Your daily priorities

Sunrays in a forest

What’s the first thing you choose to do each day? And what are the second and the third? I don’t mean using the bathroom or brushing your teeth. I mean things you do that not everybody else does. Perhaps you check your phone or you cuddle with your spouse. Maybe, like my grandma, you spend a few minutes on gymnastics to keep your body healthy.

After much experimentation with structuring my days, I realized that the tasks I choose to do early in the morning are the ones I’ll get done almost every day. Sometimes I get to other things I want to do later in the day, but too often I don’t. Knowing this about myself, the most sensible structure of my day is to do the most important things in the mornings. For instance, it is important to me that I get enough sleep, so I structured my mornings so that I can sleep in. I’d like to gain some weight, so after waking up the first thing I do is preparing and eating a healthy breakfast. Then I move on to various mental and physical exercises. Some days, I then spend some time writing.

It might sound tedious to have such a routine. Perhaps some would be bored starting each day in the same way. What’s the alternative, though? If you want to make sure you get around to what’s most important to you, each day you either have to do it first or you have to get to it later. I suspect many people are like in me in that they don’t have the discipline to get to the most important things later. For instance, if you don’t sleep in, will you go to bed earlier in the evening? I find it incredibly difficult to go to bed earlier. There are so many fun little things to do in the evenings, whether it’s playing with my phone or watching a tv show with my girlfriend.

So try doing what’s most important to you early on in your day, preferably first thing in the morning. It won’t always work, because there are things you can only do at certain times of day, especially if they involve other people. But try to start your day with those activities you can do alone that you really want to do every day. If that means you’ll need to get up earlier, then get up earlier! Just go to sleep earlier, too.

I’m betting that if you get around to the most important things early on, you won’t even notice that you’ll have a little less time left in the rest of your day. Just like life becomes easier when you get enough sleep, your days will become easier when you don’t have to worry about finding time for important things later.

On planning for the future

Chess pieces on a board

Do you ever feel like you’re perpetually hurrying about, always wanting to be somewhere else? I do. When I’m in such a mood, I might look out the window and want to be outside, where it is sunny and green. Then, having gone outside, I might find that it’s windy and noisy and I’ll want to go back inside, where there is peace and quiet. But the peace and quiet quickly becomes boring, and I’m tempted to go outside, where it’s sunny and green!

When I’m in such a mood, I keep thinking I’ll be more satisfied being somewhere else. Of course that isn’t true at all! In fact, the opposite is true: by always wanting to be elsewhere, I’ll never be happy where I am. When I realize that I’ll only ever be where I am—that I can’t ever be anywhere else than here, it suddenly becomes much easier to enjoy myself where I am, and I snap out of the mood.

This mood illustrates the general idea that if you can’t enjoy the present, it is no use planning for the future. For when that future arrives, it will become the present, and you will not be able to enjoy it. So you must first learn to enjoy the present before planning for the future.

Unfortunately, you’ll encounter many structures that will try to convince you that you can in fact be happier being somewhere else. Take education. When you’re in school, you’ll be told that if you get good grades, you’ll get a good job. The implication is that you should want whatever others consider a “good job” and that having one will make you happy. When you’re working that job, you’ll be told that if perform well, you’ll be promoted, so you can get an ever better job. Perhaps that “better” job will pay well—and the implication is that you’ll be happier having more money. Finally, you’re told that you’ll get to retire at some point. Hopefully, by that point you’ll have saved up some money, so you can enjoy not working and just be happy!

It doesn’t matter which stage of this progression you’re at; the goal posts are always moving. Achieve this, and you’ll be happier! Reach that goal, and you’ll be happier! It isn’t true. It’s like going outside, finding that being outside is not perfect, and wanting to go back inside, only to long for being outside again.

So what can we do? Don’t worry so much about whether you’ll be happy in the future. Work on being happy now. Only when you can enjoy the present, you can plan—just a little—for the future.

Don’t take the game of life too seriously

"Mens erger je niet"-board

When I tense up in the face a difficult situation, I like to remind myself not to take life too seriously. It’s easy to be frustrated by so many things nowadays. The front pages of newspapers barrage you with bad news: projects have gone wrong, people have acted immorally, famous singers have died, and the weather has been terrible. When my favorite sports team loses an important game, I might initially feel frustration: why didn’t the players perform as well as they should have? Why did the coach choose to use that obviously flawed tactic? In that moment, I like to remind myself it’s just a game. There’s no need to take it too seriously.

It’s easy enough to say “it’s just a game” when it’s your favorite sports team losing. After all, there were really only playing a game! But can you also say this when you feel frustration in other parts of life? When the weather is terrible? When you didn’t receive that promotion at work you’d been hoping for? When someone you respect says something with which you strongly disagree? If you can see the situation as part of the game of life, you can take it less seriously and exert better control over your response to your negative feelings.

In fact, right now is a good time to practice not taking things too seriously. When I write, I exaggerate. Like many writers, I exaggerate to provoke thought and to get my point across. Walk into a bookstore and take a look at the most popular books. They’re usually prominently displayed near the entrance of the store, screaming for your attention. People notice writing when the points are made strongly.

But don’t take what I write, or what other people write, too seriously. When you read a piece, think about the gist. Think about the big picture. Do you find it interesting? Thought-provoking? Does it cause you to change your opinion on something or other? You don’t have to perfectly agree with everything that’s been written. By not taking the writing too seriously, you’ll be more receptive to the writer’s message.

Similarly, when you’re out and it starts to rain, try taking the rain less seriously. Can you see how getting wet on your way to the grocery store is part of the game of life? The important part is how you respond to the rain. To put it in my grandma’s terms: you’re not made of sugar. Or, if you prefer, in Richard Carlson’s words: “will this matter a year from now?” If it won’t, don’t sweat it.

Of course there are times to take life very seriously. When you’re being mugged or when you’re taking an important exam, laughing at life may not get you the result you want. Seeing life as a game won’t always work, but don’t obsess over exceptions. Think positively. When can you use this technique? Think about the big picture: when you’re frustrated, can you take the moment less seriously?

Life is so much easier when you get enough sleep

Dog sleeping in someone's arms

Of all the little things you can do to make life easier, my favorite one is sleeping enough. If it’s not already painfully obvious on days when you didn’t sleep well and joyously obvious on days when you did, sleeping is important: sleep science says so.

In a funny and informative TED talk titled Why do we sleep?, Russell Foster explains not only why we sleep, but also how you’ll benefit from getting a good night’s sleep, as opposed to being chronically tired. If you sleep well, you’ll be more creative, Foster explains—this I think many people know. But it surprised me to learn that you’ll also have better impulse control, which makes it easier to achieve difficult goals such as maintaining a healthy weight or keeping calm when things don’t go your way.

Aside from the measurable benefits, I love the less tangible but equally important benefit that life simply seems easier when you get enough sleep. Let’s say I need to shave today and that I’m annoyed because I cut my skin and it’s bleeding. I wasn’t careful enough with the razor blade, and it’s frustrating—why do I need to shave? Can’t I just let my beard grow out? Why are there gaps in my beard when I let it grow out? Life seems frustrating and unfair. In a moment like that, it makes a world of difference to me to remember that on many days, shaving is a pleasant experience. The act of shaving isn’t intrinsically frustrating; it just happens to be frustrating today. What’s the difference with the other days?

Most of the time, the difference is that shaving is a breeze when I’m well-rested. In fact, everything is easier when I’m well-rested. Not only is this realization important because it means I should always try to get enough sleep, it also shows that how difficult life seems to be is mostly decided in my head. Moving a razor blade across my face isn’t more difficult today than it is any other day; it just seems that way because I didn’t sleep well, meaning my fine motor skills are not as good as they could be and my patience is thin.

Nowadays, when I’m frustrated, I like to ask myself: could it be that this task is difficult mostly because I am tired? Might my frustration go away if I weren’t so sleepy? Try it next time you’re frustrated. Is the answer “yes”? If so, stop trying to change whatever it is that you wanted to be different and instead spend your energy making sure you get a really good night’s sleep tonight. It’ll make life easier.

P.s.: check out the National Sleep Foundation’s latest sleep guidelines.

A plan to let people do what they want

Euro bills sticking out of a wallet

The other day a group told me about their plan for a basic income. The idea of a basic income is that everyone has the right to receive that income, no strings attached, and that it should enough money to pay for necessities. It should, for instance, cover the rent for a place to live, the groceries, an education, etc. It’s not a new idea, but it has been in the news a few times in recent years, as cities are experimenting with basic incomes.

I don’t want to get too political here. I haven’t studied the group’s plan and it’s not obvious that there is enough money to fund it now or that there will be. I like to think there is, in wealthy countries anyway, but frankly I find it more important to discuss the why of a basic income than the how.

A basic income treats people well. It says to everyone: you deserve to live decently and you deserve to spend your time the way you want to. If you want to paint, compose, or sculpt, you’ll have the means to do so even without art subsidies or the luck of an inheritance. Or if you want to study philosophy or art history, you can do so without worrying about not being able to find a job after you graduate. Perhaps you’d like to spend time helping refugees learn the local language, or perhaps you’d like to learn how to rock climb—all possibilities with a basic income. Of course, if you want to work as an executive at a bank, whether you like the job or whether you mainly like the extra income it comes with, that’s okay too.

Providing a basic income is a positive and liberal idea. It’s a positive idea because a basic income system will only work if most people contribute something of value to society even when they don’t have to. When you propose a basic income system, you imply that you think the share of people who will contribute to society even when they don’t have to is large. That shows some faith in humanity.

A basic income is also a liberal idea because it gives people the right to the income without imposing obligations. Each person is free to spend the money as he or she sees fit. The lack of attached strings means the system does not impose the value of the majority on others. For instance, many people—too many people, if you ask me—believe that we should all work hard. One could require that each recipient work a certain number of hours each week, perhaps “voluntarily”, or that they provide proof they’re spending the money on socially desirable things, such as education or child care. Subsidies for the poor often come with such strings. A basic income, by contrast, in effect tells people “we trust you to spend the money wisely, although you have the right to spend it as foolishly as you want to”.

I think a basic income would make many people happier. I think it can be that push that many people need to start that business, learn that language, or volunteer at that shelter—projects that have passed their thoughts previously, only to be dismissed as impractical. A plan for a basic income is a plan that empowers people to find out how they want to spend their life and that then allows them to spend their life that way. I hope basic income experiments going on today are a ringing success.

Our lives are so luxurious that it’s a problem

Cruise ship out at sea

There’s a lot going on in our daily lives. It can seem like there’s never quite enough time to do everything we want to do. It’s difficult to get enough sleep, to exercise, to spend time with our friends and family, and to have a fulfilling job. We have many obligations, from serious ones like work or study to routine ones such as the laundry or the groceries. And we have aspirations too: to build a career to be proud of, for instance, or to start a family.

If you manage to find a moment to contemplate the big picture, it’s easy to be distracted by the notifications and screens that are ubiquitous in our modern world. Easy entertainment is only a few smartphone swipes away. Yet one big picture is especially important to reflect on today.

We are very fortunate people, historically speaking. We’re exceptionally free to choose how to spend our time. That doesn’t mean we can always do whatever we like: we need a place to live and food to eat and we need to work to pay for those things. But material things are easier to come by today than ever before. And while we have social obligations too, both direct ones such as caring for our children or parents, and indirect ones such as taxes, most of us are not forced to adopt a certain religion, to go to war, or to work the farm for a landowner.

In most of history, only a lucky few members of society had as much freedom and material luxury as we do today. Even if people knew how they wanted to live—if they knew what a good life meant to them—they may not have been able to live that life. But in our time, billions of people can live life the way they want to. The problem is, it’s not easy to figure out what’s a good way to live. There are so many things you could do, so many ways you could spend your time. It’s a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.

At school we don’t learn how to think about how to spend our lives: our formal education tends to cover practical skills that will help us find a job. It’s not a common topic of conversation at the workplace either. The more I thought about the question, the more I realized that nobody has ever convinced me that living my life a certain way is the best way, or has even tried particularly hard for that matter. If you’re not strongly religious, chances are you’re in the same boat as I am.

I go back and forth between feeling grateful for the freedom I have and feeling terrified by the number of ways I could spend my time. And I certainly haven’t figured out yet what a good life means to me. Wouldn’t it be great if this were a topic of conversation at lunchtime in the office and at birthday parties? When it comes to figuring out how to live well, I think we could all use some help.