Last year, life was tedious. It was like my own personal Groundhog Day, except I actually got older and I barely learned anything. Each day was the same: I awoke, I worked in my little office, I slept.
At least, that’s how it felt at the time. Looking through my calendar, I actually did quite a bit. Still, as New Year ticked over I couldn’t help feeling frustrated at how little my life seemed to have developed. I vowed to make a change: this year would involve more living than existing.
In one of those happy coincidences, a friend recommended an app which compiles a video of 1-second-long clips, one from each day. I immediately decided this would be a perfect mini-project. By taking a few seconds out of each day, I’d be encouraged to live a little more. Every day, I’d try to do something a little more interesting than filming my lunch—even if it was just a short walk by the river.
And it’s been a success: I’ve spent this year building a compilation of friends and adventures and happy times and delightful views. (Including, on one less memorable day, a video of the first run of a new washing machine.)
But I’ve also come to a deeper realisation about the very structure of life.
Life goes by in a flash
This summer I went on a two-week long dream road trip around Europe, visiting castles, restaurants, and museums in stunning medieval canal-filled cities.
Afterwards, I watched the trip back in my “video compilation of the year.” This dream trip—which I’d spent months building up to—goes by in twelve seconds.
One moment you’re looking at videos of my lunch at home, then it’s TRAIN, CASTLE, CANAL, CASTLE, CANAL, BEERS, BOAT and suddenly I’m back home eating lunch again.
The trip is over almost as soon as you’ve realized it’s happening.
But this is normal. These sorts of life-highlights are always short compared to the rest of our time. Whether it’s a dream holiday, the final culmination of a huge project, or a major performance, we inevitably spend way longer building up to big highlights than we spend experiencing them. It’s just the nature of time: life is made up of far more ordinary times than extraordinary ones.
And this is my realization: I spend a lot more effort on planning these extraordinary times than I do on raising the bar for my ordinary days.
Make every day worthwhile
Most days tend to be similar, which means that any improvements I make to my ordinary life add up far more than a short break from everyday life could ever give me.
Cutting five minutes off my commute, actually taking a proper lunch break, sleeping in a comfier bed, eating a tastier lunch, buying a chair that doesn’t cause backache, or creating a home office that makes me happy every time I step inside… each of these raises my happiness every single day.
Sure, I haven’t exactly transformed my daily life, or solved all the problems of the world, but I’ve added some cool up-lighting to my office and made more of an effort to enjoy lunch on “normal” work days, and that’s made lots of otherwise forgettable days more pleasant as I tackle the endless to-do list.
Don’t skip the trip
Obviously, I’m not saying we should never go on holiday, focus on highlight moments, or save up for special treats. After all, it’s important to have something exciting to look forward to.
But I know I have a tendency to be carried away by these larger dreams, to the point that it’s easy to forget that most of my days aren’t spent experiencing them. Watching this video of my year back made me realize how much better off I’d be if I put some of the effort I spent planning my holiday into improving my everyday reality.
I expect my experience isn’t universal. There are probably people reading this post who might benefit from the opposite message—perhaps it’s time for a long-neglected big treat!
Whether we tend to neglect the everyday, or focus on it to the exclusion of all else, there’s something reassuring about the raw fact that most of our life is made of ordinary days. Somehow, making small improvements sounds like an achievable ambition. I could take a walk in the morning. Meditate for a moment at night. Listen to more music. Eat healthier lunches. (Or more attractive ones for video clips!)
I’m curious… how could you improve your ordinary days?
[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.