Many years ago an old friend and I were discussing the meaning of life. He said, “I don’t think the point of life is to accomplish a certain level of external success. I believe we’re actually here to acquire and enjoy experiences.”
That conversation took place about 15 years ago, and this idea has remained with me ever since. It’s a Zen-like philosophy because experiences imply living in the present while accomplishments dwell in the past or future. Reading this particular article is an experience, but you probably wouldn’t consider it an accomplishment… although reading some of my longer articles might qualify.
We’ve been socially conditioned to value accomplishments and events more than everyday experiences. Graduation day is more important than some random Tuesday in the middle of the semester. The day you get hired or promoted is more important than an uneventful work day. Your wedding day is more important than the day you saw a forgettable movie.
Accomplishments and events are certainly experiences too, but most experiences don’t qualify as either. You’ll likely spend most of your life experiencing non-events. It would be amazing if your accomplishments amounted to even 1% of your experiences. Saturation tends to reduce the occurrence of salient events. The time you spoke your first intelligible word was a major accomplishment, but speaking that same word isn’t such a grand achievement today. Regardless of how much you accomplish in your lifetime, you’ll probably still perceive most of your days as typical, normal, or routine.
If you’re going to spend most of your time experiencing rather than accomplishing, then perhaps it makes sense to focus on the quality of your daily experiences and not merely on the heights of your accomplishments. It’s nice to have a truly fantastic day where you accomplish something wonderful, but what about your normal days?
When you realize most of your life will be consumed by normal days rather than extraordinary ones, you may feel motivated to raise the overall quality of these normal days.
In the pursuit of a better normal day, here are ten changes I made that yielded strong positive results. Hopefully this list will trigger some ideas you’ll be able to apply as well. The overall concept is far more important than my particular menu of habits.
1. Getting an early start. Last year I successfully conditioned the habit of getting up at 5:00am every morning. Later I experimented with polyphasic sleep but stopped after 5.5 months when I felt it wasn’t serving me well enough. Today I get up at 4:15am every morning, including weekends. I used to be a night owl, but I love the positive effect that rising early has had on my life. As you can imagine, the initial adaptation was very challenging, but like most ingrained habits, it’s trivially easy to maintain. Getting an early start to every day makes me feel energetic, alert, and productive. I have the time and energy to do things I couldn’t previously do. This has been one of the most empowering changes I’ve ever made because it yields tangible rewards every single day. If I could go back in time and install a new habit in my early 20s, this would be it. If this habit interests you, be sure to read How to Become an Early Riser and How to Get Up Right Away When Your Alarm Goes Off.
2. Physical exercise. I’ve gone through a variety of different workout patterns over the years. My current pattern is to hit the gym for 60-90 minutes first thing in the morning. I do three days of cardio workouts and four days of weight-training each week. If I feel burnt out or if my progress slows to a crawl (symptoms of overtraining), I might take a day or two off or substitute a long walk instead. This habit yields massive benefits. Perhaps the most noticeable is that my mental clarity is much greater, and I can concentrate deeply for hours at a time. I think the minimum recommendation of exercising 20 minutes 3x per week is way too little. For me the major benefits don’t really kick in until I do at least 150 minutes of aerobic/cardio exercise per week — below that level I tend to stagnate instead of seeing my fitness level improve. This habit combines nicely with being an early riser, since I return home from my workouts before most people are awake.
3. Audio learning. While exercising I normally listen to personal development audio programs and podcasts. Sometimes I also listen while doing routine physical tasks like cooking or driving. I started this habit during college, and it has served me well for the past decade and a half. It doesn’t consume any extra time to do this, and it makes physical tasks more enjoyable. I use an iPod Nano, a major improvement over the Walkman cassette player I used in college. I also bought a $30 FM transmitter last year, so I can play my iPod on my car radio too. By listening to inspirational and educational material every day, especially during my morning workout, I not only learn new ideas I can apply, but I also feel more positive throughout the day.
4. Meditation. After my morning workout and shower, I usually meditate for about 30 minutes. I prefer active visualization as opposed to trying to turn off all thought, although I sometimes enjoy the latter too. If the kids are already waking up when I get home, I delay the meditation until later in the morning, but I almost always do it before starting my workday. I get some of my best ideas while meditating, and I also use this time to visualize my goals and intentions. Plus I enjoy it. I don’t recall having any illnesses in the past year, so perhaps the combo of daily exercise and meditation keeps my immune system strong (both are known to be significant immune boosters). The rest of my family has gone through a few illnesses that haven’t touched me.
5. Relaxing workspace. Since I spend the bulk of each workday in my home office, I’ve fashioned it into a peaceful and enjoyable place to work. With its trickling fountain, bamboo plants, scented candles, and new age music, it serves as my private sanctuary. When I start work each day, I go through a 60-second ritual of turning on the fountain, lighting a few candles, and playing some music. I typically feel very relaxed and peaceful throughout the day, regardless of the type of work I’m doing. Transform your workspace into your favorite place to be, and watch the positive effect it has on your productivity. I’ve designed mine primarily for relaxation and focus, but you can design it around any state you wish. Use trial and error to see how various changes make you feel, and keep the ones that produce positive results. The basic idea is that when you feel good, you’ll be more productive. For details on how to improve your workspace, read Creating a Productive Workspace.
6. Self-employment. I have to credit self-employment as a major factor in the quality of my normal days. Being in control of my time is wonderful, and I can’t imagine ever wanting a regular job. If you think about it logically, isn’t it a bit silly that people think having a job is more secure than owning your own business? Maybe that’s true when you’re just launching the business, but once the business is stable and profitable, there’s no comparison. I can’t be fired or laid off, and I start out at the top, so there’s no need to worry about promotions. If I ever need money fast, there are plenty of short-term value-producing ideas I can implement in a weekend to generate extra cash. I can work on whatever interests me without having to request permission from some authority figure. Earning money based on your results is much more flexible and less risky than earning money based on your time. The biggest risk isn’t going broke; if you go broke, you’ll recover soon enough — that’s really no big deal. The far greater risk is that you’ll miss opportunities, and that’s what most employees do every single day; their ripest value-generating ideas die on the vine. No one benefits when that happens. Even if you’re an employee, I highly recommend starting your own small business. It’s important to have an outlet where you can fully express your greatest value and get paid fairly for it too. For specific advice on how to do that, listen to Podcast #006 – How to Make Money Without a Job and Podcast #009 – Kick-start Your Own Business. If you visit the audio section of the site, you can play them directly through your browser.
7. Effective communication management. Due to the popularity of this web site and the personal nature of its topic, the sheer volume of feedback I receive can be overwhelming at times. At first I diligently kept on top of it, believing that every query deserved a response, but soon I questioned the wisdom of that approach. My long-term goals started to fall by the wayside as the influx of communication became dominant. I had to decide where my primary loyalty should be: with the individual readers who request help or with my ultimate vision. It became clear that I couldn’t justify spending hours every day processing email. I know some people run their lives through their email inbox, but through trial and error I’ve learned that approach doesn’t work for me because excessive communication inhibits my ability to concentrate and knocks me off course too easily. Consequently, I severely limit the amount of time I spend on email. Helping someone via email is a good use of my time, but it’s definitely not the best. In order to write this article you’re reading now, dozens of emails I’ve received will go unanswered, but this article will be seen by thousands. But more importantly I’ve noticed that when I limit the influx of external communication, I’m better able to hear the subtle guidance of my inner voice. If you have a problem with focus and clarity in your life, could it be that you’re getting bounced around by an overload of communication?
8. Reading. The simple habit of reading every day keeps my self-education moving forward. It’s one of the reasons I’m able to churn out article after article without experiencing writer’s block. I favor books because the quality and organization is usually superior to what’s found online. 9 out of 10 books I read are non-fiction, but occasionally I enjoy a good fiction book too. I quite enjoyed Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series.
9. Deep conversation. My wife and I have daily conversations about topics such as spirituality, the meaning of life, and the best ways for us to serve the greater good. Since we work from home on weekdays and often go out on weekends, we have no shortage of time together. I enjoy talking to my wife more than anyone else, and I feel fortunate to have found a woman who shares my passion for learning and exploration. While many people aren’t into questioning what lies beyond the physical world on a daily basis, I find this practice extremely worthwhile. It keeps me from getting sucked back into the socially conditioned patterns of fear and worry. It doesn’t have to be your spouse, but I highly recommend finding a partner with whom you can discuss your most important life issues in an intelligent and supportive manner. Many people crave this deep connection, but they allow fear to hold them back.
10. Journaling. I’ve written about this previously in Journaling as a Problem-Solving Tool. I keep two kinds of journals. First, I use a computer journal to do long-term planning, problem-solving, and asking and answering personal development questions. Sometimes my personal journal entries become seeds for future articles. Thanks to its search capabilities, I can quickly look up solutions to previous problems I’ve encountered. Secondly, I use a spiral notebook as my daily work journal. I write my daily to-do lists in that journal, and I make notes throughout the day as I work. About once a week, I process the paper journal items back into my master to-do list. This ensures that ideas I get throughout the day are considered in light of my long-term goals, so I don’t let great ideas fall through the cracks, but nor do I get knocked off course by random thoughts throughout the day. Both forms of journaling allow me to see what real progress I’m making in my personal and business growth.
The pattern to these habits is that they serve to keep me conscious. They empower me with the energy, resources, and awareness to pursue my greatest aspirations without slipping into low-awareness living. This framework enables me to choose how I spend each day instead of having those decisions made by forces outside my control. None of these practices are particularly complicated, but most of them took a serious effort to install. However, once they’ve been conditioned, they run on autopilot. Now I just take them for granted as my current baseline.
Decide now to install just one new habit that will change your life for the better. Then immediately begin a 30-day trial to condition it, and do whatever it takes to make it to day 30. If your past efforts have fizzled, then use the strategy of Overwhelming Force to ensure that you succeed this time. The ultimate payoff for this temporary effort is enormous. Once you install several new habits, your normal days will become far more extraordinary.