Lifestyle design is all the rage.
Think bikini-clad YouTube personalities proselytising the four hour work week and banging on about their #blessed existence.
As you sit in your artificial cubicle like a depressed little corporate cucumber, do you enviously imagine your own semi-retirement?
If so, let’s talk life.
What is lifestyle design?
Lifestyle design means consciously crafting your existence around what matters to you the most
In other words, taking agency in your existence.
Popularised by Tim Ferris and fuelled by the online revolution, many equate this with the freedom of digital nomadism.
In reality, it means whatever you want it to mean.
Whether that’s owning a single pair of smelly minimalist socks or joining a sustainable intentional living community, it’s entirely up to you.
Why is it important?
Society shapes our lives through implicit rules and expectations.
Go to school, learn that it’s bad to eat blue tac, then assimilate additional factoids to supposedly prepare you for a semi-respectable Monday to Friday life of social contribution before letting loose at the weekend.
You follow the acceptable path, making mom and pop happy.
Often these conventions go unquestioned, until you realise in middle age that you’ve leant your ladder against the wrong wall.
While the societal machine prepared you for a nice respectable accountancy role, you realise that you were destined to be a dolphin trainer all along.
Rather than leaving it too late, until responsibilities accrue, and abandoning those dolphins to half-hearted instructors, it’s better to embark on the lifestyle design process earlier…
When you still have the opportunity to choose what makes you warm and fuzzy inside.
How to design your life
My intention and hope is that this lifestyle design advice can be dispensed without coming across like a twat. We’ll see.
Avoiding the pitfalls of fantasising about a utopian fix for our current reality requires a counterintuitive approach.
While lifestyle design seems grand and all-encompassing, we actually need to start small.
Forget about your entire life.
Instead, If you had all the money in the world, imagine what would your perfect day look like.
Or, how you’d fill your time if you weren’t getting paid.
In other words, what would you do for free with no promise of external reward?
Now, list out your daily activities.
These activities will likely be the ones you find most nourishing and either transport you into a state of flow or leave you feeling pretty darn good.
Could be exercise, drawing or playing tiddlywinks.
This should show what’s really important to you, demonstrating exactly what you’re working towards in life.
By focusing on the micro, you define the macro.
This is the point at which your average day sounds so great you feel like you’ve made it.
Now, this exercise isn’t theoretical, but practical.
Which of your identified activities can you incorporate into your life right now?
I mean today.
If they don’t require material resources, why wait?
Is your list surprising or not? If so, you may be chasing the wrong goals.
This is where lifestyle design and conscious decision-making helps.
Why this works
When you imagine life as a whole, it’s easy to get sucked into various cultural clichés, like money making you happy.
Savvy marketers sell change, the dopamine hit of something different.
And what could be more enticing than a life of luxury and leisure when you’re chained to your current responsibilities?
We buy into this fantasy because it represents an escape from our immediate existential angst.
Exposure to gleaming white smiles on billboards is enough to birth such preconceptions.
Combined with social mimicry, which contends that all desire is contagious, it’s no wonder we’re seduced by the Instagram-filtered lifestyle aesthetic.
But what we seldom realise is that the polished social media lifestyles we see aren’t a nostrum for our psychological ills.
Whereas this big glorious picture seems like a blanket fix, wherever we go, there we are.
One specific way we deceive ourselves is through the illusion of accumulation.
More specifically, the belief that accumulation is a pre-requisite for the happiness we so desperately seek.
What do we seek to accumulate? Namely money, prestige and power.
The fallacy is that once you possess enough of these resources, you can finally start enjoying life.
But it’s not true.
Although there are evolutionary precedents for such psychological hoarding, accumulation is often just desire disguised as pragmatism.
You can live the type of life you’ve postponed right now if you optimise for the most important resource of all…
Whereas accumulation appears to the budding lifestyle designer a pre-requisite for freedom, it often has the opposite effect.
Generating significant wealth or fame requires significant upfront energy investment and ongoing maintenance.
If anything, focusing on accumulation can steal the very freedom we seek.
Instead of material wealth, the main currency we should optimise for is time.
With more time, we have the freedom to choose how we use it.
By investing in the activities that generate more personal joy, happiness is an inevitable byproduct.
Obviously, not everyone can optimise for free time, especially with the expectations of a boss or family to consider.
This is where living by sensible values can help.
Values are the guiding force of life planning and life purpose.
Unsurprisingly then, they’re also the bedrock of lifestyle design.
Your values essentially outline the type of person you’d like to become, which then guide your actions accordingly.
For example, if kindness and compassion are your core principles, it’s unlikely you’ll seek to acquire obscene wealth through dishonest means.
In contrast, if learning and curiosity are foundational, it’s probable you’ll act congruently and invest in your continuing education.
Defining your values and agreeing on them ahead of time with loved ones can help avoid the accumulation trap.
Could taking a pay cut and transitioning to a more flexible job help?
Would reducing household expenses provide the flexibility your family seek?
Discussing the adoption of new values and integrating them into your group identity allows everyone to work towards the same aim.
However, there is a caveat…
When we talk of lifestyle design, there’s inevitably a bunch of snowflakes that want to have their cake and eat it.
They want to live the laptop entrepreneur lifestyle supping a pina colada on the beach and watching the money roll into their bank account.
All without doing any actual work.
They want the juice without squeezing the lemons.
It’s no surprise, when we see social media influencers displaying their perfectly manicured existences.
While they stroll down to a beach in Bali for an early morning swim, we’re sniffing someone’s smelly armpit on a busy commuter train.
It’s enough to drive anyone insane with envy.
Lifestyle design, however you cut it, requires sacrifice.
Even if you adopt the minimalist approach, optimising your life for greater time and freedom likely requires that you become comfortable earning less and relying less on material wealth as a source of satisfaction.
This could be a personal sacrifice or even affect friends and family, especially if you move to a different town or job to save money.
Creating autonomy in your life might even eliminate free time in the short term, especially if you’re building a business to provide for your lifestyle later on.
Why you need less than you think
When using this process of lifestyle design, you might be shocked to discover your image of an ideal day doesn’t match your preconceived idea of the perfect big picture.
If you’ve seen through the illusion of accumulation, appreciate the value of true freedom and reflected on your values, you might notice that many of the activities on your list are already accessible.
Instead of deferring them until a future someday like retirement or when you’re rich and famous, you can have them now.
Many of the most nourishing activities, as demonstrated by research, are cheap or completely free.
Examples include going for a walk in nature, enjoying a coffee with friends, joining a group exercise class, reading a good book or practising a new skill.
If you imagine having the freedom to engage in these activities once you’ve “made it”, you’ve got it backwards.
Happiness-inducing activities aren’t made possible by making it, but rather they create the right conditions for making it.
That’s to say, happiness leads to success, not the other way round.
Often, when you become intentional about lifestyle design, you become more focused on that which provides the highest emotional ROI.
Think people, places and activities.
My personal idea of the dream life is that of the Renaissance Man.
Think back to some of the most accomplished historical figures, who often through great intellect, ability and/or family wealth possessed the time and freedom to become multi-domain polymaths.
That’s my idea of happiness. The option to exhibit intellectual and practical curiosity and see where it takes you.
My previous assumption was that such an existence was contingent on accruing sufficient wealth.
But this was a false assumption.
We fortunately live in an age of flexible working and a literal educational utopia, with access to the sum of combined human knowledge in our pocket.
The current fantasy of many is to live a life of unbridled leisure, but this existence would soon become stale.
When you can do anything you want, nothing holds any intrinsic value.
One long holiday can become one long nightmare.
Instead, humans by their nature are progress machines, motivated by skill acquisition and growing competence.
Rather than dreaming of kicking back on a beach, choose a challenge and focus on developing a craft.
Don’t become mesmerised by millenials selling their version of hope for YouTube views and ad revenue.
Lifestyle design doesn’t have to be complicated, requiring a complete existence overhaul.
It’s often not about the big picture, but the small adjustments you can make today.
It’s a way of intentional living that allows you to maximise your life for immediate happiness-generating pursuits.
So start small and get crafting.