A New Year's resolution is the easiest thing to make—and to break. If you're looking to make a positive, more enduring change in your life we've got a far better system for you, and it involves a bit of good ol' design thinking. Ayse Birsel's "Design the Life You Love: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Meaningful Future" is the result of decades of the award-winning designer's experiences and wisdom, distilled into a concise process for redesigning your life in a realistic, do-able way.
The reason New Year's resolutions often fail is because they're vague, singular desires absent any context; and without any system to drop these desired elements into your existing life so that you can consistently revisit them, they don't stand much chance of sticking.
Birsel's system, in contrast, consists of the same tried-and-true methodology she applies to design problems. The radical jump here is that she's figured out how to apply this approach to something far more complicated than a mass-produced object or a system of office furniture: Your actual living, breathing, day-to-day life as it pertains to both you and the people around you.
Design is about identifying and working within given constraints to arrive at new and better solutions. Life, just like a design problem, is full of constraints: Time, money, age, location, circumstances, etc. You cannot have everything. If you want more, you have to be creative about how to make what you need and what you want coexist. This requires design thinking.
This book is not the kind that you save for that trans-Atlantic flight; it is not meant to be plowed through in a singular, intensely cathartic sitting. Instead it consists of an insightful, linear series of mental and creative exercises, including some on-paper warm-up routines to get you into the right brainspace, meant to be attended to twenty minutes at a time. Each builds on the one before it. By the end of the four-step process you'll find you've not only reached some surprising insights, but have inadvertently created a blueprint for how to live a more fulfilling life--one more in line with your true desires than the one that the random realities of being a member of the workforce is likely to have handed you.
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The structure of the book means you can fit this into your schedule no matter how busy; the exercises can be done in the morning, the evening, in between meetings, on the subway, virtually any time and place where you have the book with you. You're meant to take a break in between to attend to your regular life, and indeed I found the in-between time just as helpful as the book exercises themselves, because you have a chance to reflect, sleep on things, let things sink it, let new mental connections form. Leave the book--conveniently colored red--in a prominent place, and at some point the next day you'll spot it amidst the clutter, and be drawn back to it for the next round of exercises.
I don't want to spill Birsel's precise methodology here--or her answers to tough questions like "What if the life someone designs doesn't lead to happiness?"--because you'd be better served undertaking her specific exercises, and reading said answers, yourself. But to give you the general idea, she's devised a four-step process that has you first deconstruct your life into its actual components; establish, via inspiration and metaphor, alternate perspectives true to you; reconstruct your life's components into several novel configurations utilizing these new perspectives; and finally marshal all of this to create the blueprints to manifest your exciting new life designs.
Birsel's four step deconstruction process
Those four steps comprise the information-gathering, idea-generating phase of the book that allow you to create the new designs. But the best designs in the world are no good if you can't get them into production, so the last part of the book provides suggestions for actual implementation. Here, again, design thinking is required, of the sort that will be familiar to those of you who have seen things through right to the manufacturing phase.
Think of the steps you'd need to take to get an actual product into existence: You must first model it to be sure all of the parts can fit together; you might need to acquire new skills to tackle a new material; you must consult with the engineer to see if this part you've designed can be molded; you produce renderings to visualize the object in context; and of course you must create prototypes, to be sure the thing doesn't collapse under load. Practical success cannot occur without undertaking these crucial steps, and here suggestions are offered as to how these can be applied to the complicated business of life.
The brilliance of Birsel's methods is that they don't impose any particular principles onto your life, but instead use the exercises to draw out the problems and solutions most relevant to you. And if you run into a dead end during the exercises, Birsel provides plenty of sample executions of the exercises done by others she's workshopped with, from fellow creatives to business executives. While their answers may not track with yours, seeing how multiple people from various walks of life have completed the exercises can provide helpful perspective.
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Now that the holidays and the gift-giving is done for the year, we'd suggest you buy one last present, this book, for yourself. And to begin the New Year not with unfocused resolutions, but with a coherent life plan based on practical design thinking from an accomplished woman who's lived it.
The point of Design the Life You Love is to have an original life that is coherent with who you are--a life that feels like you, that looks like you, that is you. It is using design process to think differently about life; imagining positive possibilities within given constraints; taking risks; asking "what if" questions to think anew; prototyping, testing and tinkering, and prototyping again; and maybe being rewarded for it with a life well lived.
Some practical notes:
- The exercises in the book require paper to sketch and write on. Space is provided within the book itself, which means if you purchase the Kindle edition, you should plan to have a sketchbook or some loose paper handy as well.
- While ample space is provided within the physical book to draw and write on, since we were photographing the book for this review, I refrained from marking up the pages and instead used loose paper for the exercises. I actually found this helpful as I could not only spread the pages out across a desk to view all at once, but also because the feeling of having infinite paper to go through led me to experiment more, cranking out multiple versions of answers. While your mileage may vary, it often wasn't until the third or fourth iteration that my answers began to make the most sense to me.
- If any of you have already completed the book, please leave us your impressions below!