How do you figure out what you want in life?
It’s a tricky question because if you’re reading this, you probably want many things. You may want a new TV, or a better-paying job, or some nicer clothes, or a vacation to Europe, etc.
The list of what we want has no end. In fact, if you were to write down every single thing that you want out of life, you’d probably end up with something that looks like a bucket list.
When we ask ourselves this question, what we really want is life to make sense. We want to feel like we’re taking the right actions, to achieve the right things, for the right reasons.
My hope is that reading this article will give you that clarity. We’re going to talk about how to figure out what you want in life by suggesting various exercises that force you to think deeply about what you want and why you want it.
How Do You Know What You Really Want From Life?
Now if you’re reading this article, it’s probably for one of two reasons:
- Reason #1 – You just can’t seem to drill down on exactly what it is you want from life. You have a vague idea floating around in your head, but haven’t taken the time to analyze them and create a clear plan for your future.
- Reason #2 – You’re actually quite clear on what you want in life, but you have a sneaking suspicion that you’re wrong about what you want. Even though you’re taking action every day, you’re not 100% sure if your actions are leading you to the right place.
If you’re here because of the first reason, then you don’t need to worry. This article will cover a bunch of exercises that will help you with how to figure out what you want in life.
If you’re here because of the second reason, that can be a little more daunting. After all, it can be tough to grapple with the fact that you’re wrong about what you want.
In life, we’re often told to trust our judgement and stick to our guns, but the truth we’re deluded by our minds much more often than we think. Because of cognitive dissonance, we have a tendency to rationalize decisions even when we know they’re not in our best interest.
Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation where we’re experiencing conflicting attitudes and beliefs, which makes us feel uncomfortable. To relieve the discomfort and take ourselves out of this state, our brain needs to alter one of the beliefs to restore balance.
For example, if you have a goal to lose weight, but then you grab a meal from Mcdonald’s, you’re in a state of cognitive dissonance.
On one hand, you have a goal to lose weight, which means you should be watching what you eat. On the flipside, you want a juicy cheeseburger with some fries. These two attitudes are in direct conflict — your brain needs to resolve the conflict by rationalizing the decision to binge on fast-food.
That’s why you’ll probably feel yourself thinking things like, “It’s only one meal, it won’t make a difference in the long run.”
The same principle applies when it comes to how to figure out what you want in life. If you have a desire to achieve a certain goal, but aren’t sure whether you’re aiming at the right thing, that’s an internal conflict that your brain needs to resolve.
If you leave this feeling unchecked, it’s possible you’ll continue to work towards goals that don’t represent what you actually want while your brain begins to rationalize those actions.
If you’re here because you’re unsure if you’re aiming at the right things, the following section will help you determine whether that feeling has any merit.
How To Figure Out What You Want In Life: 7 Tips
Inner wisdom can go a long way towards figuring out what you want in life. But as we’ve just discussed, your mind isn’t perfect.
That’s why in order to get a clear picture on what you really want out of life, you need to combine your inner wisdom with self-reflection.
Here’s a list of seven practical tips & exercises that are designed to help you drill down on an ideal future that aligns with your values.
#1: Figure Out What You Want Through Self-Reflection Questions
Self-reflection plays an important role in figuring out what you want in life. When we look inward, we gain insight about who we are and what we’re after.
One thing about life is that it’s always changing. Our social circle changes over time, our careers change, our natural interests and curiosities change — consistent self-reflection is the only way to keep up with these changes.
You should always be questioning why you’re doing the things you do. If you don’t, you can spend years, even decades, walking down a path that wasn’t meant for you.
Take some time each month to check-in with yourself. Ask yourself the hard questions that challenge your beliefs. Ask yourself the questions that you may not want to know the answers to.
If you find out that your current trajectory isn’t matching where you’d like to end up, then the answers you get will tell you exactly what needs to change.
Here are the five most powerful self-reflection questions that you should be asking yourself on a monthly basis:
- “What’s today’s number one action that will move me towards my 12 month goal?”
- “What are my values and do my current goals align with them?”
- “What’s my biggest demon and what’s one small step I can take to address it?”
- “How do I really feel about my personal relationships?
- “If I died today, what regrets would tear me up inside?”
#2: The 5/25 Exercise
The 5/25 exercise is a simple process that removes the fluff and shows you exactly how to figure out what you want in life.
It was popularized because of an alleged interaction between Warren Buffet and his pilot, Mike Flint. Supposedly, Flint asked Buffet for help with defining his goals and this was the process that Buffett suggested Flint go through.
At the Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders meeting, one audience member asked Buffett about the 5/25 exercise and he replied, “I can’t recall ever making a list in my life.”
Even though the story was fabricated, I’ve actually still found the exercise to be quite valuable. It’s built around a quote that Buffet himself said a while back: “The difference between unsuccessful people and successful people is that successful people say no to almost everything.”
In your life, not everyone of your goals holds equal weight. You likely have a bunch of goals that fall into the “nice to have” category, and a select few that fall into the “need to have” category.
The 5/25 exercise helps you center in on the goals that you desperately want to achieve, and removes the goals that drain your limited focus.
Here’s how to complete the 5/25 exercise:
- Start by writing down your top 25 life goals
- Circle the 5 most important goals from that list and cross out everything else
- Personally, I think 5 is too much. My personal preference is to get this list down to 2-3 after circling my top five.
- All of your actions should be driven towards achieving these 2-3 goals.
- You can use this for any timeframe — 3 month goals, 6 month goals, 12 month goals, etc.
#3: Use The Focusing Question To Figure Out What You Want
Answers come from questions, and the quality of an answer is directly tied to the quality of a question. When it comes to how to figure out what you want in life, The Focusing Question is the best possible way to prioritize your life around your deepest pursuits.
The Focusing Question comes from Gary Keller’s all time classic book, The ONE Thing. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the premise of the book is that the key to success is narrowing your focus.
Keller explains that if you focus daily on one high-priority action that significantly moves the needle in your life, you’ll be far more likely to achieve success. He argues that most of the stuff on our to-do list is just fluff designed to take away our focus from the “One Thing” that we need to be doing each day.
It may seem like an odd idea, but it’s 100% true. Each day, there are several activities that I can direct my focus towards.
But what’s the one thing that moves the needle the most? Well, its writing new content for this blog.
Writing more content means more traffic to this site. More traffic to this site means helping more people, and making more money. Helping more people and making more money opens up new opportunities, etc.
The bottom line is that publishing new content is the daily action that, if repeated over time, will make the biggest impact on my overall life-satisfaction.
The Focusing Question is what helped me come up with this answer:
- What’s the ONE thing I can do such that by doing it everything else becomes easy or unnecessary?
This question cuts right through the bullshit. It collapses all possible questions you could have about how to organize your life into one.
If you’re looking to apply this question to your life goals, you can adjust it a little and keep the same objective:
- What’s the ONE goal I can achieve such that by achieving it, everything else becomes easy or unnecessary?
Get a bunch of ideas out on paper and then slowly weed out the non-essential. Eventually, you’ll be left with either a single goal or a single action that you should be dedicating 90% of your attention to.
#4: What Puts You In The Flow State?
When was the last time you sat down to work on something and just felt “in the zone?”
- For whatever reason, your body and mind were in perfect harmony.
- The internal dialogue that usually veers you off-task was nowhere to be found.
- Time seems to fly by as you’re totally absorbed in the task at hand
This experience has a name, and it’s called the flow state. This concept was first popularized by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote a fascinating book titled, Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience.
In the book, he describes the flow state in this way:
“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback.”
Full disclosure, I’m in the flow state right now:
- My usual anxious thoughts are nowhere to be found.
- I haven’t looked at my phone in two hours
- I haven’t eaten today but I don’t even feel hungry.
- It feels like my mind already knows what the next few sentences need to contain even though they haven’t been written
Put simply, writing content for this blog puts me in the flow state. If you want to figure out what you really want in life, you need to find the work that helps you reach the flow state. Maybe it’s cooking, or drawing, or painting, or dancing, or playing chess, or performing surgery, etc.
It’s different for everyone, but we all have that one thing. That thing we can spend hours working on without it feeling like a chore. That thing that completely hooks 100% of our attention into the present moment. That thing that we really feel we can be the best in the world at.
Start deploying some self-awareness in order to figure out when and where you feel yourself achieving a state of flow. Recognize the moments in life where you’re working with complete clarity and confidence, because that’s the kind of work that you can build your life around.
#5: Future Self-Journaling
Most people have a general idea of what they want their future to look like:
- I want a nicer car
- I want a better paying job
- I want great relationships with my friends and family
The problem is that these notions are just too vague to be motivating. We’re at our best when we’re driven by a clearly defined future.
Future self journaling is the best way to define this future. It’s a well-known self-improvement journaling technique that breaks down each of your life into categories and forces you to set clear criteria for success in each of these categories.
It also forces you to write out what your future would look like if you continually gave in to your bad habits and chased instant gratification. This is where the exercise gets really powerful, because it brings the future consequences of your actions into the present moment.
After completing the exercise, you’ll have two things driving you — an exciting future to aim at, and a dreadful one to avoid at all costs.
I actually put together an entire blog post walking through step-by-step how to perform this exercise if you feel like it resonates with you.
- Related Article: How to Get Started With Future Self Journaling
#6: Start Breaking Some Bad Habits
One of the most damaging side effects of bad habits is clouded vision. When we’re stuck in self-sabotage, it’s hard to see what’s out there for us.
Let’s just start with the supposition that there are things you’re doing that you know you should stop. It could be hitting the snooze button, watching too much Netflix, eating too much, etc.
Now some of those habits you just won’t stop doing, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s just too much of a sacrifice, or you don’t have the discipline yet, or there’s a secondary payoff, etc.
However, there’s another subset of bad habits that you could stop doing. They’re not quite as damaging as some of your more toxic habits, but they are bad habits nonetheless.
When you start breaking some of these habits, your vision will clear a little bit. You’ll start getting a little more disciplined. Your willpower will increase. You’ll start to believe that you are the type of person who can change.
As this forward momentum builds up, you can start tackling some of the more damaging habits that are a part of your daily routine.
You can do this one by one, habit by habit, for an indefinite period of time. Now that doesn’t mean you’ll ever figure out exactly what you’re meant for in this life.
However, it does mean that you’ll be able to continually move away from the things you don’t want, and that’s not a bad start.
#7: Create A Fear List
“What you most want to find will be found where you least want to look.” ~ Jordan Peterson
We spend our entire lives looking for answers. We want life to make sense and feel like we’re moving towards meaningful goals.
Yet, at the same time, we avoid fear like the plague. We find ways to run from our fears and organize them out of our lives.
The problem is that our fears often tell us what we really want out of life. Fear signals to our brain that something is important — why else would it have such a significant impact on our behavior?
The meaningful choices you make in life are preceded by moments of uncertainty:
- The hesitation you feel when there’s an attractive man/woman that you want to approach
- The sense of uncertainty that comes with starting a new job or starting a business
- The sense of dread and anxiety you feel when you need to have a brutally honest conversation with a friend/family member
You don’t feel this wave of emotion when you’re deciding what to watch on TV, or going back and forth about what you want for dinner.
Fear only presents itself when we’re in conflict — we want something, but we’re too afraid to take the action required to have it.
It’s only when you start leaning into these fears that you figure out who you really are and what you really want.
So start thinking about all of the things you’re avoiding on a daily basis. What are the things that you talk yourself out of? What are things you continually tell yourself you’re going to do, but never take action on?
If you make this list, you’ll likely find that every single action involves a hidden fear that you’re too afraid to conquer — that’ll be enough to tell you exactly what you should be pursuing.
Final Thoughts On How To Figure Out What You Want In Life
Figuring out what you want in life isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Many of us have vague notions about the kind of future we want, but they’re often too cluttered or too vague to keep us motivated.
When you know exactly what you want out of life, you’re far more likely to take action because your goals and values are in complete alignment.
I hope that some of these exercises help you guys on your quest to build your ideal future.