Design thinking can be a fantastic tool in designing your life.
Design thinking has helped me create new products, imagine new retail concepts, & solve other abstract challenges. It has also helped me to design a better life for myself. In fact, I believe design thinking may have helped save my life and that it has the power to save the lives of others.
Design thinking didn’t help me survive death from an airplane crash or a charging moose. What it did do, was help me address a much slower but equally lethal health threat: the heavy stress from feeling a loss of control in my life.
My Personal Downward Spiral
Not too long ago, I went through a period of massive change. I was promoted into a position of much greater responsibility at work. Concurrently, I was also navigating life as a new father to my two children. These were changes I experienced while living in a new city with few friends and no family in the area to lean on.
I became overly stressed. I quickly found myself feeling like I wasn’t excelling at the things that mattered most to me. I started to “rationalize out” important aspects of my life. I stopped exercising. I stopped watching what I was eating and started “stress” eating. I became more distant from my closest of friends. I stopped taking the time to reflect deeply, to have meaningful conversations with friends & family, to do the things that made me happy.
I started feeling like I was losing myself. I felt suffocated from the weight of stress, the feeling of dissonance from not excelling in the important parts of my life. I felt disconnected and alone.
I was also constantly tired. I went through a vicious cycle of not sleeping well, to overly-caffeinating myself during the day to compensate for this lack of sleep, back to not being able to sleep when it was nighttime again. I was going through life exhausted and feeling fueled only by fumes.
The lack of sleep combined with excess stress quickly started to take a toll on my physical & mental health. I wasn’t happy and my body told me the same. As strange as it may sound, I literally felt that my body was dying and that I was on a crash course for developing some type of life-threatening illness.
I was far from my “best-self” and I knew that I urgently needed to make a change.
I didn’t realize it until months later, that I was about to use design thinking to redesign my life.
Self-Empathy – A Great Starting Point for Redesigning my Life
I knew I had to make an immediate change and I began a quick, yet intense evaluation of my life to understand why I was feeling such loss of control. It was time for me to do what I always preached was important to do for others but had clearly failed to do for myself: empathize.
Self-empathy sounded like it should be easy; I was already feeling sorry for myself which seemed like a great start. However, I was only scratching the surface and not truly understanding why I was feeling the way I was. As a brand marketer working with consumers, I’ve been trained to use tools like interviews and ethnographies to gain empathy but wasn’t used to conducting a similar exercise with myself.
My magic tool that delivered the greatest insights into myself: an old-fashioned paper journal.
I started a personal journal to build deeper insights into my own behavior and state-of-being. While I felt I already knew who I was and what was important to me, I found that journaling helped to surface insights and themes that I was not acutely aware of until they were painfully obvious on a sheet of paper.
I put no restrictions on my writing; I wrote down any thought or feeling that came to mind without editing. It felt scary at first, even knowing that I planned to keep my journal private. However, I quickly found journaling to be mentally freeing and an activity I grew to cherish.
I highly recommend starting a journal as an immediate first step for designing your life.
Defining My Needs, My Wants, & My Problems
The stress, anxiety, and lack of sleep made it difficult to make sense of what was going on in mind. My journal helped give me the structure and insights I needed to help clearly identify my problems.
My journal surfaced a number of needs. The need for the support of family & close friends. The need for rest and taking care of my health. The need to let go of long-lasting burdens. The need to live a life of courage and without fear. The need to dream and push myself.
I synthesized the insights from my journal to better understand what was driving my needs and define the specific problems (aka. “life design challenges”) that I needed to address immediately.
Had I been using design thinking explicitly, I would have taken my problems and put them into “How Might I…” statement(s) in preparation for ideation. Based on my journal, one of my statements would have been: “How Might I Simplify My Life?”
Ideation – Inviting Myself (& Others) To Devise Any Idea That Could Make Me Feel Better
Problem statements/themes in hand (I had 4 themes), I began brainstorming ideas as to how I might address each challenge. I listed each theme at the top of its own sheet of paper and tried to generate as many different ideas for potential solutions as I could.
I chose to ideate by myself first, as this “design challenge” was deeply personal and I didn’t feel comfortable sharing the entirety of what I felt with most people. After my initial brainstorm, I did choose to supplement it with some ideas from a few folks whom I believed excelled in my target problem areas.
Sampling of ideas that surfaced from my ideation (How Might I Simplify My Life?):
- Don’t do it alone, lean on others, especially close friends and family
- Put myself out there with my friends, even if I’m worried about being judged or misunderstood
- Eliminate “ankle-biter” activities and either structure a way to get them done through automation or delegate. Make some hard decisions and cut, cut, cut.
- Develop a purely functional AM routine that prepares me to tackle the day and saves my decision-making stamina for the more important decisions beyond what to eat for breakfast
Prototype – Creating The New Playbook For My Life
I paired some of the key insights from my journal with my favorite ideas from my ideation, and put them into a notebook that I frequently use for ideation and deep reflection. This became my working prototype or my so-called “playbook for my life”.
(Thank you Jump Associates for this awesome notebook – I’m putting it to great use!)
I’m frequently surprised by how often people get thrown off by the prototype stage, thinking it needs to be something super elaborate. Don’t fall into this trap, it doesn’t need to be an alpha version sketch of the next iPhone. It would also be a shame to nail the planning components in designing your life, only to get stuck by trying to perfect the prototype. It should just be something, anything that takes some sort of physical form so that you (or others) can interact with it.
My prototype playbook had some pretty straight-forward guidance for simplifying my life including:
- One cup of coffee per day, no caffeine after 4pm
- Get 6+ hours of sleep per night
- No bright lights/phones while laying down in bed before bedtime
- 10,000 Fitbit steps a day or equivalent level of movement
Testing My New “Me”
One of the best parts of using design thinking for your own life is that you can implement each stage immediately. There is no organizational buy-in, no coordination of facilities, participants, or workshops. The only buy-in and resources needed come from you.
I couldn’t wait to test my prototype and see if my solutions were actionable and addressing the right challenges in my life. After all my self-reflection & ideation, I couldn’t wait to “design-do” and hopefully regain control of my life.
I actually started feeling better and more in control even before I tested my prototype playbook. My journal helped me to release the tension in my mind and understand what was going on in my head, while the ideation helped me feel like I was proactively taking action and in control.
I was amazed with how quickly I saw results after implementing my prototype. Simple steps like eliminating PM caffeine intake and developing an AM/night-time routine paid off immediately. I instantly felt better and started sleeping more soundly within days. I also felt less stressed at work and realized for the first time how much excess caffeine was exacerbating my general feelings of stress.
There were many other components of my prototype playbook geared at simplifying my life (the above is just a very small sample). Many of the components I’ve kept, some I’ve eliminated or continued to tweak.
Design thinking helped me regain control of my life and I believe it can provide similar results in the lives of others which is why I feel compelled to share my story. I hope I’ve convinced you in the role that design thinking can play in designing your life, whether it’s a better career, a better lifestyle, a better anything.
As you think about New Year’s Resolutions, getting healthy, being your best self, keep in mind that design thinking can play a positive & powerful role in designing your life.
Cheers to a safe & healthy start to 2018 and I wish you all the best in this New Year!
-The Accidental Design Thinker
- ‘Designing Your Life’ by Bill Burnett
- ‘The Achievement Habit’ by Bernard Roth