What do you want most in life?
For many of us, it’s happiness. To feel satisfied with the choices we’ve made, at peace with who we are, and excited for what lay ahead.
But here’s the rub: there’s no roadmap to get there. You have your dreams, talents, difficulties, and experiences, and I have mine. This means we may find happiness in different things. And our paths to happiness might never cross.
But we both have a world of opportunity laid out before us. So much so, that we don’t know which choices to make. What should we do, based on where we’ve been and who we want to be, to live the greatest life? What if we mess up?
And just like that, we’re stuck. We say, “I don’t know what to do with my life.” And we hope we can somehow get unstuck.
Well, you can, and I’ll give you some strategies for doing just that.
4 Things You Should Know About Feeling Stuck
You are Not Alone
Life has a funny way of making you feel alone in your quest to find purpose.
Maybe you went through a breakup, and all your friends are in relationships. Maybe you have a job that doesn’t speak to you, and your colleagues are well into satisfying careers. Maybe nothing has happened at all, and you simply feel lost while others pursue their dreams.
Thing is, you’re not alone. Your friend in the perfect relationship may end hers due to a difference in values. Your colleague with the perfect job may question whether it’s worth the stress. And the person who always knows what to do may be thrown off track.
There are others just like you who have said to themselves, “I don’t know what to do with my life.” Take it from these successful individuals:
It felt like an unnatural act for me reporting . . . And, I started to just inside myself think what, what do I really want to do . . . And I will say this. Knowing what you don’t want to do is the best possible place to be if you don’t know what to do. Because knowing what you don’t want to do leads you to figure out what it is that you really want to do . . . I got demoted . . . So they put me on the – this is how life works. They put me on a talk show to try to avoid having to pay me the contract out, and the moment I sat on the talk show interviewing the Carvel ice cream man and his multiple flavors, I knew that I had found home for myself.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I always knew the woman I wanted to be.
During an interview, I’m in control. It’s in other aspects of my life where I’m not . . . Anybody who knows me knows this. At work I know what questions to ask. In real life, I’m asking myself, ‘Should I marry him?’ until the day I get married. The only thing I’ve been certain of is my love for Jackie.
Now, if you are sitting out there thinking to yourself, ‘OMG, what am I going to do with my life?’ . . . don’t worry. . . When I graduated from college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And after I graduated from business school, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do.
I have never been able to plan my life. I just lurch from indecision to indecision.
Some people will know exactly what they want to do at a very young age, but the odds are low. I feel like people in their early- to mid-20s are very earnest. They’re very serious, and they want to feel like they’ve accomplished a lot at a very young age rather than just trying to figure stuff out. So I try to push them toward a more experimental attitude.
We’re all in this together. And those of us who want to find our way, will.
You Don’t Have to Know What to Do With Your Life
Many feel they have to know what to do with their life. If you’re in that boat, not knowing might make you feel:
- Guilty or ashamed: You might feel others are “ahead” of you. Then comes the pressure from society, family, friends, or anyone else who wants you to “catch up.” But you know where the most pressure comes from? You. But you’re not ahead or behind anyone–because you’re not on the same path as anyone else. You’re on your path. And every other path you’re watching will also have speed bumps.
- Powerless: You might like to have a plan. The more certain, the better. The irony is, though you have the power to change your life, it can feel impossible to identify how. That uncertainty—and the feeling that there’s so much to do that we haven’t done—can make anyone feel powerless. But remember: power does not always come from what you’ve achieved. It also comes from your belief that you can achieve. In fact, that’s the greatest power there is. Ride that belief and you’ll become empowered.
- Overwhelmed: Confronting the realization of “I don’t know what to do with my life” can be a lot. Life is all we’ve ever known, really. So when we feel like we’re not doing it right, it can be overwhelming. But don’t let this paralyze you. You don’t have to tackle this all at once. Think of it this way: can you climb a mountain while looking only at its peak? While the peak may be motivating, you’ve got to look down at your feet. By ensuring you take the right steps, you’ll get to the top.
No matter what you feel, know this: you don’t have to know what to do with your life. Some people will know, and then they won’t. Some people won’t have a clue, and then they’ll feel it in their bones. Others will leave that worrying for the rest of us, and go sip margaritas in Turks and Caicos.
That doesn’t mean one life is objectively more meaningful than the other. Life has the meaning you assign to it. We all have different lives to lead, and that’s the beauty of it.
You Will Say, “I Don’t Know What to Do With My Life” Several Times—and That Is a Gift
Every day, we’re presented with hundreds of choices. Do we ask for that raise, or hope our boss offers one first? Do we tell our partner what’s been bothering us, or let it go? Do we eat the whole pint, or save the rest for another day?
There are so many things to do or not do with your life. Isn’t it only natural that you won’t always know what to do with every aspect of it?
As you make choices, change, and grow, you’ll think, “I don’t know what to do with my life” more than once. That’s to be expected! It’s what you do with that realization that counts.
You have the gift—the freedom—to not know what to do with your life. So ask yourself: what kind of life do I want to lead? What choices do I need to make to get there?
The world is dynamic, as are our experiences in it. Your ideas, beliefs, and values will be challenged. You’re free to confirm and strengthen them, if they remain true in your heart. But you can also change them. And if you do, the answer to “What should I do with my life?” may very well be different.
Life is fluid. That means you can be, too.
You Are More Than One Thing
People who have found “their calling” speak of great things. They’re excited to get out of bed each morning. They know why they were put on this earth. They feel happy, fulfilled, and impactful. They’re making a difference, and that has made them different. Better.
So if we haven’t found our purpose yet, it can make us feel a little less-than. What were we put on this earth for? Who are we meant to be?
Your worth is not tied up in finding whatever “more” is for you. While you search for more, you may be a good friend, a supportive sibling, a wonderful partner, an effective employee, and a whole host of other things.
There is no one thing that defines all you are. You don’t need to wait for “your calling” to embrace who you are already. Call upon yourself to celebrate your strengths, learn from your mistakes, and enjoy your life as it is now.
6 Questions That Will Illuminate the Way Forward
If you’ve said to yourself, “I don’t know what to do with my life” and you’re reading this post, chances are, you’d like to find out! Thankfully, there are a handful of questions you can ask yourself to start that process.
Take your time in answering the questions below. Simple as they may seem, they’re the heavy hitters. They can alter the course of your life.
1. What Do I Love Doing?
When we do what we love, we don’t tend to think deeply about it. We think, “That was fun!” We go about our day happier and look forward to doing that thing again some time. We rarely, if ever, ask ourselves, “How can I structure my life so that I get more of that?”
But thinking deeply about what you love is the first step to answering the question, “What should I do with my life?”
So write down everything you love doing. Don’t leave anything off the list, even if you doubt its relevance. Do you love watching Netflix? Write it down. Love petting dogs? Write that down, too.
At worst, you’ll be practicing gratitude by acknowledging all the things you love in life. At best, you’ll discover what to do with your life.
To help you identify what you love doing, ask yourself, “What would I do if money wasn’t an issue? Or if I didn’t care what others thought of me? Or if I had all the time in the world?”
Put another way: if you were to watch today a video of yourself in ten years, what would you want to see? Where would you be? Who would you be with? How would you be spending your time?
Don’t limit yourself. Dream big. Imagine a life you love. Because that’s the first step in making it a reality.
If your list is short, go out and explore what makes you tick. Do things you’ve never done. That may include volunteering, signing up for an event in your city, going to a meetup, taking a class, going for a run, backpacking in a new country, or any number of things.
Ask the people in your life what makes them tick. What do they do with their time? Have they tried anything you haven’t?
Each time you try something new, be mindful of your emotional response. Do you feel lighter and more energized? Or bored and drained?
Add anything that puts a pep in your step to the list. Once you’ve got a solid list going, you’re ready to move onto your “why”s.
2. Why Do I Love Doing It?
For each item on your list, ask yourself why you love doing it. This often gets you to your values.
Maybe you love working for a startup because you value close collaboration. Maybe you love writing posts because you value helping others. Maybe you love watching Netflix because you value entertainment.
For each “why,” ask if prioritizing it may help you discover what to do with your life. Prioritization is important, because your “why”s often fight for your attention. Working long hours at a startup (“why” = close collaboration) may cut into your writing time (“why” = helping others). Trying to meet a writing deadline may cut into your Netflix time (“why” = entertainment). Watching Netflix may cut into the time you’d spend pursuing other goals.
In this example, you could ask, “If I prioritize helping others, might that help me discover what to do with my life?” If the answer is yes, keep it and the associated activity on your list.
Another way to think about this is to ask yourself, “Which ‘whys’ bring me short term gain for a long term cost?” If you don’t feel a “why” will help you get to where you want to go, cross it and the associated activity off your list. For example, if you love eating ice cream because it tastes great (hey, I get it), cross it off your list.
3. What Might I Also Love, That Satisfies My “Why”?
For each “why” on your list, ask if there’s anything else you might love doing, that’ll also satisfy that “why.”
If you love working for a startup because you value close collaboration, what else might satisfy that value? Joining a social sports league? Being in a long-term relationship? Singing in a choir?
Use the world around you for inspiration. Think outside of the box. There are so many things that can satisfy your “why”s.
One or more of those things might very well make you wonder why you ever said, “I don’t know what to do with my life.”
Once you’ve identified some things, try them out—more than once, if need be. If that’s not possible (e.g. working for a new company), that’s okay, too! Add anything you find you love or might love doing to your list.
4. Am I Willing to Put in the Work?
You might look at your list and say, “Maybe one of these things could help me learn what to do with my life, but that’s not a guarantee. So it could be a waste of time to commit to any one thing—especially if I’m still stuck saying, ‘I don’t know what to do with my life.'”
But this is defeatist thinking. You’re committing yourself to failure before you’ve even started. To truly discover what you want to do with your life, you have to do something. Start with your list.
For each item on your list, ask if you can commit to it. Are you willing to consistently devote your time and energy to it? Will you put in the work where others won’t? Will you practice it until you become good, even great? Will you put it first at times, when others want your attention?
If your answer is “no,” cross that thing off your list. Aim to have at least three things remaining on your list after this exercise.
5. Am I Willing to Fail?
It’s one thing to be willing to work on a thing. It’s quite another to be willing to fail at that thing. So, for each item remaining on your list, ask yourself:
Am I willing to fail at it?
If you love writing because you value helping others; you feel that value may help you discover what you want to do with your life; and you’re willing to work on your writing, ask yourself: are you willing to be a crap writer? To write something that’s awkwardly phrased, uninteresting, and helps no one? To be called a crap writer, even?
Because if you’re a writer, you’ll write stuff that isn’t great, and not everyone will think you’re great. What counts is whether you continue to write.
We sometimes stop doing the things we love because we don’t want to fail. We fear failure because it can make us unhappy, and we don’t want to be unhappy. So we stay complacent. And that complacency makes us unhappy. So why not, to the best of your ability, throw your hat in the ring? Why not give yourself the chance to feel truly happy and fulfilled?
“If you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.” – Unknown
The ability to set out into the unknown—and roll with the punches when they come—is an invaluable one. By virtue of our humanity we will all fail, and those who learn to accept and embrace it will rise above it.
So go against the grain. Don’t hold yourself to others’ standards of success or failure. Set your own standard. And set it high. Because you’re capable of so much more than you think.
6. Will I Make Room?
Finally, for each thing remaining on your list, ask yourself: “Can and will I incorporate it into my life?”
Your current priorities may include work, school, children, spending time with your friends, running errands, and so on. We often have a ton to do each day, and it can be tough to pencil new things in.
But if, amidst this extreme busyness, you’re saying to yourself, “I don’t know what to do with my life,” it’s worth making room for the thing(s) you love doing.
Think about this past week, and how you spent your time. It helps to write it all down. Did you spend five minutes when you woke up scrolling through emails? Did you spend an hour on the phone chatting with a friend? Did you spend twenty minutes swiping left and right on Bumble?
By becoming more cognizant of how you spend your time, you can identify new opportunities to incorporate what you love doing.
For example, I noticed I spent an extra thirty minutes daily waiting to get onto subway trains during rush hour. I now get to work an hour earlier and leave an hour earlier to avoid rush hour, giving me an extra thirty minutes to pursue my dreams each day.
You can also consider eliminating some things from your life completely. If there’s anything in your life consistently making you unhappy, consider changing that. If you go out on weekends and drink one (or five) too many, and you’re regretful and lethargic the next day, consider eliminating that extra one or five when you go out. Heck, maybe stay in a night or two. That could leave you feeling better and more productive the next day.
Sometimes the first step to knowing what to do with your life, is knowing what you don’t want to do with your life. Are you in a relationship that makes you feel undervalued and anxious? Do you have a controlling boss who’s not paying you enough to deal with it? Are you friends with someone whose negativity always seems to dominate the conversation?
There’s nothing more important than deciding where you will spend your energy. Spend your energy on things you love doing, people that lift you up, and situations that bring out the best in you. Because those are the things worth penciling in.
8 Simple (but Crucial) Steps to Set You on Your Path
Now that you’ve identified what you love/may love doing and why, and you’re ready to commit to and fail at those things, it’s time to take action! Follow the steps below, and you’ll be that much closer to solving the “I don’t know what to do with my life” conundrum.
1. See It to Believe It
If you’ve reached this part of the journey, you’ve already thought quite a bit. You’ve answered several difficult questions. And you’re beginning to have a clearer picture of what you want to do with your life. At this point, it helps to get a bit out of your head.
Create a physical manifestation of who you want to be when you’re no longer saying, “I don’t know what to do with my life.” A great example is a vision board. As froo froo as it may sound, it actually works!
A vision board is a board with a collection of quotes, images, trinkets, notes, and/or other things designed to inspire and motivate you. Your board can include pictures of things you love doing, quotes from people who found meaning in their lives, photos of yourself feeling happy, and anything else that helps you visualize a life you love.
Place your vision board in an area where you can see it daily. By visualizing what success looks like to you on a daily basis, you’ll naturally seek out things that help you achieve it.
2. Learn From the Best
Seek out those who also love what you love (or might love) doing, and who feel they know what to do with their lives. Whether it’s a friend, acquaintance, or someone who pops up after a quick Google search, these people can inspire and teach you.
Did they ever say to themselves, “I don’t know what to do with my life”? How did they handle that uncertainty? How did they prioritize what they love doing, and ensure they never gave up? What makes them now feel they know what to do with their lives?
Sometimes we must forge our own path, but sometimes we’re lucky to have one forged by another. If you do, take advantage of it! There will come a time when your path diverges, but there’s no harm in receiving a little help along the way.
3. Set S.M.A.R.T. Goals
To start the process of discovering what to do with your life, set goals that are S.M.A.R.T.: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
Specific: Rather than saying, “My goal is to know what to do with my life,” set a more specific goal. This clarifies your focus so you know exactly what you want to achieve. View the things you love remaining on your list. Make a goal related to one, such as, “My goal is to devote ten hours per week to xyz thing to see whether it helps me discover what to do with my life. If I don’t know what to do with my life still after two months, I’ll move onto the next thing I love doing, with the same goal in mind.”
Measurable: Ensure you can measure your progress towards your goal. This ensures you stay on track. The goal above is measurable because you can keep track of how many hours you devote to the thing you love each week. You can even break this goal down further to make it more measurable. How will you commit to ten hours per week? Will you have a “subgoal” to devote two hours per week day, or five hours each Saturday and Sunday?
Attainable: It’s important to dream big. Not enough people do, and it’s those who dare to dream who carry our society forward. That said, when it comes to setting specific, measurable goals, it’s important that they be attainable. Don’t set a goal so lofty that you can’t realistically achieve it, but don’t sell yourself short, either. Take the goal above. Is ten hours per week attainable for you? If not, what do you feel you can realistically achieve, if you take your goal seriously and do all you can to prioritize it?
Relevant: Your goal has to mean something to you, for you to achieve it. Relevance is the foundation of your drive. Ensure your goal is relevant to who you want to be in life. The goal above is relevant because doing what you love will bring you closer to the day you stop saying, “I don’t know what to do with my life.”
Time-Bound: This is the scariest part of goal-setting. It has to have a deadline. Rather than making us fearful that we won’t meet our goal on time, however, this qualifier is meant to propel us forward. Without a deadline, we can coast indefinitely. So set a deadline that feels fair to you when you apply yourself fully. For example, the goal above has a deadline of two months. If two months go by and you still don’t know what to do with your life, that’s okay! The deadline is there not only to be met if it’s a good fit, but also to be not met if it’s not a good fit. If you don’t “make” the deadline, it releases you so you can move on to the next goal—one that may very well get you to where you’re meant to be.
Write your goals down, and check in with yourself regularly. Set time aside in your calendar to help you stay on track. And watch as you transition to a life you love.
4. Form Good Habits
Good habits help you achieve your goals. They help you practice consistency and put you in a good state of mind. Here are a few that may help you:
- Waking up early – Early mornings can be peaceful, quiet, and free of interruption. If possible (I understand this can be tough with children), wake up before those around you to claim that time as your own. Use it to work towards your goals. By doing this first-thing, you’ll be more productive and energized, as the weight of the day’s tasks have not yet had to occupy your mind. Doing this daily will also empower you, as it’s evidence you’re making progress toward your goals each day.
- Eating healthy – This one is no surprise. What you put in, you get out. Fill your body with wholesome foods and nutrients, and you’ll notice a difference. As disappointing as it may be to choose the salad sometimes, that temporary discomfort will bring you more comfort in the long run. (Note you don’t have to go for the salad every time. See “A” in S.M.A.R.T. goals above.) Some healthy foods I’ve found aren’t so bad: avocado, blueberries, eggs, salmon, quinoa, sweet potatoes . . . the list goes on.
- Moving – This is a habit I’m still working on forming. I can get so caught up in a task that I spend hours in a chair, and my productivity declines without me even realizing it. Getting out of your head, out of your chair, and out into the open world is essential. That’s where you recharge. Moving in the form of exercise also gets those endorphins flowing. Happy mind, happy life!
Some habits can take months to form, so patience is key. And if you misstep, forgive yourself! It’s tough to form a habit; it can take many tries to incorporate it into your life. Stay the course, and you’ll be in a good place.
5. Do You
Others will always have opinions about what you do and who you are, and they won’t always be positive. That’s okay. They’re doing them. But you’re here to do you. That means not doing things that make you feel you’re compromising who you are. Instead of focusing on those who think they know the secret to life, focus on the discoveries you have yet to make.
You’re on a path that you’ve worked hard build. Stay true to it. Take baby steps, hold your head high when you stumble, and trust you’ll find what you’re looking for at the end: someone who doesn’t say, “I don’t know what to do with my life.”
6. Make Peace with Uncertainty
At this point, you’ve got a good roadmap to living a life that’s meaningful to you. Thing is, that map may change. You may be pursuing one thing you love, and just as you realize it’s not for you, you discover a new passion. Or maybe a new priority pops up in your life, demanding all your attention for the time being. Nothing is certain in life, as wonderful as that would be! Once we make peace with this, we can set ourselves free.
There’s nothing wrong with having to course correct. It doesn’t mean you originally miscalculated. It means you calculated to the best of your ability given uncertainty, and you’re determined to take whatever path gets you to where you feel you’re meant to be.
7. Lend a Hand
When we say to ourselves, “I don’t know what to do with my life,” it can feel incredibly unsettling. We thus focus on doing everything we can in our lives to not feel like that. But what would happen if we shifted our focus to others for a bit?
Ironically, when we help others rather than ourselves, we often find the very purpose we were looking for. We find something bigger than ourselves to contribute to. And if you can help others discover meaning in their own lives, it gets even better.
So do what you can to help others. Talk with a friend who needs you. Volunteer at a charity. Say good morning to a passerby on the street.
We’re all on this rock together, and most of us are looking for ways to find meaning. If we can help each other to achieve this common goal, the sentiment “I don’t know what to do with my life” will become that much rarer.
8. Level Up
It can be difficult to embrace what you love doing, even if you realize it’s helping you discover what to do with your life. Sometimes, money has something to do with it.
If you love traveling and that’s what you want to do with your life, consider building up your savings first, if possible. Provide yourself with some financial flexibility so that you can achieve flexibility in other areas of your life.
If you love writing and you’d love more time to do it, consider monetizing your passion. You don’t have to make your passion your career, but it’s certainly an option. If you find a way to sustain financially what you’d love to do all day long, why not go for it?
Put simply, when you’ve found that thing that breathes life into you, double down on it. That’s what’ll get you to, “I do know what to do with my life.”
You Will Find Meaning in Your Life
If you don’t care to know what to do with your life, grab a margarita and join the guy in Turks and Caicos. He’s not doing so bad! But chances are, if you’re reading this post, you’d like to reach a place where you’re not saying, “I don’t know what to do with my life.”
By thinking good thoughts, asking yourself the right questions, and taking action, you’ll find meaning in your life. Purpose. Decision. Be patient, and be kind to yourself for not having everything figured out at all times. No one does.
If you must know something, know this: you will do good in this world, and good by you. You just have to give yourself a chance.