In order to get things done, to be productive, to achieve greater meaning and happiness in your life, you need to make sure you’re spending more time on the big rocks and less time on the “sand” of everyday life (such as errands and email). But how can you determine which things are most important?

George Kinder is a Certified Financial Planner who divides his time between Massachusetts and Hawaii. Unlike many CFPs, Kinder isn’t just about the nuts and bolts of money. He moves beyond the numbers in an attempt to address the goals and values of his clients. “Without life planning,” he says, “financial planning is like using a blunt instrument on the organism we call the human being.”

Near the beginning of his work with each client, Kinder challenges her to answer three questions. These questions are designed to lead the client deeper and deeper into her desires until they reveal her goals and values, the things that bring her meaning and purpose. Kinder shared these questions in his book, The Seven Stages of Money Maturity.

  1. Imagine you’re financially secure. You have enough money to take care of your needs, both now and in the future. How would you live your life? Would you change anything? Let yourself go and describe your dreams. What would you do if money were no object?
  2. Now imagine that you visit your doctor. She reveals you only have five to ten years left to live. You’ll never feel sick, but you’ll have no notice of the moment of your death. What will you do in the time you have remaining? Will you change your life? How will you change it? (Note that this question does not assume unlimited wealth.)
  3. Finally, imagine your doctor shocks you with the news that you only have 24 hours to live. Nothing can be done. At this time tomorrow, you’ll be dead. What feelings arise as you confront your mortality? What did you miss? Who did you not get to be? What did you not get to do?

Answering the first question is easy (and fun). There are many things we’d do if money were no object. But as the questions progress, there’s a sort of funnel. They become more difficult to answer, and there are fewer possible responses. Life planning is all about answering that final question.

Note: For years, I’ve assumed these questions were original to Kinder. Recently, however, I discovered that in 1973 time-management guru Alan Lakein proposed a similar set of questions in his book How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. As part of his “Lifetime Goals Exercise”, Lakein asks readers: (1) What are your lifetime goals? (2) How would you like to spend the next three years? (3)If you knew now that you’d be struck by lightning six months from today, how would you live until then?

12 Replies to “How to Figure Out What You Want from Life”

  1. From extrinsic to intrinsic motivators in three progressively introspective questions. Powerful.

    When my dad passed away suddenly, I started asking myself a few simple questions every night as I got ready for bed: “Am I happy? Do I have any regrets? Is there something I want to change?” Those questions have served me well over time and I still ask them today.

    Kinder sounds like a great adviser. I will check out his and Lakein’s book. Thank you for the recommendations.

  2. Scott says:

    Nice succinct advice. Many people don’t stop to exam their life like this. When we quit our jobs and sold the house to go travel a friend told me he wished he could do the same thing. I laughed at him because he owns three houses and makes a ton of money as a partner in a law firm. He just couldn’t picture not working and making more and more money.

  3. Thank you so much, J.D., for that excellent article. The three questions predate us all—they are ancient and timeless wisdom that the Life Planning movement arrived at through our own experiences and honed to serve today. You mentioned The Seven Stages of Money Maturity, but I wanted to be sure you knew about my new book for consumers, Life Planning for You: How to Design & Deliver the Life of Your Dreams, written with Mary Rowland, former personal finance columnist for The New York Times. It can be ordered on Amazon or through the free companion consumer self-help website, It is a do-it-yourself book, full of inspiring stories, that also shows the advantages of working with a Financial Life Planner. It provides a guide to finding a financial adviser you can trust. It makes widely available to consumers for the first time this proven technique for designing and delivering the life of your dreams.

    My goal is to make it possible for every person at any income level to gain the benefits of the EVOKE® Life Planning process, so I have kept the Kindle price extremely low ($2.99 in US dollars). I dream of a world where the entrepreneurial or creative energy of every person is freed, where all people are able to identify their lives of greatest meaning and joy and create a Life Plan with the financial architecture to deliver that life. The book and website make that dream possible at last.

  4. Another great contribution to this work is George Kinder’s new book “Life Planning for You” (available from Amazon) which supports the web site – a wonderful DIY approach for the client to undertake their own life planning with or without an adviser.
    Having experienced the 5 day EVOKE training with George Kinder myself I can personally vouch for the significance of this work – it is without doubt the most profound financial training I have encountered in 38 years in the commercial world – see for a more detailed evaluation.

  5. Nicholas Lee says:

    Excellent article JD. I am a Kinder trained Financial Life Planner and I use the le 3 Questions with my clients. You express the issues very succinctly here.
    From my perspective as a professional planner it is crucial to understand people and their motivation, needs and aspirations before offering any advice about their money.

  6. KSR says:

    I know I’m just stating the obvious.
    Question #1: This is a planning exercise, really. Not many truly believe they will ever have “enough.” It’s an angle on fear. “If you had no fear, what would you do?”
    Question #2: This is a what if. Fear of money is no longer a problem (question answered in #1), now mortality is=creating fear again. So—“I went sky diving, Rocky Mountain climbing, I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu (sp)…”
    Question #3: This is the same but immediate—take away the 24 hours and replace it with a more respectable 3 months, 1 month, or 2 weeks. EXCEPT, most (that can) will go to drastic measures and find themselves on booked flights to Mexico in search of alternative medicine treatments not offered in the U.S. so to…at least try. Unfortunately they can spend to the last digits and find themselves on an Angel Flight back home with nothing near the results they sought out for, just squandered time with loved ones.
    My answer to all of the above is to just accept, appreciate, and live with as little fear as possible while doing what one can, now, to responsibly uphold a self. When fear presents —or others present questions that induce fear—I just shrug and smirk first. I think second. My answer is always that it certainly isn’t worth the stress of it all. It’s all random. I could die tomorrow because someone fell asleep at the wheel or because my great grandmother had a certain form of cancer. The first comment, by “Free To Pursue,” in regard to regrets– is my real fear. Everyone has a bucket list, right? I’m only half way through! What I want from life: peace, love, happiness, and the ability to focus/defend. None of them cost a thing, I purchase them all with my soul, regardless of the human cost. Add in some cheap, good wine and travel and it’s a celebration. It’s not the destination (or when or how much), it’s about the journey (and now with what you have). If you are eager to cover your future and can pay for your own funeral right at this moment—you are way ahead of the game. Those are the big rocks. Fear is the sand that gets in the way and takes up the space.

  7. I first heard “The Three Questions” about a year ago and they were the spark that opened my eyes to a more meaningful life. To me the questions didn’t result in fear, but rather inspiration and vigor. They woke me up and made me think about what was really important in my life. With that clarity came a surge of energy that made it easier to tackle the obstacles that were dragging me down and then execute the steps necessary to move toward a more authentic life. In the last year I’ve started my own company, spent more time with the people I care about, moved across the country to be closer to family, and started helping others figure out their own life plan. I wouldn’t say I’ve arrived at my ideal life (I don’t know that you ever do as your life plan will continue to evolve), but I definitely feel as though I’m on the right track. Without the concept of life planning I’m not sure any of this would have happened—at least not this quickly or with this much clarity. It’s amazing how things start to fall in place once you know what you want.

  8. Mary Zimmerman says:

    Putting these three questions to people, and having them answer through a money lens, is powerful work. I had to experience them myself to make that statement. In my 30-plus years in the financial services industry, I have found that using the “Kinder Three Questions” is the fastest way to get to the heart of a sound financial plan.

  9. Diane C says:

    I always say I’m lucky because I had cancer when I was 22. First, because it hasn’t recurred, but primarily because it forced me to formulate similar questions and answers to them at a very early stage in life. I knew I didn’t want to be a wage slave forever. Had sites yours (or even the internet for that matter) existed back then, I could have done it sooner. Fortunately, I eventually got there and am really enjoying the freedom that comes after all the years of planning and saving.

  10. Diane C says:

    Er, an edit function would be much appreciated (and in my case, clearly needed). “Sites like yours” is what I meant to say.

  11. Lewroon says:

    I think it takes away from this site if you allow people so shamelessly to promote their products.
    The three questions are certainly not the brain product from Kinder, there has been much more profound thinking and advise on this subject.
    And I believe financial advise as from your friend J Collins is much more likable, friendly and kind than this marketing stint here in your comment section by Kinder and followers.

  12. ben says:

    1 & 2 is the same for me.
    I would have minimal camera gear & a laptop. 2 sets of clothing and wonder around the world. I WILL make videos and meet people. Wonder and see what happens. This is what I’m working on right now. Debt free, savings and rental property. I’ve started this already. Sounds like what JD is doing already too.

    3: have a HUGE gathering of friends and family. Whoever shows up, do really care.

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