Skip to content

Use Strategic Thinking to Create the Life You Want

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Rainer Strack, Susanne Dyrchs, and Allison Bailey for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  Vanessa Branchi

* * *

Seven questions can clarify what really matters to you.
In times of crisis, many of us ponder existential questions about health, security, purpose, career, family, and legacy. However, more often than not, such contemplation is short-lived. The demands of everyday life — the here and now — can overwhelm us, leaving little time to think about the long term and what we are working toward. As a result, when faced with life decisions both big and small, we are left with nothing to guide us but emotion or intuition.

The corporate equivalent, of course, is attempting to run a business without a strategy, which every HBR reader knows is a losing proposition. But as longtime consultants to organizations around the world, we wondered: Could we adapt the model for strategic thinking that we use with institutional clients to help individuals design better futures for themselves? The answer is yes, and the result is a program that we call Strategize Your Life. We’ve tested it with more than 500 people — including students, young professionals, middle-aged employees and managers, C-suite executives, board members, and retirees — to help them develop their individual life strategies.

You can create a life strategy at any time, but it can feel especially appropriate at certain milestones — a school graduation, the start of your first job, a promotion, becoming an empty-nester, retiring — or after a major life event, such as a health scare, a divorce, the loss of a job, a midlife crisis, or the death of a loved one. When you have a strategy, you will be better able to navigate all those transitions and difficult moments, building resilience and finding more joy and fulfilment while minimizing stress. This article will help you get started.

A Surprising Symmetry

Every corporate strategy project is different. But the hundreds that we’ve conducted for large organizations have had commonalities, including the use of certain methodologies and tools. We typically work through seven steps, each guided by a question:

  1. How does the organization define success?
  2. What is our purpose?
  3. What is our vision?
  4. How do we assess our business portfolio?
  5. What can we learn from benchmarks?
  6. What portfolio choices can we make?
  7. How can we ensure a successful, sustained change?

These steps can be easily adapted to an individual:

  1. How do I define a great life?
  2. What is my life purpose?
  3. What is my life vision?
  4. How do I assess my life portfolio?
  5. What can I learn from benchmarks?
  6. What portfolio choices can I make?
  7. How can I ensure a successful, sustained life change?

As the former head of strategy for a U.S.-based Fortune 50 company told us, “Knowing the right questions is much harder than having the answers.” Just as corporate strategy is an integrated set of choices that positions a company to win, life strategy is an integrated set of choices that positions a person to live a great life. What’s more, we can apply tools from classic organizational strategy and other realms to help you find answers to the seven questions above and make better decisions.

Critics might say that you can’t transfer concepts from business to life. In the 1960s there were similar concerns about whether strategy ideas from the military and politics could apply to the corporate world. The management guru Peter Drucker even changed the title of his 1964 book from Business Strategy to Managing for Results because everyone he and his publisher asked told them that strategy belonged to those realms, not to business. Yet we’ve also seen business-world principles employed to improve people’s self-management. For example, in their best-selling book Designing Your Life, Stanford University’s Bill Burnett and Dave Evans modified the design thinking they used in software development to help individuals.

Strategize Your Life is our attempt to do the same for strategic thinking in a concrete, step-by-step way. We believe it can lead you to new insights on how you define and find your great life. Our goal is to give your emotion and intuition an analytical partner.

In surveying our workshop and coaching session participants, we found that, in the past, only 21% had outlined what a great life means to them, 9% had identified their purpose, 12% had set a vision for their life, 17% had created concrete goals and milestones, and a paltry 3% had developed what could be called a life strategy. These are critically important issues that very few of us are spending enough time on.

As Martha, a 26-year-old graduate student, explained, “Life keeps taking shape… When all the Christmas parties and weddings and trips are suddenly over, you ask yourself, ‘Have I really lived or has life just happened to me?’” She was eager to be more proactive. “What better help is there than a high-level plan for life?” she asked. “Not to strictly follow it and forbid life to unfold, but to have a common thread. What should my story be? What should I have experienced so that in the end I can say to myself, ‘I have lived’?”

Unlike most self-help books, we don’t present one golden path to happiness or life satisfaction. Because everyone is unique, we give you the tools to find your own path in a seven-step life strategy process. In step 1 you define what a great life means for you. In step 2 you outline your purpose; in step 3 your life vision. Step 4 is a portfolio analysis of how you spend your 168-hour week, while step 5 involves setting life satisfaction benchmarks. In step 6 you incorporate the results of the first five steps and determine your choices and potential changes in your life, and in step 7 you map out a plan for putting your choices into action. We recommend that you take notes throughout so that, by the end, you can put an initial version of your life strategy on a single page. (To help, we created a life strategy worksheet, which should be filled out after you’ve gone through all the steps.)

This work may seem daunting, but in practice it should take you only a few hours. That said, it might not be easy. You will have to challenge yourself and go beyond the obvious. But you shouldn’t give up, because the answers you’ll discover are so worthwhile. After all, what’s more important than your life? Commit to thinking strategically about it, look forward to the insights you will gain, and enjoy the journey.

The Seven Steps

The process begins with a simple yet profound question:

1. How do I define a great life?

The starting point of any corporate strategy process is to define fundamental metrics for success. For instance, does the organization want its strategy to focus on driving sales, shareholder value, or positive societal impact?

What are the right metrics in an individual’s life? Our social norms and hierarchies might suggest we measure ourselves with money, fame, and power. But studies have shown that money leads to greater happiness only to the extent that our basic needs are met, after which its returns diminish or even plateau. Other research shows many of us are on a “hedonic treadmill”: After we get a pay raise, are promoted, or purchase something that triggers a pleasurable high, we return to our original level of happiness. And then there is social comparison — no matter what you achieve, someone will always be richer, more famous, or more powerful than you.

The ancient Greeks saw two main dimensions of a great life: hedonia (a focus on pleasure) and eudaimonia (a focus on virtues and on meaning). More recently, scholars have pointed to the importance of social connection. A study of more than 27,000 people in Asia found a strong correlation between being married and being satisfied with life, while a study that has followed 268 Harvard College men from 1938 to the present, and was expanded to include their children and wives, as well as a study that has followed 456 residents of inner-city Boston since the 1970s, also expanded to include children and wives, found that meaningful relationships were the key driver of long-term happiness. The late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen agreed: In his classic HBR article “How Will You Measure Your Life?” he wrote, “I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched.”

A framework that includes all these factors — hedonic, eudemonic, and relational — is the PERMA model, introduced by Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology and a University of Pennsylvania professor, in his 2011 book, Flourish. Other researchers later developed it into PERMA-V, which stands for Positive emotions (frequent feelings of pleasure and contentment), Engagement (being in the flow, losing track of time), Relationships (mutual feelings of caring, support, and love), Meaning (contributing to making the world a better place), Achievement (striving for success or mastery, reaching goals), and Vitality (being healthy and energetic).

To determine what makes a great life for you, start with each element in PERMA-V, or even add your own categories, such as autonomy or spirituality. Then rate each one’s importance to you on a scale from 0 (not important) to 10 (very important). Try to recall periods of deep satisfaction in your past and consider what triggered them.

In the first step of strategy projects, we conduct a comprehensive analysis of the status quo. So, you should also rate your current satisfaction with each dimension on a scale from 0 (not at all satisfied) to 10 (very satisfied). This quick assessment will give you a rough idea of how you define a great life and initial ideas about wha

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Rainer Strack is a senior partner emeritus and a senior adviser at BCG, where he built up and led the global People Strategy topic for 10 years. In 2014 he gave a widely watched TED talk on the global workforce crisis. He formerly coheaded the Future of Work initiative for the World Economic Forum, and in 2021 he was inducted into Personalmagazin’s HR Hall of Fame. He is a fellow of the BCG Henderson Institute.
Susanne Dyrchs is an executive adviser, a coach, and a people strategy expert. She is also a BCG U faculty member and a coauthor of numerous publications on organizations, leadership, and talent. She has written a personal account of her transformational journey, Wir-Zeit [Us Time], which was published in 2021.
Allison Bailey is a senior partner and a managing director at BCG. She leads the firm’s People & Organization practice globally and is a coauthor of several publications on the future of work, the bionic company, digital learning, and upskilling. She is also a fellow of the BCG Henderson Institute.



Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll To Top