Happy family standing on the field at the sunset time

How do we get on top of life?

How do we impact on our circumstances rather than having our circumstances impact on us?

It’s an issue that so many of us face and I’ve found that most people can be categorised into two groups: those who master life and those who don’t.

The category people fall in ultimately comes down to how well they are able to get their values into their daily lives. It was Tony Robbins who said, ‘If you want the formula for happiness, then all you have to do is find your highest values and then spend your life living up to them.’

If we do things that are not congruent with our values, chances are we'll achieve a whole lot and never find true, lasting happiness.

If we do things that are not congruent with our values, chances are we’ll achieve a whole lot and never find true, lasting happiness.

When it comes to life planning people choose of one three options: the first option is those who commonly use a to-do list, the second are those who don’t and the third are those who use a to-do occasionally.

If we ask the third group, ‘When is it that you make that to-do list?’, the answer is likely to be something like,’When it all becomes overwhelming. When there’s too much for me to possibly remember. When I’m starting to go crazy keeping all these balls in the air.’ At that point they take the time to make the list. Most of the time they find there’s far too much to do. That is, they are confronted with the idea that their list has more things on it to do than there is time in the day to get it done.

If you have ever been in this situation, you’ll notice that when there are too many things on today’s to do list, we make some very strange decisions. The pressure is on for us to perform. When somebody says, ‘We need you to stay back at work because if you don’t we won't get that huge contract’, it goes on the list. When somebody sends you a letter saying, ‘Fill in your tax returns for the last seven years or we’re sending you to jail’, it goes on the list. Those things stay on the list and we start to have a list that’s full of crises and other things that absolutely have to be done.

The normal response is to go into ‘reaction mode’, trying to get things ticked off that list. Unfortunately the things that fall off the list when we’re busy are the critically important ones - the things that are going to build us as a human being. We say things like ‘I’m going to have to skip the gym today.’ We fail to meditate, eat unhealthy food and stay up late. In other words, we neglect ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally for the need to just get through and get the goal over the line.

The problem is getting that goal over the line doesn’t bring happiness. No jail time might be a positive thing, but it isn’t happiness, more a sense of relief. The big contract isn’t happiness. Again, perhaps there is simply relief that one big pressured situation is over and done with.

The result is that we end up frantically busy, but not experiencing the happiness that reaching targets should produce. We achieve a lot, but those achievements take away the things that are most important to us.

We end up frantically busy, but not experiencing the happiness that reaching targets should produce.

For example, we often hear from clients who have pursued a career because the opportunities were there. Promotions turned up without being aggressively pursued and their career took off but consumed more and more time. This person now has a fantastically successful financial life, but we’re often hearing they aren’t happy. Why? Generally because family is amongst their highest values and the price of success in their career was less time with their family. This creates enormous dislocation because the desired sense of connection with their family, which would bring true happiness and contentment, is missing. The great career, which they simply got led into, doesn’t bring the expected happiness.

Clearly we need a better system for life planning. How do we go about that?

Simple - reverse the process. Use a ‘top down’ approach.

A to-do list should be the last thing completed in our planning actions. The first and most critical step is to come up with a set of values we can live according to. That is, a sense of our mission or vision for our lives - a dream for the way that we’re going to be.

For example, as a personal development instructor, coach and mentor, what I wanted to do was be extremely successful when interacting with my clients. I wanted them to feel like they got massive value from their time with me when compared with the money they spent. The mission statement I designed to align with my values and used successfully for many years was, ‘I’ll live with integrity and make a difference in the lives of the people that I meet.’ That statement was reflective of my desire to leave the world a better place than it was when I turned up. It took some time to craft that mission statement and I highly recommend you set aside some time to create one for yourself.

But before you make your mission statement, I recommend you spend some time discovering your values. Ask yourself, ‘What is most important to me?’

It might be courage, humility, compassion, family or health. Whatever you choose will be distinctly personal to you. There are a few different exercises that can help you to discover your values, but here’s the one we favour….



To complete this exercise you will need: A pen, paper and plenty of time.

[Get the downloadable Values Exercise PDF here!]

a young businessman looking bored while working at his desk during late night at work
a young businessman looking bored while working at his desk during late night at work
father hug and kissing his daughters cheek
Free Download

Discover Your Deepest Values Worksheet

Download this proven worksheet to get crystal clear on your deepest personal values so you can make any decision with ease, gain clarity and focus, and create lasting happiness.

Take yourself a long way forward in time, to a testimonial dinner in your honour. Imagine a room full of people who have gathered to celebrate you. There’s quite a large crowd, really. Four people who have known you move to the front of the audience and speak about you.


First, a family member stands up and talks about having known you on an intimate basis. They talk about what they love about you, what a difference you’ve made in their life, why you are important to them and how their character has been influenced by their interaction with you. What would you like this person to say? Not what you think they feel about you – what would you truly like them to say and have it be the truth because that’s the way you’d been? Take a few moments now to write down the key elements of their speech. Don’t worry about sentences – just catch the important words.


Next, a person who has known you through a club or organisation such as the local church or footy team moves to the front of the gathering and speaks of their experience with you. What would you like them to say? Once again, not what do you think they would say – what would you like to hear about their experience of knowing you? Write down the essence of their words.


Third, a close friend, either of long or short standing, describes the nature of their friendship with you and how you have affected their life. What would you like to hear them say about what it was like to have you in their life and the impact you had on them? Catch the key words or phrases on paper now.


Finally, someone who has worked with you. This person is not necessarily involved in your current job, but someone with whom you have laboured. He or she speaks of their recollection of being with you both under pressure and during less urgent times. What would you like to hear out of this person’s mouth? Get the key words on paper now.

Take a look at what you have just written down about the way you would like to be. What you have in front of you is very close to a description of your highest values, the things you treasure most as a human being. Whether they be kindness, compassion, strength or intelligence, these qualities and attributes will form the basis of your goals – after all, they are the things you cherish most. It’s a rare person who has much on the list that is material or concrete, like a house or a Ferrari. Material possessions fade away when compared to these values.

After all, the people you love didn’t say, ‘He had a nice car!’

These values will be the aspects of your character that are most important to you. They constitute what actually matters to you – probably much more so than what you spend your time doing. Working, saving and taking holidays all lose their urgency compared to these values. Generally speaking, people who have a near death experience come to the conclusion that the vast majority of their time was wasted on activities that ultimately don’t matter much to them at all.

Generally speaking, people who have a near death experience come to the conclusion that the vast majority of their time was wasted on activities that ultimately don’t matter much to them at all.

Now that you’ve got the words on paper, you can begin to move towards planning your life according to your values.

Spend a few weeks considering the list of values you came up with. Are they really important to you? Are some more important than others? Are there too many? Do any of them conflict with one another? If they do, does one of them need to be removed from the list? What, if any, changes do you need to make? This list will evolve over the years as you do, so don’t consider it set in stone.

The next step in the ‘reversed’ life planning process is to consider who you are to the people around you. That is, what are your roles? Look at your primary source of income, your hobbies, relationships etc. Are you an entrepreneur? A mother/father? A husband/wife/partner? A brother/sister? A friend?

Take a moment to make a list of your roles and then order them in terms of their importance to you. For example, you may put number one beside husband/wife/partner and number two beside parent, number three beside your professional activities and so on. You can do this however you like, there is no right or wrong answer. What roles are the most important to you?

The two exercises above will help you to begin living your life with the big picture in mind. Your values will become your inner guidance mechanism. That is, you can make sure that your thoughts and actions align with the things you have identified as most important to you. In doing so, you ensure that each day contributes to your vision for life in a meaningful way.

When you’re setting your goals, make absolutely certain you don’t let a lower order goal interfere with a higher order one. If you achieve goals in area number three, say as an entrepreneur, your business might be extremely successful but if that’s at the cost of anything higher on the values/roles lists (like areas one and two) then you’re not going to be happy.

The areas you identified as the top two should always be your first and second priorities. If someone says, ‘Hey let’s go to Europe!’, you need to consider that choice in terms of its impact on your top two priorities. If those are your partner and children, then what impact on your relationship with your partner and kids will the trip to Europe have? Next you might work your way down the list - what impact would that trip have on your business, your friends etc?

As long as you can determine that the impact of the trip on your top priorities is minimal, then off to Europe you go! However, if you see that the trip is going to have a negative impact on your relationship with your kids because you’ll miss a birthday while you’re gone, then the answer should be easy.

In short, combining an understanding of your values with a roles list is an excellent way to ensure that you organise your goals according to your true priorities. That way, you don’t end up working towards a whole slew of goals that don’t bring happiness. It’s a ‘top down’ approach. That is, mission/vision, then values, then goals, and only then planning what to do to get there.

Combining an understanding of your values with a roles list is an excellent way to ensure that you organise your goals according to your true priorities.

To-do lists are like mile markers on the way to big goals - when they all add up they equal the target.

Let’s use building a house as a practical example of the ‘top down’ approach to life planning…

When you’re ready to build a house, chances are you’ll go to see an architect to get it designed for you. You’re likely to say something like, ‘I want a four bedroom, two bathroom brick house.’ That’s a goal, so it’s not the right place to begin. If you selected a decent architect, they’re going to ask you to go back a step and look at the mission and values for the home. That is, what’s the purpose of this house? Is it a sanctuary for a couple with no kids? Is it a family home? Is it a place you’re going to entertain lots of friends? All of those things will have an impact on the design of the house.

Next, they’ll look at what you value. Do you want solitude and quietness or do you want this house filled with the noise and activity of a happy family? When you’ve identified the priorities, the architect will design the house. So now, the goal has been set according to the values. Then you’ll take the plans to a builder and ask him to build the house for you. He uses the plans like mile markers on the way to the end goal. In other words, he’s going to put the slab down first, then the walls and the roof up. He’s not going to install the kitchen sink before the slab because to him, those plans are like a to-do list that equals the target. Equally, he doesn’t just build it all in one big go without smaller steps.

Planning towards your goals should be the same. That is, get everything organised according to your values and then divide your large goals into as many smaller targets as you can. The smaller the pieces are, the easier it is to make progress towards the larger goal. Big goals that have no steps between the start and finish are the ones that frighten us the most, because how will we get there? What do we actually do to make it happen? That same big goal split into 100 small steps is a lot easier for us to handle because we can see the bit we need to do today.

[RELATED: Why You Need A Personal Success Routine]

When you look at your to-do list, it should be made up of tasks that contribute to the roles and goals that are most important to you. Ask yourself, ‘If I do the things on this list, are they going to move me towards or away from my mission in life?’ Doing so will identify which things have to come off your list or get left for another time, but that’s fine because you’ll be able to do it without impacting on your long term happiness. Perhaps the trip to the gym will stay and working late will be there but not for quite as long. You’ll be able to modify your choices based on your values.

The version of life planning we are generally taught (either directly or by watching our role models) is completely backwards. Our culture encourages us to get on with it, and when things get busy we’re supposed to just be more energetic, put in more effort, be more enthusiastic. But the truth is most of us just run out of energy.

The ‘top down’ approach to life planning allows us to be effective, rather than efficient. Here’s the short version, in order…

  1. Establish your values and use them to determine a mission statement for your life.
  2. Determine the roles you play and put them in order of importance.
  3. Set goals within the roles and according to the values.
  4. Write the goals down.
  5. Develop action plans or strategies to reach the goals.
  6. Follow the plans, knowing each day’s activities move you towards what is most important to you.

Obviously this is not a daily activity, but that’s the beauty of it. Once you get it in place, you can simply go about your tasks knowing you’re working on making your dreams reality. When something new comes up, you can use your values as an inner guidance mechanism for what to say yes and no to.

Getting on top of life is not going to happen because you brainstormed a bunch of things you’d like.

Impacting on your circumstances to create the life of your dreams will be the direct result of a ‘top down’ approach to planning your life, followed by plenty of hard work and persistence.

It’s that simple.

a young businessman looking bored while working at his desk during late night at work
a young businessman looking bored while working at his desk during late night at work
Female soccer players celebrate their victory
Free Download


Discover a proven goal setting system that delivers the clarity, direction and focus you’ll need to design your dreams and then make them reality!

Paul Blackburn

An internationally acclaimed author and leader in the human potential movement, Paul has taught more than 400,000 people on 4 continents how to reach their personal and professional potential during 38 years as a success coach, author, instructor and keynote speaker. Paul has trained 350+ life/business coaches, held one of the world’s largest fire-walks, was appointed by the Australian Government to its business advisory panel and is a partner in a multi-million dollar business operating in 86 countries (not related to personal development).