A True North: Building A Map to The Life You Want to Live

Sunset at WineryBy Mala Nagarajan

When Vega or I tell people that we’ve held our own personal strategic planning retreat every year for the past 12 years, we’re apt to get curious, astonished looks. And as often as not, we’re asked what our secret is and how to get started.

In 2003, our lives were out of control. Besides working full-time, our days were filled with endless commitments to community work, to our friends, to organizing Trikone-Northwest – a queer South Asian space, and more. While we could have said ‘no,’ we often felt like everything was a ‘must-do.’ The consequence? We were not saying ‘yes’ to us.

We had a growing list of incomplete house projects, were yearning for career changes, and I had just enrolled in the University of Washington MBA program. No surprise, then, that we were constantly stressed, tired, and ready to throw in the towel.

Desperate for something to help us deal with all this, we tried countless time management techniques, checklists, software tools, self-help books, and more. Then it dawned on us. We didn’t need more time. We needed something far more profound: a definitive sense of higher purpose and the tools to align our daily decision-making to that purpose.

Surprisingly, it was in my MBA program that I began learning concepts that struck a chord. Vega and I began connecting these concepts to the bigger questions in our personal lives.

We dove deep into researching the world of personal strategic planning. We built in concepts from modern thinkers in self-actualization. We were connecting dots in ways we hadn’t before.

We scheduled our own strategic planning weekend. We reflected on our higher purpose, and used those reflections to draft a mission statement and imagine what old age would be like. We charted what life might look like in 30 years, 15 years, 10 years, 5 years, and 1 year. What emerged was something we hadn’t expected.

Looking at my life in ten-year chunks enabled me to see time as more malleable. I was looking back in time in the same way: it had taken me 35 years to get to 2003, and each 10-year chunk held significance. What if I had seen my life in 10-year chunks when I lived it? The what I accomplished each year would have been less meaningful than the how I lived. Failure along the way would not have been dire, but rather a valuable process of growing, trying again, and finally succeeding.

This realization allowed us to build resilience into our vision. Looking at my life in 10-year chunks suddenly made all of the things I wanted to get done yesterday doable. Building in the balanced lifecard categories – areas in my life that need to be in balance for me to feel whole – also brought an invaluable perspective to how I could organize my days, weeks, months, and year. For me, those areas include professional development (education, career), habitat (body, home, finance, investments – both monetary and neighborhood contributions), personal development (hobbies, cultural activities, and community involvement), and relationships (with myself, with my partner, with my parents, family, and friends). With these perspectives and framework, I started seeing how my values are reflected in everything I do.

The strategic planning retreat was critical in helping us take the time to reflect on our long-term vision, mission, and values, and reorient the direction of our current year toward that longer term. Using a set of specific, purposeful tools, our strategic plan became a usable map for optimizing very limited discretionary time and making the best mission-driven decisions we could make in any moment.

After 12 years, how’s it going? Honestly, the process is unbelievably rejuvenating every year. It’s not a panacea. It didn’t stop me from plunging into a five-year battle with depression, a condition better treated with dialectical behavioral therapy, daily mindfulness, and nurtured resilience. But what our process has allowed me to do is put that all in perspective, to have a true north, to live with intention. To welcome learning opportunities and celebrate the imperfections in all of us, including myself. And most importantly, our personal strategic planning process enables me to be at peace with the choices I make.

If you’re interested in learning more about this process and developing your own strategic planning process, visit Intentional Life Planning.

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