Warning: this is not a list of productivity hacks. Sure, being productive is great, but it is only one way to measure how you feel at the end of the day. Mounds of productivity don’t always result in that deep sense of calm, purpose and fulfillment you get when you did the right thing on the right day.
What did you do this weekend, anyway? I bet you had a preposterous amount of choices to begin with, and that Saturday morning coffee brought on fantasies of doing long-postponed or long dreamed-of tasks on personal, career, and family fronts. Yet, by the end of the weekend, you are drowning in Sunday night blues, not quite understanding where time went.
If you are anything like me, every “category” in your life expands endlessly. Where there is sailing, there are subactivities of repairing the boat, studying navigation, taking friends sailing. Where there is career, there is the LinkedIn profile, the three online courses I am taking, and hacking away at my always demanding job. And then there is the house we just bought (a bit of an unpredictable purchase, ehm) that needs so much TLC that it alone could be a full-time job.
You get the picture. I am living in a constant danger of overwhelmedness and anxiety. It’s a danger that I occasionally succumb to, but 40+ years on this planet was not for naught. I’ve learned a thing or two about when to manage my time and when to let it manage me.
If you’ve ever ended the day wondering why you are feeling dissatisfied even if you checked off all the items on your list – and particularly if you feel angry that you have not checked them – read on.
- Start with Awareness [Bonus: Discover Your Stupid Day Sensor]
My day often goes like this: I get a cup of coffee, open my email. If I have my act together, I read messages that matter (be it because they are important or because they come from my favorite curators), and proceed to the four steps on the list below.
If I don’t have my act together – which is often – I open all my emails, which results in 10+ browser tabs, including: Facebook, Twitter, Slack, and now Medium, too. Like a drunken rat in a maze, I keep stumbling upon new things that remind me of other things, which leads to opening more tabs, until I get completely overwhelmed, hungry and stressed out (notably, having done nothing).
I then eat breakfast and start milling around, doing 10 things at the same time: calls, laundry, back to email, dishes, talking to my husband…all things that warrant doing…and yet, I get more frazzled as the day goes on, because all along, in the underdepths of my stomach, there is a churning of sorts…a discomfort not unlike an annoying headache…a feeling that I am doing things that don’t matter… doing, not living.
That feeling I call the Stupid Day Sensor.
The Stupid Day is the day I realize it’s 5 pm and it is too late to get out of the house, go on a drive, read by the lake, or do anything remotely meaningful…the day I did nothing but a bunch of stupid small things I’ll never remember, and that have nothing to do with how I want to live my life. It’s also the day I get disappointed, sad, often angry at myself.
Thankfully, the above scenario happens less and less often, because I have cultivated my Stupid Day Sensor. The key to turning it on is turning away from the screen, and focusing your awareness on the question of how you want to spend your day.
- Tame Your Desires: Pen and Paper
Take a deep breath (optional), then take a pen and a piece of paper (not optional). Yes, it has to be analog…an app won’t do the trick. Start writing down everything you’d like to do this day, weekend, perhaps week. Everything you should do, everything you’d like to do, and then the stuff you’d like to do in your wildest dreams.
It should take no longer than 5 minutes to notice that the list could be endless. Exactly what we all know – it’s impossible to do it all…and yet we start every day stressed out because we secretly strive for it. So, I give you permission to stop after, say, 10-15 items.
Now, how many of the things you wrote down are really musts?
Being a very organized person, I used to start my Saturday by opening mail, paying bills, planning repairs, doing the laundry and cleaning the house. These, I thought, were musts for a life well-lived in this modern society. Well, guess what? They usually took up my entire damn day, and often most of my weekend, too. And that, in addition to the job I did not love, was pretty much my life.
These days, I dedicate a couple of hours every two-three weeks to this crap. There is hardly anything that cannot wait that long, and while I deal with super urgent incoming things immediately, I tend to ignore the rest. Has this resulted in an occasional miss? Absolutely. But these boring, soulless things don’t rule my life any more.
I encourage you to go low on musts, and list more of your desires: for rest, play, and your wild (career) dreams. It’s just a list. It won’t ruin your current career, social obligations or, God forbid, laundry plans.
- Do the Right Thing
My favorite philosophy professor taught us a Heideggerian notion (sorry, professor Weston, I know you’d hate it I called it so): doing what is called for. This is very simple, and yet quite complex. It’s not as simple as doing what you feel like. Nor is it a matter of doing a righteous thing like saving the world or fulfilling your obligations. It’s something like: do the right thing.
For years, I thought that the right thing meant meant basically sticking to my massive, intricate plans. I let birthdays, parties, and other social things creep onto the calendar indiscriminately. Then I added the cultural, the intellectual, the physical. Never mind that I was often beyond exhausted when I went to a concert or a party, or that on days planned for cleaning the house I felt like running in the sun. I just marched on with the program.
Sure, there are times when plans are needed. Yet, despite all the advice on how to better plan, organize, produce, what we really need help with is how to intuit – to be in tune with what our true energy and life demands are. Our gut instinct is clouded by the omnipresent and utterly unnecessary urgencies, our irrational desires to do and have it all, the musts that are really not musts.
The truth is that we need to uncloud our sense of intuition. The ability to let ourselves go without plans, and don’t let that unplanned time be filled by faux-musts. To close our eyes and see what’s missing: the scary truth of unwritten stories, stiff bodies, musicless evenings.
For some of us, of course, the lack could be in the planning and discipline departments (as the case might be with my writing, ehm). The point is to, with full awareness and led by intuition, see what’s missing and whether today is the day to fill that gap, or the day to do something else. To do the right thing – the thing that is called for.
- Do One Thing
It is ridiculously tempting to do many things. This leads to disappointment and failure. Trust me: I did project management for a living and can multitask with the best of them, but not only does science show that multitasking makes you stupid – I can also guarantee from personal experience that it will result in that desolate feeling of nothing to show for your day or week.
Rather than spending your day trying to do a lot, devote it to one worthwhile thing. Sometimes, that will have to be shopping for a couch, but at least every few weeks, it ought to be a beautiful thing you will remember your day by, or a thing that will push you on the march towards your dreams.
Now, I find that when I devote my day to one thing, miraculously, more often than not, I get a few more things done, and super efficiently and easily at that. I think that it might have to do with the lack of stress of a huge to-do list, or feeling like I have to get to the next thing. You catch my drift: perhaps it’s not one thing, but there ought to be the main thing.
Lastly, I should add, that one thing could be puttering around – which by default means many silly little things. There are days when we need the freedom to browse the internet, go through old photos, or take five naps. It’s just that (going back to step 1), we ought to be fully aware that this is how we are spending our day, and be OK with it.
- No Regrets (but Yes to Reflections)
I am the master of regrets. I am the Mistress of Should’ve Could’ve Would’ve. Seriously. I”ve ruined so many good days over it I can’t even count them. Which is why I can claim with confidence that they are worthless. This with full disclosure that this step is the least likely of the five for me to actually follow.
The good news: having no regrets is a matter of practice. Getting a little older helps too.. older and perhaps a little more mature, to realize that there are deep deep psychological reasons for doing the things we do, falling into the same traps. Knowing that we don’t always have control of the world, or even our immediate environment. Being in relationships.
No regrets means being zen about how the day went: accepting who you are, how the world is, and that what happened had to happen. Having said that, it helps to (compassionately) reflect on what happened. It is reflection, not regrets, that brings improvement.
You are not going to immediately get good at being in tune with yourself and doing what is called for – not after decades of being pounded with the message that you ought to follow science, self-help books, and, most recently, productivity hacks (don’t get me wrong: productivity hacks are great for when you choose to be productive, but not for every day).
But, if you think, meditate, reflect on why your days went a certain way…you shall unbury your wisdom and cultivate a sense of what is called for.
One thing is certain: if you keep running into your days without feeling or thought, if you keep doing what you feel you must and regret not doing what you love, you might end up having big regrets at the end of your life, not the end of your day. After all, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.
So, go on, have a great day!