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3 Tips for Designing Your Life

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

But according to Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, it doesn’t have to be that way.

In their book Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, they talk about how you can shape your life to get the goals you’re looking for. And I was struck by how well it ties in with mindful eating.

After all, with mindful eating, you have to pay attention to more than the food itself. All areas of your life impact why, when, what, how, and how much you eat, and where you spend the energy you get from the food.

With that in mind, here are 3 tips I’ve gotten so far from the book that you can apply to mindful eating, and your life as a whole.

Tip 1: It’s not about a single solution

One of the challenges with both life and mindful eating is that it’s easy to get stuck on the idea that only one path can possibly lead you where you want to go.

This shows up everywhere. For example, our culture talks a lot about soulmates, or finding your perfect partner, without acknowledging that you could be happy with more than one person.

It’s the same with jobs. You’re told that if you’re not enjoying the one you have, you haven’t found the right one, instead of thinking about how to make the job into something you better enjoy.

And think about diets or any rules around eating. If you’re not happy with your weight or some other aspect of your eating, you simply haven’t found the one diet that works.

But as Burnett and Evans point out: “There are many designs for your life, all filled with hope for the kind of creative and unfolding reality that makes life worth living into.” (p. xxxv)

Similarly, one of the things I appreciate about mindful eating is that it doesn’t require a single solution. You can experiment with different ways of eating, and different foods, and they’re all valid.

As with designing your life, it’s about finding a process that works, that supports you as you evolve and change over time. Or as the authors noted: “Pay attention to the clues in front of you, and make your best way forward with the tools you have at hand.” (p. 72)

Tip 2: Perfectionism doesn’t work

I’ve written before about the dangers of perfectionist thinking, but it’s worth revisiting.

The idea of perfectionism assumes that everything is static. It also assumes that some perfect state is possible to begin with, when it’s not.

Searching for a perfect solution doesn’t fit with design thinking, either. As the authors noted: “Designers embrace change. They are not attached to a particular outcome, because they are always focused on what will happen next – not what the final result will be.” (p. 6)

This also means designers recognize that failure is part of the process.

Consider this from an eating perspective. Diets are always focused on the outcome, typically to lose weight, and failure is something to avoid.

With mindful eating, though, you’re much more in the design mode. You recognize that there is no final outcome – life continues, and you have to keep eating no matter how long you’re on a diet. Instead, you pay attention to what’s worked, and if something hasn’t worked, you focus on what will happen when you try something else.

The other benefit to this is that when life changes and what used to work doesn’t anymore, you’re not stuck. You can simply reevaluate and look for more clues and experiment to find out how you want to move forward.

Tip 3: Reality wins

One of the other parts that I loved in the book was the description of gravity problems.

Gravity problems are things that we can’t do anything about, like gravity itself. Unless you’re going into space, you’re subject to gravity.

These are the issues that are too entrenched for you to change. They’re simply part of our world, and trying to magically get around them doesn’t help. For example, if you want to become a billionaire as a public elementary-school teacher, you’re probably out of luck.

And because you can’t do anything about these types of problems, you shouldn’t even think of them as problems.

As the authors point out: “If it’s not actionable, it’s not a problem. It’s a situation, a circumstance, a fact of life. It may be a drag (so to speak), but, like gravity, it’s not a problem that can be solved.” (p. 20)

They did add that they’re all for fighting injustice and big problems, but to be smart about them so you can take actions that will work instead of feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of it.

The difficulty is that we often don’t recognize these types of problems, and we fight the reality that some things won’t change, or not when and how we want them to. Except fighting it doesn’t work. Reality wins, every time.

I’ll share a personal experience of my own. Back before I lost weight, I had this vision of myself as a thin person, where I would look as if I had never gained weight to begin with. I wanted all traces of my larger body to be gone, and I thought that it would just happen magically.

Then I got a reality check. When you lose weight, your skin will still have stretch marks. Some of your skin will probably still be loose. You might also have areas where you wanted to lose weight but didn’t.

I remember especially struggling with this in relation to my legs. After losing weight, they were still so big, and I had these bulges over my knees that were a combination of remaining fat and loose skin. I could have had liposuction and plastic surgery, but I’d still have stretch marks in some areas, plus scars from the surgery. Even then, I might not have had legs that looked the way I wanted.

Instead, I opted for the approach the book suggests, and what we suggest in mindful eating: acceptance.

As the authors note: “When you accept it, you are free to work around that situation and find something that isactionable.” (p. 24)

For me, the actionable part was to simply work on getting stronger and learning to appreciate my body for all it does for me, not what I wanted it to look like. And even though I still have those big legs and stretch marks and bulging knees, I’m much, much happier.

What part of your life do you want to design?

It might be worth thinking about areas of your life that could use a design approach. And even better, think about if you’re getting stuck on a gravity problem.

If you have something you’d like to work on, also see if you think there’s only one right way to get there or meet your goal, or if you have a “perfect” image in mind. If you do, try to get rid of it, because those beliefs will only slow you down.

I’d love to hear any experiences you might have with designing any area of your life. And I’ll keep thinking about my own life design and how that connects with a mindful eating perspective.

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