Introduction to Agile Life Design and Decision-Making

This is BEING UPDATED for 2014

Agile Life Design is a decision-making process that involves thoughtfully assessing needs, wants, values and resources and then figuring out creative options and/or solutions that

  • Fulfill multiple needs (functional, emotional, cognitive, users and stakeholders, etc.) 
  • Resolve conflicting needs, values and wants

  • Provide the most value or impact using the fewest resources (time, money, energy, etc)
  • Anticipate and think through the full lifecycle of the decision to address immediate needs and take future needs into consideration as well.  

Agile design decisions anticipate how needs may change in the future and if needed, build in as much

  • flexibility
  • versatility
  • adaptability
  • scalability
  • value and
  • return on investment

as possible while minimizing the potential of severe loss or regret.

Agile design also considers how the solution will be dealt with when it reaches the end of it’s useful life. When designing the solution we make design choices that make it easy to recycle, re-purpose, re-use, give away and / or dispose of the solution.  

Agile design can be applied to every area of life including:

  • designing goals
  • organizing solutions
  • time management systems
  • to do lists
  • commitments
  • relationships
  • career decisions and even to
  • what to study in college. 

Everything you do, purchase, learn, create or decide can be designed with agility in mind — How you design your home, use of money, how you eat, cook meals, exercise, read, and even how you transition from one task to another.

The fact is that we are always designing, i.e., making decisions that will affect our future enjoyment of life. But how many of us purposefully and realistically consider how today’s choices will affect our future flexibility or life satisfaction?

How many of us design for the possibility that we may be wrong into our decisionS?

How many of us avoid making a decision because “we might be wrong” and end up in chronic procrastination?

Instead of designing with the possibility of being wrong in mind, we tend to  procrastinate in hopes that someday we can be certain that our decision will have a good or expected outcome.

Alternatively we often make decisions based on a false sense of certainty that we are right and the future will turn out as we expect it to — then find ourselves full of regret or suffering a devastating loss that sets us up to avoid making such decisions in the future.

The truth is that that you can’t EVER be 100% certain of the future.  The smartest approach I have found is to accept that certainty is an ILLUSION.  The smartest design decisions and goals are those that expect things to change and include being prepared to be wrong.  Mastering the art of risk assessment and designing for iteration in my decision making is one of the most empowering skills I’ve personally ever learned. 

Agile Life Design is about knowing the future will change us and will change our lives — our needs, values, situation, capabilities and resources — in ways we cannot predict today.  Instead of preparing for every possible outcome, or becoming attached to one or two goals such as assuming you will get married, or have a family, or still like your chosen career, or will retire in the future, with an Agile Life Design mindset, you focus on making decisions that are optimized for the near future, yet also empower you to be ready to adapt as needed in the event that you made a mistake, or change your mind, or need to course correct for any reason.

Agile Life Design decisions build flexibility and adaptability into today’s decisions and empower you to rise to the occasion and improvise or redesign if the worst case or completely unexpected events should occur.  

Agile Life Design uses a variety of time boxes and planning horizons to shape and optimize design decisions:

  • Immediate – now to 1 month ish
  • Short term – 1 to 3  and 3 – 6 month
  • Long term – 6 months to 1 year
  • Long range – 1 year and beyond 
Each time box carries with it an increasingly higher risk that whatever you plan for, anticipate or decide, not only will change, it is likely to change in ways that are completely unforseeable and unexpected today. Agile decisions take risks into account, and either mitigate the risks, or accept the fact you may need to make a course correction and completely rethink, modify or abandon the decision, commitment, solution, system, or product you design today. 

The overall stages of the agile design and decision-making process are the same for all types of design decisions. It’s like walking, the basics are universal, yet there are many variations. The difference is in how quickly, creatively, and thoughtfully you go through each stage. When I started learning agile systems design and decision-making concepts, I was struck by how easy it was to “over-design” and get caught up in the details before I even knew if the solution was actually viable or sustainable.  It is very easy to get stuck in the information gathering and planning stages of design, or in the creative or visual aspects of implementing a design.

It’s also very easy to take so long designing that by the time you produce the solution it’s already obsolete. For example, it’s not uncommon to spend a year designing a software system only to find out that it won’t run on the latest version of the computer it was meant to run on. In life, the same principle can apply to a career decision: you could easily spend many years and thousands of dollars preparing to become a doctor, engineer or lawyer, or to start a business, only to find that the reality is not at all satisfying. Or perhaps the career you invested in suddenly becomes outsourced to other companies or replaced by computers. 

Today, life changes very quickly . You might think that would mean we don’t have time for design. But in reality, it means we need to master the art of design thinking and agile decision-making more than ever.  Under-designing can lead to just as many fatal crashes as over-designing.  

What we need most today is smart, agile design.  Agile Design is highly need-responsive, risk-sensitive, just-enough, just-in-time, and most of all, adaptable.  Decisions, solutions and systems must be easy to change when needs change.  


The ability to process information, and make smart decisions that mitigate risks and design simple, quick, easy, sustainable solutions and systems is rapidly becoming a core life literacy skill that may be even more important than the ability to read – after all, today, computers can actually read things to you and even transform your speech into writing for you.

That’s why I’m so passionate about Agile Life Design and the idea of “agilizing” our decisions and solutions. We need to design Agility into every part of our lives in order to thrive in a world where change is so fast and furious it’s like living in permanent white water rapids.

Agile Life Design and Decision Making involves the following skills, concepts, habits and attitudes:

  • Reading situations to quickly detect needs and risks
  • Quickly validating needs 
  • Assessing and quantifying risks in multiple time ranges
  • Quantifying needs with estimates instead of just saying “I need more or less of “x”
  • Identifying and mediating conflicts between multiple needs demanding attention .
  • Anticipating future needs knowing that needs and estimates will change (instead of wondering if they will change)
  • Noticing changing needs and being ready to detach from current status quo and modify decision, solution or systems – as needed
  • Becoming ready to respond quickly and appropriately to changing needs 
  • Knowing when waiting or delaying action would be wise and NOT pejoratively calling it procrastination 
  • Defining non-negotiable and flexible criteria and designing or choosing solutions that meet the criteria
  • Assessing the viability of solutions or options, making trade-off choices, and narrowing options to top 1-3
  • Rapidly prototyping or visualizing potential viable options 
  • Designing and applying reasonable tests to the viable decision options and selecting one to implement or act or 
  • Taking small first steps to implement or put decisions into action them,gathering feedback, identifying flaws and successes that affect the next steps or actions
  • Iteratively launching and making improvements or modifications in a way that minimizes potential loss and optimizes value or “bang for the buck”. 
  • Willingness to access a certain amount of loss, error and regret to enable rapidly learning from mistakes

Agile Life Design and decision-making skills address the challenge of how to resolve the ever-present conflict between getting it “right” and getting it “done.”  It encourages you to take action without getting stuck in procrastination by trying to avoid making any mistakes or to predict and control all the possible outcomes. 

Agile Design is about focusing on needs and addressing multiple needs (like function, ease, fit, feel, form and style) instead of becoming attached to possible solutions for meeting those needs.  For example, becoming attached to the need for having a system for paying bills that works for you rather than attaching to the methods, process or tools for paying the bills.

The Agile Designer is perpetually ready to figure out an alternative, hopefully better, option for meeting needs. Becoming agile is empowering – especially if you happen to actually like novelty and change such as many people with ADHD do.  Trusting yourself to notice, quantify and satisfy changing needs improvisationally make you feel competent, capable and “in charge” of your life without having to “control” it. 

What’s involved in applying Agile Life Design?  

 Agile Life Design is a mindset, a process, and a toolkit. It’s like a dance where you are constantly reading your partners moves, the music tempo etc and adjusting your moves to meet the context.  You don’t have to follow the steps, you get to customize the dance steps to your personal  rhythms, needs, values and flair.  Design is about simultaneously meeting functional, cognitive, attention getting and emotional needs like attractiveness, novelty, and having FUN too.

Agile Life Design is not a rigid set of steps.  It’s not a “prescription” or “technique” like a planner system you try out and then get tired of. It’s a set of life skills you cultivate and apply to all areas of life — for the rest of your life.  For example, earning how to design time management strategies that meets your unique and changing needs instead of trying to follow a strategy or system someone else told you was the “best” way.  Best for them is not always best for you.  You decide what design criteria are important to you, and you get to choose, customize or create the systems and tools that support you in implementing your custom design.

As your needs change,  your whole approach to time management will need to be redesigned.  For example, suppose you switch from doing mostly project work for clients to making lots of appointments with clients, Agile Life Design makes it much easier and less stressful to quickly redesign your system and make the transition gracefully.

What are the Benefits of Agile Life Design?

Agile Life Design skills empower you forever – not just for now.  The actual systems you design will often have short lifespans.  And so they should.  As your needs and habits change and you increasingly master design skills, you will adjust both your systems and your design and decision-making processes.  

Why does Agile Life Design work better than conventional organizing and productivity strategies for Neurodiverse and ADHD?

Neurodiverse people who are thriving have usually already developed agility in many areas of their lives. Everyone can benefit from cultivating agility and Agile Life Design and decision-making skills.  However, if your life evolves rapidly, or is more unpredictable than the average person because you have ADHD or for any reason, you need Agile Life Design skills to optimize your functioning.  If you, like me, have a history of time management challenges, or clutter, or ADHD, PTSD,  and / or are highly creative you not only need Agile Life Design skills much more than the average person does, you also probably have a greater aptitude for it.

People with ADHD are often natural improvisers — not natural schedule or “script” followers.  Life can work really well as an improvisational dance, but even improvisation dance, music or acting required a certain amount of “choreography” and stage setting.

Agile life design is in many ways, the creative person’s guide to choreographing the unpredictable life. It’s a whole different way of becoming ready to succeed. Agile Life Design works for neurodiverse, creative, sensitive and ADHD because it doesn’t emphasize developing self-control, instead it focuses on our strengths and uses our natural aptitudes, traits and even characteristics which others often put us down for such as being picky, sensitive, distractible or having “shiny object syndrome.”

  • Pattern and relationship seeing
  • Enjoying novelty
  • Needed to be “interested” in things in order to give them our attention
  • Being driven to constantly change and improve 
  • Our ability to activate ourselves into action quickly (which may be called impulsivity – but I see this as an opportunity to design our own triggering or self-activating mechanisms. Triggers that are channeled in positive directions are no longer called impulsive, you get called smart and responsive instead.)

Agile Life Design also helps you heal your relationship with yourself, increase your feelings of self-worth and confidence, and even manage your emotions better because it requires that you see yourself more compassionately, to see your value, to accept and validate your true needs, and to make life choices and self-organizing decisions that affirm your right to be who you are without apologizing or feeling less than others.

p.s. The story of Agile actually began as a process for designing software in a rapidly changing context. I believe the story of Agile Life Design has always been with us, but now more than ever, it is one that must take center stage if we are to flourish in the complex, uncontrollable, unpredictable and rapidly changing world of the 21st century.




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  1. Pingback: On Designing an Agile Life that Embraces Your Differences | Ariane Benefit, M.S.Ed

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