Ben Barbersmith

Design Your Life

— Posted on Jul 6, 2022

It’s easy to be happy if you live the life of your dreams. The trouble is, few of us do. Most of us never actually consider what the life of our dreams might be.

Society has imbued each of us with a vague desire to be rich, famous, successful, or powerful. We dream about winning the lottery, or travelling the world, or building a billion dollar business, or becoming a celebrity. We work hard to get a bigger house, nicer car, or better job. We dream the dreams we were shown as children. We follow the path that society laid out for us.

But we don’t think about the realities of day-to-day life. We don’t give proper consideration to a simple fact:

We are happy or miserable based on how we spend our time.

If you are living in a highly developed nation and have a decent standard of education — especially if you are one of the laptop class — then you are one of the most privileged humans in history. You have freedoms, safety nets, and opportunities that give you an incredible amount of flexibility to choose how you spend your time.

You owe it to yourself to figure out what makes you happy, what makes you miserable, and then design your life around that knowledge.

Are you ready to vastly improve your happiness and wellbeing?

Designing your life is a three step process

Designing your life requires you to examine yourself, answer two hard questions, then put the answers into practice. It’s a three step process:

  1. Figure out how you actually want to spend your days, i.e. identify the balance of activities that makes you happy and remove those that make you miserable.
  2. Figure out what needs to change to live your life in this way, i.e figure out what you need to do with your career, your spare time, and your money.
  3. Make the changes.

I don’t mean to be glib — there’s a lot of hidden work in those three steps. You have to get to know yourself well enough to understand your actual wants and needs. You have to open your mind to alternative paths through life. You have to make some pragmatic tradeoffs. You may even have to change your career.

Designing your life is hard. I know, because I’ve done it. But it’s worth it, and I’ll show you how.

1. Figure out what you want

Imagine that for the next month, you can choose exactly how to spend your time. All your existing responsibilities are magically waived.

There are just two constraints:

  1. You have to cover your costs, either by earning during the month or saving ahead of time — and the method of earning or saving has to be repeatable.
  2. You have to love the idea of the month enough that you’d be willing to repeat it (along with the earning or saving) over and over again for the rest of your life.

So, how will you spend your time for the next month?

The exercise is intended to guide you towards a life that would bring you joy and fulfilment for the long term, while forcing you to figure out how you can finance it. Figuring this out is much harder than it sounds.

The constraints are designed to eliminate distracting answers like “travel the world” (unless you’re the kind of person who would be happiest as a nomad) or “play video games” (unless you have a shot at becoming a pro gamer and would enjoy that). They should guide you towards a month you could repeat ad nauseum without becoming physically, emotionally, or financially unsustainable.

Need some inspiration? Here’s the life I’d choose:

  • I want to spend several hours with my kids every day, spend some time with my wife every day, and eat 3 meals a day as a family.
  • I want to spend a couple of hours exercising every day, and an hour every day relaxing with a book, movie, or video game.
  • I want to spend most of my time in or around a home within a few hours travel from my extended family.
  • I want to see friends once or twice each week, and extended family every two to four weeks.
  • I want to eat healthy, home cooked food most of the time, and eat out once or twice each week.
  • I will fund this life (>£3k/mo) by spending several hours every day building and selling software and products.
  • I want to minimize business meetings, responsibilities to colleagues, customers, and clients, and recurring time commitments around my business.

I honestly believe I could live like this for decades and be blissfully happy. I’ve been living pretty close to this for most of the last 3.5 years, and I’m not tiring of it yet.

Take 5 minutes to try this exercise. Seriously. I’ll wait.

Like I said, it’s harder than it sounds.

You probably battled a lot of assumptions and defaults. You might have found yourself assuming you have to work full-time, then been unhappy that you couldn’t fit everything else into your schedule. Or you might have decided to ditch your job but either struggled to figure out how to pay the bills or lacked confidence that your plan would work. Heck, maybe you simply don’t know what would keep you happy for more than a week!

It takes a boatload of self awareness to know what kind of routine would actually make you happy if you were living it on repeat. Try to put aside thoughts of your vacations or the best days of your life, and instead focus on your daily life over the last month. Which parts of the day lift you up and give you energy? Which parts do you dread? There will be a pattern.

Knowing what you want is the hardest part of designing your life. When you figure it out, your path becomes clearer.

When you figure it out, drop me an email to tell me about the life you want — I’d love to read it!

2. Figure out what needs to change

Once you know what you want, you can start figuring out what needs to change in your life to make it a reality. Your goal is to find realistic, achievable changes you can make to fix some of the mismatches between your ideal life and your dream.

Pragmatically, this will often start with changes to your job. Why? Because most people spend most of their time at work doing things that don’t make them happy. If this is you, there are two choices:

  1. Reduce the hours you work, or
  2. Find a way to make money that makes you happy.

Both options are scary! So let’s try to make them a little less scary.

Don’t jump straight to job hunting or quitting your job. Instead, start by figuring out how much money you actually need. Don’t look at what you spend today, look at what you need to spend to live your happy life.

If you basically just want more time for your family, friends and hobbies, you might need far less money than you earn today. This gives you a much wider range of options. For example:

  • Maybe you can make enough money working part-time and trade less time for less money.
  • Maybe you can take freelance contracts every few months, make more money per day, and work 3-4 months of the year.
  • Maybe entrepreneurship can reward you for your passion as a programmer, video creator, podcaster, artist, or consultant.
  • Maybe remote working can give you enough control over your day that a full-time job can still make you happy.

I quit my $250k job at Google to try my hand at entrepreneurship. In the end, I also mixed in freelancing. In the first year I made over $100k, but this year I’ll make less than $50k. It doesn’t matter, because my costs are low and my days are happy.

It’s not always easy to figure out which options are realistic for you. But if you live in a highly developed nation with a decent education, the risk of failure probably isn’t that high. You can always get another job. Often you can move back in with family temporarily or move to a lower cost of living area. What safety nets could you use? What’s the worst that can happen? Your circumstances, privileges and challenges will be different to mine. But you may be surprised by how much risk you can take without any consequences of note for you and your family.

After you figure out how you’ll make your money, look again at your designed life. What other habits or hobbies do you need to put in place? What else do you need to cut from your life?

Once you’ve answered these questions, the hardest work is over.

3. Make the changes

You know what you want. You know how to get it. You’ve charted a pragmatic and realistic course to a life that will make you happy.

Those are the hard bits. Putting it into practice is easy by comparison.

Remember, you don’t have to do change everything at once. You don’t have to quit your job on day one! Maybe you can build a side project to try your hand at the entrepreneurial or creative route. Maybe you can apply for some jobs or pitch some freelance contracts. Maybe you can ask your boss to drop from 5 days to 3 or 4 days per week. Iterate as gradually as you need to. Take baby steps and make relentless forward progress.

I’m still on my own journey. I’ve already made the biggest change: I quit my job at Google to work for myself, which transformed 40 hours of my week from misery and boredom to happiness and fulfilment. But I’m still not quite balancing my time as well as I’d like.

Here’s where I’m at:

  • I want to spend several hours with my kids every day, spend some time with my wife every day, and eat meals as a family. ✅
  • I want to spend a couple of hours exercising every day, and an hour every day relaxing with a book, movie, or video game. ❌
  • I want to spend most of my time in or around my home. ✅
  • I want to see friends once or twice each week, and extended family every two to four weeks. ❌
  • I want to eat healthy, home cooked food most of the time, and eat out once or twice each week. ✅
  • I will fund this life (>£3k/mo) by spending several hours every day building and selling software and products. ❌
  • I want to minimize business meetings, responsibilities to colleagues, customers, and clients, and recurrnig time commitments around my business. ✅

So what’s left to do?

  • Spend more time exercising and relaxing instead of working. I love my work, which is a wonderful privilege. But I’m still working 30-35 hours per week, and I can’t further reduce my workload yet without impacting my income. I need to continue building a stable, self-sufficient business a little longer until it can survive with just 15-20 hours of work per week.
  • Spend more time with friends and family. For this one, I just need to wait another few months until my youngest child reliably sleeps through the night. Then I’ll have the energy I need to hang out with friends in the evenings.

Building the life of my dreams is still a work in progress even after 3 years of change. But I can feel I’m on the right path. I’m already inestimably happier for the changes I’ve made. And if I can do it, so can you.

Design your life. Be happy.

Jul 6, 2022 @benbarbersmith