Do you ever find yourself distinguishing between things you "have to do" and "want to do"? Do you ever find yourself looking forward to having "me time" during the week? Do you only work to make a living to pay off your bills, so you can have "fun" on the weekends (and take the occassional vacation once or twice a year) before you get "back to the grind"? Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this approach, except you’re missing out on life.
We wait for things to happen in our life before we start living (and some of us never learn). This way, we are always preparing to live (by "getting things done"), but we never end up truly living. We say to ourselves, "I’ll be okay/happy (translation: start living) when I do X thing, reach Y goal, or achieve Z outcome." In all of the "doing", we have forgotten what it’s like to simply be. We are rushing through life in that we are always trying to get somewhere without knowing where we truly are.
What if you didn’t have to live this way? What if every day felt as if you were preparing to go on a vacation (which is usually more exciting than taking a vacation)? What if you couldn’t wait to get up every day and do the things you got to do that day? What if you stopped looking forward to having that alone time on the weeknights and/or weekends, because you were enjoying all the time? What if you had a life you didn’t have to escape from (and come back to)?
Well, I’m here to tell you that not only is that doable, but it’s totally unnatural if you’re not living this way already.
Life is meant to be lived, and not to be "done"
Life is meant to be lived, and not a series of checkboxes to be marked off as "done."
Let me explain. I was "there" not long ago. For instance, I used to listen to music while driving, doing dishes, folding laundry, and even working. I would listen to podcasts while having my meals. I would look forward to having some "me time" during the weeknights after finishing dinner, doing the dishes, and cleaning the yoga mat after my workout, just so I could have some "alone time" for myself to do the things I wanted to do such as watching a talk, reading a book, playing a game, or talking to friends/family.
Suffice it to say, it didn’t feel right to listen to music OR consume media passively while doing these things for a few reasons, but here’s the main one. I was resisting (avoiding) the present to get to a future state, because I had implicitly categorized things in my mind as those I "have to do" (in the present), so I could get to things I "wanted to do" (in the future) as quickly as possible. In the process, I discovered nothing was less fulfilling than not using my time and attention with intention.
The How trumps the What
What I learned from experiences like this was it’s never about the What, but the How. It’s not about finishing X (work project, let’s say), so you can do Y (watch a movie), or do Z (be with a loved one). It’s about giving everything we do the time and attention it deserves. This way, we are living in the present without resisting it (by way of hurrying or delaying). I call this the joy of living.
What that meant for me was I was no longer distracting myself or trying to rush through things to get to "something fun" later on, because I was already having fun with whatever I was doing. For instance, I no longer needed to have music playing in the background while I was driving, doing the dishes, folding laundry, or even working. On the contrary, listening to music took me away from the experience of doing those things.
I now found myself on the other end of the spectrum, which is, I now found listening to music a distraction while doing those things because I was totally immersed in what I was doing. This made me stop listening to music and podcasts passively. Likewise, there was nothing quite like having a quiet meal by myself. Now, I enjoy the quietude all the time; not only from outer experiences, but also from having passive thoughts (more on this later).
I’m sharing only a handful things here as examples (not meant to be highlights), but anything I was doing, I was doing with intention. And, that made all the difference for me. It reminded me how we do anything is how we do everything.
I discovered there was nothing quite like doing one thing to the exclusion of all else. Cleaning the apartment became as enjoyable as working on a project. Folding the laundry was as calming as doing the dishes or writing an email. Walking to get lunch was as absorbing as talking to a friend or making my bed. I was no longer hurrying or rushing to do things to get "somewhere", rather I was truly enjoying the present experience. It was life-altering without exaggeration.
I talk about "things" (activities) in most of these examples, but the same applies to people as well. Speaking of people, I was already good at being present and giving my attention to others (and equally deserving of theirs), but now it was more fulfilling to have this experience for myself in my daily life.
Just like how we focus on living with ourselves, it works the same way when we spend time with others. For instance, it’s not enough to be with a loved one, when we find ourselves distracted (thinking about our work, for instance). By trying to be physically present with others, and mentally thinking about work (or anything) at the same time, we are doing a disservice to both, them and to ourselves. We are honoring neither, because we haven’t fully committed ourselves to either. And, that’s no way to live.
Similarly, it’s not enough to get a project "done" with a colleague at work, if you didn’t have a good time doing it, because getting to do something (with someone) is the point, even when completing them (with others) may be the objective. How we do something (for/with others) matters more than what we do (for/with them).
Lessons learned from living
Here are a few things I’ve observed as part of living this way:
One thing worth clarifying is living this way isn’t about doing things at a snail’s pace, as my friend, Carl Honoré would say. That would be missing the point. It’s about giving everything we do the attention it deserves. I am actually astounded at how much I’m able to do on a given day (without breaking a sweat) when I am doing something to the exclusion of all else. This is hardly surprising, because when we are focused on doing one thing well, not only do we do it better, but we are able to do it quicker. This reminds me of a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche, and I paraphrase, that a day has a hundred pockets if you know what to do with it. This has totally been my experience from living this way.
As insightful as that might be, the more important takeaway for me is how I feel at the end of each day. There is contentment and fulfillment from having spent my time and attention well. For instance, when you throw a pebble in the water, it responds appropriately by creating ripples without over- or under-reacting. That’s what it feels like living day to day. It’s all about engaging appropriately with what has our attention at any given time.
It’s worth noting, when you act with intention, doing things mindlessly (reactively) can seem quite alien. Similarly, when you’re addicted to always doing something (without truly knowing why) to keep yourself distracted or what have you, coming out of that state can seem equally foreign, if not more so. As someone who has been on both sides of the fence from time to time, I can safely attest living one way is way better than the other. Not only better, but there is a night-and-day difference between the two.
Give yourself space
By the way, it’s not enough to do one thing at a time, if you’re constantly lost in your (passive) thoughts (about the past or future), because that too is distracting, and it keeps you from truly enjoying the present experience.
It’s easier to be present and focused when you are using your mind to work on something (problem solving, for instance), because then you are willfully creating active thoughts. It’s much harder to be present when you’re doing something that is usually thought of as "passive" such as doing the dishes, folding laundry, cleaning the house, driving, commuting, or mowing the lawn. This is where we most tend to distract ourselves the most by way of consuming media, just so we can "get through" somehow, which is classic resistance.
Even when you’re not consuming media, it’s easy to be sucked into the passive thoughts created by your mind. This could be about your past situations where you are thinking about something someone said/did and/or you may be thinking about how that situation might have gone differently had you said/done something different, for instance.
You could be thinking about your future by way of having future conversations with others in your head to make sure that you get what you want from those situations if you only say the "right things." Or you could be making future plans while doing those things. This is a key point, and I’ll share more in another piece. Suffice it to say, it made me truly appreciate the value of giving my attention to whatever I was doing. It’s not until you stop engaging in this mental chatter particularly during these "passive" experiences, do you realize how addicted you are to your mind.
Stop "practicing gratitude" and start living it
One of the things I stopped doing as a result of living this way was asking one of the questions I answered daily as part of doing gratitude journaling. One of the questions I asked myself at the end of each day was the three amazing things that happened that day (that I did, and not something that happened to me). I don’t ask that question anymore. And here’s why. When you’re giving your full attention to whatever it is you’re doing (or whoever you’re being with), everything is amazing in its own way, because the amazement doesn’t from the What, it stems from the How.
The two questions (among others) I ask myself now as part of a daily debrief are: what I did that day? And, how did I do those things? From this piece, you can surmise that the second question is way more important than the first one, even if it requires you to answer the first one before the second.
Less, but better
When you start living this way, and you give your attention to everything that you do to the exclusion of all else, you’ll naturally end up doing a few things well (in the interest of doing many things averagely) in the short term, because anything you do takes time and attention. That means you might take fewer work projects at any given time, so you can give it your absolute best. It’s only when you live your life this way, you’ll be able to do more in the long term.
Most of us do the opposite — we take on more things in the short term and we end up doing less in the long term. This way, we end up biting more than we can chew. We end up doing more things averagely in the long haul, not the least of which is because the focus is solely on "completion" rather than doing it with intention. Remember, how we do things matters more than what we do, because what’s the point of completing that project if you didn’t enjoy the experience of doing it?!
In the end, you have to decide if you want to live your life proactively by design or reactively by default. While both approaches require the same effort, you always have a choice. Choose wisely.
When you finally start living, you’ll have enough space for your self, you’ll have deep meaningful relationships (including friendships), and you’ll work fewer hours with greater focus. Not only that, you’ll be able to sustain all of it without the need for having to take a vacation (nothing wrong when you take one, but it won’t be to "get away" from work/life anymore). You end up living deliberately in a way that you suck out all the marrow of life, as Thoreau would say.
It’s only when we shift from the What way of "doing" to the How way of living, we’ll stop looking forward to the future, because we’re occupied with living in the here and now, which does not preclude planning things for the future.
It was only when I stopped rushing through life and superficially differentiating between "what I have to do" and "what I want to do", did I finally start living life and do things that I got to do. Nothing felt as good at the end of each day knowing I used my time and attention well in everything I did. Doing the things I got to do was rewarding in and off itself. Doing those things to the exclusion of all else simply elevated the experience of it all. It wasn’t about what I got to do, but how I did them. And the fact that I got to do it all over again the following day felt blissful.
Living a less, but better life has helped me live with far greater focus, gusto, and care. Doing a few things well in the short term, so I can do more in the long term has helped me live a more fulfilled life. And, it can do the same for you.
I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention the tradeoff that comes from living this way. Like almost anyone else I know, I’ve an endless list of things I want to learn, movies I want to watch, games I want to play, places I want to see, etc. I keep collecting them in my backburner. I get to them as and when I can. And, even if I don’t get to all of them in my lifetime, I’m okay with that, because the truth is, these lists are endless, and besides, we can do anything, but not everything. That’s just the reality of life. The sooner we accept it, the more at peace we’ll be. I’ve made my peace with it, and I invite you to do as well.
I’m totally okay having made the tradeoff, because I believe life is meant to be lived, and not to be "done." How we do anything is how we do everything. In other words, how we do something matters more than what we do, because what’s the point of reaching your destination, if you didn’t enjoy the journey?! The journey is the point even when the destination maybe the goal.
The last thing you want is get to the end of your life only to realize that even though you "did many things" in your life (by way of "doing/achieving", let’s say), you haven’t lived at all, which was the point all along.
Life is not about looking forward to doing X or Y in the future. It’s about waking up every day and being our best in whatever we do. There is nothing to achieve. There is nowhere to arrive. We’ll achieve whatever there is to achieve by the virtue of who we are (not "what we do"). It’s only when we focus on living, we’ll end up "achieving" more (not less) in our lives, but it comes from a different place altogether. That achievement we’ll experience throughout life will simply be a natural result of living.
Life is meant to be lived, and not to be "done." The joy is more in doing things and less in having done them. Doing the things we get to do everyday is the point, even when completing them maybe the aim. That’s when we stop classifying things as those we "have to do" and those we "want to do", because then there are only things we get to do. Let’s stop preparing to live and start living our lives.
How we live matters more than what we do.
It’s the only thing that matters.