The concept of living a “meaningful life” is en vogue of late, as more and more people seek to live a life of purpose, in which each day is full of meaning, a sense of mission, and direction. This sounds great and all, but the pursuit of a meaningful life also brings up some challenging questions. To start with, what is “meaning?” How does one identify truly meaningful goals? And how does a person stay motivated to do the work that goes into creating a more meaningful life?
Turns out, a lot of it comes down to turning our life priorities into achievable goals that are guaranteed to make our lives better simply by pursuing them. And luckily, modern science can help us on this journey. By combining concepts from big-name schools of thought (such as Positive Psychology, Self Determination Theory, Self-Concordance Theory, Solution Focused Therapy, and motivation studies) into a single action plan, it’s possible to develop a scientifically backed, structured process for creating a life you love. This process starts with the creation of a full and detailed vision for the future, continues through the refinement of an action plan that will make that future a reality, and ends with tips and tools to keep motivation high while pursuing these daily goals.
The 10 actionable steps below will walk you through the basic process of creating your own meaningful life.
Step 1: Travel to the Future to Discover What's Most Important
Many of us become so focused on the practicalities and demands of daily life that we end up postponing or neglecting our more meaningful passions. But that’s no good for our long-term happiness: Research suggests abandoned passions can turn into regrets that refuse to go away Lost and found possible selves, subjective well-being, and ego development in divorced women. King, LA and Raspin, C. Department of Psychological Services, University of Missouri, Columbia. Journal of Personality, 2004 Jun;72(3):603-32.
To prevent future regrets, take some time now to imagine yourself thirty years from today. What would you look back on and regret not pursuing? What would you qualify as missed opportunities? These are likely to be the things that are most meaningful to you now, and the ones you should act upon today. Make a list of each of these experiences, then follow the next steps to learn how to turn your life’s priorities into meaningful goals.
Step 2: List Potential Goals
Now that you’ve figured out what’s most important to you, it’s time to turn these things into actionable goals so they don’t get lost in the busyness of day-to-day life.
To start, write down a bunch of possible goals that you may want to consider. Many of these will not make it to your action plan, and some will dramatically change before you commit to them. But for now, you’re just putting it on paper.
Be sure to write down goals that are both specific and attainable. (For example, “Aim for a score of 86 points or more on the upcoming test,” “Go on a trip next month that lands me in at least two new cities,” or “Apply to 50 jobs in the next three weeks.”) Make a long list — include at least 20 possible goals. Be spontaneous, and allow yourself to go crazy. You’re not committing to anything yet!
Step 3: Vet your Goals
The goals you are most likely to accomplish are the ones that have motivation built into them, meaning you don’t have to talk yourself into pursuing them because you naturally have the passion to do so. To figure out whether a certain goal contains intrinsic motivation, it’s useful to ask the questions below. This line of inquiry draws from Self Determination and Self Concordance Theories — models of psychological research that help people figure out which of their goals contain intrinsic motivation Goal striving, need satisfaction, and longitudinal well-being: the self-concordance model. Sheldon, KM and Elliot, AJ. Department of Psychology, University of Missouri, Columbia. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999 Mar;76(3):482-97.
To assess the level of motivation intrinsic to your goals, ask the following eight questions for each of your goals and write down the number of times you answer “yes”:
- Will this goal be satisfying for you to pursue and achieve?
- Do you feel like you truly “own” this goal? Is it something you would do even if no one expects you to?
- Will it bring you closer to a desired outcome (as opposed to away from an undesired outcome)?
- Will the pursuit of this goal increase your ability to choose the things you do?
- Will the pursuit or accomplishment of this goal develop new skills and capabilities?
- Does this goal fit well with your other goals in life (i.e. not conflicting with anything else you would like to accomplish)?
- Does the pursuit or accomplishment of this goal bring you close to others?
- Is this goal appropriate for your circumstances (like age, finances, etc)?
Step 4: Select Your Most Viable Goals
Look at the goals for which you answered “yes” the most times. The odds are good these goals will be the most fulfilling and the most possible for you to pursue. Pick a small number of them (no more than six or seven) with which to shape your new future. Aiming high is important, but it’s equally crucial to focus only on a select few so as to avoid spreading yourself too thin and losing focus and clarity for your future vision.
Step 5: Commit to Your Top Goals
Copy your selected goals to a fresh piece of paper. This list represents a new future to which you are committing yourself and your energies. From this point on, you cannot edit or change these goals — no cheating! These goals now serve as your compass and remind you daily of the future you want to create.
Step 6: Visualize Your Meaningful Future
You now have your desired future on paper, written as text, but you may not have a crisp mental image of it in your mind. You probably also do not have a mental image of your path towards that future — the small successes and failures that naturally occur along the way. It’s important to develop this vision; in fact, recent research shows that maintaining this mental image in your mind is key to successfully achieving goals.
To create a concrete vision of your meaningful future, it’s helpful to add some imagery to your set of goals. One of the easiest ways to do this is to create a vision board on your computer, on paper, or on your mobile phone. Be sure to associate each goal with a few specific pictures:
- A picture showing the successful accomplishment of the goal (e.g., you’ve published your novel)
- A picture showing the successful accomplishment of a step along the way (e.g., you have a first draft)
A picture showing a challenge or difficulty that you expect to encounter (e.g., you sit down late at night and write for hours, and wake up tired the next day)
Step 7: Take the First Baby Step
Thanks to the power of visualization, images of your new, meaningful future are now planted in your mind. Now it’s time to move from planning to doing.
To start off, think of a single baby-step you can accomplish within the next seven days, for just one of the goals in your plan. It can be anything, large or small, as long as it brings you one step closer towards the future you now so clearly imagine (think: writing 500 words of your novel, or going for one 10-minute run). Don’t linger; if you don’t take action quickly, you risk ending up with nothing more than a vision board and a dream. Taking immediate action will boost your motivation and start creating momentum so you have all the back-wind you can get on this long distance run.
Step 8: Set Triggers
At this stage, you’ve made your first steps on the road, but you know you’re facing a long path. You may feel like you have to constantly think about your vision in order to keep momentum going.
In reality, this doesn’t have to be the case. In daily routine, most people operate on autopilot, responding automatically to triggers in their environment. You can take advantage of this by weaving the pursuit of your goals into your day-to-day life: Add reminders in your calendar, place visual cues in opportunistic areas (e.g., place your running shoes next to your bed if you want to run each morning), and incorporate the action steps towards your new future into all of your to do lists: “pick up dry cleaning, walk the dog, go to the store, register for the motorcycle safety course,” etc. Simply give the pursuit of your goals the same attention you give the daily chores or your tasks at work, and soon enough the rest will take care of itself.
Step 9: Look Back and Praise Progress
When you’re climbing up a mountain, it can be discouraging to look up and realize how far away the summit is. Instead, choose to look back and take pride in the ground you’ve already covered. Research shows that people who “focus on the prize” do not perform as well as those who are focused on their progress so far.
When you fail, remember that you expected some failures to crop up when you envisioned pursuing your goals, and allow yourself to screw up, knowing that you’ll soon be back on track. Each time you feel discouraged, look back on your progress and give yourself a big pat on the back. You’ve earned it!
Step 10: Remember that It’s All About the Journey
When it comes to achieving goals, flexibility is the mother of success. In all likelihood, there is very little chance that you will ever create your meaningful future exactly the way you had envisioned it. Rather than viewing this as “failure,” remember that creating a meaningful life is a long-distance endeavor. Along the way, you may learn new things that will mandate changing your plan, and that’s perfectly okay.
The only real guarantee in this whole process is that embarking on the quest towards a more meaningful life will take you someplace new, exciting, and, yes, meaningful. Perhaps most importantly: When you surrender to the process, you are more likely to learn to enjoy the journey, forget about the destination, and embrace the ride of your life.
Ran Zilca is a researcher, tech entrepreneur, personal coach, teacher, and musician. He is the Chief Scientist at bLife Inc., a company developing scientifically-based digital well-being tools, as well as the author of Ride of Your Life — A Cost to Coast Guide to Inner Peace, a blog and book describing his 6,000-mile motorcycle journey. He is also the creator of the course “Meaningful Goal Pursuit — Go on the Ride of Your Life” (From now through October 31st, receive $50 off the course admission with code RZ50.). The views expressed herein are his. Learn more about Ran on his website, www.RideOfYourLife.com.