The sun is guaranteed to rise every day (at least for the next few billion years). Sadly, we are not. The realization that we could have more decades behind us than ahead can be unnerving. The antidote to that is to go to bed fulfilled each day, knowing you did at least a few things to make your day count.
It is easy to judge your future by the past. The present is your only opportunity to rewrite the future.
Musings on life
There are a few situations that typically cause people to reflect on their mortality. For some, it’s the death of a family member or friend or a brush with a serious illness. Others contemplate the fickle nature of life when they become first-time parents, impelled by a kind of provider anxiety. But sometimes, it is the most mundane of things that trigger serious reflection about how short life is.
If you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know that some of my recent articles have been on the subject of decluttering. In an attempt to practice what I preach, I started on a personal decluttering exercise. Here’s what I found.
Lining my shelves are these stacks of books, each with its own storied history. Brand-new-must-read releases I couldn’t wait to get; books I received from family and friends as gifts; killer finds from my favorite used bookstores; long-queued sought-after library books etc. Not to be outdone, my digital shelves are packed with e-books and audiobooks in all formats. Oh, wait! I also have paid subscriptions to binge-worthy book catalogs.
The common thread across all these—a large percentage of these books are, as yet, unread.
It took me just a couple of hours into the decluttering process before I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of unread material surrounding me. Of course, I want to keep everything I haven’t yet read—after all the trouble it took to collect them.
That’s when the light bulb went off in my head:
There simply aren’t enough days left in my life (even if I were to live to a hundred AND retain cognitive abilities AND still have decent eyesight) to read everything I own currently. Oh, then add those as yet unpublished must-reads that will compete for my attention in the coming years.
Whoa! How deflating…
I’m sure I’m not the only one having Eureka moments like this. I’ve seen friends test the limits on how many shows you can add to Netflix watchlists. Seriously, why are there so many period dramas (with at least ten seasons each)?
The $64m question
So, here’s the big question:
a) Do I really do have too many books OR
b) Is life just too short?
The correct answer: Both.
This is the scourge of the modern human: Too little time. Too much content/stuff/to-dos.
But, how do we make the most of the short, transient nature of life?
Strangely enough, there is a simple-sounding remedy for that too.
Add a few simple habits to your routine to make your day count. Everyday.
Make your day count
I don’t think there is any way to completely avoid the “what am I doing with my life” feeling we subject ourselves to every so often. That said, this section has a list of seven habits to incorporate into your daily schedule that may help in taking the edge off that question. And yes, these behaviors are better than “insert substance of your choice here” because they don’t induce any morning-after buyer’s remorse.
The seven behaviors described below are really what I’d like to refer to as “the greatest hits of the self-care/self-improvement universe.” They do sound cliched. That’s because they are not fads but instead time-tested, proven, and sustainable practices.
These habits described below help appease your conscience. They provide the silver lining we seek as we reflect on days when things don’t go to plan.
1. Practice Gratitude
To paraphrase Cicero, Gratitude is the parent of all virtues.
Spend a few minutes writing down at least ten happenings from the previous day you are grateful for. Savor each one.
Whenever life seems like an endless cycle of disappointments, the practice of gratitude-journaling can provide a positive ray of much-needed perspective.
If you can find ten reasons to be grateful for from yesterday, is life really that bad?
2. Say, Om
Or whatever your equivalent of quiet meditative contemplation is.
For the record: No, meditation is NOT the act of sleeping vertically instead of horizontally. It is the ability to have conscious awareness while stilling our bodies and mind. It is an art requiring a lot of practice. And even then, the results are not guaranteed.
I’m not talking about attaining Nirvana or rivaling the Dalai Lama’s sereness. I’m referring to much more pedestrian goals—the ability to sit still for a mere two minutes without wondering about the lunch menu or how to get back at your boss.
Meditation is a practice worth your time. Real breakthroughs to problems and anxieties usually occur during periods of stillness, however fleeting they may be.
If you are ever looking for reassurance that “all is/will be well,” the best place to find it is when you are on your meditation cushion.
3. Get Moving
I’ve heard the advice: never say never. But, here’s the thing. I need to say it.
I have never once regretted a walk or a run. Sure, it may take enormous willpower to get me out in the first place, but the resistance stops there.
The benefits of movement, preferably in nature, cannot be understated.
After all, we are all just walking and talking alchemy experiments with a bunch of chemicals determining how we feel at any point in time. The surest way to feeling like you “did something useful” is by getting some exercise. Exercise also helps calm frayed nerves, making you much more companionable to others around you.
So, get moving. Especially when you don’t feel like lugging yourself around. You can thank me later.
4. Read new material
Knowing what you don’t know is more useful than being brilliant – Charlie Munger
Make time to read something, preferably material you haven’t been exposed to before. Reading is a great way to discover how ignorant we really are.
It is true: the more I read, the less obnoxious I become.
With so much content competing for our attention, it can be hard to find the time for old-fashioned reading. But books and stories help us experience what it is like to be someone else: it transports us from the sheltered bubbles we live in and allows us to explore completely alien worlds at our own pace.
The art of reading is a great way, low-risk, low-effort way to cultivate empathy.
So go ahead and pick up some reading material now. Preferably a book, instead of an Us Weekly magazine. Or you can borrow some of mine. I may have mentioned having a few.
5. Pay it forward. Or back.
Do something nice to benefit someone other than yourself, with no expectations in return.
It doesn’t have to be life-altering. It can be a random act of kindness or an intentional act of kindness. Small acts of generosity generate disproportionally large doses of goodwill. And best of all, doing stuff for others can lift your spirits. It’s a great cure if you have a case of the blahs.
So, don’t wait. Pay it back or pay it forward.
Be the reason someone smiles today.
5. Create, don’t consume.
Draw, write, cook, garden, knit, build, etc., etc.
We feel better about ourselves when we actively create something instead of passively consuming stuff (social media, Netflix, fancy dinners, spa treatments). Both in the short and long run.
Every time we create something new, we go from zero to one. Peter Thiel.
6. Get started on your “someday” project
I recently saw a social media post that piqued my interest. It said (I’m paraphrasing):
If you didn’t pick up a new skill or take steps towards your dream project last year (referring to the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic), then your problem is not time. It’s discipline.
Harsh, as it sounds, there is a kernel of truth in the above statement, assuming, of course, you didn’t have any health or economic repercussions from the pandemic.
How often do we keep telling ourselves and others about the thing we’d like to do someday (when we supposedly will have more time?)
Most of us have these ideas in our heads that take too much mental space, and yet we’re fearful of getting started. Instead of waiting for that “some” day to show up, why not make a dent today? Get the project started.
Do something for a few minutes each day that you’ve meant to do forever. The momentum will build itself.
After all, well begun is half-done.
7. Nurture relationships
We had a network outage in our neighborhood not so long ago. It had the effect of driving all age groups out of their devices into living rooms, forcing families to spend time together. That’s when some teens “discovered” family members and realized they were worth hanging out with! J/k.
Kidding aside, unplugging for a few minutes each day to have real conversations, preferably face-to-face, is essential.
One of the most common end-of-life regrets is people wishing they had spent more time with their loved ones instead of chasing after work or money.
It doesn’t have to end that way for us. Why not make time each day to connect with family and friends? Life’s too short not to.
Incorporating the seven practices
With busyness consuming our lives, it may seem like a tall order to incorporate all seven of the above practices into your daily routines. You are under no obligation to do all of them. Nor do they have to be massive time hogs.
Even micro doses of some of these habits sprinkled in throughout the day will be enough to make your day count. Of course, you can wake up early to knock some of these off before the world starts to place demands on your time. But I’ll save the argument on larks v owls for another day.
Ms. Jones, a NY resident, turned 112 in 2020. When asked how it felt to reach another birthday, Ms. Jones replied, “You don’t feel now. You’re thankful.”
True. And profound.
I’m sure most of you aren’t quite 112 yet, though you may feel that way sometimes (if you are like me.) And the fact that you still can feel things also means you can change your life routine to make your day count.
It can be disheartening to find your hours blending into days, days into months, and months into years. But you can make your day count by incorporating some (or all) of the above habits into your daily routines. All it takes is to be intentional about where your time goes. Then top it off with some (or all) of the seven simple practices described above.
The reward? A purposeful and fulfilled life. It’s worth the effort.