, just put it down on paper and we will deal with it later. Your random pile might be 1 idea, or 20 ideas, it doesn’t really matter.
Step 4: Keep writing things down. Take some small breaks to walk around your room. Look stuff up on your phone to jog your memory about things you want to do. Looking through your records of blogs or goals lists in the past to get every little thing you can out of your head. We want every idea you can think of our there. Ideally you will have over 100 sheets of paper littering your floor in rough piles. The piles will be important for the next steps.
Step 5: Once you have exhausted your ideas, start to rank each pile. We are not going to rank across the piles yet. Each pile must be dealt with by itself first. Take your money-making ventures and start looking at what it has in it. Does something sound really appealing? Does something sound dreadful? Those are going to be the easy ones. Also, if you find a card that takes an outside skill to develop, make sure you make a card with that. Such as: become a programmer. You are going to need to put “study programming” on a card. You can put this card in the money-making venture pile, because if you are going to become a programmer, you will need to study.
Step 6: Once you have everything sorted into ranks, start writing down the ideal amount of time you would want to spend on this activity to make it worth your time. Don’t think about how much time you have just yet. The reason to not think about how much time you really have yet, is because you will start to underestimate how much time something will take to really be something useful to you. I would never think I could become a professional writer by only spending 5 hours a week on it. So, if you put an honest number of hours something will take, it will make the forthcoming steps much easier. Some of these ideas are not going to take any time, such as not using blue light before bed. That’s awesome, because they are less likely to get cut in the long run.
Step 7: This step is going to be easiest. Cut everything that is going to take too much of your time that just doesn’t sound that interesting. For me, it was working a normal 9–5 job that I estimated would take about 50 hours of my week when traveling was included. I also got rid of making YouTube videos as it just didn’t sound interesting once I looked at how many hours I would need to spend on it realistically. I axed meditation as well, because I felt like I had better alternatives to that, such as going on long walks. You want to cull the herd here enough so you can start to really make value judgements and not get distracted.
Step 8: Combine all the papers from every category and write down the time each one is going to take on your legal pad. I find it most useful to have everything in denominations of hours per week, because some tasks are going to be repeating, but others are just going to be large time commitments. Remember to include sleep on this list, because it will take up a good chunk of your hours. Things like commuting, showering, doing laundry are also going to have to be included. Things like time with kids and time with your spouse/significant other should be in your papers somewhere. They should already be ranked. When you get everything down, you are likely going to find you have about 250 hours or more blocked out. This is obviously impossible and where the tough decisions really begin.
Step 9: Since we have that big space on the floor, we are going to use it again. Place all of the papers you have left in order of what is most important to least important. At this point everything is combined, so you are making value judgements about things. You are weighing spending time with your kids against sleeping an extra hour against working on your writing, against cleaning the house every day. This part is tough, because there are things we want to rank high, but feel like other things HAVE to be above them. It’s a tough process, but it also will help you get a bit better idea about what your mind really values. It should be easy to see some things that your mind just doesn’t value as much as you had hoped. Just cut those things now.
Step 10: Start playing with the hours of some activities you have listed. Can you steal an hour from this one section? Remember, these are ideal times, so it’s natural that some are going to be more than really needed. Maybe you wanted 7 hours a week to exercise, but upon further review, 3.5 hours a week is going to get you about the same results and free up a lot of time. Maybe you wanted to sleep for 8 hours a night, or 56 hours a week, but 49 is going to be just fine in the real world. This is where you have honest conversations with yourself. You’ll likely find a few more things that you also just kind of cut down or throw out in general.
It is very important to not cut fun things out of your life completely. I wanted to cut video games out of my life, because it seemed like such a time suck, but when I really looked at it, I need that mindless time. I cut the number of hours down to 10 per week, but I didn’t cut it out, because I knew I needed that time to get away from thinking and just kill pixels on my screen. Your fun time might be reading, watching movies or gardening. It doesn’t matter what you find fun, but it is important that you make sure you have time for that fun. Cutting it out completely is going to set this up for failure.
Step 11: Once you have everything down to 168 hours then the fun, begins. Make a mock schedule for yourself. Plan every hour of every day. This doesn’t have to be the one you follow. I know some people don’t like planning like that, but you must make sure what you want to do is even feasible. If you get everything into your schedule and find that you just don’t have the time to dedicate to things, then you know you need to start cutting a few more things. It’s almost a guarantee that you will have to do this, so don’t be annoyed or discouraged. By the end, you will likely have a few patches of “free time.” Keep these, unless it dominates your schedule. You will need time for unexpected things to occupy. If you end up filling your schedule 100%, then if something happens your whole schedule will be shot and you will be left scrambling wondering what to do next.
What you do with all this information is up to you. This is a framework to get you up and running, but once you get past these steps, then it becomes much more personal. You need to work in the way that works best for you.