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Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Burnett and Evans is my new favorite book. I have been recommending it to clients, friends, and family. I love it when a book written for the general public takes principals of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and shows you how to apply it to everyday situations. Designing Your Life was originally a class at Stanford University for college students trying to figure what to do after they graduate. The professors, Burnett and Evans, have taken that message and are sharing it with everyone through their book. This book is for anyone going through a life transition, anyone who is feeling stuck in their life, or anyone who often finds themselves asking “Is this it?” The book talks a lot about “Dysfunctional Beliefs” that keep us stuck and “Reframe” the healthy beliefs that help us move forward. This is the bread and butter of CBT. Identifying your dysfunctional beliefs, challenging them, and turning them into healthier alternative beliefs. Only here Burnett and Evans have done all the work for you. They summarize all the research to help you challenge those dysfunctional beliefs, and they provide a lot of great examples to help you buy into the Reframe.

Burnett and Evans have you start by first learning to recognize the types of life’s problems that you can change and those that you can’t change. They call the things we cannot change a gravity problem. Like falling off a bike, you can’t change gravity, but you can change your skill level with practice. It made me think of the phrase ‘don’t fight gravity’ as a reminder to not waste our energies trying to change something that can’t change. They also spend a whole chapter talking about getting “Unstuck.” This is when we feel like we are facing a gravity problem, but we’re not. We are just not well versed yet in generating alternate plans, solutions, or ideas. This is one of the most common reasons clients come to therapy. They share this sentiment of feeling “stuck” in life. Burnett and Evans share many exercises we can practice on our own to help us get unstuck. Some of my favorite suggestions include:

  • The Life Dashboard: a careful assessment of 4 important areas for a well designed life: Health, Work, Play, and Love. We can’t be perfectly balanced across all 4 areas at any given time in our life, and that’s to be expected, but we can identify if there are some areas that we have been seriously neglecting. I wrote this exercise out myself and found that I was happy with my life design in Work and Love, but I need to make some serious adjustments to Health and Play.
  • Mind Mapping: this is like the ultimate brain storming session with lots of thought bubbles and random connections. The goal here is to simply generate ideas. It’s not about being perfect, getting it right, or figuring it all out. (All dysfunctional beliefs that keep us stuck). It’s simply about throwing out ideas and getting the creative juices in our brains flowing.
  • Odyssey Plans: Write out 3 alternate versions of your life in 5 years. 1) The plan you already have in mind. 2) What you’d do if plan 1 was suddenly taken from you. 3) What you’d do if money or your image was no object. Again, what I like about these exercises is that there is no expectation that you are actually going to carry out any one of those plans. The goal here is to stretch your mind to think of alternate possibilities to how you can design your life. In CBT one of the goals of treatment is to teach “alternate thoughts.” It’s the same theme throughout the book. There are some many alternate versions and there is no “one right” answer! I did this myself; I wrote my 5 year plan with my current trajectory. I wrote one for if I couldn’t do therapy anymore, and I wrote one if money was no object. This actually helped to relieve the pressure I’ve been feeling to “succeed” at work. It showed me that there are many ways to live, this is just “one way” and that my well designed life can take many forms.

I’ll end with one of my favorite messages from the book, the idea of Prototyping: prototyping conversations and prototyping experiences. Many of us buy into the myth that if we simply research and plan and execute that plan things will all work out… that is until we find ourselves stuck. Prototyping is about creating experiences to explore various different life designs, tweaking and changing things along the way. Think about how many iphone prototypes there must have been before they settled on the design everyone now recognizes. Burnett and Evans also mention this is like moving away from creating the best ladder to get to the second floor (engineering) and instead thinking about all the best ways to move from the ground to the second floor (designing). Prototyping is trying things out in a small scale, figuring out what works, what doesn’t, and then letting go and moving on to the next prototype. The key here is to not to let your mind get stuck on losing time or making the wrong decision, but instead to “Fail fast, and fail forward.” And failure here is a good thing, it means you’re better refining your prototype and getting closer to a well designed life!

Overall this was an excellent book with a lot of concrete examples and exercises to complete that takes the reader away from just theoretically thinking about designing a better a life to actually taking steps to start creating one. I highly recommend this book!


I encourage you to check out the book from your local library! In fact many libraries even have the books available as ebooks for download! All of the books I have reviewed here I borrowed from my local city and county libraries.