As we reflect at the end of the day we all know what it feels like to have had a good day. A day that has left us feeling content with our accomplishments and connected to the world, to other people and to ourselves. We also know what it feels like to have a bad day, one where we have never really found our footing and our groove. These bad days feel like losses in an infinite game – they feel like days we lose and never will be able to reclaim. The difference is palpable. Yet, few people take their time to figure out what a good day really is.
And it is more important than ever, since the days are now melting into each-other, resulting in an endless mesh of hours interrupted by email and video meetings. We can spend all day in these two activities without feeling that we have made any real progress on anything. Forget about having a good day, we are not even having days anymore!
The small cues that we could build on, the walk or drive to work, the drive or walk home, the coffee, the lunch break, the chat in the cafeteria – they are all gone. What remains is a lot of freedom, and no way to structure it into that feeling of accomplishment that we all benefit from.
Caroline Webb wrote a nice little book about how to have a good day and in it suggests that we can achieve a lot if we just start out setting intentions for our day as it starts or, for the next day, as we wind down. There is a lot to be learnt from the examples in her book – and she points out that good days do not need to all look the same.
The easiest version of having a good day is to set out at the beginning of the day what you want to accomplish, and then do that – so your intention shapes your day. If you get sidetracked you have the three things you want to get done and you can re-focus on them as you take a break or brisk walk to get back to where you want to be.
Being intentional about the way you spend your time is a great start, but it does not take us all the way to the good day. Your intentions need to compound. You want to be doing work that accrues value over time – building something, refining your craft, writing a book or finishing a project. You want to make progress.
This is important, and there is a distinction here that I think can turn out to be quite important – and that is the distinction between progress and productivity. We often say that we want to be productive, but that means nothing – if we produce without making progress we are just spinning our wheels and wasting the time allotted to us. So, a good day depends on making progress towards something bigger, a bigger goal broken down into sub goals and small wins.
A good day contains small wins in an infinite game, moving you forward and creating more opportunities, broader possibilities and new landscapes to explore.
Intention and progress together bring us closer to the good day, but it is fair to say that we do not always have intentional days of progress, and especially not in a pandemic – so how do we deal with failure? The best way is to recognize failure – and Webb writes about this too – and reboot. Failure is not a moral failing, it is a consequence of being human. We get distracted, we have low energy days, our minds wander. That is not a bug, it is a feature. Welcome it, and then carefully steer back to intention and progress.
A good day can also be a day where you rebooted and got back on track.
It is no secret that this has gotten an order of magnitude harder in the pandemic – but I find that interesting. If I can create good days under the current conditions, I expect that it will be easier to do so when the world slowly finds its way back to normal, and that would mean that I could get a post-pandemic benefit from really exploring what a good day is to me now. There has been no better time to understand what we mean by having a good day, and how we can get more of them.
There is a stoic observation somewhere in all of this, and I think of Marcus Aurelius often these days.