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What I Learned from Stanford’s Professors About Designing a Good Life

Few months back, I found myself in the verge of burning out. I had 30 flights in 3 months, ran couple of programs simultaneously, while managing a team across countries. This arrangement was new to me so I was not only physically but also mentally drained. Looking back, I think I pushed myself too hard.

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash

At the end of September, I took a step back and did a retrospective. I read a lot of articles in the internet to address the situation. I love articles but in most cases, they don’t provide enough level of depth (and let’s stop having unrealistic expectation about them). Therefore, I tried to use book as another source of information.

I stumbled upon Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less written by Greg McKeown. This book teaches me about how to prioritize things that matter. Read more about it here .

During this period, I also found “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.

Bill is an Executive Director and Dave is a lecturer from Stanford Design Program. In their program, they use Design Thinking Framework to help students figuring out what they want to do in their life.

There was one Sunday where I blocked the entire day to read the book and do the exercises. After doing so, I got way better understanding on myself and what I should do next. This revelation motivates me to share what a I got to others across the globe.

In this article, I would like to share about the book and what I learned from it. What I like most about this book is how practical it is. For each chapters, they not only share some case studies but also exercises that we need to do. The return that you will get from this article depends on how much time and effort investment you are willing to make to do the exercises. Here we go!

Step 1: Understand where we are

It’s always tempting to start with a solution. Unfortunately, without proper understanding about the problem, we might come up with wrong solution. Therefore it’s worth our time to gather information and reflect to get the reality that we are facing at this moment. A better understanding about the problem should not only cover about our work but also our life.

Allow me to explain why.

Sometimes we see our job as a separate part from our life. I think that’s not the case. Our work and life tends to affect each other. With the usage of Whatsapp for business conversation, it’s no longer easy to separate our work and life.

On top of that, let’s accept the fact that we are just a human being. Whenever we are going to the office after a fight with our spouse, it would be way harder to concentrate. With the rise of creative work in the office, we can’t no longer operate with bad state of mind.

Bill and Dave suggested to do an audit on multiple aspects: love, play, work, and health.

Exercise:

Health / Work / Play / Love Dashboard

  1. Describe your current state on those 4 aspects

  2. Mark where you are on each aspects

  3. Ask if there is changes you can make in any of these aspects

  4. Ask if the problem is a gravity problem.

Gravity problem is a problem where you have very minimum control to change. For example if you work in x industry, you will not earn much because the industry is still very immature.

What I discovered:

In my case, I figured out that

  1. I enjoyed my work

  2. I was healthy

  3. I did not have a significant other at that time but I had supportive family and friends

  4. I did not deliberately allocate time to play

I accepted the fact that my work was hectic. It is a gravity problem if you work in tech as I wrote here. However, I tried to make conscious change in Q4 to increase the scale on “play”.

On October, I went to Ladakh with my colleagues….

On November, I went to Bali on a solo trip…

By end of year, I felt so much better :)

Step 2: Set our compass

After knowing where we are, it’s time to set where we want go. This is the hard part. Back then, it’s quite straightforward. After graduating from college, you should secure a job in a well known company and climb the corporate ladder. Now, it’s not the only option to have a good life.

We need to make series of choices. In my opinion, the hardest part about this is to

Balance between listening to what the world wants us to be, pursuing what we think we want to be, and running our life in a sustainable way

Some friends recently messaged me because they did not know what they want to do in life. Well, me too! I am actually not sure yet if I want to do this job forever. However, this book gives me an alternative I can live with.

What we actually need in life is not certainty but coherency.

A coherent life is a life where we can connect the dots between: who we are, what we believe, and what we are doing

I also try to see my life as a set of controlled experiments. Find out more about it here

Exercise:

1. Write down your work view

Work view is how we perceive work. Some of us work to pay the bill, some see it as social platform, others use it as manifestation of their values. A good work view can describe why we work, what a good work is, and how it relates to us and others.

2. Write down your life view

All of us live. However, how often do we reflect on why we live on the first place? A good life view can describe why we are here, what our purpose is, what the right thing is, and what impact the Higher Power has in our life.

3. Read both questions and answer the following questions

After doing both exercises, we should reflect on the relationship between our work view and life view. Couple of things to explore are :

Where do they complement one another?

Where do they clash?

Does one drive the other? How?

What I discovered:

  1. I find helping people fulfilling. My work involves helping people in direct and indirect way. At it’s core, I find they complement each other.

  2. In practice, there is always clash. One thing that I still learn is to balance between how I and others approach the problem. Working with people from diverse background really teaches me to compromise.

  3. I think they drive one another. In life, I always like challenges. It affects how I approach my work. I always try to find opportunities to work on more challenging problems. In doing so, I need to constantly upgrade myself.

Step3: Find Our Source of Energy

At one lunch with a colleague, I asked her about her work. She said,”Well, work is work. There is part I like and I don’t like.” That’s indeed true.

I think we should get rid off the fact that if we work on something we are passionate about, it will always be rainbow. At the same time, we should actively find the way to increase the level of enjoyment and engagement in our work.

Exercise:

1. Create a log of your daily activities

It would be great if you can do this exercise for 3 weeks to find patterns. I honestly did not have the grit yet to do it for 3 weeks lol. If you find your motivation, then do it. Use the template below to assist you

Good Time Journal

Here is an example on how it gets filled

Example of a Filled Good Time Journal

2. After each week, look at your journal and reflect.

You might notice some patterns appear. How do you find it? Is it surprising? Is it not surprising? You might get to know yourself better after this.

3. At the end of 3 weeks, let’s zoom in.

For each activities on the template, describe the Activities, Environment, Interactions, Objects, and Users (AEIOU) associated with it. In short:

Activities: What you are actually doing

Environment: What kind of place you are working at and how it makes you feel

Interactions: With whom you are interacting with. It can be with people, machine, or combination of both. It can be formal, informal, or somewhere along the line.

Objects: What objects you are using. It can be a devices, tools, whiteboards, etc.

Users: Other people who are there and what they make you feel.

What I discovered:

For me this exercise has a profound impact. I found that:

  1. I used to see my job as one bulk

  2. When I went one step deeper, I saw my job mostly from the activity standpoint

I learn that there is part of my work that I really enjoy and some part that I really don’t enjoy. To make the best out of it, I do job crafting (yes there is an official term for this). It is to craft our job to fits our circumstance so we can be more engaged and joyful at work. In my case, it works in couple of ways:

1. Automate boring repetitive task

I try to avoid repetitive work as much as I can. When I mention automation, it does not mean deploying Artificial Intelligent. It means forwarding document instead of explaining it again, setting up slack channel instead of pinging people one by one, and writing excel formula instead of putting hardcoded number. This is a subtle change but it provides huge pay offs.

2. Find someone who is more passionate to do the work

It’s surprising to know that the work that might be daunting to us is a pleasure for someone else. We just need to find the right person and onboard him properly. For me, meeting people for the whole day drains my energy. Therefore, I often ask my colleague who enjoys it more than I do to do it. It’s a win win in the end.

3. Adjust your role

I’m extremely fortunate to work in a company that is willing to accommodate my career aspiration. I’m currently working in a setup where I think I can generate more value to the company while keeping me energized and engaged.

I realize that this does not apply for everyone. If that’s the case, try to do it on your free time. In my case, as much as I like the setup, my job is still people facing that drains me quickly. Therefore I often set up time to read and write to find my source of energy.

That’s what I get from this book. To recap, there are 3 key steps to design a better life:

  1. Understand where we are

  2. Set our compass

  3. Find our source of energy

To reiterate, the return that you will get from this article depends on how much time and effort investment you are willing to make to do the exercise. Hope you find this useful. Good luck in designing your life!

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