If you’ve ever said “I don’t know what to do with my life” you’re not alone. Pretty much everyone’s been there at some point.
And while it might not feel like it to you right now, doubt over what to do with your life is a good thing.
You want purposeful, well-paid work. You want hobbies and community work that make you feel part of something bigger than yourself. And you want strong bonds with friends and family.
It can feel as if getting all that is an impossible task. If you can’t even work out what it is you want to do, how can you hope to achieve it? And how is that some people seem to know exactly where they are headed and how to get there?
Those people aren’t any different from you. They’ve probably felt confused and overwhelmed many times, just like you do now. The only thing they’ve done that you haven’t is to have made a considered decision to work out what they want and how to get it.
Having a sense of purpose, getting things done and having a life that you really love is achievable by everyone. You can find the things you want to do with your life — in your career, relationships and hobbies.
In this article, we’ll share the proactive steps absolutely everyone can take to live a wonderful life. If you want to look back on your life when you’re elderly with fondness and not disappointment, read on. It’s easier than you think.
1) Get out in the world
If you’re stuck in a rut, traveling can help you see your way out of it.
That doesn’t mean that you have to do the whole six-months backpacking thing, go to an Ashram for a month or head off into the hills with nothing but a walking stick and a bottle of water.
Any kind of travel that gets you away from your normal routine can help you see where you should be going next. You don’t need a big budget or a load of spare time. It could be a city break somewhere you’ve always wanted to go. It could even just be a day trip to the beach.
While you’re away, don’t force yourself to look for opportunities to find meaning or purpose. The value of travel is much more subtle than that. It’s what NLP gurus call a “pattern interrupt“. The theory goes that when you do the same thing over and over, you get too comfortable to really know how or what you need to change.
A break is a way of disrupting your comfortable daily routines and allowing your mind to open to new possibilities. You might not notice any specific change straight away, but your subconscious will become more aware of your ability to do things differently.
And of course, you might just gain some knowledge or awareness that leads you somewhere new.
2) Talk to people
Traditional societies tended to have natural hierarchies and life paths. Young people would move into adulthood with absolute certainty about what their role in life would be. As people got older, they earned respect and were expected to guide the next generation.
Our atomized modern societies work very differently. We’re born into a world where we need to compete with others to get jobs that allow us to make enough money to eat well, socialize and have a decent place to live. We have to constantly make choices about what to do with our lives. We choose what subjects to study at school and college. We decide on a career from among hundreds of different options. We scroll through dating sites to choose our ideal partner.
We make these choices often because we reach a particular life stage, not because we’re ready to make them. And because the choice is so large, we end up floundering in the dark, choosing paths without really having the knowledge or guidance we need to make good choices.
Our parents and teachers might have some advice, but the range of things we can do with our lives is so vast that few of us will get really expert advice on what we want to do. Those that do are likely those that follow their parents into the same career, or enter the family business..and then spend much of their lives wondering if that was really the right decision.
To make good choices in a fractured, competitive world, we need to develop relationships with as many potential mentors and teachers as possible. You don’t have to meet someone regularly or even know them well in order to learn from them. You might find yourself chatting to someone at a party, for example, who sparks off a new train of thought. A 30-minute chance conversation could just change your life.
You might also find that old friends are surprisingly strong sources of knowledge and support. However well you think you know someone, you’re not inside their head. Talk to the people who know best about your life and where it’s going. A friend might just have a perspective you’d never have thought of. And that perspective might make all the difference to the choices you make next.
Above all, be open to others’ ideas. You don’t have to agree with them all or follow them all, but take the time to understand them and you’ll start to understand yourself a little better too.
3) Move more
Literally staying still means metaphorically staying still.
Maybe you get up in the morning, get in your car, drive to work and then walk from the parking lot to the elevator. Then, you take a few small steps to your desk and barely move from it for the next eight, nine, ten or more hours.
After that’s over, you go through the same process in reverse to get home. You feel wiped out by a stressful day and don’t want to do anything except eat pizza, drink beer and collapse in front of the TV.
If you rarely feel energized physically, you’ll struggle to feel energized mentally. Getting your heart pumping and your legs moving helps you feel good about yourself. Exercise is a massive stress reliever and can even help you get rid of anxiety and depression.
When you feel active and healthy, you feel more open to new possibilities. When your body feels slow and inactive, so does your mind. You’ll struggle to focus on creating and achieving goals and you’ll find it hard to know what you want to do with your life.
If running or gym-going isn’t your thing, don’t be put off. A long, brisk walk in the fresh air can be enough to make a real difference.
Or you could get out there and try something totally new…something that doesn’t feel like exercise at all. Try scuba-diving, climbing, geocaching or horse-riding. Anything new and challenging will help you meet people, uncover different perspectives and keep your mind and body sharp. Sharp enough to make the big, brave changes you’re going to want to make
4) Be willing to go nuclear
One of the reasons people struggle to work out what to do with their lives is that they’re not willing to consider “big” options.
Have you ever found yourself thinking things like:
- I’d love to move abroad for a while…but I can’t because my parents would be devastated.
- I’m not sure I’m ready to settle down yet, but if I leave my relationship, I doubt I’ll ever find anyone else.
- I’d love to retrain, but then I’d have to move cities to get a job and I don’t think I can do that.
It’s easy to feel like these are impossible things to do. Because of that, you end up telling yourself that you’ll think about it another time and that maybe next year you’ll be able to do it. And then another year comes, and then another…and nothing has changed.
This is a form of procrastination that many, many people engage in for at least part of their life. But the people who have the happiest and fullest lives are those who’ve worked out how to stop putting off tough decisions and to take a leap when the time is right.
If you’re going to work out what you really want to do with your life, then you need to have every option possible on the table.
And once you’ve put all the options on the table, you might decide that, actually, staying in the city you’re in close to loved ones and lifelong friends is a non-negotiable for you. That’s OK, because what that does is make staying an active choice. Once you know what your non-negotiables are, you can work out what you want to do with the life that allows you to keep to them.
5) Give yourself permission to fail
Many of us are terrified of failing. We’ve been brought up to do well at school, keep our parents happy and stay on the right side of our boss.
None of these are bad things in themselves. But added together, worrying about not being good enough or upsetting other people can severely hamper your ability to take risks.
Many people have ended up in a particular career because they knew their parents would never approve of their real ambition. There are lots of people in successful, well-paid careers who’d love to be doing something different. Something that makes real use of their talent rather than just being a means to a paycheck. There are plenty of frustrated accountants who’d rather be painting, acting or writing, for example.
I’m not saying you should jack in your well-paid job tomorrow to become an artist. We all need money, and having money is a valuable goal in itself.
So how do you reconcile the desire to earn a reliable salary with a desire to do something that might not provide that?
You need to recognize that to succeed, you’ll probably fail along the way. And then you need a big, brave plan that takes account of that.
6) Make a plan
Making a plan is the most important part of finding out what you want to do with your life. It’s also the only way that you can make it happen.
By the time you get to the planning stage, you should already have followed the tips I’ve shared on moving more, and being open to new conversations. You should have spent time opening your mind to new possibilities.
You need to begin, not with an idea of what you want to do, but knowing what things are most important to you.
Imagine yourself as an elderly person. You’re in your eighties, you’re spending an afternoon at home. You’re in your favorite chair and drinking your favorite drink.
As an elderly person, you might feel incredibly content with a life well-lived. Or you might feel angry and frustrated that you didn’t achieve all that you could have done.
Think first about the house you’re in. Is it a little cabin in the woods? A city center apartment with a view? A big old house in the suburbs that you love to fill with family and friends?
And how did you get to that house? Did you have a family there? What did you do for work? Did you have friends nearby?
Once you’ve got an idea of your life vision, it’s time to get serious about creating a life plan.
Make a table with three columns. In the right-hand column, us the vision you just created to write down where you want to end up in each area of your life. Feel free to define these how you want – they might include things like career, relationships, community, and family.
In the left-hand column, write down where you are now in each area. And in the middle, write down what steps you think you need to take to get from the left to the right.
This gives you an outline plan. Once you have it, you’ll need to create some more detailed goals for the short and long-term. Think about what you’ll need to do this year, in the next five years and in the next 10 years to get where you want to be.
7) But don’t always stick to the plan
Now you have a plan. But remember that plans can and do change.
One of the reasons that people sometimes struggle to know what to do with their life is that they feel that once they have a plan, they can’t deviate from it.
But the problem is, things change. You will meet people, gain knowledge and have experiences that have the power to change your outlook and desires fundamentally.
If that happens, go back to the plan. Do it again and see what you need to do to make yourself happy.
Once you have a plan, you need to make it happen. This is the scariest, hardest bit and the one that people most often slip up on. It’s often much easier to think “I could have been xyz, but…” than it is to try with no guarantee of success.
We’ve already talked about how having a plan can help you get past the fear of failure. But that fear never really goes away for most people. How do you get around it when it nags at you?
You focus. You ignore all the noise in your mind and you dig deep and get on with it. That sounds like a simple solution, but of course, it isn’t.
You should know what your goals are, very clearly, from your plan. You should also know what you need to do to achieve each one.
Now work out how you find the time to do what it is you need to do. Book time in your diary for the tasks that you need to work towards each goal — whether that’s studying or socializing.
You probably won’t have to do this forever, but it’s the only way to make sure you really make progress. Without a timetable, it’s too easy to fall back into the procrastination trap and put the TV on. And once you’ve done it one day, you’ll be more likely to do it the next day.
Finally — and this is a big one — make time to do nothing every day. Meditate, if you can – we know that has significant mental and physical health benefits that’ll help you get to where you want to be.
But if you can’t, have at least 15 minutes of quiet time every day where you allow yourself to indulge in just being alive. No rushing. No screens. No planning. Just time for you, to remember who you are and why you’re here.
No-one can help you work out what to do with your life except you.
But don’t jump in and take action right away. Start by opening your mind to new ideas and connections. They’ll give you the foundation you need to define your life’s vision and purpose.
Be ready to go big. Don’t be afraid of failure or of doing things that people don’t expect you to do. This is your one shot — take it wholeheartedly.
And when you’re ready, make a plan. Do the scary thing and think about where you want to end up at the end of your life. Identify what will really make your heart sing.
Then, do everything you can to get yourself there.