When I was a teen, I read a Steve Pavlina article called “How to Discover Your Life Purpose in About 20 Minutes.” He suggested brainstorming ideas for what your life purpose might be, in writing, line after line, until you write something that makes you cry. Such a reaction of strong emotional resonance is a signal that you’ve gotten past all the societal conditioning and clutter, and managed to get in touch with what truly brings meaning to your existence.
Actual experiences with this exercise vary. I recently got the chance to chat about it with other fans of Steve’s blog, and some of them said it didn’t work for them. Others reported that it took them considerably less than 20 minutes, or a lot longer, as was the case for me. While I found the idea of this exercise so inspiring and accurate—trusting myself to know deep down my true calling—it did play into my perfectionist tendencies. I spent hours trying to come up with the “perfect” tear-jerking statement. Once I had it, I wrote down my life purpose in pretty ink, I posted it on my wall, but before long, the words had lost a lot of their magic power and they no longer felt so special or moving.
If you’re an overthinker like me, today I’ll suggest an alternative exercise to avoid such traps. It’s simple. Spend 20 seconds—not just once, but once every morning—taking a gut-instinct guess as to what gives you purpose in life.
I tried this routine myself over the past year, and I loved it. By devoting minimal time to the exercise, but spreading it out over time, my emotional gains were stronger.
20 seconds is too little time for me to get bogged down in overthinking. If I end up taking 3 minutes by accident though, that’s still quite fast! And since I know the life purpose statement I’m writing is just for today and I’ll write a new one tomorrow, the pressure is off.
Writing about my life purpose from scratch, I stay emotionally connected to the words. Knowing me, I can’t rely on a single set-in-stone mission statement that’s supposed to keep me inspired forever. I’d rather rediscover my life’s purpose over and over, like waking up each morning and realizing I’m alive. In fact, first thing on a Saturday morning felt like an ideal time for me to do the exercise, when my mind was fresh and not yet occupied by outside pressure. However, when I picked the habit back up again last month, I switched to doing it at random times, not even every day, but just whenever I found myself craving an inspiration break. That worked great too, and being in the midst of day-to-day difficulties when I tried to describe my life purpose made me come at it from a different valuable angle. If you believe something to be your fundamental meaning in life, it would make sense that that sentiment should apply equally to both your breezy and more challenging moments.
Life purpose is really not that complicated
Most of us just want to have a better time that leaves a good aftertaste. We want to express our best selves, learn and explore fascinating things, and collect beautiful experiences of connection with others. We want to take great care of ourselves and our immediate loved ones, as well as make a difference in the larger world.
If our circumstances are far off from this rosy picture, like Victor Frankl surviving the Holocaust in Man’s Search for Meaning, then it can be a lot harder to find worth in being alive. At the same time, suffering is so inherently awful and morally urgent, that resolving it can become an extremely potent source of purpose.
I am as unique as the next person, with the experiences and inborn personality that shape my deep desires. Still, I found it helpful to reflect on the universal human condition described above. My hunger for self-knowledge could be tempered by knowing that everyone else was trying to make sense of their life too! My tastes would evolve anyway, so why overcomplicate the quest of knowing who I was? Just guess. Try out something that calls to you. Then another. Write about it for 20 seconds a day, and watch that sweet clarity grow over the weeks and months to come. And if you ever feel hopeless or lost, like I have at various points in my life, remember that the search for meaning itself can count as a supremely important purpose.
I applied the 20-second rule to my short-term goals, too
In case you’re wondering about my life purpose, it goes something like this: Love everyone and make life fun. Make a positive difference with our joyful creativity. Take part playfully in new possibilities for us all to be safe, protected, and happy. Pretty short and sweet. I don’t want my sense of meaning to be too limited to any one form of expression, but you could say that writing and friendly communication, nerdy introspection, and a vegan ethic of compassion are each a big part of my purpose! Depending on the day and mood, I might word my purpose a bit differently, but this is how it averages out.
Now that I know all this, it’s satisfying and emboldening to remember my purpose now and then. But what I really want is to be immersed in my purpose-informed projects. Just as I spent longer than needed to on my life purpose statement, I’ve also tended to spend hours ruminating over New Year plans and quarterly goals, even though they rarely panned out as described. It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of making big, formal goal lists that I quickly forget about, I’m now practicing setting goals and intentions in a more frequent, spontaneous, short-lived, and 20-second manner.
While writing this article, for instance, I set an intention to take a refreshing break from writing, and go clean up the kitchen with love for everyone in the house. Did it work? Yes! But even if I had gotten sidetracked or failed to enjoy the task of cleaning, I could always check in with myself again at any later time and answer, “What is my intention now?”
Another habit I am leaning into—an evolution of the 20-second life purpose writing—is that before I go to bed I jot down 8 quick, kind intentions for my creative projects. In the morning, I read those intentions aloud. I’m not attached to these goals coming true; I’m just enjoying exploring ideas for what I could make happen, and because I’m doing it daily, it seems my passion for and belief in my projects has swelled up!
Thinking like this is helping me bring more purpose to the specific projects on my plate this very week, and to the immediate present moment. By very often refreshing my lived purpose, my level of clarity about the overall story of my life can’t help but flourish.
Sometimes all it takes is 20 seconds to remember what you are living for each morning. Or 20 seconds to apply that sense of purpose to the very next steps you are about to take.
Also by Phoenix: I Found Out I’m Neurodivergent In My Late 20s. Here’s How I’m Thriving
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Photo: David Iskander via Unsplash