If you are interested in personal development, you are most likely familiar with a variety of methods to effectively manage your time, energy, relationships, and career. These tools are designed to get the most out of each part of your life. But when you are blinkered into looking at each area in isolation, you might lose sight of the bigger picture: your life in its entirety.
Your life is not a list. Rather than managing each aspect of your life separately, life management is about integrating all the moving parts of your life. In contrast to traditional task management, this holistic approach provides the foundations for a more creative, productive, happy life.
A spectrum of philosophies
There is great variation in the way people approach structuring their lives, with different approaches to planning, goal setting and decision making. At the extreme ends of the spectrum, there are two common approaches to living one’s life.
The first approach is to live for today. As Małgorzata Sobol from the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Warsaw puts it, people in this category “prefer what is current to what has already happened or what will occur. These people can be characterized as present time oriented.” While this attitude can be hedonistic (focusing on pleasures and neglecting the past and the future) or fatalistic (enduring the present with resignation), a carpe diem attitude can also be positive: being fully present in the “here and now” and being conscious of the value of each moment of life.
At the other end of the spectrum, we find the extreme planners, where meticulous control and extensive consideration of one’s life’s direction are thought to be the best ways to ensure success and overall well-being. This approach is more prevalent than you may think. In an article about life management, researchers note the “recent trend of hiring personal planners for everything from weddings to vacations and the large inventory of day planners in office supply and computer stores” — all proof of the widespread desire to better control our future.
But this desire for control can result in a mechanical approach to life, where everything is a list and each event is carefully planned; where each goal becomes a tick box exercise. This over-controlling and scattered approach can leave you feeling stressed, demotivated, burnt out, or even cause you to feel like a failure. In contrast, life management is about acknowledging the many facets of life, while seeing them as part of a whole.
The three pillars of life management
Professor Alexandra Freund, a developmental psychologist from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, identified three central aspects of life management. These three approaches are complementary: they should all be used in combination throughout your lifetime.
- Personal goals. Instead of creating multiple to-do lists, consider your life as a whole. By acknowledging that you are more than the sum of your parts, you can work on what researchers call intergoal facilitation. These are goals that overlap to increase the chance of both goals being achieved. As an example, joining a running club could increase your fitness and help you to meet new people.
- Self-regulation. Once you have selected your integrated goals (selection), you need to understand and manage your reactions to events happening around you. This self-regulation process involves practising new skills or seizing the right moment (optimisation), and finding ways to overcome obstacles to success (compensation).
- Age-related expectations. Finally, you may need to adjust your goals based on the phase of your life. Having the goal to buy a house right after graduating university would be impossible for most people, and would make life unnecessarily stressful. Having children is a goal many people decide to delay, or even forego completely. Consider your current context and priorities, and adjust your goals accordingly.
With practice, these three approaches can be used in combination to improve your wellbeing, productivity, and sense of achievement.
Practicing life management skills
Holistic life management is never “done and dusted” — it’s a constant work in progress of selecting integrated goals, regulating our reactions, and adjusting our expectations. Lifelong learning and the willingness to explore, make mistakes, and adapt are all essential skills to make the most of your life.
Let’s take the case of personal goals. Identifying your goals requires self-regulation as well as evaluating your age-related expectations. For instance, although external pressure might lead you to believe that you want to purchase a house, what you might truly want is security, which can be achieved in many other ways.
Now, consider your social life. Nurturing relationships is a great example of intergoal facilitation, as it can improve your wellbeing while building a support network that will increase your chance of meeting your personal goals.
There are many ways you can inject more intergoal facilitation into your life. Cycle to work rather than trying to fit in time at the gym, or listen to an audiobook when out for a run. Knitting, reading, or watching a film can be accomplished on the tube or bus. Always carry a novel with you; if you are unexpectedly waiting for any length of time, you can enjoy some unexpected downtime.
Practising these life management skills not only increases the time available to you, but can also increase the likelihood of you achieving your goals. Shift your focus from separate tasks to practice intergoal facilitation and visualise your life goals as being part of one overall outcome. This will give you the insight you need to ensure you are truly working towards what you want to achieve in life.