A day in your future life

(Photo: Patricia Prudente / Unsplash)

Debbie Millman, a graphic artist and former head of AIGA, has an exercise she assigns her students at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She learned it from her mentor, Milton Glaser.

It goes like this:

Describe a day in your life 10 years from now. One whole day, in granular detail, “from the minute you wake up and have your coffee and brush your teeth, all the way through till when you tuck yourself in at night.”

What you’re summoning here is a good day, but not an over-the top fantasy. It’s a day that could actually be.

Now you must cast and stage this little movie you’re shooting in your head. “Where are you living?” asks Millman. “What are you doing? Who are you living with? Do you have pets? What kind of house are you in? Is it in the city? The country? What does your hair look like? Do you have children? A car? What’s your career? What do you want? What are you reading? What are you making? What excites you? What is your health like?”

The aim is to bring clarity, to get you thinking deeply about your values and how you hope your life will go and how you might make that happen. This is quite different from trying to “manifest” peace and harmony and riches, a la The Secret. There’s actually nothing woo-woo about it. It’s what’s known as “pathway thinking.” The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves do affect how our lives actually turn out—not because we’ve launched a wish bomb that bent the universe but because we’ve consciously identified priorities and goals, thereby steering our energies more efficiency toward them. Millman is a designer, and this assignment is really an exercise in design. It’s just that the thing being designed isn’t a chair or a dress or a font: it’s your life. Makes sense: things we create from a blueprint (literal or figurative) tend to turn out better than things we just … wing.

When Millman tried this exercise out on herself, she wrote it all out in a journal. It took the better part of a day. She filled 10 big pages. She didn’t publish it—that’s not the point. “You don’t have to share it with anyone,” she told her students. “Put your whole heart into it. Write like your life depends on it —because it does. And then read it once a year and see what happens.”

There’s an added element that can potentially make this Big Day more fruitful.

Some psychologists distinguish between “pathway thinking” and “agency thinking.” The first gins up the precise co-ordinates of this place down the road you’d like to end up. The second imagines roadblocks that might emerge to thwart your plans, and how you might route around them. Pathway thinking alone can be a little dangerous in that “the better you are at imaging the goal, the more likely your momentum is to stall, because in your mind you’ve already accomplished it!” as the NYU psychologist Gabriele Oettingen put it. Agency thinking lays down backup, a little sober perspective to pin the dream to bedrock. And it seems to generate energy to propel you toward the goal. Taken together, pathway thinking and agency thinking provide a potent double-whammy of planning plus drive. The result is a powerful force some psychologists call “hope theory.”

And these days, hope is not a bad thing to lean into.

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