How much time should you spend relaxing, working, pursuing meaningful activities, alone or with others, at home or traveling? If you’re trying to figure this out, you’re not alone. You may have heard of Design Thinking, which has become a kind of “buzzword” lately.  Design Thinking has been around since the 1960s, but in the last decade or so, David and Tom Kelley, founders of the consulting firm IDEO, in Palo Alto, California, have popularized Design Thinking and used it to help their clients design products. Many colleges have also embraced Design Thinking, including Stanford University, just down the street from IDEO. At Stanford’s (the “d” is for Design), Design Thinking is one of the most popular classes. 

While Design Thinking may sound complicated, it is really just a process for creative problem solving that can be modified to apply to any “problem.”So if the “problem” you are trying to solve is what to do next with your life, you can use Design Thinking to help you figure this out.  

Although there are some general “steps” in Design Thinking, there’s no official guidebook, and no right or wrong way to use it in your life. I’m going to explain the steps used by the Stanford d.School and tweak them a bit. If you want a more in-depth look at Design Thinking, I recommend Designing Your Life by the Stanford professors who teach the class I mentioned earlier.  

Even if this is the first time you’ve heard of Design Thinking, or you’re skeptical, I encourage you to finish this article anyway and do some of the exercises.And if you have a spouse or partner, it can spark great conversations to do this together.

Here’s a short explanation of each step of Design Thinking and how you can use them in your life.  

Empathize: In this step you normally try to understand the people you are designing for (since most problems also involve other people).  Of course, you won’t interview yourself the way you would someone else, but you should think about how you spend your time, and what is important and meaningful to you. A good way to do this is to do a time diary. Think about a typical week and write down how you spend your time each day. Try to be as accurate as possible and include specific hours allocated to each activity. Once you’re done, think about how much of your time is spent doing activities that are meaningful to you and how much time you spend on other things.  Many people are surprised at how much time they spend doing things like surfing the Internet or watching TV. Look at your time chart and think about how much time you could have available for new activities.  

Exercise 1: Do a Time Diary 

Define: During this step, you will define the “problem” you are trying to solve. This is harder than it sounds. It’s important to be broad and not focus too much on a specific solution.  But at the same time, your problem must also be narrow enough that it is actionable. For example, a problem statement of “improve my life” or “do more meaningful things” is too broad. If you’re not sure how to do this, just take a stab at it.  You can always go back and refine it later. If you are trying to figure out what to do next, your “problem” statement could be something concrete such as: “ I’d like to find a part-time volunteer position working with children.” Or it could be more general, such as: “I want to do something where I can help animals.” There is no right or wrong answer.  

Exercise 2: Write down something you would like to change or solve in your life. If you aren’t sure, write down a few different options and then pick one to start with.

Ideate: Ideation is where you come up with lots of ideas. This is like brainstorming — the point is to generate as many ideas as possible. During this step, be creative and write down whatever you think of.  Don’t worry if your ideas seem silly or farfetched. Let your imagination take over and write down anything that comes into your mind as a possible way to address the “problem” you came up with.  

Exercise 3: Write down as many options or solutions as you can think of. Go for quantity, not quality.  

Prototype: Take all the ideas you generated from your “ideate” list and narrow them down. Pick the three best ideas from your list. For each of these ideas, think about how you can test the idea without investing a lot of time and money up front. That is a “prototype.” In other words, for each one, think about how you can take a small step to try out your idea. For example, talk to someone who is already doing a paid or volunteer job you are interested in.  

Exercise 4: Take three of your ideas and figure out how to do them. If you want to take an Italian class, call a local community college and find out what classes are available. See if you can sit in on one class for a day. Or if you want to find a volunteer position working with children, call your local school district and find out what they have available. See if you can spend a morning observing volunteers there. Basically, you want to try out the activity, but without a commitment.  

Test: Now that you’ve done your “prototype” with several ideas, pick the one which you want to do first. I’ve found that it can be easier to start with something small. You don’t need to change your entire life. Just find one thing you want to do–like a new activity and don’t worry if you aren’t sure that you want to do it for the long-term. Start by taking a step. If you try something and you don’t like it, you can always stop and try something else. Don’t spend too much about analyzing.  

Exercise 5: Pick one of the scenarios you came up with and go do it! For example, if you want to learn a new language, sign up for lessons or a class. If you want to write your memoir, find a creative writing group to join. Again, don’t worry if it’s the perfect thing. Finding a new activity is usually fairly straightforward to do. However, if you want to make a bigger change, like start a new encore career, this requires more preparation and a longer time to implement. For a lot of people, it works to start with a small activity or action, and then “work your way up” to tackle a bigger challenge.   

Hopefully after doing these exercises you’ll come upon at least one new thing to add toward a more fulfilling life. If you have questions about how to do any of this, email me at  

Joan Lambert is a former attorney who has worked in the private and non-profit sector. She has served on the board of several non-profits, and co-founded the Preeclampsia Foundation. She is a Certified Retirement Coach.