The future is always uncertain. Learning how to plan your life isn’t about trying to take control over things you have no power over but instead allows you to create a roadmap that leads to meaningful goals and fulfilling your ultimate purpose in life.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the steps you can take to create a life plan, tips to keep in mind along the way, and quotes from great minds about planning and purpose in life.
Planning out your entire life sounds like a pretty big ask. How are you supposed to know what you’ll want to do in five years, ten years, or fifty years? How are you supposed to know what the world will even be like down the road?
The truth is, you can’t.
What you can do, though, is take a look at where you are now, understand what you can control, determine who you want to be and what you want to do, and create a plan to put it into action.
“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”
– Marcus Aurelius
What do you do from there, you ask?
In the words of Epictetus, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”
The first step in planning your life is to look at where you are right now.
Who are you? Where are you? What are you up to?
Are you currently on an outdated plan that no longer suits you? Or are you just blindly wandering through life without any consideration of where you’re going?
“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”
– Seneca the Younger
Time is constantly marching forward, and you are getting older with each moment, whether you choose to be conscious of that or not. Even if you stay in the same job, in the same house, around the same people, and wearing the same clothes for the next seventy years, that doesn’t mean that you will be the same person and the world around you will be the same world you know now.
As Marcus Aurelius reminds us:
“Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are, and to make new things like them.”
– Marcus Aurelius
So, if you didn’t change a thing and stayed on your current path, where would you end up? What would you have accomplished in life? What dreams would you fulfill, or which dreams would wither and die, never reaching fruition?
At this stage in the process, you want to brainstorm everything you know about your current situation and consider what’s working and what isn’t. What do you think you’re doing well? What needs to change?
This can be a bit stressful and overwhelming, so consider breaking things down into the different areas of life, such as:
If you don’t like the picture you’ve started painting here, don’t worry! You’re taking charge of what is in your control in life. Don’t get caught up being distraught by the mirror you’re holding up; instead, try and find the invigorating energy that accompanies making big, wonderful changes.
Seneca the Younger says that Stoics should keep portraits, rings, or other things that bear the likeness of great men. He even suggested that we should celebrate the birthdays of the men we admire!
In one of his letters, he lists his favorite philosophical role models. These were:
Epictetus cites his influences a few times in his works, most commonly naming Socrates, Zeno of Citium, and Diogenes the Cynic. Marcus Aurelius names Socrates, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Chrysippus, and Epictetus as philosophers that had particularly earned his admiration.
Don't fret, and you don’t need to fill your list with ancient philosophers to try and impress anyone. Try not to think too hard about this one– just try and consider who the people are that you really look up to. These can be people that you know personally, people that you know through books and media, or historical figures.
Now, make a list of the qualities that you admire in each of these individuals.
This will help give you a picture of the values, accomplishments, and qualities that you think are important. Don’t skip this step– it can really help you identify the type of life you want to lead!
Now it’s time to figure out what your values are and what virtues you want to direct your actions. There are four Stoic virtues– wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance– so if you are working on practicing Stoicism, this can be a good jumping-off point.
What about your values? What do you believe is important in the way that you live?
Try not to think about the values you think you should have. Think about the things that really actually matter to you.
“No man can set in order the details unless he has already set before himself the chief purpose.”
– Seneca the Younger
Do you value family, but you spend way too much time traveling for work to get to spend quality time with them? Do you value conserving the environment, but you work in a field that you feel conflicts with this value?
Maybe you value keeping your body in tip-top shape, but you rarely exercise and spend your evenings streaming shows and eating tubs of ice cream.
If your virtues, values, and life are all totally in sync– congratulations! For the rest of us, though, it’s important to determine the virtues we want to uphold and the values we want to prioritize in order to make a plan that gets us where we want to go.
The modern world is filled with distractions. Everywhere you look, something is vying for your attention. If you don’t choose where you put your focus, someone else will choose for you.
“Stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions. But make sure you guard against the other kind of confusion. People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Are there things that you are doing that are ultimately just pulling you away from your purposes? Are there things that you are doing that are in contrast with your virtues?
Take a long, hard look at your life and figure out what you need to get rid of. Edit your life as if it were a book you were writing. What isn’t necessary? What is getting in the way of the essential story?
Life is only so long. There are only so many things that a person can do in their life. If you could only prioritize one aspect of life, what would it be?
Of course, life is a balance of different elements– family, career, health, spirituality, relationships, etc. You’ll want to think about what is most important to you and what you want to prioritize as you build your life plan.
What would your life look like if it were absolutely perfect? Careful not to get too carried away dreaming of Lambos and elaborate mansions… remember that the Stoics teach us that we have everything we need to be happy right now.
Beyond that, what does a typical day look like?
Painting a big picture of your ultimate goal and what it would look like to fulfill your major purposes in life creates a map with two points– point A (where you are right now) and point B (achieving that ultimate dream state of self.) Once you have that, it’s time to look at what path you need to walk to get from A to B.
Creating a life plan that says, “I’m going to be President of the United States” or “I’m going to cure cancer” isn’t going to get you very far unless you break it down into smaller steps.
“Well-being is attained by little and little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself.”
– Zeno of Citium
What are the milestones you’ll need to reach to get you where you want to go? When would be a reasonable deadline to set for yourself to meet them?
The problem with making a plan is that life never goes according to plan. What you can do, though, is practice negative visualization just like the Stoics did.
This means that you'll want to consider all of the things that could go wrong. Of course, you can never anticipate everything that is going to happen. You can, though, use your previous life experience and the wise words of others to help you imagine what the different possibilities are.
Change is an inevitable part of life. It's, therefore, important to remain adaptable even when you've plotted out where you want to go in life.
Your life plan can be a deep source of comfort and stability if you face crises down the road. There are always going to be hard times, and it's important to remember that adversity is what makes us stronger. That being said, it can be good to have a map in hand, so you remember why you're bothering to fight so hard.
Now that you've gathered all of the information you need, it's time to plot it out. Write down your biggest goals and the smaller tasks and milestones that will lead you to them. Consider how long each of these will take to accomplish and set reasonable deadlines for yourself to reach them.
Excellence, as Aristotle says, "is not an act, but a habit." Building habits is an important part of making the most of your time and staying on top of the ball when you are working toward a goal. As an added bonus, building habits can reduce stress and anxiety while boosting self-esteem.
Whenever you have repetitive tasks, think about how you can efficiently fit them into your day. Does it make sense to lump them together with other tasks and take care of them in a bundle? Does this task need to be done at a certain time of day? What tools could you acquire that would make the task take less time and be more efficient?
The Stoics talk a lot about not worrying about the past or the future, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t plan. After all, Marcus Aurelius wasn’t just the Emperor, and he was also the wartime Commander in Chief. It simply isn’t possible to be remotely successful in such a role without thorough planning.
The important thing, though, is that your consideration of the future should actually result in taking action in the present.
So now that you have your plan, it’s time to put it into motion. Not tomorrow– today!
When you're trying to plan out a Stoic life, there are a few important points you'll want to keep in mind. Here are some tips to help you out as you build and begin carrying out your plan.
One of the principles of Stoicism that can radically change your life is the dichotomy of control. This is the idea that there are some things in your life that you can control and others that you can’t.
“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”
When you make your life plan, don’t set goals that aren’t really actionable points within your control. Focus on the things you can control, things like your beliefs, your values, your perspective, your thoughts, your words, and your actions.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and fulfilling your purpose isn’t something that happens overnight.
“No great thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.”
It’s easy to go overboard when setting goals for yourself. You might write down “make a million dollars by next August” even though you only have $200 in your bank account or “be married by next year” when you don’t have any current relationship prospects, for example.
Don’t set yourself up for failure by setting unreasonable milestones or expecting radical change overnight.
In this quote, Epictetus reminds us that we must be realistic about the way things really work. If you want to start a business, but you don’t know what you’re selling, where you’ll find the startup capital, or who your audience is, you’ll need to give yourself a reasonable amount of time to meet each important step along the way.
Things aren’t going to go as planned. They just aren’t.
The Stoics embraced a notion known as amor fati– Latin for the love of one’s fate. If you can also learn to love your fate, it means that you embrace everything that happens to you in life– both the “good” and the “bad”– because you know that the occurrences of the universe are a part of a greater order and therefore good (or, at least necessary.)
So if your life doesn’t go exactly as you planned, that’s ok. In fact, that’s basically bound to be what happens. Don’t become too rigidly attached to your plan, and see if you can learn to love the flow of life.
Having a life plan is great, but you’ll need to zoom in and also learn how to plan out your days and make the most of your time. Developing good habits can allow you to have more productive days that help you reach the milestones and goals you’ve set for yourself.
No one knows when they’re going to die, but we all know for certain that we will sometimes. The Stoics would meditate on death to remind themselves of their own mortality.
“Take it that you have died today, and your life's story is ended; and henceforward regard what future time may be given you as uncovenanted surplus, and live it out in harmony with nature.”
– Marcus Aurelius
This can actually reinvigorate your life and help you realize that if you want to make your dreams happen, you should probably start today.
Change is an inherent part of life. If you are dedicated to continually growing as a person, change will be an inherent part of you, too.
Once you start walking the path you've laid out, you're going to learn new things. You're going to experience new things. Things will happen to you that change your sense of priorities or purpose.
That's ok! Remember, as Lao Tzu said, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." To get to where you're trying to go, you have to start where you are. Along the way, keep your eyes open, and don't be afraid of change!
Planning out your life is important. Heck, it’s necessary if you want to get where you’re trying to go.
“The greatest loss of time is delay and expectation, which depend upon the future. We let go the present, which we have in our power, and look forward to that which depends upon chance, and so relinquish a certainty for an uncertainty.”
– Seneca the Younger
At the same time, don’t sacrifice the present moment for the future. It’s important to stay mindful of each day and appreciate your time on earth while you have it. The future is always uncertain. We can make plans and do what we can to fulfill them, but it’s essential not to fall into the trap of always looking to tomorrow at the expense of today.
Once you've created a life plan, it's easy to fixate on carrying it out exactly as you imagined it. That's not going to happen. Challenges are going to pop up that you have to deal with.
Don't get thrown entirely off course. Instead, adopt the mindset of Marcus Aurelius and remember that the obstacle is the way.
It's easy to think about staying on your path and adhering to your purpose when working towards large goals and engaging in big projects. But what about the little things you do? What about cleaning your kitchen and the way you spend your time first thing in the morning?
“The human soul degrades itself…when it allows its action and impulse to be without a purpose, to be random and disconnected: even the smallest things ought to be directed toward a goal.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius reminds us that we should always keep a goal in mind, no matter how small the task is. He is truly a role model for living a purpose-driven life, with a commitment to the notion that all of our actions make up who we are.
Your life can get completely filled with the dead weight if you aren't careful. You can spend your time doing unnecessary things, saying unnecessary things, and thinking about unnecessary things.
Take the advice of the great Roman Emperor and always ask yourself, "Is this necessary?" If it's not, throw it out and put your focus on what is essential.
Sometimes, a short quote can pack a more powerful punch than thousands of words. Let’s look at a collection of quotes from some of the great minds of history about planning your life.
“You are not your body and hair-style, but your capacity for choosing well. If your choices are beautiful, so too will you be.”
“I find it fascinating that most people plan their vacation with better care than they do their lives. Perhaps that is because escape is easier than change.”
– Jim Rohn
“Plan for what is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small. The difficult things in this world must be done while they are easy, the greatest things in the world must be done while they are still small. For this reason sages never do what is great, and this is why they achieve greatness.”
– Sun Tzu
“Our plans miscarry because they have no aim.”
– Seneca the Younger
“If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.”
– Abraham Maslow
“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
– Seneca the Younger
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
– Benjamin Franklin
“First tell yourself what kind of person you want to be, then do what you have to do. For in nearly every pursuit we see this to be the case. Those in athletic pursuit first choose the sport they want, and then do that work.”
“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.”
– Pablo Picasso
“Let your dream devour your life, not your life devour your dream.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery
“If a person gave away your body to some passerby, you’d be furious. Yet you hand over your mind to anyone who comes along, so they may abuse you, leaving it disturbed and troubled — have you no shame in that?”
“If you don't design your own life plan, chances are you'll fall into someone else's plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.”
– Jim Rohn
“From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now, you are at the Olympic games, you cannot wait any longer, and that your progress is wrecked or preserved by a single day and a single event. This is how Socrates fulfilled himself by attending to nothing except reason in everything he encountered. And you, although you are not yet Socrates, should live as someone who at least wants to be Socrates.”
“Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”
– Warren Buffett
“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”
– George S. Patton
"The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think and what you do is who you become."
“At night, never go to bed without knowing what you'll write tomorrow.”
– Ernest Hemingway
“Can you think of anything more permanently elating than to know that you are on the right road at last?”
– Vernon Howard
"You only have control over three things in your life – the thoughts you think, the images you visualize, and the actions your take.”
– Jack Canfield
“The wise man bridges the gap by laying out the path by means of which he can get from where he is to where he wants to go.”
– J. P. Morgan
“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”
“Every well built house started in the form of a definite purpose plus a definite plan in the nature of a set of blueprints.”
– Napoleon Hill
“A man who does not think and plan long ahead will find trouble right at his door.”
“Before beginning, plan carefully.”
– Marcus Tullius Cicero
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower
“To have his path made clear for him is the aspiration of every human being in our beclouded and tempestuous existence.”
– Joseph Conrad
“Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.”
– Winston Churchill
“Reduce your plan to writing. The moment you complete this, you will have definitely given concrete form to the intangible desire.”
– Napoleon Hill
“All you need is the plan, the road map, and the courage to press on to your destination.”
– Earl Nightingale
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
– Abraham Lincoln
Did any of these quotes strike a chord with you? Are you looking for more inspirational thoughts from some of the greatest minds in history? Make sure you check out our Stoic Quotes blog.