The Daily Timescale
What’s your biggest focus for 2019? For me, I am focusing on the daily timescale: How can I make today as ideal as possible? What specific experiences do I want to have every single day? How can I structure my life so that it is a series of good days, day after day?
The idea of the daily timescale is to design our day-to-day experiences to be consistent with our longer-term vision and values for life. How can we best structure our days within the lives we want to live?
I’m not talking about sitting on the beach drinking margaritas. While that might be nice for a few days (or even a few weeks), it’s not an ideal life. An ideal day within an ideal life includes elements of responsibility, progress, contribution, creation, goodness, and a commitment to larger values. Committing to the daily timescale is about how we can create better lives by living better days.
If we string together enough good days in a row, we eventually create a good life. Kind of like building a wall from this interview with actor Will Smith:
“You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid. You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.”Youtube: Will Smith interview with Charlie Rose
What about setting goals?
What about setting goals, or New Year’s Resolutions?
In previous phases of my life, I was very focused on setting and achieving goals. You might even have called me a goal maniac.
In college, I arranged meetings with my roommates to discuss, record, and publicly commit to our goals for the year. I organized goals by category: physical goals, educational goals, even social goals (use your imagination). I was like some sort of goal-oriented robot with the goal of achieving goals. To this day, my college roommates still give me a hard time about putting up a “4.0” sign on my freshman dorm room wall.
I’m familiar with best practices in goal setting, like SMART goals:
To some degree, setting smart goals is effective if you want to achieve specific, measurable outcomes. In the work domain, I set goals like this all the time — hit milestone X, reach completion objective Y — the strategies are effective. But in the life domain, goal setting doesn’t resonate with me.
Set the values instead of the goals
Lately, I’ve been more focused on the values and the journey. The outcome isn’t as relevant as it used to be. Instead, the journey and the principles that we stand by matter more.
Here is a reminder hanging in my office of a minimum set of experiences each day:
Every single day, I try to exercise, to think, and to have fun, even if just for a short time. Those are my activities for personal wellness and enjoying life on a day-to-day basis. Like putting on my own oxygen mask before helping others.
Once those needs are met, I focus on work as a core and important part of my life. In the work domain, I try to make progress every single day on my big projects. These index cards are my North Star:
Getting into Flow at work is another high priority. The idea of Flow is an optimal state of mind where we lose time and feel fully engaged. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, creator of the term, describes Flow as a “state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and [people] want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake” (source: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal experience, Harper & Row, 1990, p. 6).
Stringing together Flow experiences, one after another, day after day, creates a series of beautiful moments which, together, add up to our lives. Csikszentmihalyi writes:
“…in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery — or perhaps better, a sense of participation, in determining the content of life — that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.”Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal experience, Harper & Row, 1990, p. 10.
Here are a few additional reminders in my office for the kind of Flow I am seeking on a daily basis:
I value being productive, but less so with a specific endpoint in mind and more so with a day-to-day Flow state in mind. Of course, my areas of progress align with my interests but also with realistic business opportunities — we have to pay the bills, after all. But the framework is day-to-day Flow rather than the outcome.
Aside: Why do you think my wife was skeptical when I bought 10,000 index cards on Amazon two years ago? I’m about a quarter of the way through them, I think.
What about BHAGs?
But wait: What about the concept of pursuing a BHAG, a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal? This idea was made popular by the authors of “Built To Last,” originally published in 1994, about successful companies that have stood the test of time in enduring across decades. One of their findings is that successful companies pursue BHAGs as a means of inspiring, aligning, and orienting their companies in pursuit of a worthy and lofty objective. Think of Google’s mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
While companies may benefit from BHAGs, how about individuals? It’s probably true that people with specific long-term goals are more likely to hit those goals — e.g., create a successful business, save a certain amount of money, raise a certain type of family. But lately, I’ve been avoiding BHAGs for my own life and simply pursuing a good process.
Rather than building to last, I’ve resonated with this approach from Jason Fried and David Hansson’s book, It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work, which focuses on consistent improvement rather than aiming for arbitrary targets:
“The wisdom of setting business goals — always striving for bigger and better — is so established that it seems like the only thing left to debate is whether the goals are ambitious enough.
So imagine the response when we tell people that we don’t do goals. At all. No customer-count goals, no sales goals, no retention goals, no revenue goals, no specific profitability goals (other than to be profitable). Seriously.” (p. 23)
“Are we interested in increasing profits? Yes. Revenues? Yes. Being more effective? Yes. Making our products easier, faster, and more useful? Yes. Making our customers and employees happier? Yes, absolutely. Do we love iterating and improving? Yup!
Do we want to make things better? All the time. But do we want to maximize “better” through constantly chasing goals? No thanks.
That’s why we don’t have goals at Basecamp. We didn’t when we started, and now, nearly 20 years later, we still don’t. We simply do the best work we can on a daily basis.” (p. 24)
“How about something really audacious: No targets, no goals?
You can absolutely run a great business without a single goal. You don’t need something fake to do something real. And if you must have a goal, how about just staying in business? Or serving your customers well? Or being a delightful place to work? Just because these goals are harder to quantify does not make them any less important.” (p. 25)Jason Fried and David Heinemeier, “It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work,” Harper Business Publishing, 2018, pp. 23-25.
At my consulting firm, we don’t have Big Hairy Audacious Goals, or any goals at all really. Instead, we have values and principles that we strive towards at whatever magnitude they’re achieved. Instead of endpoints, we focus on values: do excellent work, provide effective insight, seek high-quality clients and projects. We have constraints, of course — e.g., payroll, profitable projects, success in the marketplace — but beyond those constraints we don’t aim for arbitrary revenue or profit targets.
What is my best day today?
Don’t get me wrong: I really like to work. And I’m a hard worker. I’m no stranger to all-nighters, when work requires it. I am definitely willing to endure significant short-term pain for long-term gain.
Valuing hard work correctly recognizes that our best day today takes into account future days. Pursuing our best day incorporates aspects of both our present selves, in seeking enjoyment and well-being, and our future selves, in seeking long-term meaning and impact. That is, our best day today balances our short-term needs for enjoyment and well-being with our long-term needs for purpose and meaning.
For me, that means following my index cards to remind me of good choices on a daily basis.
I’ll end with a beautiful passage from a recent New York Times article, written by a cancer patient, who, by consequence of her sickness, has revised her perspective from long-term goals to day-to-day experiences. She writes:
“The Stoics considered time to be cyclical, an eternal recurrence of motion from fire through the creation of elements back to fire again; the Enlightenment saw time as the arena of progress, a moral motion toward improvement and perfectibility. Much of Christian theology rests on the image of God as the ultimate reality beyond time and space, the creator of a past, present and future where all exists simultaneously in the Divine Mind. But where does that leave the bewildered believer who cannot see the future and whose lantern casts light only backward, onto the path she has already taken?
The terrible gift of a terrible illness is that it has in fact taught me to live in the moment. But when I look at these mementos, I realize that I am learning more than to seize the day. In losing my future, the mundane began to sparkle. The things I love — the things I should love — become clearer, brighter. This is transcendence, the past and the future experienced together in moments where I can see a flicker of eternity…
So instead of New Year’s resolutions, I drew up a list for 2019 of experiences that had already passed: a record not of self-mastery but of genuine surprise. 1. My oncology nurse became a dear friend. 2. Even in the hospital I felt the love of God. 3. Zach is under the impression that I never get tired. These are my small miracles scattered like bread crumbs, the way forward dotting the path behind me.”“How Cancer Changes Hope”, New York Times, Dec 28 2018
Best of luck living your best days possible in 2019!