If you already have the perfect life, stop reading now. This story isn’t for you. This story is for people like me. People who want more for themselves than what they’ve got right now. People who want a better life.
My life has taken some bad twists and turns over the years.
I dropped out of school at 15.
I spent time in foster care and a children’s home.
I was homeless.
I’ve struggled with debt, weight, and poor mental health.
Thankfully, life didn’t stay that way.
Now, I’m a professional writer and a trained musculoskeletal physiotherapist. I own my own home where I live with my wonderful fiancé and our 5-month-old daughter. I’ve got savings and a future I can look forward too.
I’m so far removed from being the person I used to be that I don’t recognise her anymore.
My life isn’t perfect. But it’s better.
To make the powerful changes that bought me here, I had to reverse engineer the life I wanted. These are the techniques I used and still use today.
1. Set clearly defined goals.
‘All successful people men and women are big dreamers. They imagine what their future could be, ideal in every respect, and then they work every day toward their distant vision, that goal or purpose’.
I used to think I knew what I wanted. It turned out I was focusing way too much on what I didn’t want.
I could conjure up in granular detail the things I didn’t want. I didn’t want to go to bed at night it a house so cold I had to wear a winter coat to sleep in. I didn’t want the metallic taste in the back of my throat just from running for the bus. I didn’t want to cold call the list of numbers my boss tossed into my station.
When it came to what I wanted instead, I got hazy on the detail. To change my situation, I had to move away from obsessing over what I didn’t want. I had to decide on what I wanted instead, and become just as obsessed about it.
When I dropped out of school, I knew I didn’t want to be a dropout forever. I decided to be the kind of person that fulfilled their potential, despite the false start. Once I’d settled that in my mind, I got down to the serious business of working my way back into education.
I treated it like a full-time job. I imagined what it would be like to be a student at university and started to act that way. Luckily, I had little idea of what student life could actually be like or I might have set my bar a bit lower.
At the time, I’d just gotten out of a hostel and I had nowhere to live. I was crashing at a friend’s house and getting a ride into the centre of town with them every day on their way to work. I went to the library every day and waited for it to open. I stayed until they threw me out. I wasn’t allowed to take books out, so I read them right there in the library, demolishing as much literature as I could. I became obsessed. That obsession filled a gap where my grades should have been and, a couple of years later, I was accepted into my university of choice to read English.
Whenever I want to make a powerful change in my life, I sit down and set clearly defined goals. When I’ve set my goal out in detail, I give myself a timescale to make it happen. I work backwards from there and fill in the steps I’ll need to take to get there.
Being clear about what you want to achieve by clearly defining your goals is a valuable technique that can lead to powerful change. If used it in combination with this next technique, the effect massively compounds.
2. Visualise your goals.
‘Begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen’.
Goal setting and visualisation go hand in hand. I’ve used these techniques to make a variety of positive changes in my life. Non has been quite as important to my life as the decision to start a family.
As a gay couple, my partner Lucy and I had a slight disadvantage when it came to having our own children. It’s not something that would just happen when the time was right. In fact, the process felt overwhelming at times. We needed to navigate the complex laws surrounding fertility treatment both in the UK, where we started our journey, then in Denmark where we ended up receiving treatment.
We were blindsided by the lack of availability of donor sperm that reflected our ethnic makeup. We had to navigate changing our fertility clinic three times due to policy changes relating to the use of donor sperm. We even had to deal with an airline going into administration on the day we flew to receive time-sensitive treatment.
At the start of our journey, we hung a vision board on our wall. On this board, we’d written our goal to start a family. Next to this, we’d placed a picture of our donor as a baby. We looked at our vision board every day as part of our morning ritual. We saw it again every time we passed by the place we’d hung it. Each time we looked at that picture and read our clear goal, having a child became more real in our minds. We were visualising the family we wanted.
Nothing about our vision board improved our chances of conception. Visualisation isn’t that good. But it kept us heading in the right direction, even when the process was challenging. It made it harder to give up.
I write every clearly defined goal on my vision board and use images that I’ve either drawn or cut out of magazines to illustrate it. This helps keep my goal firmly in my mind’s eye.
3. Regularly check your progress.
‘If you’re not assessing, you’re guessing’.
There’s no point in setting a clear goal and visualising the outcome if you have no way of being accountable for it. I regularly check on my progress as I move towards better versions of myself. There are several benefits to this:
- I get mini-deadlines to work towards. If I know I’m going to check my progress on a specific day, it drives me to have something concrete completed by then.
- I can adjust my goals on the fly. This allows me to make changes in tack should the situation need it.
- I get an accurate read on where I am up to and how much I have got going on. This in turn allows me to plan ahead and keep an eye on other projects without becoming overwhelmed.
- I know when I’ve crossed the finish line. It sounds silly but there are times when you don’t properly recognise that you’ve achieved something you set out to do, especially if this has been a long term goal. Marking the moment when you’ve achieved a goal allows you to celebrate.
There are many ways to assess your progress. I like to set repeating weekly and monthly dates in my online calendar and set up alerts across my devices. I’ve had success in the past using a paper-based diary. I’ve also used monthly meet-ups with my mentor as a progress check. This was especially potent as I had to come up with the goods so as not to waste their time as well as mine.
Speaking of which…
4. Stop wasting time.
‘Stop wasting time with trivial matters that don’t add value to your life or push you one step closer to your goals’.
Most people don’t follow through with the changes they want to make because they think they don’t have time. I retrained as a physiotherapist in my mid-30s. This led to many conversations with people who couldn’t figure out where I found the time to fit in the training around my day job.
My answer was always the same — I stopped wasting time.
It’s possible to be time-poor and still to waste hours of your day on activities that aren’t moving you closer to your goal. Time sucks include scrolling through social media, binge-watching tv, and gaming. I enjoy each of these activities when I am time-rich. But in situations where I am actively trying to better my life and crush my goals, I strip them out of my day. Those precious minutes I gain can be vital to moving me closer to a better life.
The fact that I dropped out of school reared its head again when I retrained as a physio. To get a place at physio school, I needed to sit and pass exams in maths and the sciences. I was also running 50 miles per week in preparation for a marathon. To fit everything in, I studied on lunch breaks and after work, I saw a private tutor on weekends, and I ran all my runs before starting work. This included setting off for a 20 mile long run at 4 am to be at work for 8.
I stopped every activity that didn’t move me towards my educational or fitness goals. For a while, I was an extremely boring person but the end result was a sub-4 hour marathon and a place at physio school. It was well worth the trade.
5. Upgrade your network.
‘Your network is your net worth’.
For a long time, I completely neglected my social and work relationships when it came to achieving a better life. Often, when we are trying to affect powerful change in ourselves, we do it almost in secret, like change is something to be ashamed of.
As David Burkas discovered in his research of networks and social science, we aren’t just influenced by the people closest to us. Our lives are significantly affected by all the people that surround us. If someone in your wider social network smokes, guess what? You’re statistically more likely to be a smoker.
3 and a half years ago I set a goal to stop drinking alcohol. Partly because I didn’t like the effect it was having on my productivity, and partly because I didn’t like the effect it was having on my relationships. The most difficult part of becoming sober was not allowing myself to be swayed by well-meaning friends at social events.
‘ If you’re not an alcoholic, what’s the harm in having one drink with me?’
I drastically reduced the amount of socialising I did with some parts of my social network and increased the amount I did with the people that were less likely to drink.
When I retrained as a physiotherapist, my goal was to become a specialist in running biomechanics. I made sure that as well as researching and studying hard, I:
- Found mentors working in that field
- Got a job in a clinic that specialises in treating runners, and;
- Interned at a biomechanics lab.
The net effect of these actions was that I upgraded my professional relationships. I now spent the majority of my time with highly specialist physios in the field I wanted to excel in.
This isn’t an argument to ditch your current friends and colleagues. But you can manage the influences on your life by curating the communities and social circles that you move within.
And don’t forget that influence is a two-way street. As you continually make improvements in your life, you will in turn have a positive influence on others in your network. Self-improvement is not a selfish pursuit.
To reverse engineer a better life, start behaving as though you’re already living it by using these five techniques:
Clearly define your goals to stay focussed on what you want instead of what you don’t
Practice visualisation every day to help focus your energies on what’s important
Stop wasting your time, work more on making concrete steps towards your goals
Regularly check your progress to stay accountable and let you know when you’ve succeeded
Upgrade your network and direct positive influences towards you.
These five techniques helped shape who I am today. Without them, I would have been a very different person.
I hope they bring you as much happiness as they’ve brought to me.