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Alan Lakein Life Goals Exercise

Sep 5, 2021

I’m a fan of an old book on time management: How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life (1973) by Alan Lakein. The language and examples are a bit dated, but the content and ideas are timeless. Every year or so, I dip into it and learn some new insight about managing my time and priorities.

There is one exercise from the book that I do every two weeks as a discipline, and it is has significantly improved my quality of life. I often recommend to students and friends who are seeking clarity about their goals and life trajectories. It is called the Life Goals Exercise.

How to Do the Life Goals Exercise

To do the Life Goals Exercise, you need:

I recommend doing the exercise on paper, instead of electronically, because I find that I engage more fully and write slower on paper.

The steps of the Life Goals Exercise:

  1. At the top of a blank piece of paper write: What are my lifetime goals? Write freely for two minutes, without censoring yourself at all. You are not commiting to these goals, you’re just writing them down. Dream big. Perhaps you want to visit the moon. Run a major company. Dream small. You could go for a country drive with your family. Bake more bread. Try to list as much as possible.
  2. Once you’ve completed your two minutes of free writing, take another two minutes to revise and add to your lifegoals list. Perhaps there is a theme to your life goals that you only noticed once you were done the first draft. Add that theme.
  3. At the top of another blank piece of paper write: How would I like to spend the next five years? (For students and younger people, consider asking about three years instead of five.) Again, free write for two minutes. This question will help frame and specialize some of the topics that came up in the first question.
  4. Once you’ve completed your two minutes of free writing, take another two minutes to revise and add to your short-term goals list.
  5. At the top of another blank piece of paper write: If I knew now that I was going to suddenly die in six months, how would I live until then? A hidden hypothesis of this question is that your family will not be majorly impacted by your death, and you don’t need to make any preparations for it. You can imagine that you suddenly de-materialize and *poof* out of existence while your family and friends lovingly continue on their merry way. The question seeks to determine how you would life if you had a dramatically reduced lifespan. Are there things you’d prioritize differently? Again, free write for two minutes.
  6. Once you’ve completed your two minutes of free writing, take another two minutes to revise and add to your six-month goals list.
  7. Take a final two minutes to look at and revise your answers to all three questions.

To summarize the exercise: Free write about each of these questions for two minutes, and then take an additional two minutes to review and revise your answer.

  1. What are my lifetime goals?
  2. How would I like to spend the next five years?
  3. If I knew now that I was going to suddenly die in six months, how would I live until then?

Finish the exercise by reviewing and revising your answers to all three questions. You now have a written account of what you want to do with your life at a variety of time scales. This is a very useful thing to have.

Next Steps from the Life Goals Exercise

What can you do with such a document? Lakein goes on to suggest another exercise as a follow-up. Review your answers to all three questions, and pick out three answers to each question that will be your top priorities. Lakein calls these your A1, A2, and A3 priorities. Each question will have its own list. Once you’ve decided on your top priorities, you can start listing actionable items that will help you work towards those goals. For me, an A1 lifetime goal is to be a loving father to my daughter Mira. This is a broad and sweeping statement, and I make it more specific and actionable by listing things that I can do in the present to work towards that goal: sing nursery rhymes, make baby food, go for walks with Mira, and so on. I’m sure that still be working on this lifetime goal for the rest of my life, so it is good to update the specific tasks regularly.

My experience with maintaining an up-to-date lifegoals statements helps me to tie the day-to-day business of living in to larger and more meaningful picture. For example, I have to handle a lot of e-mail at work. It’s not especially rewarding and often feels like a chore. However, I find it easier to answer e-mails when when I frame that task as part of the bigger lifetime project of being a good teacher, or developing the Canadian mathematics education community.

Some people like to put their lifetime goals in clearly visible places, where they are likely to work on them. Other people create daily affirimations based on their lifetime goals that recite in the morning and evenings. I’ve never done either of these, but I do keep my top level goals in mind throughout the day.

I recommend doing the Life Goals Exercise several times, over a period of a month or so, until your answers to all three questions stabilize. Lakein notes that this exercise provides a momentary snapshot of your goals, and that you can improve the clarity and precision of that snapshot by taking it from multiple angles and vantages points. By doing the exercise several times, and comparing your answers, you’ll eventually stabilize on lifegoals that really mean something to you.

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