Building a Vital Life


How do you build a vital life? Over the past few months, I’ve been leading a professional development workshop series for faculty and staff at a local higher education institution, and we’ve been exploring that question. We had to start by defining what we meant by a vital life. When you are living a vital life you feel deeply engaged in your world and energized by the way you spend your time. To me, a vital life is a meaningful and purposeful existence, and that idea that we want to spend our time doing things full of meaning and purpose has been a point of consensus among the participants in our workshop.

The participants and I have applied some of the principles of life design articulated by Bill Burnett and Dale Evans of the Stanford University School of Design in their 2016 book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived Joyful Life. At Stanford, Burnett and Evans have pioneered a curriculum that uses the same principles used in designing a product—curiosity, experimentation, reframing, improvisation, and collaboration—to help students of all ages build productive, vital, and joyful lives.

It may seem a little daft to equate designing a product with designing a life, but the same principles can be applied in fruitful ways. For example, to design a product, you start with a problem—like how to listen to a lot of music without carrying around a big box of CDs. Then you build your way to a solution. Over the past two decades, product designers have incrementally solved this problem for us. We went from carrying around Walkmans that played a single CD to mp3 players that contained downloaded music to smartphones that carry downloaded music and also allow us to stream tunes from music services, giving us access to what seems like an infinite number of tunes. Designers didn’t move us from Walkmans to streaming services in one step. They started with where they were—that Walkman that played one CD at a time and the problem of carrying around those bulky CDs.  Over time, designers brainstormed and experimented. They built some new technology and tested it. They improvised and experimented some more. They developed more new technology. They reframed. The old model was that you sold music one album at a time, but companies tried various business models. They sold us digital tunes one at a time. Then they offered streaming services that allow us to subscribe to huge libraries of music. In other words, they reframed the way they packaged music. A lot of people working on several different fronts built their way forward to a set of products and services that gave us more flexibility and more variety in enjoying our music.

You can design a life that brings you joy and satisfaction using the same principles.  Start with where you are. In other words, you approach your life with beginner’s mind. You think about the kind of life you want to achieve and the kind of life you currently have. You figure out what is working for you in achieving that kind of life and where things could use some tweaking. Then you begin experimenting. You see what works and discard what doesn’t. You improvise and experiment some more, building your way toward a life that feels vital. 

Building a vital a life is an ongoing process. What works for you at this stage in your life may not work in another stage. Human lives are in a constant state of flux. You change jobs, move, have children, face an empty nest, or need to care for aging relatives. All these new circumstances require you to adjust—to tweak or make major changes in order to maintain a sense of vitality. Some problems are easy to solve, and some require a lot more creativity and resolve, but with sustained commitment, we can build more vital lives.

One of our workshop exercises involved tracking how participants were spending their days to determine when they felt engaged, energized and in flow. Using a simple graphic tool called the Good Time Journal that Burnett and Evans designed, each person tracked his or her major activities for a week to ten days. The goal was to identify the activities that made them feel engaged and those that were energizing.

The two don’t always go together.  Some activities might be thoroughly engaging, but they might also be exhausting. For example, I find that when I answer email, I am thoroughly absorbed in the task, but an hour spent answering email can also drain my energy for other work. It is also important to notice when your day is packed with activities that are neither energizing nor engaging.

The exercise also helped us notice when we were in flow—a concept identified by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  “Flow” describes those times when you are so completely absorbed in an activity that you lose track of time, not because you are stressed but because you are feeling competent, calm, and completely engaged. Burnett and Evans call it “engagement on steroids.”

This process of paying attention to how we spend our time is an important part of life design. So much of the time, we move through our days on automatic pilot, paying little attention to how we feel as we perform various tasks and participate in various activities. Paying attention to how we are spending our time and assessing how we feel as we take different actions can be surprisingly revealing. As Burnett and Evans put it, “Focused attention on engagement and energy can provide very helpful clues to wayfinding your path forward.”  

Whenever I lead a workshop, I make it a point to work through the activities that I ask the participants to complete. I had completed the Good Time Journal activity when I first read Burnett and Evans’ book, but since the structure of my life has changed a lot in the ensuing months, I found it helpful to complete it again. One of the most important insights I gained this time was related to reflection. As I looked through my record of how I spent my time over two weeks, I found that any time I was involved in an activity that allowed me time for reflection—gardening, journaling, sitting on my porch with the cat on my lap, reading poetry—I was engaged AND energized. But more significantly, that engagement and energy carried over into the activity that came next. In other words, I could be more effective in working with a client or writing a blog post if I had taken some time for reflection during the day. I could even be more present for my loved ones if I also reserved some reflective time for myself. (And of course, the logical corollary was that to be reflective, I had to unplug from my computer and all other electronic devices.)

Sadly, as important as reflection was to my sense of vitality, my Good Time Journal revealed that I spent precious little time doing it. And that’s where that process of experimentation and improvisation has come in. Since I noticed the importance of reflective time and the limited time I spent doing it, I have made scheduling reflective time a priority. I have changed up my morning routine to allow me to spend a little time journaling and reading poetry most mornings. I have made a point to block off some two or three hour time slots marked reflection and I’ve put my computer away during those periods. It’s only been a few weeks, but already I’m feeling less frazzled and more, well, vital.

I recommend Burnett and Evans’ book and the Good Time Journal activity as good tools for helping you build a more vital life. And I’d love to hear from you about strategies you use to assess how things are working for you and adjust the way you spend your time to increase your own vitality.