Monday, September 12, 2011

A Five-Year Plan for a Happy Life

In the September issue of SELF, one of the feature stories "Do You Need a Five-Year Plan?" maps out tangible steps on how to create your own five-year plan.  Of course, life has twists and turns, but according to this article, research proves that the happiest people have "clear-cut goals, both short- and long-term, in a variety of areas, including friendship, love and helping others."  And isn't that what life is truly about?

For a planner like me, the thought of building a five-year plan sounds intriguing.  I've got ideas about the next couple years, but seeing a slightly bigger picture gives me the freedom to dream a little.  I don't have to get it all done in a short period of time.  I can give myself the flexibility to change paths along the way, to build up to bigger goals, and to really find what a fulfilling life means for me personally.

The author of the article, Erin Zammett Ruddy, writes about how being diagnosed with cancer caused her to reevaluate her own life plans (believe it or not, I am such a dedicated magazine reader, I actually remember reading about her journey dealing with cancer years ago--I believe it was featured in Glamour).  Of course, near-death experiences can really put your priorities in order.  But anyone can benefit from taking a few quiet moments to ponder the future...

It's as simple as scribbling down your dreams.  That act alone can make you more conscious of the world around you and opportunities to move towards your goals.  What's most important is the "joy of striving," not necessarily the end achievement (though that usually feels pretty good too!).  The key is to make your goals challenging and specific.  Push yourself to really dream, and know it's okay if you have to adapt along the way, change paths or put a dream on hold for a bit.

Here are some steps suggested in the article (I edited the explanations down a bit, and the italics are my thoughts):

1) Look back and learn. Jot down five past accomplishments you love thinking about.
This step can set you up with confidence and help you understand what makes you happy.  I thought of accomplishments such as graduating college, buying a home, getting into graduate school and pursuing my master's degree, writing a novella and beginning a novel, and starting a business.  (Is getting married an accomplishment? Because that's something I love to think about too!)  Recalling these moments reminds me that I can do things I may not have even imagined or hadn't truly planned out years in advance.

2) Brainstorm like crazy.  Set a stopwatch for 10 minutes and list everything you want to do with your life, however out-there or ambitious, without holding back.  Ask yourself three questions to focus your thoughts:
- Is there anything I've left unfinished that I'd like to complete?
- Are there classes I'd love to take or skills I'm dying to learn?
- Are there ways I want to give back to others?

3) Reflect on regret.  Scan your megalist and ask yourself, If I'm exactly where I am today five years from now, which of these goals would I most regret not pursuing?  The answer to this question will help you edit your list to the most meaningful aims.  Why five years?  That's long enough to make major strides but short enough to imagine how you want your life to look.

4) Dissect your top goals.  Ask yourself, Is this something I want for myself or something others want for me?  What will achieving it do for me?  How will it make my life more fulfilling?  In what ways will it help me create my ideal existence?

via SELF
From there, the article talks about how to map out smaller steps towards your goals (daily, weekly, monthly).  And it notes that it's okay to be flexible and make changes in your plan.  After all, it's YOUR life...

I thought this was an interesting exercise and a neat way to look at planning.  It guides me to see a bigger picture than just next month or next year, and helps me focus on what is truly important--now and five years from now and beyond.

One of the pull-quotes did a great job of boiling the full piece down to one sentence: Striving for goals is good, but savoring the process along the way to achieving them is key to fulfillment.

To read the full article (which is definitely recommended), you can find it in the September issue or on SELF's website.  Here's to the next five years!


  1. I love this. thinking ahead like this would make me feel much more in control. which is kind of the whole point, right?

  2. Thanks! I just checked out your blog and this five-year plan idea seems to go well with your recent "are we small business owners?" post :)


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