I almost drowned in the ocean when I was 16. I was playing with some friends along a rocky coast in northern California when the sand fell away suddenly and I got pulled into an undertow. For the next very long couple of minutes I tumbled around in the current and was about to gulp in a lungful of sea water when I somehow popped to the surface.

When I looked around, all I could see was water, and I thought I’d been pulled out so far that I couldn’t see land anymore.When I finally spotted the beach, it was hundreds of feet away. It kept disappearing from view behind the waves, but at least it gave me something to aim for. I’m not a strong swimmer and I collapsed when I finally managed to flail to shore.

That was one of the most disorienting and draining incidents of my life, but certainly not the only one. Some of my “dry land undertow” experiences include getting married and moving from the U.S. to South Africa at the end of the Apartheid era; having young children, which was awesome AND exhausting; juggling priorities all day every day as a working mom; moving around the world or across the country eight other times; changing careers; my mom dying; the kids going off to college; and getting diagnosed/living with cancer.

Focusing on What Matters Most

Without a beach to aim for during those phases, I needed something else to help me keep moving in the right direction, regardless of what demanded my attention at any given moment. I wanted to focus on what mattered most, so I created a simple, brief, daily planning ritual based on my favorite coaching tools – the ones that really resonated with me and that I knew WORKED. Despite its simplicity, this practice has helped me to, at the very least, flail purposefully even in the most challenging times.

If you ever feel like things in your life are pulling you down or tossing you around, this process might help you, too.


First: What DOES Matter Most?

My favorite categorization of what matters comes from the book Flourish by Martin Seligman, head of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the founders of positive psychology. After interviews with tens of thousands of people around the world, researchers identified five aspects of life that are important to most of us regardless of culture, race, religion, income, gender or other differences. They are:

1. Positive emotions, or feeling good.

Happiness is not an end state we arrive at when everything is perfect; it’s made up of tiny little moments of feeling good. The more of these little happy moments you have, the happier you’ll feel overall. Feeling good can mean everything from calm and content to joyful or ecstatic, from the Zen-like state you get from yoga to a runner’s high.

2. Engagement, or “flow.”

Flow happens when you are so involved in what you are doing that the rest of the world – and time – seems to disappear. Your mind isn’t wandering; you’re fully immersed in an activity that engages your total concentration; this can range from chess to sex, running, performing surgery, practicing the violin or playing video games (cue the self-discipline ;-)).

3. Relationships.

Having supportive, loving relationships is the single greatest predictor of your overall satisfaction with life. Many studies, including one that followed 278 Harvard graduates for 75 years, have found that even with a successful career, money and good physical health, you’ll still be unhappy if you don’t have good relationships.

4. Meaning, or a sense of purpose.

Meaning is the feeling of belonging to and serving something larger than yourself, like your community, religion, or a cause you care about. Doing something for others is, in fact, one of the fastest and surest ways to feel better yourself.

5. Achievement or accomplishment. 

Finishing writing a blog post, pulling the last weed out of your garden, earning your first million – whatever you want to do, working toward it every day and finishing it is an important and satisfying aspect of life.

To these five categories I’ve added health. Without it you have nothing, as they say, and I can vouch for that.

What do you think of these categories? Would you add or delete any for yourself?


Using This to Guide Your Days and Your Life

When you know what matters most, you can plan accordingly. I created a simple format in the back of my Filofax, and in the mornings I set intentions in each category*:

Positive emotions: What is one thing I can I do today that will lift my mood, my heart or my spirit? Do I want to create something? Do something bold? Find a few moments of peace and quiet?

Engagement: What do I feel like doing that I love so much it makes me lose track of time?

Relationships: How can I nurture an important relationship today? Who can I call, see, text or follow up with? Who do I know that might be struggling and appreciate a little love?

Meaning: What can I do that contributes to the greater good? How can I use my experience or talents to help someone else?

Accomplishment: What can I do today that will make me feel like I’ve achieved something important? (side note: this category used to be all about work for me but now it feels broader; after I got out of the hospital last year walking to the garage and back felt like a huge accomplishment.)

Health: What shall I do to nurture my body?

That’s it. The acronym spells PERMAH, and I think of this as my PERMAHnent life planner. 😉

* Actually, most mornings I set intentions in most categories. Real life.


How Do I Keep My Planner?

My PERMAH planner




I write it into a section of my Filofax and you could adapt this to any planner, but I’ve also created a one-page PDF version you can download here. Print it on any size paper (it’s formatted for US letter-size paper but you could print two per page, stretch to A4, etc.).


Then What?

In the evening, I like to put check marks next to the things I managed to do. If I haven’t done them, I either move them to the next day’s planner or let them go. I also keep a gratitude journal on the bottom of my Filofax page, and often I’m grateful for the things I planned to do that morning. All in all, this process helps me feel organized, focused on what really matters, and grateful for all my blessings.



Over to You

My hope is that some of the thoughts here spark your own thinking about what really matters in your own life, and that you get to experience as much of it as possible. If you try using the ideas or planner I’ve offered, I’d love to hear how they work for you.