How We Spend Our Days

I recently perused Daily Rituals, a compendium of the daily habits of creatives. I am fascinated by rituals and routines: they provide anchor points for our days. Naturally, I loved exploring how people went about the work of their lives. Over the course of reading the book, I took some time to think about all the things that I want in my routine.

At first, I thought about a regimented plan of attack: wake at this time, complete this and then that and so on. I had constructed my routine like a factory manager might construct an assembly line: in goes the serialized events to be executed and out goes the ideal day.

As I tried to maintain this factory, I quickly recognized its shortcoming: when one thinks about the day as a series of appointments, the joy of living fades. Life is not a series of calendar events, but a confusing and flowing river of experiences. Planning an ideal day of rituals using time proved foolish.

The answer, I think, is to imagine the ideal day of experience. I recalled an essential short essay from James Shelley: The Ideal Day. I re-read the piece and set to constructing an ideal day not through time but experience. Shelley provided a good starting point and I’ve borrowed liberally. Here’s what an ideal day might look like:

Wake up refreshed. Spend some quiet time in meditation, reflection, and gratitude. Be patient and curious with the learning of the day as to stretch the mind. Seek out invigorating conversation. Write something. Practice loving kindness towards others. Have space between commitments throughout the day. Spend time in nature. Move the body. Relax into the evening with value in mind: good art, cooking, and creating. Reflect and meditate again.

Doesn’t that sound wonderful? More importantly, doesn’t it sound completely within reach, starting tomorrow?

I haven’t abandoned my love of routine. I’ve simply traded a foundation of time for a foundation of experience. Some amount of scheduling may inevitably follow from these idealized experiences. Maybe, for example, in order to wake up refreshed and have the space to meditate and reflect in the mornings, I have to make sure to budget for sufficient sleep and time. But what dictates this schedule is a principle of experience, not time.

I promise that this is a distinction with a difference. When we think critically about first principles, things begin to fall into place. How we ground our motivations for action in the day to day, the month to month, and the year to year profoundly matters. After all, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Find your ideal day for the current space and time you are in this moment and edit ruthlessly until you get there.