This Month’s Featured Article

Designing Your Life

By Published On: November 9th, 2022

Feel stuck? Paralyzed and unable to take a step? Is your life out of sync with who you are, or who you want to be? Do you think you have to figure it out alone? It doesn’t have to be that way.

Enter the Designing Your Life (DYL) methodology, a way to think about your life that permits you to take off the blinders and venture onto other paths. DYL utilizes design thinking methodology as you solve the “wicked problem” of your life. A wicked problem is design-speak for a problem that defies a solution because there’s no precedent for it and the problem’s parameters keep changing.

DYL is based upon the same principles designers use to bring you a computer mouse that fits snugly in the palm of your hand and effortlessly navigates your cursor or an ergonomic chair that supports you where you need it. Except now, that method is applied to how you think about your own life.

First conceived by Stanford University professors and mechanical engineers Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, life design began as a brainstorming session devoted to helping students think about their careers. What evolved is a methodology taught at Stanford and other colleges and universities, workshops, a resource-rich website, and books that describe the process and how to implement it in your life.

You got a problem?

To properly engage with DYL, it’s important to understand that designers don’t see problems as you and I might. Instead of seeing a brick wall, they see a pot of gold. For them, a problem is just another word for an opportunity to create and devise numerous potential ways forward.

There isn’t just one way to solve a problem; there are many. And designers get super excited figuring out what those ways could be. When you reframe your thinking, something else designers do with regularity, you also shift how you think about your dilemma.

Get curious and try stuff

Curiosity is fundamental to life design and opens up avenues to explore. It’s energizing, wonder-filled, and open-minded. Cultivating curiosity also changes how you engage with your life and makes old things new again. With curiosity, there can be more movement, and it’s the first step to becoming unstuck. DYL also emphasizes “a bias to action.” Try stuff, take baby steps, and convert thought into action.

You are here

Armed with curiosity and a new definition of problem-as-opportunity, you’re now ready to begin. The first step is to compassionately assess and accept where you are in your life right now. Without that assessment, you can’t find your way forward to somewhere else. There are several DYL exercises to help you figure out where you are.

The Workview and Lifeview are reflections on your philosophy of work and life. They include questions such as: Why do we work? How essential is purpose or meaning in our work life? Why are we here? Is there a higher power? What is our relationship to others and society?

Once you write these two personal statements, you compare them for how they complement each other and how they conflict. For example, if you believe in stewarding the planet’s resources and work for a company that produces large amounts of toxic waste, you may feel out of alignment. The goal is to achieve coherence in our lives and work. We may not consistently achieve that, and our work and life views may shift, but knowing where our equilibrium lies is essential to return to it when feasible.

Another method to assess where you are is through our Health, Work, Play, and Love (HWPL) gauges. Using graphic representations, you examine how full your “tanks” are in these areas at a given time. The Good Time Journal documents your daily activities over several weeks. It helps you see what activities give or take energy and how engaged you are in them. This provides valuable information to consider alternatives, such as reordering or reprioritizing events or changing the environment in which you do them.

You can also determine which parts of your life produce all-important flow states. These flow states are characterized as “adult play” and include those times when you’re completely immersed in an activity, time stands still or speeds up, and you feel you’re being challenged but not overwhelmed. Flow states can be produced when you write poetry, play an instrument, garden, cook, devise an Excel spreadsheet, or fix a car engine. Even when work creates flow, you can consider it play.

The HWPL gauges and the Good Time Journal create awareness of areas in your life that are contributing to your wellbeing and areas that might need some attention. Getting into the nitty gritty of your days is critical, so you can identify small changes that are doable and sustainable. They also expose that all parts of your life are interconnected so that you can view them as a whole.

Life is an Odyssey

Once you know where you are, you can create multiple ways forward. The DYL process identifies some of the many directions your life could take. Like cats, you’ve got many lives that would utilize your strengths and provide fulfillment.

That’s where ideation and divergent thinking come in. How might you generate ideas about several of these potential lives? One way is through the crafting of Odyssey Plans. These five-year plans are a blend of your personal and professional lives and explore, on a timeline, three variations of your life. Plan One is the path you’re currently on. Plan Two is your fallback plan if the thing you are presently doing suddenly isn’t a thing anymore. Plan Three is what you would do if you had unlimited resources and were unconcerned with what people would think of your choice.

Generate these plans quickly, so judgment – the bane of design thinking – can’t rear its ugly head. These plans gently force you to throw off the blinkers and create options – some more real than others. Once these plans are complete, with a six-word title, gauges to measure how we feel about a plan, and questions that option generates, you’re ready for the next phase.


When product designers are figuring out a new product, they create prototypes – cheap, easy, and fast models of what they’d like to create to get its look and feel. It’s the same with life design. Instead of cardboard, duct tape, and pipe cleaners, life designers use prototyping conversations and experiences to gather information quickly, easily, and for the price of a cup of coffee.

With your Odyssey Plans in place, you can start prototyping elements of those plans, even the ones that seem to dwell exclusively in our imagination. While you might not be able to buy the bakery you outlined in Plan 2, you can do other things to gather the information that doesn’t involve a significant investment in something you’re not sure you’d like to do.

Prototyping helps you narrow down your options and provides you with actions you can take – remember that bias to action? Prototypes are baby steps that lead to other baby steps. Suddenly, you’re less paralyzed and more empowered. The steps you choose need to be small enough to ensure you can both do them and be successful at them. This builds confidence, lowers anxiety, and changes your perspective on where you are. And if you do fail, you fail fast and fail forward. You haven’t invested much time or money and have gained valuable information and insight. And for designers, failure equates to an opportunity to gather valuable information.

Talk to people

You’ve probably had a prototyping conversation. You just didn’t know it. Whenever you ask people about their story, what they do, why they do it, and how they got where they are, you are prototyping – gathering information to see what that life “feels” like. Back to the bakery example, striking up a conversation with a baker about her work as you purchase your crumb cake can count as a prototyping conversation. So can finding a potential contact on LinkedIn.

Prototyping conversations start a professional and personal network, the power of which will unfold over time and in ways you might not imagine. DYL believes in the power of the Universe, of saying something out loud and letting that percolate and vibrate around you.

Try stuff

Another way to prototype is through experiences. You could shadow a baker, find friends to become your taste-testers, take a course at a culinary school, or go on field trips to all the bakeries in a 60-mile radius around your home. All the while, you’re gathering information. You might decide during a job shadow at a bakery that you have no interest being the baker who arrives at 4am, but maybe you’d like to be the manager who opens the doors at 10am.

There is a “Team” in “I”

Life design is not a solitary sport. Somewhere along the way, you may have received messages that you have to figure out your life on your own and that it’s a “you problem.” In reality, it’s a “we problem,” and the people around you can be part of the radical collaboration necessitated by life design.

A team of people in your corner provides allies who can help you brainstorm possibilities and solve problems. They provide the technical expertise, mentoring, and emotional support that you need so you can see opportunities that otherwise might have eluded us. And people love to help! Once you get over asking for it, you’ll discover how much people want to be part of your life design.

One small step, one giant step

The beauty and the simplicity of life design are that it works with your current life and changes and reframes it in ways that feel like a nibble and not a large bite. It’s not about chucking your life and moving to Bali, although that could be an option.

The power is in the incremental baby steps from where you are now. You may not be able to change the job that provides health insurance and flexible hours, but you can think of ways to make your current job more satisfying and look to the hours outside of work to compensate.

If work is not providing outlets for creativity and collaboration at the moment, volunteering at a local non-profit will feed you in that way. DYL helps you look at your life in 360. You tend to silo the parts of your life when in reality, they bleed into each other in ways large and small. Life design is about looking at your whole lives to create wholeness.

Whose life is it anyway?

It’s your life – there are many ways you could live it. DYL methodology enables you to get curious, try stuff, talk to people, reframe problems, and implement ways to move your life in multiple directions. It’s a method that can reduce anxiety, boost creativity, and advance you, one baby step at a time, from where you are right now to a more coherent and fulfilling future.

Mary B. O’Neill, Ph.D. teaches Designing Your Life classes to students through the Career Success Center at Western Connecticut State University. She is a certified Stanford University Life Design University Educator. 

For more information about Life Design, you can listen to the Main Street Moxie podcast episode with Kathy Davies, managing director of the Life Design Lab at Stanford University, and visit the Life Design Lab website.