Life has a funny way of getting in its own way: we get so busy, sometimes we forget to look up.
That’s why every now and then it’s important to take a step back and check in: How are we doing? Where are we going? What’s important now that perhaps wasn’t before?
Last weekend, I decided to carve out an afternoon to do a life audit and find out.
Life audit (n.): An exercise in self-reflection that helps you clear the cobwebs of noisy, external goals and current distractions, and revisit or uncover the real themes & core values that drive & inspire you. Also known as: spring-cleaning for the soul.
(Who doesn’t want that?)
I think everyone can benefit from a life audit, so I’m sharing my learnings and notes on my process here. (Update: I’ve started running life audit parties & workshops, too, if you’d like some extra guidance.)
In the hopes that you’re inspired to run your own life audit, here goes. Grab some tea, a pen and paper, and make yourself at home. Architecting a life takes time, after all.
100 post-its, 5 activities, 5 people, 1 afternoon.
100 post-its in 1 hour (Okay, 121)
The first part of my audit was originally inspired by a “100 wishes” exercise a couple undertook to “pair design” their relationship. I adapted the exercise for my life audit, and added several rounds of analysis along the way.
The first step is simple: take 100 post-its and write a single wish on every one. These can be any kind of wish or goal you’d like: no wish is too big or too small. Brainstorm until you reach 100 or run out of wishes.
It turns out that most people will stop at 30-40 post-its: they run out of things they’d like to do, and are relieved to find that’s the case. The smaller the number of goals, the more within reach, or so I’m told the thinking goes.
In my experience that did not happen. I had a lot of goals in mind: To publish a book. To visit all seven continents before I die. (Five down, two to go.) To fill my passport but know where my home is. To make something people love. To form & contribute to a peer suite of advisors. (More on that in a separate post.)
I wrote until I ran out of post-its. I blew past 100 wishes in less than an hour. I stopped at 121.
I was already excited.
Initial brainstorm complete, I started phase two and began my card sort, grouping my wishes into themes. Three categories emerged during my first sort: Personal, Professional, and Creative. This wasn’t quite right, though, because “Personal,” could really apply to every goal on my list: each creative goal was grounded in some personal core value, and the same was true of my professional aspirations. Things like getting speaking engagements, contributing thought leadership — these are “professional” goals of mine, but ultimately stem from my own personal commitment to knowledge sharing. I removed “Personal” as a category and went back to sorting.
I grouped and regrouped until I came to my top themes:
Some themes surprised me, some did not.
I was not surprised to see the Skills bar was high. I know I am happiest when I’m learning, so chasing learning curves has always been a priority for me.
On the other hand, the distribution on my chart for Adventure and Family at first seemed low given how important they both are to me. Yet it was precisely because these are so core to my interests that they didn’t show up as a “goal” or “wish.” I assume I’ll continue to travel as much as I already do, and stay close with my family, as much as I already am. I didn’t need to add a post-it to wish for them: they were already ingrained in how I think about the future. There were similarly interesting insights for each of my categories.
The original 100 wishes exercise I’d read about stopped there, but I wasn’t ready to stop just yet. Having a birds-eye view of my priorities was proving to be strangely exhilarating: with the first round of sorting, I felt a rush of clarity and adrenaline as I put together a picture of my life’s priorities.
But now I wanted to go deeper: I could sense there was more to be done.
At this point I was pacing around my room, circling my 121 post-its and scrutinizing for patterns and insights. (Yes, I was actually circling.) I had some thoughts about additional restructuring. I took a stretching break and grabbed some water. I rolled up my sleeves. I was just getting started.
Plotting wishes by time (all wishes are not made equal)
I looked at my well-oiled wish list. I had a clear view of what was important to me, and there was a lot. Where to begin? I noticed that every post-it could be further sorted into “a spectrum of when,” no matter what theme it fit into. Some skewed heavily toward the future, others toward the immediate present. Many were more simply ideals and values for how to live my day-to-day (with intention, empathy, and awareness). I thought of these as mantras or intentions to carry with me daily.
I assigned each post-it one of three timeframes:
Now/Soon: For wishes that were immediately actionable but in need of next steps and prioritization. i.e. “To publish a podcast series.” (Stay tuned!)
Someday: Milestone moments/long-term goal-posts. i.e. “To be spry at 80.”
Always/Every day: Deliberate intentions/mantras to live by every day. i.e. “To share what I’ve learned, in life and professionally.”
I have never been one to make a plan, so these categories felt more natural to me than putting dates on a calendar.
I looked at each theme again through this new lens, and classified each post-it once more, marking each by timeframe. I drew an arrow for my Nows, a star for my Somedays, and pinned a heart to my Mantras.
Once I did that, I could see more clearly all the things that I could do now but hadn’t prioritized, those I wanted to do at some point, and those I wanted to take on every day.
I paused with this new information. My priorities had naturally surfaced, and I could see my instinct for when to focus on what. The question was: did that breakdown align with how I currently spent my time? Now that I could see my priorities and timeframes on paper, I wondered: was I spending my time in alignment with the themes and intentions that mattered to me most, at the times that made the most sense?
The first thing I did to evaluate my “pointless to purposeful ratio” was to quickly jot down the five activities I spend the most time on. My results looked like this:
As expected, work took up a large portion of my time. That was the problem with this chart: it didn’t give me a full picture of how I choose to spend my time, outside of the office.
I removed work to see what my free time spent looked like, and evaluated. There were some areas I wanted to tweak (less Internet, more exercise), but overall, the exercise confirmed I was prioritizing the right activities. I’m already fairly diligent about making time for the things that matter outside of work (as I’ve written elsewhere): I just had to rebalance a little.
I had charted my values and aspirations, and I had my activities more or less in line with getting there. But there was still one area missing from my life audit: the people.
The law of averages says that your success is determined by the five people you spend the most time with.
If I was really going to take this audit seriously, I was going to have to do some thinking. Did I have the right people on my personal team to help me realize those 120+ goals, aspirations, and intentions?
Now, I’m not talking about “help” in terms of having someone in your network who can introduce you to someone who might offer you your next job. Those people are nice and obviously useful, but transactional if that’s the only reason you keep them around.
No, I’m talking about the people who inspire and motivate you to go after that thing that you’ve been thinking, talking, and dreaming about — every day. I’m talking about the people who challenge your ideas and push you to do better: the ones who help you when you’re stuck, who offer advice and act as a sounding board for whatever you’re working on at any given time. They are part role model, part mentor, part co-conspirator in creative endeavors.
Of course we all like to think we already surround ourselves with that type of person. But do we spend the most time with them?
This was a tough exercise for me, because it turns out—and I suspect this is true of many of us—I spend a lot of time with people who it’s easy to spend a lot of time with.
Don’t get me wrong: the people in both buckets are great — even those who I see more out of convenience than necessity are important to me. A handful even fit the “people who inspire me” category, and are exactly the type of I want to collaborate with and learn from.
But some of the most inspiring of the bunch — the ones I imagine in my mind to make up my own peer suite of advisors and collaborators — were noticeably missing. They barely made it into the top ten people I interact with.
These people are the most important people in my life, but we catch up only once, maybe twice a month. As much as we have a solid relationship, we don’t see each other often.
This made me sad, because these are relationships I value very much.
They are the friends and peer mentors where help given is mutual and thoughtful. Conversations are energizing and you each learn something new every time. Each contributes to the other’s happiness and wellbeing: you grow as they grow.
They’re the gems in my life, but compared to other relationships, they made up only a small sliver of my interactions. That needed to change.
Takeaways and to do’s
There were three action items that came from my life audit.
One: to shift my time and focus my energy on the gems in my life — the people who inspire me most—and to work on inspiring them, too.
Secondly: to find more gems and build a community around them. At the end of my life audit, having a community of creative collaborators and inspiring, motivated minds to meld with was the area that felt weakest.
Having moved to San Francisco less than a year ago, perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me. I was lucky to arrive with several close friends already here when I landed, which in many ways removed the urgency of building a community from the ground up. But it’s time to meet more good people, more thoughtfully, and work on forming a community with the care and deliberateness that sort of undertaking requires.
To build that board of peer advisors and community of co-creators and conspirators, I’ll need a little help, so on that last note I’m asking my friends (and you, dear reader) to introduce me to one quality person they know out here in the Bay area. If you know someone who fits the bill out here, I would love to meet them.
Last, but certainly not least: I felt compelled to share what I learned and encourage others to try out this exercise. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you feel inspired. There is so much you can learn about yourself in a single Saturday afternoon.
Happy life auditing. Let me know how yours goes.
Update: Since publishing this post, many people have reached out wondering whether I’m available for life audit workshops, sessions, and 1:1s. If you’d like a little more guidance and are interested in joining a group workshop, bringing a life audit session to an event, or participating in a 1:1 life audit session, you can get in touch with me here.
Ximena Vengoechea is a user researcher, writer, and illustrator and the author of the new book, Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection. For more from Ximena, follow her here on Medium or subscribe to her newsletter.