Don’t Do This
When trying to answer the question of what they most want, many people like to start out with the exact opposite. Make a list of what you don’t like and don’t want in your life.
Personally, I don’t like this approach. Not because I’m an unwavering optimist — it’s because it’s a purple elephant situation. Remember, don’t think about a purple elephant!
If you focus on the purple elephant — that’s what you’ll see. The brain can’t really differentiate between do and don’t, can and can’t. It’s basic, y’all.
So if you focus on what you don’t want, you could just end up bringing about more of that into your life. It also gets you in a funk listing out all the things that might be not so satisfactory or are going wrong in your life — and I just think that’s not the optimal state to cultivate in order to get perspective on what you do want.
Hope over fear, mmmmkay?
You need to be in a dreaming state.
You need to be in a “what the f- is possible” kind of state.
It’s very different to be in a dreaming-thinking-creative place for this task — not stuck in the FML mud.
So, what we’re contending with here is that it’s not that people don’t know what they want, it’s that they can’t choose between them. So they feel the potential to be pulled in all directions, that there are millions of things swarming around in their mind and in their imagination as to what they want, and it can be pretty overwhelming.
The easiest way to handle that then is to just not go there.
But if you, brave soul, do want to go there, the key to this task is actually about getting that all down on paper where you can physically sort it out, and then can start the monumental (I mean fun, I promise) task of prioritising a few select ones — those that will actually move the needle.
Here are six of my favourite journal prompts that I use to check in with what I want for life and for my business:
1/ Circle of Loves
Get your best pens out — for this one you’ll be drawing.
On a new page in your journal, or just on a blank piece of paper, draw a big circle.
Fill the whole page.
Inside the circle, write everything that you love and enjoy and want to have in your life. Keep going until you literally can’t think of anything further to add and there’s no room anyway.
This is a great task to get the creative juices flowing, to remind you how much greatness there is in your life already, and what is actually important to you.
To take this a step further, circle the ones that are really, really, really important to you. Maybe those are the ones to pay most attention to.
The beauty of this task if you do it over time is that this circle of loves becomes less aspirational, and looks more like a diagrammatic representation of your actual life.
What you focus on, you get more of.
Take a new page in your journal and divide it into 5 rows with 2 columns.
The 2 columns have headings at the top: Work and Personal.
The rows go as follows: 5 years / 4 months / 3 weeks / 2 days / 1 hour.
Now for each of the rows, under each of the headings Work and Personal, place your goals for those timeframes.
Write as many as you can, whatever you’re currently working on and also what you’d like to be working on.
This will help you get the big picture of where you are and where you’re heading — or where you’d like to be heading. It might show you a new goal that you hadn’t really given weight to before.
Then — pick 1 from each row to really focus on.
For your 5 year and 4 month goals, you could create separate collections in your bullet journal to track these and work on them. If you don’t — maybe ask yourself if that’s really something you’re serious about moving towards or you just feel duty bound to list it.
As for the 1 hour and 2 day goals — ask yourself if they are moving you towards your bigger goals, if they’re a good use of your time (scrap them if not), and if so — just do them!
This task ought to help you get an overview of what your priorities are. It might even give you some kind of reality check or wake up call that there is some kind of disconnect between your goals and where you want to be, and what you’re doing at the moment — which might indicate that your priorities are a bit off and you need to refocus.
The 3 week / 2 days / 1 hour timeframes can then help you course correct accordingly.
The ultimate value in this task lies in not revisiting it. Stay focused on those things that you circled and prioritised, and don’t be tempted to come back until you’ve completed them.
3/ Are / Should Be / Would Rather
This is a great reframing exercise.
For this task, take a new page and draw three columns. They’ll be headed “Are,” “Should Be” and “Would Rather.”
In each column as appropriate, list out all the things that you are doing at the moment, the tasks that you should be doing, and then the things that you would rather — or want — to be doing.
This will give you a feel for whether your actions and tasks are lying more heavily in the should be category, and if you’re doing enough of what you want to be doing.
Hint: if you’re doing too many “should be” tasks and not enough “would rathers” — chances are you’re going to feel a tiny bit bitter or resentful somewhere.
This task isn’t about suddenly deciding to be selfish and ditching all your responsibilities. It’s really just about seeing your life and your trajectory through a different lens and getting a feel for whether your life is set up in such a way that you’re actually happy and doing what you want to be doing versus just doing what you think you ought be doing.
It’s actually how I discovered that I wanted to be spending much, much more time outdoors and travelling, and less time in a job that didn’t facilitate that.
4/ Top 25 Wants
I love this task. Like, L-O-V-E it.
I’ve borrowed from an anecdote of Warren Buffet’s advice to his personal pilot who wanted to prioritise his career goals. Warren Buffet reportedly told the guy to list out 25 goals, and then circle the top 5, and then — forget the other 20.
This is a brain dump and a powerful focusing exercise.
For this, take a new page in your journal, and make a great big huge list of all the things that you want for your life.
To start with, it might be easy down to get a few down, but aim for 25, and after you get to 25, add a few more on. Go deep and go wide. I find that when you are done scraping the barrel, you get to the real gold.
So once you have this impressive and possibly overwhelming list of all the things that you possibly want for your life — circle the two that are most important to you.
I do this by roughly identifying the themes, and then choosing the one that is the most significant for that theme. From there, you might want to transfer those to a new collection, and do a brainstorm, or brain dump, or create an action plan —maybe even using another journaling task like the 5–4–3–2–1, or The One Thing below.
So take those top two desires — and give those your full and undivided attention.
I find that with that kind of focus and dedication, and lack of distraction from all of those other competing things — you’re more likely to achieve that desire, and to do it quickly.
How’s that for some shit hot specificity.
5/ The One Thing
So if you’ve identified a big-ass goal, or if you want to get clearer on how to move towards what you want — perhaps it’s time to deploy the One Thing.
The One Thing is actually an entire book by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan (go read it, it’s brilliant). The fundamental concept makes for an excellent journal prompt if you’re ever stuck on something or want to get a bit of clarity on how to move forward.
It’s literally asking yourself, “What’s the one thing that will get me closer to achieving X?”
So if you’ve got a project on the go, or a bunch of different tasks to be getting on with, or a whole lot of desires to contend with and you’ve skipped the Top 25 Wants (no, surely you haven’t!) — a great way to prioritise which action to take is to ask — which one of these is going to get me closer to my goal?
Or, the unspoken side of this is — of all my to-do list, what is not actually mission critical? What do I not really need to do right now?
In the context of figuring out what you want — many people will dismiss the things that they want as too scary, too unrealistic, too far away, too expensive, too difficult — insert excuse here.
But what if, instead of dismissing it, ignoring it, forgetting it, or burying it, you just stayed with it asked yourself simply, “What is the one thing I can do today that will get me closer to it?”
It might not be as scary, unrealistic, difficult, or expensive as you think. You might even find that you’re much closer to it than you realise — and then it’s just a case of mapping out the next step after that.
You are on your way.
The unexamined life is not worth living — Socrates
6/ 5 Whys.
So. You think you know what you want — on the surface.
More money, more freedom, more travel, more time… Am I close?
But have you ever gone deeper on those things? Like, much, much deeper?
Don’t forget the wise words of Notorious B.I.G. here. “The more money we come across, the more problems we see.”
Oftentimes the issue is that we are charging towards something that we think we want, only to discover that it's not what we want after all.
More often than not, we are looking for a feeling or an experience — but we don’t actually get that far because we stopped short at the superficial goals.
If you can get a bit deeper on your reasons for your goals or your desires — you might find a deeper or more meaningful truth.
So use the 5 Whys to get a deeper context or clarity on something you think you really want.
This is about having a total child-like open mind and asking yourself 5 why’s, each time exploring the response.
I thought I wanted to increase my income so that I could be travel more and be free — but the freedom was right in front of me the whole time. It was a choice I had to make — not something that I could buy with more money.
E.g. I want to double my salary this year.
Why? Because I want to travel more.
Why? Because I feel stuck where I am right now.
Why? Because I am doing work that I don’t enjoy much.
Why? Because you don’t get to just make money by doing what you enjoy.
Why? Work is supposed to be hard and not enjoyable…. Um. Right?
Hmmm. Game changer.
The issue here is not so much about my income level — it’s about what I am doing to create the income. The solution isn’t more travel — it’s about doing work that lights me up.
Resolving that takes me — and indeed did take me, thankfully — in a whole different direction.
… Moral of the story: 5 Whys is a powerful prompt.
It might even change your life.
If you can trace back your motivations or your drivers and get to the root of that thought or that desire, you might find some interesting things about yourself.
And they might be nice, good, comforting things to find out, or they might be a bit challenging. Par for the course, right?
Either way, it’s a decent opportunity to examine whether or not you really do want something, and possibly even to do a bit more work personal development work around it.
I hope you’ve gotten something from these — I know I have over the years.
These journal prompts are intended to help you dig in a bit more deeply about what it is that you want.
Dip in and out of them — they most definitely aren’t meant to be done all at once.
Some you might want to do on a quarterly or a yearly basis. Some might bring something significant up for you which you might want to use as a basis to set entirely new goals and action plans.
The overarching goal of these exercises though is to start to prioritise and get clarity around what it is that you are intentionally moving towards — how you organise your life to get what exactly what you want.
Having multiple goals or desires, consciously or subconsciously that may conflict or compete with each other for your time, energy and focus is not ideal.
Having a clear plan is.
That’s how you get exactly what you want in life.
Now. Go pick your target….
Have these journal prompts helped you at all?
Do you have a different journaling trick up your sleeve that helps you get clear on what you want?
I’d love you to share it with me — I get ultimate geek kicks from all things journalling and personal development!
And if you’re still struggling to figure out what it all means, maybe I’ve got something for you over at alexjournals.com.
Happy journaling, and keep me posted on your journaling journey!