To be fecund, we need to be nourished. This view shifts the emphasis away from the things we accomplish and toward the things that feed us: how well we have slept, how dedicated we are to something, how kind, how assertive, how generous, how well we treat the people we love, how much we learn, how resilient we are. We so often overlook these parts of the day, but it's the very mulch that we need to yield growth.
Our days don't need to be optimized but simply occupied—that is, lived in, tended to, renewed. The scramble of everyday life can render every discretionary hour as one to seize, but there inevitably will be moments we fail to grasp. My hunch is that we all have moments we procrastinate and flounder—it's just so rare for people to admit that they do, too.
But even in the uneventful days, when instead of doing the thing we set out to, we puttered or tooled around, we can find something worthwhile nestled in the hours. Maybe it didn't make us money or progress our career, but it, too, can imbue the day with meaning—a thought, a conversation with a friend, a new recipe to try, a walk outside, a smile from a stranger, taking a nap. Sometimes even a hangover can be a sign of a fun night with friends. Why can't these small things be counted among the doing in our days, too?
Even though individual circumstances can be different, removing the judgment when a day—or even an hour—goes off-track is something we can each practice. We can try to see that so often it's the unexpected, the unproductive, the imperfect that refreshes our days. Some days it's the thing we didn't think we'd have time for that turns out to be the very thing we needed. Some days might go by when we didn't do the thing, but we did that other thing that turns out to be just as important. Some days we do things and we're not quite sure why, only for it to all make sense at some future time.
Of course, on some days doing the thing is non-negotiable. It feels like a struggle just to keep up—either making us feel stifled by overwhelm or on the road to burnout. But whether we resent all that we have to do or lament what we haven't done, perhaps there's room for each of us to reshape how we measure the day. We need to dig up the stifling standards and instead plant something that is far more fitting in a world that requires empathy, flexibility, and action. We need to find small, defiant acts against the idea that productivity is the sole measure of our worth. We need to inspire a gentler, more accepting approach to the ebb and flow of our days. We need to find our own way.
How We Spend Our Days
Is How We Spend Our Lives
Slowly Figure Out
How to Navigate Our Lives
From the outside looking in, it can appear as if everyone else has it figured out, everyone else is doing more, doing better, and coping just fine. So why can't we do the thing?
Mystified by how other people seemed to effortlessly go about their days, in 2014 I set about asking people I admired what they did, how they did it, and when they did it. I published the results on my labor of love, a blog called Extraordinary Routines, and later on my podcast, Routines & Ruts. The interview project was an attempt to find the remarkable in the everyday, a collection of hints to enable my own pursuit to do exceptional things amid the chaos of daily life. Speaking to those who seemed to have things figured out offered me a chance, I thought, to peek behind the highlight reel and receive guidance on how I, too, could become more productive, more successful, more prolific—how I could do more and be more. Such conversations even led me to devise experiments for myself—from testing out morning routines to switching off my devices.
But despite all my probing, I didn't arrive at a perfect recipe for getting things done. After more than half a decade of interviews and experiments, I still didn't feel like I was doing enough, doing it right, doing it well. With hindsight, I can see I kept falling into "if only" spirals because I was looking in the wrong direction for the answer. By requesting someone else's how-to manual, I was overlooking the need for me to navigate my own life.
It's not an exercise I lament, however. It took asking people about the everyday reality of their lives for me to realize we can't expect to re-create the same recipe when we don't have same ingredients. We each have our own capabilities, energy, aptitudes, privileges, and available hours in the day, and these just don't look the same for everyone. The ability to optimize your day varies greatly if you're a freelancer, unemployed, a gig worker, executive assistant, student, or working parent. The minutiae of our daily lives differ for each of us, yet we often compare ourselves with others—and wind up feeling worse.
It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge how much my investigating people's daily routines may perpetuate this very pedestaling of getting things done. A written profile and a podcast conversation can only reveal so much and certainly not all the foibles of a life. But for me, these conversations reaffirmed that there is a plethora of ways we can go about our days—and the most important way is one that is our own that we can adjust accordingly.
I started out asking how people do what they do, but what became more interesting to me was hearing about the stumbles. If there was a resounding insight I gained after sifting through people's days, it's that nobody has all the answers; nobody knows what they're doing; and everybody is looking at everybody else, trying to keep up, adjusting where necessary. We all stumble; we all make mistakes; we all have days where we didn't do the thing.