“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” – Annie Dillard
Make every day count is the sort of generic buzz phrase you might see pasted onto a photo of a person meditating and posted on Facebook, perhaps accompanied by another motivational (mis)quote from Einstein or Michael Jordan or somesuch.
In other words, it's a phrase people like to use because it sounds good, and it makes them seem as if they're taking life by the balls, but for the most part it's pretty meaningless. It does not inspire the quoter into action. It does not form the basis of life philosophy, or if it does, that philosophy is not actually applied on a daily basis.
They post Facebook status and then spend the next two hours comparing themselves to various more-successful-looking friends. Carpe diem.
As you read this blog you'll come to see I prefer to take a no-bullshit approach to what words mean – and in this post I want to get to a no-bullshit definition of what it actually means to make every day count, laying down some first principles that anyone can use immediately to make being alive a more worthwhile experience.
What Makes a Day Count?
If we're going to deduce a formula for making every day count, the logical place to start is with this question. What makes a day feel like it counted after it's over? What makes you sit back and go: ‘Damn, that was a good day'?
No doubt it varies from person to person, but I'm going to lay out my own criteria for a good day, and I'd be willing to guess yours will be fairly similar. I've identified six criteria which I think are crucial for making a day count. A day “counts” when:
- You didn't have to spend a lot of time doing something you hate
- You got to spend a lot of time doing something you love (a “flow state” activity)
- You had full control over where you were
- You got to choose who you were with
- You did something important
- You were in control of your mental state
I haven't included physical health here, because I only want to include factors that you always have control over. You don't always have control over your physical health, but there are always conscious actions you can take over your thoughts and emotions (number 6). The rest are all things you have a level of direct control over through your choices and actions.
So, essentially, the perfect day is one where you don't have to do anything you hate, you spend a lot of time doing what you love, you have complete control over where you are and who you're with, you do something important and you're in control of your mental state. If you have a look through the memory files of your most memorable peak experiences, you should find that's pretty accurate.
So – How Do You Actually Make More Days Count?
Now that we have something of a formula in hand for creating days that count, how do we go about making sure these days happen more often? Where are our leverage points to make sure we ultimately structure our lives in a way that makes every day count (or close to it)?
First, we have to identify obstacles to good days. What stops good days from happening? We can work these out from the criteria above.
Then, we have to figure out what makes it easier to have good days, days that count. Again, these follow from the criteria.
Let's start with the first criteria:
1. On a day that counts, you don't have to spend a lot of time doing something you hate
Okay, so it's not too hard to start identifying obstacles from this point.
For instance, for many people, their job is something they hate (or involves activities they hate). Staying in that job is going to mean a lower frequency of days that feel like they count. The stereotype of the office drone clocking in and out of a meaningless office job is pretty much the antithesis of the ‘make every day count' mantra. For this person, switching jobs or becoming self-employed will be high on the priority list.
So the key question to ask yourself is: What do you hate doing, and how can you do less of it?
As you try to answer this, you'll likely be limited by your existing beliefs. You may come up with a lot of, “Well I hate doing X, but I HAVE to do it because Y…” type answers.
A lot of these “have to” responses are culturally programmed bullshit, so feel free to get imaginative in answering the “how can I do less of these” part of the question. If you come up with an answer that feels impossible, it probably just means you lack the understanding of how to achieve it. But if other people have done whatever you wrote down, you can do it. It's a matter of acquiring the understanding and then applying it.
Now, here's a qualifier: sometimes things you hate are also important. We're going to talk about this more on point 5, but for now, just bear in mind that there's a balance to be struck. Doing important things and achieving big dreams will often entail having to do some difficult and shitty things along the way.
The key here is to ensure that if you do have to do things you hate, they at least contribute to the other elements that make a day count. For example, you may hate cold calling, but if it ultimately helps you launch your dream business and quit a soul-destroying job, it's a hell of a lot better than just sticking with the job. There's an interplay at work between the criteria.
2. On a day that counts, you get to spend a lot of time doing something you love (a “flow state” activity)
A flow state, if you're not familiar with the term, is when you get so wrapped up in an activity that you feel like you lose yourself in it. Your experience of time passing changes, and you feel like you can “see the Matrix” of whatever you're doing – like you know what's going to happen next and you're 100% in sync, doing exactly what needs to be done as it needs to be done. You're just doing something, perfectly, without really having to think about what you're doing.
This may be something that is traditionally considered “fun,” but usually it also involves an element of work and, in particular, skill. To achieve a flow state you have to be fairly good at something – at least competent enough that you aren't constantly screwing it up.
I have deliberately chosen this as criteria rather than things that are strictly “fun” but require no effort. While those are great too and you could say they contribute to days that count, I feel there's a qualitative difference between something that's just fun and a true flow state activity. Flow states orient us towards what we should really be doing with our lives, whereas something that's ‘just fun' may indeed be the beginning of an addiction or a bad habit.
In other words, it's something that you both enjoy doing, and which is good for you. If it's also good for others around you, so much the better (more about that on point 5).
So: how can you make sure more of your days are full of these high-points, flow state activities?
One answer may be that you need to free up more time, and again getting your work life in better alignment with your flow state activities can help there, or simply cutting down the hours that you work if that's a feasible option.
But often this simply comes down to making a decision to spend more time on your flow state activities in place of time-wasters like Facebook or watching TV. Most people could easily mine at least an extra hour a day for high-quality activities just by auditing their time and cutting the bullshit, finding where the hours are leaking away each day.
There is also the fact that flow states require competence, and it may be that the thing that COULD be a flow state activity for you is something you're not very good at yet. In this case, you need to suck it up and be prepared to be crappy at it while you learn to get good enough to hit the flow. It may not be a flow state activity for the learning period, but it is something important so it fits into criteria #5.
3. On a day that counts you have full control over where you are
On a macro level, this means control over the country, city, town, or whatever that you're in on any given day. It means having a choice over where you live, or having the choice to move between places if that's what you want to be doing.
On a micro level, it's where you actually are within your town, city, farm, whatever. Being in an office building versus being at the beach, to use a classic example.
Question: How can you develop greater control over where you are on any given day?
The answers here will depend on whether there are problems with your current living situation, and where you want to be.
If you hate your city or you're just tired of being in the same place, being able to move around at the drop of a hat may be a priority. In this case, you will need to strip down your lifestyle as much as possible, getting rid of most of your possessions so that you can be more light-footed. You will also have to determine a way to fund being on the move like this.
Alternatively, you may want to look into an option like a year working or studying abroad in one place.
You may be perfectly content with where you live and have no desire to travel, but you still have to spend a lot of time in places you don't like – your home, for example, or your place of work. Changing these may need to become priorities since they are the places you will likely be spending 80% of your time.
(Contrary to popular belief, having an online business does not mean working on the beach all day. I can tell you from experience that beaches are shitty places to try to work on a laptop. Even if you choose to go the location-independent business route, you will still need to organise a workspace or workspaces, if you're travelling).
4. On a day that counts, you get to choose who you spend time with
In terms of importance among these criteria, this would have to be at or near the top of the list.
Your quality of life is determined to a huge degree by the quality of people in your life, and the quality of your relationships with them. Life, for the most part, is about people.
Again, work situations and living situations are likely to be the biggest culprits if things aren't looking good here. You're stuck with a shitty boss or annoying co-workers, or you're in a shared living situation that is grinding you down. Start working out who you want to be spending time with, and map out how you can arrange your life better to make it so.
If you're working 80 hours a week and have no time to see your kids, or your girlfriend, or your best friends, this is kind of a no brainer. I don't have to tell you your priorities are out of whack.
Now, again, there is a bit of a trade-off here, because sometimes doing certain things that are important (point 5) gets in the way of spending more time with people who matter to you. The key takeaway here is that you need to have a realistic understanding of the opportunity costs of your time – what you give up doing when you decide to do something else.
The time you have with the people you love is finite, and there may be less of it left than you think.
As Paul Bowles wrote in The Sheltering Sky:
“How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
The same is true of the time you have to spend with people who matter. There is an illusion of limitlessness when the reality is that time is very short.
This is important because you need to factor it in when weighing up what's actually important. Putting more time into the business over spending time with the kids may SEEM like a fair trade-off, but only because you're overestimating how much time you'll be able to make up with the kids later.
Note: This also applies to choosing when you get to be alone. Solitary time is important too.
5. A day counts when you do something important
I've mentioned this already a few times, and you may already be seeing how it sort of interlaces with everything else on the list.
It's also one of the most subjective criteria here because the variety of what's important to different individuals is quite diverse. Although, perhaps, not as diverse as you might think.
The key thing here for me is to understand that most of what you think is important is often cultural programming. Unless you have done some serious soul searching and self-reflection over the years, you may have your priorities all muddled up. By definition if you're not actively working to ensure you're choosing your own values on a daily basis, these values will be programmed into you subconsciously from the society around you – you'll pick them up by osmosis. See every airhead who thoughtlessly idolizes the Kim Kardashians of this world.
This is the one that takes the most work to figure out. Knowing what you like doing, what you hate doing, where you like to be and who you like to hang out with is pretty intuitive, for the most part. Figuring out what really MATTERS – that takes some serious, deep thought.
This will be a separate essay unto itself, but for now, if you're struggling to get your head clear on what's important in your life, my suggestion is: read.
For the love of God, no, not self-help books. 99% of them are poison, and in any case are only parroting the values of the dominant culture. This is something you have to figure out on your own. But there are voices that can lead you in the right direction, be it through metaphor or by example.
I'm talking mostly about fiction, and biographies.
Excellent fiction – classics – is at the core of life, human relationships, and meaning. You will derive far more wisdom from a reading of War and Peace than you will from whatever the self-help bestseller is this month.
Likewise, reading the biographies or autobiographies of people who inspire you is a powerful way to get clarity on what's important. Let them be models for your own life. Look at the values of the people whose stories you naturally gravitate towards – chances are your values are pretty similar.
The only other stipulation I'd put here is: in order for something to truly qualify as important, it should have a positive impact beyond yourself.
Now, obviously, things like taking time out, relaxing, recharging your batteries and so on are important. Having fun and blowing off steam are important.
But they're most important insofar as they give you the energy to tackle the REALLY important things. The things you'll do in this life will leave an echo after you're gone.
What are you doing that will leave an echo?
The next obvious step to make sure you're doing important things regularly is to make sure your work is important. That's not something you can just switch on – if you're stuck in a dead-end job, it may require a transition period. You may have to go back to study. You may have to hit the library and learn a new skill in your spare time. Being able to do important things tends to require work and focus, and getting there can kind of suck along the way at times.
But even if the big picture requires something like a career change, that's not an excuse to avoid starting. Think of a goal you've let slip off the goals list for the last few years. Why? Is it still important? Can you spend five minutes today taking action towards it?
6. A day counts when you‘re in control of your mental state
I don't want to talk about major mental illnesses here – chemical imbalances and genetic predispositions that you don't have control over. That's beyond the range of this essay.
What I'm talking about is being in control of your own emotional reactions and the thoughts running through your mind on a day to day basis.
Are you able to still the chatter in your own head at will? Are you able to catch yourself in negative thought loops and correct them? Are you able to observe when you're constantly putting a frame, an interpretation on reality, and judge how well that interpretation matches what's actually going on?
We live an interpretation of life. You may not control all the events, but you do get to control your interpretation.
Why is this important?
Because a day can tick all of the above criteria – and you can still convince yourself it sucked.
If your mind is running on a constant negative loop and you don't know how to break out of it, not only will you a) be far less likely to stack up days that include all of the above criteria, you'll also b) focus on the negatives even when you are having otherwise-great days.
Reality gives you raw material to work with in the form of your experiences. Some people are master craftworkers: they can turn the simplest of experiences into a flow state, something that generates joy.
Then there are people who couldn't have fun if you fed them ecstasy and gave them private VIP access to Disneyland for a day.
How do you do this? Meditation and yoga are obvious examples of practices that cultivate greater mindfulness, but honestly, you don't have to do anything quite so organized. It's simply a matter of cultivating the habit of revising and assessing your own thoughts and emotions in an honest, non-judgmental way. What do you feel? What thoughts constantly play in your head without your conscious guidance? Is what you think actually reflecting reality? Are your feelings justified?
Start to listen.
When Shitty Things Happen
Contrary to what certain self-help industry self-appointed “gurus” have tried to teach gullible people, not everything that happens to you is the result of magic cosmic microwaves coming out of your brain and talking to the Universe.
Sometimes, shit just happens to you for no reason and it sucks. Actually, statistics dictate that over a long enough timeline, you're definitely going to have to deal with a lot of Shitty Things over a lifetime (that or one big Shitty Thing: dying soon).
This is where developing greater control over your mental state – your thoughts and emotions – becomes of paramount importance. If you're mentally torturing yourself when things are going relatively well, it's going to be the pits when a real crisis hits. Misery will seek you out at times – there's no point going looking for it in the meantime.