“What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.” –Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project
Your Genuine Self
I’ve been reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, in which the author spends a year researching happiness and implementing a new practices each month that are meant to drive her happiness to new heights. When she says, “What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while,” she’s talking about finding her genuine self in order to stoke happiness… although we can take the same statement and apply it to personal productivity.
If we believe ourself to be someone who loves skiing, but have only gone skiing once in the last ten years, our happiness won’t be fulfilled by shopping for new ski equipment. Rather, we might regret the money we spent on gear that we never use. Conversely, someone who reads three books a month will probably feel great satisfaction spending money on new books or taking the time to reupholster a favorite reading chair. Those pursuits of happiness match the person as her genuine self as manifested through what she does every day, rather than the potential future person she thinks she wants to be.
In other words, what you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while when it comes to accepting your genuine self and seeking happiness in ways that match it.
When Maintenance is the Only Option
Now let’s think about at this same saying, “What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while,” in terms of productivity.
Let’s say you want to have a tidy email inbox. What you do every day to create a tidy inbox matters more than cleaning out your inbox once in a while. To have a well-managed email inbox, you have to process email messages (file, archive, respond, trash) everyday. The action must be consistent. Cleaning out your inbox once every six weeks when it’s already out of control doesn’t provide the same sense of calm, clarity of mind, and productive environment that comes with tending to the email inbox every working day.
Put another way, keeping email under control requires daily maintenance, not a project-like approach. For some tasks, the word “habit” might come to mind first, but “maintenance” is an extremely useful concept, and it’s different from “habits.”
Certain aspects of life simply require maintenance, meaning they are in need of constant regular care and cannot function without it. For example, to get enough sleep, we need to sleep a sufficient number of hours every night. We can’t sleep 30 hours tonight and skip sleeping the next four days in a row, even though technically speaking, we may be getting enough sleep on average. Sleep doesn’t work that way. Similarly, we can’t eat all our calories for the month today and then comfortably fast for four weeks. Nor can we go for a 100-mile run today and take the rest of the season off. Bodies don’t work that way.
So while it’s possible to tackle some aspects of life with concerted effort as a one-time project, like remodeling the bathroom or researching the right productivity apps to buy to do our jobs better, some things simply require maintenance.
Self Awareness of Habits
What about the actions you take for how you start your day (keeping in mind that copying what successful people do before breakfast doesn’t mean a lick to you)? Again, what you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while. Some people believe that they clock into work consistently at 8:30 a.m. sharp when in reality, that’s the time they show up at the office or switch on their computers, not the time they start working. Who hasn’t had co-workers who spend the first 15 or 20 minutes of each day fixing coffee, going to the bathroom, and doing other routine elements of settling it?
And let me be clear: There is nothing wrong with having a morning routine that leaves you starting work 20 minutes later than you intended. It’s perfectly fine if you enjoy setting the tone for the workday in that manner. But we must be accurate in understanding that those first 20 minutes are not productive time, just as someone who goes skiing once in 10 years can’t honestly fulfill their happiness with ski-related stuff. When analyzing our time management skills or how we can gain productive time, we must be clear in how we categorize those first 20 minutes of time at work. We need to have self-awareness of our true habits, or what we do everyday, not fool ourselves with what we may do once in a while.
Image by Susy Morris, CC.