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It is easy to overlook one of the most important aspects of design – life design. To truly live a life of happiness, fulfilment and purpose, we must first consciously design it to match our values. To do this, we have to consider far more than our mental health and instead focus on our health, energy, longevity and performance.

20 February 2023 • 4 min read

Photo by mymind on Unsplash

It is common to acknowledge the need for design with “real” things we can physically touch- a building, a business, an invention or an item of clothing, for example. But rarely do we think of design in relation to our lives, and how our actions shape and create it. My experience is that this is the most important application of design thinking. Let’s start with a question: how much thought have you given to the life you have designed for yourself? Can you truly remember consciously designing your life? For the majority of us, the answer to this is probably no, despite the fact that for us to do anything else, having a purposeful life is fundamental to any sense of happiness, balance or sense of achievement.

So why is it that most of us haven’t had the space or support to reflect on where our choices (often unconscious) have taken us and how we can get from where we are to the life that would bring us most value? This is one of the services that I offer my clients, and in this article, I will take you through some of the processes and methodologies I use to help clients design the life they want to live.

Before we get into the detail, let’s consider what design can be. Whilst it’s important to design for productivity, performance and profitability, it’s crucial we create a life where we can give our best in pursuits we find deeply important.

To maximise the value of this, we need to step beyond the pragmatic elements first to access your deepest intent. Steve Jobs once said that design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation. His long-term partner at Apple, Johnny Ive, wants his creations to be expressions of gratitude and love for humanity. Ive’s company is even called LoveFrom!

So how do we do this? An approach we take with a new client, whether an individual or a whole organisation, is to first offer short term HELP. HELP is an acronym for Health, Energy, Longevity and Performance. We begin by exploring the consequences of your previous design choices – what impact have they had to date? Is this the impact you wanted? To what extent would you say they have been ‘successful’? What is the state of your key relationships (both personal and professional)?

Design and longevity and legacy are intertwined but there’s nothing without short term survival. The pandemic has shown that we cannot take our health for granted. That’s why we have a deep focus on health (especially physical, emotional, spiritual) at the start of any new engagement. Our physical health conversations begin with full health screenings including sleep assessment, nutrition review, blood tests, ECG, cardiac markers, and even a CT or MRI where case history suggests it may be worthwhile. We used to offer these only to the most senior executives but have since found ways to dramatically reduce the cost so that “normal” people can have them.

For emotional or mental health our first work is to help clients see through the problem with using “mental health” as a phrase to describe mental illness. Having worked at the sharp end of performance for nearly 20 years, I prefer emotional injury/strain to mental illness. This is because most problems come from people having to give too much for too long – or being forced to lift a weight that was too much. You had to do it to get through a difficult situation but you had no choice but to increase difficulty in tomorrow to survive today.

The last two years have, for almost everyone, included times when we had to give more than our capacity. This was for two main reasons – firstly, it’s been incredibly difficult and stressful (the weight was immensely heavy). But secondly, many of the tried and tested strategies for dealing with heavy emotional strain were literally made illegal – these include exercise, meeting others, taking a holiday, going for a beer etc. Our working assumption now is not, “Have you been hurt by events of the last two years?” but “What have you done with the pain of the last two years and how can you be sure it’s been resolved?”

We also conduct a leadership values assessment for our clients asking their key stakeholders – clients, colleagues, even family members what values they experience in their interactions with that person. I’ve been doing these assessments for 19 years now and they never fail to generate incredibly useful insights and conversations.

When it comes to improving all areas of the HELP acronym (health, energy, longevity and performance), we have found ways for leaders to help themselves and those they care about to recover fully from past challenges AND to strengthen the elements that matter most. For example, a true “mental health” approach allows us to build strength in all key areas. There are methods that have a positive impact on health and energy whilst integrating work on longevity and performance.

For example, WFH has been an essential aspect of dealing with the pandemic. There’s been a very positive increase in flexibility and understanding from companies so there’s an increase in freedom and productivity. And a full WFH policy can inhibit our human for physical connection and community and also reduce long term performance as collaboration drops. So we help clients to find ways to increase collaboration whilst maintaining most of the benefits from WFH. From a business longevity POV too, having people work together and share tasks reduces the risk/damage of someone in a business critical position from falling ill and improves performance.

Yes we have all been overwhelmed, fearful and distracted in the last two years. So, it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that now is not the time to engage on a deeper look at your life design choices. Wait for things to get back to “normal” or at least calmer than they are now…That’s not our belief.

If the last two years has brought anything to us, it’s an often painfully won awareness of what matters to us in life and work. Our best HELP has come from supporting our clients through a review of the pain points of the last two years and then helping them to apply the subsequent insights into a life design that helps to do more work that matters deeply in a way that allows them to remain connected to their deepest values.

So when’s the best time to do what matters and to design your ideal life? About 20 years ago. What’s the second best time? Now – specifically the next 5 minutes. Of course, you don’t create your masterpiece in 5 minutes. What you can ask yourself though is “how can I be of more help in the next 5 minutes?” – what can you do to improve the health, energy, longevity, and performance for yourself and those who matter to you? And if an answer doesn’t immediately become apparent, start by being a little kinder to the important people in your life – starting with yourself.

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