How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. — Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
I love this quote, because it’s almost too obvious to contemplate. Yet, we tend to give a lot of thought to the highlights of our lives—the relatively rare, one-time events, like vacations, weekend getaways—failing to realize that what we do every day is how our time goes by.
One of the things I often tell my clients—and this is a really useful thing to know too: there’s a lot of emphasis in the New Testament, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, on paying attention to the day. It’s something you also see a bit in Buddhism—to focus on the moment.
The thing that’s so interesting about the day is that the day is like a page in a book. Of course there’s many pages in a book but the page repeats.
I’ll tell you a little story: I had one client who was spending about 45 minutes a night fighting with his young son about when to go to bed. So you know they weren’t having a pleasant time of it, because it was just a constant battle. And that’s common, like, it’s very common for parents of young children to be locked in a battle that occurs day after day. Sometimes it’s around eating, sometimes it’s toilet training, sometimes general behavioral issues, sometimes it’s bedtime.
So we did some arithmetic: it’s like okay 40 minutes a day, so that’s 280 minutes a week, so that’s 20 hours a month, it’s 240 hours in a year, that’s 6 work weeks, that’s a month and a half. You’re spending a month and a half of work weeks doing nothing but fighting with your son. What makes you think you’re gonna like him, right?
You think: well it’s only 40 minutes a day. Don’t fool yourself: anything that’s every day is a significant percentage of your life, because you’re awake, let’s say, 16 hours. 5 of those hours are basically maintenance, so you got about 11. And then 7 of those are work, so now you’re down to 4. And so if you’re spending 15 minutes a day doing something painful and stupid and you do it every day it’s like 10% of your productive life.
It’s really useful to to get because people think backwards. They think: well, I have a vacation coming up and that’s really important. No, it’s not. You’re going to do it once. It’s not that important. How you treat each other at lunchtime, if you eat together everyday—that’s your life. Fix that. Get it so that the food’s good. Get it so that you’re happy with the people that are sitting there. Fix that and it’s like, poof, 10% of your life is fixed.
The concept of attending to and fixing the mundane parts of your life is a running theme of his book, 12 Rules for Life. In Rule 4: Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday, Not to Who Someone Else is Today, he writes:
You have a nature. You can play the tyrant to it, but you will certainly rebel. How hard can you force yourself to work and sustain your desire to work? How much can you sacrifice to your partner before generosity turns to resentment? What is it that you actually love? What is it that you genuinely want? Before you can articulate your own standards of value, you must see yourself as a stranger—and then you must get to know yourself. What do you find valuable or pleasurable? How much leisure, enjoyment, and reward do you require, so that you feel like more than a beast of burden? How must you treat yourself, so you won’t kick over the traces and smash up your corral? You could force yourself through your daily grind and kick your dog in frustration when you come home. You could watch the precious days tick by. Or you could learn how to entice yourself into sustainable, productive activity. Do you ask yourself what you want? Do you negotiate fairly with yourself? Or are you a tyrant, with yourself as slave?
Take a step back from your thought loops, see yourself as a stranger.
Where do you apply your energy? How do you spend your days?