You can improve the quality of your daily life by learning to focus your attention and choosing to filter your experiences through a lens of positivity. But while it might be simple to find happiness in a single day, it can be much more difficult to link a series of days into a meaningful whole. Still, just as we must be active agents in creating our own happiness, we must also take an active role to create meaning in our lives.

“Creating meaning involves bringing order to the contents of the mind by integrating one’s actions into a unified flow experience,” writes Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. To give meaning to life, to achieve this “unified flow experience”, you need a purpose — an overall goal around which your lesser goals are clustered.

The path to purpose is different for each of us. Exercises like those I’ve shared over the past month — the big rocks, the three questions, and the lifeline — can help you identify your personal purpose, but often this process requires many years of experience and soul-searching. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t found your purpose.

And be aware that it takes more than cultivating purpose to make meaning out of life. To make meaning, you must also forge resolve. You must take your goals seriously. If you’re not willing to accept the consequences of the goals you set, or to put in the effort required to achieve them, those goals become meaningless.

Curiously, it can often be easier to find meaning and purpose by limiting your options. The more choices we have, the more difficult it is to maintain our resolve. “Commitment to a goal and to the rules it entails is much easier when the choices are few and clear,” notes Csíkszentmihályi. “When we can imagine only few opportunities and few possibilities, it is relatively easy to achieve harmony. Desires are simple, choices are clear. There is little room for conflict and no need to compromise.”

Because life is complex (and becoming more so every day), it’s vital to keep your psychic energy focused on the things that matter most. Exercising personal restraint and preferring simplicity can help you stay glued to your purpose, on your goals both big and small. Restraint and simplicity reduce the possibility of distraction.

But restraint and simplicity aren’t enough. When life gets busy and you feel overwhelmed, you must do more than just simplify your environment. At these times, action and intensity become your allies. “Harmony is restored to conscious indirectly — not by facing up to contradictions and trying to resolve conflicting goals and desires, but by pursuing chosen goals with such intensity that all competition is preempted,” writes Csíkszentmihályi. “Action helps create inner order.”

Action cures fear; apparently, it also imparts purpose.

The final piece to the making of meaning is self-knowledge, the process by which you sort through conflicting choices. Based on your personal history, preferences, and passions, you must filter the available options to select the goals that truly reflect who you are and what you mean to the world.

Example: At any given moment, I have many options available to me. Do I want to write another book? Do I want to speak at a conference in India? Do I want to continue to write about money? Do I want to study Spanish? Do I want to travel more? Less? And so on. Most of these options are good (by which I mean they’re positive, both for me and for the world). Who I am and what my life means is a product of the opportunities I choose to pursue.

Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to discover our life’s purpose though a combination of simplification, action, and self-reflection, be being true to who we are and what we believe, and be setting goals we find worthy of pursuing for their own sake. Short-term goals provide pleasure and enjoyment. By stringing a series of short-term goals together, life takes on form and structure. We make meaning and purpose.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Twilight of the Idols, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Later in the year, our discussion of Financial Independence will explore this notion in depth.

Before we can talk about financial freedom, however, we have more philosophy to cover. Over the next few months, the next portion of our journey will travel the trail of personal freedom. We’ll learn more about creating a life you love so that you die without regrets, so that you don’t reach your final day on earth feeling like something is missing.

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Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve asked you to do some exercises to get at the heart of what brings meaning to your life. First, I asked you to find your big rocks in order to prioritize your time and life. Next, I had you answer George Kinder’s three questions to help figure out what you really want from life. Today, I’m going to share a third and final exercise (which I picked from Jim Collins last year in Ecuador).

Before we continue, please grab a piece of paper and a pencil. Ready? Great! Here’s how this works.

Step one. With the paper in “landscape mode” (wider than it is tall), place one dot on the center of the left side. Place a second dot on the center of the right side. Draw a line to connect the two dots. Your page should look something like this:

Lifeline: connecting the dots
Place two dots on your paper and then draw a line to connect the dots.

Step two. For the next step, you’ll need to do some guesswork. Based on what you know of your health and your family history, estimate how long you’ll live. I know there’s no way to be sure — you could be hit by a truck tomorrow, or maybe next week scientists will find the secret to living 1000 years! — but do what you can to best guess the date of your death. (If you need help, try one of the many on-line longevity calculators, such as the one at livingto100.com.) Once you’ve calculated your projected date of death, write it below the right-most dot.

Example: As my long-time readers know, the men in my family don’t live long. In fact, they often die on or around their fiftieth birthdays. Also, for strange reasons known only to the universe (or god), many of my family die on or around Independence Day. Thus, I often say that I expect to die on 04 July 2019, when I’m fifty. This may sound morbid, but I like to think of it as hedging my bets. I hope to live longer, but I’m fully prepared to have a short life.

Lifeline: date of death
Note your projected date of death at the right side of the line.

Step three. Below the left-most date, note your date of birth. On your paper, you’ve created a visual representation of your lifeline.

Lifeline: date of birth
Note your birth date at the left side of the line.

Step four. The next step requires a bit of math. You’re going to add a third point to your lifeline, a point that represents today. “Today” will fall on a different point on the line for each person. To find the proper place for you, divide your current age by your expected lifespan. For instance, I’m 45 and expect to live until I’m 50. For me, the point representing today is located about 10% from the right side of the line. If you’re 20 and expect to live until you’re 80, your “today” point would be about one-quarter of the way in from the left. And so on.

Lifeline: today
Place “today” at the appropriate place on your lifeline

Step five. Finally, choose a handful of major events from your life and place them on the lifeline in (approximately) the appropriate location. You might choose to list your first day of school, your wedding date, or the birthdates of your children. Add three to five major events to your lifeline.

Example: On my lifeline, I’ve included these key events: Writing “The Meanest Inchworm” in third grade, which was the first clue that I’d one day become a writer. Getting married. Writing my first blog. Selling Get Rich Slowly.

Lifeline: important events
Populate your lifeline with important events from your past.

Your lifeline is now complete. On the piece of paper before you, you have a representation of your life, both past and future. But before we’re finished, there’s one final step I’d like you to take. Using an eraser, a marker, or another piece of paper, mask everything on your lifeline that comes before today. Blot it out. Hide it. Make it go away.

Lifeline: blackout the past
Now cover up everything on your lifeline that occurred before today.

All of the time before today is past and does not matter. What matters is the future: today and everything after.

For folks like me, our projected futures contain just a small amount of time. Knowing that, I cannot wait to do the things that I want to do. If your projected future is short, you shouldn’t wait either. Don’t dwell on the past. You can’t change it. Focus instead on making the best quality tomorrow you possibly can.

On the other hand, if your projected future is long (say you’re 20 and expect to live another 60 or 80 years), cultivate patience. Take time. Make smart choices. Do what you can to set yourself up for future success. And don’t get down on yourself just because you’ve made a few mistakes in the past. The past is the past. Look how much tomorrow lies before you!

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In order to get things done, to be productive, to achieve greater meaning and happiness in your life, you need to make sure you’re spending more time on the big rocks and less time on the “sand” of everyday life (such as errands and email). But how can you determine which things are most important?

George Kinder is a Certified Financial Planner who divides his time between Massachusetts and Hawaii. Unlike many CFPs, Kinder isn’t just about the nuts and bolts of money. He moves beyond the numbers in an attempt to address the goals and values of his clients. “Without life planning,” he says, “financial planning is like using a blunt instrument on the organism we call the human being.”

Near the beginning of his work with each client, Kinder challenges her to answer three questions. These questions are designed to lead the client deeper and deeper into her desires until they reveal her goals and values, the things that bring her meaning and purpose. Kinder shared these questions in his book, The Seven Stages of Money Maturity.

  1. Imagine you’re financially secure. You have enough money to take care of your needs, both now and in the future. How would you live your life? Would you change anything? Let yourself go and describe your dreams. What would you do if money were no object?
  2. Now imagine that you visit your doctor. She reveals you only have five to ten years left to live. You’ll never feel sick, but you’ll have no notice of the moment of your death. What will you do in the time you have remaining? Will you change your life? How will you change it? (Note that this question does not assume unlimited wealth.)
  3. Finally, imagine your doctor shocks you with the news that you only have 24 hours to live. Nothing can be done. At this time tomorrow, you’ll be dead. What feelings arise as you confront your mortality? What did you miss? Who did you not get to be? What did you not get to do?

Answering the first question is easy (and fun). There are many things we’d do if money were no object. But as the questions progress, there’s a sort of funnel. They become more difficult to answer, and there are fewer possible responses. Life planning is all about answering that final question.

Note: For years, I’ve assumed these questions were original to Kinder. Recently, however, I discovered that in 1973 time-management guru Alan Lakein proposed a similar set of questions in his book How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. As part of his “Lifetime Goals Exercise”, Lakein asks readers: (1) What are your lifetime goals? (2) How would you like to spend the next three years? (3)If you knew now that you’d be struck by lightning six months from today, how would you live until then?

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You lead a busy life. There never seems to be enough time to do the things you really want to do, the things that make you happy. You’re too preoccupied with work, errands, and other demands placed upon you by the outside world.

In Work Less, Live More, Bob Clyatt argues that you can make time for the important stuff. The secret, he says, is to prioritize, and he offers an analogy. (I’ve learned recently that this idea may have originated with Stephen R. Covey in his book First Things First.) Here’s how it works:

Imagine you have a jar. You want to fill this jar with some rocks and some sand. What’s the best way to do it?

  • One way is to add the sand to the jar first and then add the rocks. If you did this, however, you’d quickly find that it’s impossible to make everything fit. With a layer of sand at the bottom of the jar, there’s no room for the rocks.
  • On the other hand, if you begin by putting the rocks in the jar, when you pour in the sand it will sift downward to fill in the gaps and the cracks between the rocks. Everything fits.

Here’s a video that demonstrates this idea in action:

This same principle applies to your personal life. You can achieve well-being by prioritizing the Big Rocks in your life. This may sound elementary, and you may be tempted to ignore this advice. Don’t. This one idea revolutionized my life. It made me happier and more productive. By focusing solely on the things that were most important to me — by making room for the Big Rocks — I was able to reclaim my life and time.

A few years ago, after first reading about this idea, I sat down and drafted a list of the things that were most important to me. I decided that my Big Rocks were fitness, friends, writing, Spanish, and travel. If these weren’t in my jar, I wasn’t happy. So, I made sure to squeeze these in before anything else. Once these rocks were in place, once these things were on my calendar, then I’d fill the remaining space with the sand — television, email, errands, and so on.

During the past year, I allowed the sand to squeeze out some of my big rocks. For instance, I stopped exercising. I used to say that “fitness is job one”. I grew complacent, though, and fell out of the habit of going to the gym. Fitness was no longer a job at all! Instead, I put more sand in my jar.

Last week, I sat down to re-examine my schedule and my priorities. I realized I wasn’t spending any time on Spanish or exercise. I immediately made changes. I returned to my Crossfit gym (which has been humbling) and I set aside time to study Spanish.

How can discover your Big Rocks? To construct your ideal schedule, you have to become clear on what your priorities are. We’ll explore a couple of ways to do that in the weeks ahead.

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5 June 2014

John Steinbeck on Good, Evil, and the Power of Choice

I’ve recently returned to the world of reading after many years away. For one of my first books back, I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and I loved it. It’s very much a “J.D. book”. East of Eden tells the storis of three generations of one family, and of the people in their lives. [...]

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4 June 2014

The Search for Meaning

Note: This article was supposed to appear on Monday, but I forgot to hit “publish” when I finished it last week. My apologies! Shifting from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control isn’t just important for happiness, but also for making meaning in your life, for obtaining personal (and financial freedom). [...]

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27 May 2014

Three-Blog Meetup: J.D. Roth, Mr. Money Mustache, and Tyler Tervooren this Thursday

Just a quick note to say that if you live in Portland, you ought to make your way to Sellwood Park this Thursday evening. You’ll be glad you did! Pete (better-known as Mr. Money Mustache) will be in town, and while he’s here, Tyler (from Riskology) and I have banded with him to host a [...]

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26 May 2014

Becoming Proactive

Julian B. Rotter developed the locus of control concept in 1954 as part of his social-learning theory of personality. Stephen R. Covey popularized the idea in 1989 with his best-selling The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Like Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Covey believes that we filter our experiences before they reach our consciousness. “Between stimulus and [...]

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19 May 2014

Permission and Control

As children, we’re conditioned to ask permission whenever we want to do something. You need permission from your parents to leave the dinner table or to go outside and play. You need permission from your teacher to use the bathroom. Even as adults, we feel compelled to request permission. You need permission from your boss [...]

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15 May 2014

What’s Your Very Best Life Advice?

Over the last couple of months, I’ve begun to use Reddit as my morning wakeup site. Over a cup of coffee, I scroll through pages of funny photos and interesting links until I’m fully functional and ready to work. One popular feature at Reddit is the AMA (Ask Me Anything) interview series, where famous folks [...]

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