To Discover Your Goals, Imagine Your Perfect Day

My life is better because I’ve done Barbara Sher’s ‘Perfect Day’ exercise every year

MyMy daughter will soon finish graduate school. Her whole world is filled with possibility, and as her mother, this is incredibly exciting to witness. While she was in town recently, we were talking about how she can set goals that will lead her to the life she wants, goals that aren’t based on anyone else’s definition of success. I introduced her to an exercise that I’ve done every year since I was her age. I like to call it The Perfect Day.

The exercise is based on a prompt from Barbara Sher’s classic book Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want. Basically, you envision — in extreme detail — what a perfect day in your future looks like to you, and write it all down. We’re talking about a perfect average day, not a vacation day or an only-in-your-dreams day where you win the lottery or join the royal family. A day in your real world. What time did you wake up? What does your desk look like? Who are you having a conversation with?

Thinking about our ideal lives can be surprisingly difficult. We might have vague desires to pivot in our careers, or improve our health, or strengthen our relationships. But those desires remain desires if we lack a clear focus. Envisioning exactly what we’re aiming for helps us figure out the steps to get there.

Here are some tips for doing The Perfect Day exercise:

  • Think about the not-too-distant future. Five years seems about right because it’s far enough for pretty much anything to happen, but not so far that you don’t seem like the same person anymore.
  • Start with the moment you wake up. Imagine your bedroom, how you feel, what your day has in store for you, how you spend your morning, and go from there.
  • Make sure you write about things you actually want in your life. Even when I was a seriously poor single mom, I was surprised to find that I never really wanted extreme wealth. I wanted comfort. I wanted enough. You might feel differently. Maybe when you think about your perfect day, you’ve got Oprah’s money. If you do, you’ll need to make sure that you imagine the kind of life that creates that kind of wealth.
  • Don’t get caught up with titles. It’s easy to write down that you’ll be promoted or find a “better” job, but what does that mean? What is the actual work you are doing on this perfect day?
  • Know that your perfect day may change over time. When I was in my twenties, I imagined myself living in New York City. I’d never been there, but somehow I really believed I belonged there. My goals and priorities have shifted in the last 20 years. Now when I picture my ideal day, I’m living in a large Victorian house in a smaller town, not a tiny Manhattan apartment. I’ve evolved, or maybe I’ve finally to know where I’d be the happiest.
  • Keep this about you. What’s tempting in this exercise is to start writing about other people’s perfect day. For instance, I’d love to add “my husband is happy and doing work he loves” to my list. But you know what? That’s his life. And I can’t really know what “perfect” looks like to him.

Now that you know what a perfect day looks like for you, think about your life today, and start looking for gaps. Those gaps between where you are and where you want to be are where your goals live. Here are some examples from my own Perfect Day exercise:

I live in a big, rambling old house that I own. I live with my family and maybe some other people, too. I have some chaos in my life (I’ve never been happy with calm). I’ve got a garden and chickens and some little goats. I’m financially independent, but not super wealthy. I’m a working writer, able to support my family with my work. I am physically strong and healthy — an athlete. I’m truly content with my life, happy to get up and do my work and take on my day.

You will not be able to bridge every gap in a year. Some will take years or even decades to close. And that’s okay. This isn’t a race. But as you continue with this exercise year after year, there may just be a moment when you realize that what you’ve written down sounds a whole lot like the day you are having.

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