Why does one day matter? Why does what you do today matter in the scheme of your whole life?
Because our life is made up of days. Days like today.
The poet Heraclitus said that “one day is equal to every day.” By that he meant that every day is the same length, comprised of the same amount of hours, the same sunup and sundown. Yet, he also meant it in the sense that philosophers have always meant that same idea—that if you can get one day right, you have a shot at getting your life right (and that you should try to get today right, because tomorrow is no guarantee). Or as my friend Aubrey Marcus put it wonderfully in the title of his new book, own the day, own your life.
Earlier this year, I published “12 Questions That Will Change Your Life.” In the vein, here are 13 things you should do and think about every day to change your day—and by extension, your life as well.
Some are easier than others, but each one matters.
[*] Prepare For The Hours Ahead — Each morning you should prepare, plan and meditate on how you aim to act that day. Don’t wing it. Don’t be reactionary. Have a plan. Marcus Aurelius rose in the morning and did his journaling—preparing himself for what he was likely to face in the hours ahead. He thought about the people he was likely to face, difficulties he might encounter (premeditatio malorum), and what he knew about how to respond. The morning is the perfect time to journal and to use the pages in that journal to set yourself up for a successful day. Remember: If you do the tough planning in the morning, nothing can happen during the day contrary to your expectation or too tough for you to handle.
[*] Go For a Walk — For centuries, thinkers have walked many miles a day because they had to, because they were bored, because they wanted to escape the putrid cities they lived in, because they wanted to get their blood flowing. In the process they discovered an important side-effect: it cleared their minds and helped them make better work. As Nietzsche would later say: “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.” You should go for a walk every single day not only for exercise but for the philosophical and psychological benefits. Experience nature. Experience the quiet of the world around you. Take a break. If you’re too busy, multitask: Take a walking meeting. Do your phone call on the move around the parking lot. Get out of doors and move.
[*] Do The Deep Work — So much of our day is spent at the surface. Skimming this and that. Vaguely paying attention to this conversation or that one. This is not what we were put here for. You must make time—preferably an hour or more a day—for what Cal Newport calls the “deep work.” The type of intense concentration and cognitive focus where real progress is made—on whatever it is that we happen to do, be it writing or thinking or designing or creating. Elite work takes deep work. The amount of deep work you get done is on you. It starts by closing your browser (after you finish reading me, of course) and getting to it. If you don’t make time for this—if it’s not a box you check every day—it won’t happen.
[*] Do A Kindness— The Boy Scouts motto was to do a good turn every day. Seneca wrote that “Wherever there is a human being, we have an opportunity for kindness.” Yes, even rude people. Even people you’re in competition with. As well as the people you love and are connected to. Your co-workers are a chance for kindness. Your spouse is a chance for kindness. The mailman is a chance for kindness. It will make you feel better to take advantage of that chance. It will make your day better if you do. It will make the world better if you do. Only a saint or a sage can fully meet every opportunity and every encounter with kindness. So don’t whip yourself if you can’t muster that. Start with one. Practice one kindness every day. See what happens.
[*] Read. Read. Read. — Pick up a book every day. Even for just a few pages. As Emerson says, every book is a quotation—of other books, of experience, of the humans and civilizations that came before it. How could you not expose yourself to this? And yes, you do have time! Meals, before bed, on the train, in the waiting room, even on your phone or desktop. Read a few pages, read a whole book, but make a real and unending commitment to reading. Because there is so much out there that you can benefit from: Biographies. Little-known gems. Life-changers. Philosophy. The classics. Self-improvement. Books about war. Fiction. Even marketing and business books. All of these will widen your perspective, help you with problems, give you inspiration and let you benefit from the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of the centuries.
[*] Find True Quiet— Every single day you should find a way to disconnect and unplug, even for a few minutes. I try to swim as often as I can, not only for the exercise but because nothing can get to me there. I don’t have my phone. There’s no noise. Just calmness and peace. Ask yourself: How often am I unreachable? The answer is: Not often enough. Build some of this time into your daily practice. You’ll be better for it. And the world will not notice, I promise.
[*] Make Time for Strenuous Exercise — It’s become a cliche to say this but when scientists consider exercise to be the ‘single thing that comes close to a magic bullet, in terms of its strong and universal benefits,’ and it’s Richard Branson’s #1 piece of advice to entrepreneurs, it can’t be overstated. We need it—far more than you think. Don’t put it off. Do it. Be in shape and be healthy. And what I personally find is that it is important to have goals with your exercise. Why? So that no matter what happens that day—at work, at home, in the economy—you can have something that went well. You improved your mile time, you swam three more laps than usual, you squatted a new weight.
[*] Think About Death — Shakespeare said that every third thought should be of our grave. Perhaps that’s too much. One thought per day is plenty. The point isn’t to be morbid, but to remember that you are mortal. How much time do we waste on things that don’t matter? And why? Because we think we can afford it! Memento Mori. You will die. Live while you can. Live your life as if you have died and come back and all of this is extra. I keep a coin in my pocket to remind me of this and touch it at least once a day. Death doesn’t make life pointless but rather purposeful. And fortunately, we don’t have to nearly die to tap into this.
[*] Seize the Alive Time — What does every day seem to be comprised of? Too much dicking around. People are just killing time (remember Raymond Chandler’s line “and it dies hard.”) We get to where we were going and walk into the lobby and check our watch. It says we’re a few minutes early, so we reach into our pocket to grab our phones. Is this act not the expression of so much of what’s wrong with modern life? The entitlement. The resignation of it. How much better we would be and the world would be if we never did this again. If we chose alive time over dead time. There’s so much you could do in those few minutes. Face fears. Reach out and connect with someone. Do something you’ve been putting off. Expose ourselves to sunlight and nature. Be still and empty. Prepare for what lies ahead. Or just live because who knows how much time we have left.
[*] Say Thanks—To The Good and Bad — The Stoics saw gratitude as a kind of medicine, that saying “Thank you” for every experience was the key to mental health. “Convince yourself that everything is the gift of the gods,” was how Marcus Aurelius put it, “that things are good and always will be.” Say thanks to a rude person. Say thanks to a bungled project. Say thanks to a delayed package. Why? Because for starters it may have just saved you from something far worse, but mostly because you have no choice in the matter. Epictetus has said that every situation has two handles: Which are you going to decide to hold onto? The anger or the appreciation? The one of resentment or of thanks?
[*] Put The Day Up For Review — We prepared in the morning, now we reflect in the evening. The best way to improve is to review. So, each evening you should, like Seneca did, examine your day and your actions. As he put it, “When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.” The question should be: Did I follow my plans for the day? Was I prepared enough? What could I do better? What have I learned that will help me tomorrow?
[*] Find a Way To Connect To Something Big— The worries and anxieties of daily life seem to fall away when we stand next to the ocean or walk through a beautiful park. We shouldn’t wait for our annual vacation to get this kind of relief and perspective. We need to get it every single day. The Stoics had an exercise for doing this. Marcus Aurelius would look up at the stars and imagine himself running alongside them, he’d see them for their timelessness and infiniteness. Try that tonight or early in the morning and try to make it a daily practice. A glance at the beautiful expanse of the sky is an antidote to the nagging pettiness of earthly concerns, of our dreams of immortality or fame. But you can find this connection from many sources: A poem. A view from the top floor. A barefoot walk across the grass. A few minutes in a church pew. Just find something bigger than yourself and get in touch with it every single day.
[*] Get Eight Hours of Sleep — “Sleep when you’re dead,” we say. Like it’s some badge of honor how little time we allot to it. Bullshit. The body needs its rest. Schopenhauer said that sleep is the interest we pay on the loan of life. Be glad to pay it. It’s what keeps us alive. Guard your sleep carefully, it’s an obligation. All the other habits and practices listed here become irrelevant if you don’t have the energy and clarity to do them.
P.S. If you want to get more practical about these things, check out Aubrey’s book Own The Day, Own Your Life.