Making the day count

Objective: Explore this idea of summer vacation, learning, passion, success, working hard.

“What did you do today?” W- asked over dinner last week.

“Not much,” J- said. She’s on summer vacation.

We rattled off suggestions for things to do. Physical exercise like jogging or biking. Building practical skills like cooking. Learning about Linux or programming.

I pointed out that she had been reading, which counts as more than “not much”. Sometimes we forget to take credit for the things we do in a day. I suggested making a goal of doing at least one “good” thing a day.

One to three good things is enough. Part of it is learning to identify those good things: to value your own time and your own decisions, and to demonstrate that value to others. And then, once you’ve made the day worthwhile, it’s good to feel that you have the abundance of time for other things. Unstructured time is important: time to figure things out, time to learn what you want to do instead of having stuff assigned to you.

Semi-retirement is a little like a long summer vacation. I can choose what to do with my time. How do I spend it? How do I account for it? What do I decide to do, moment to moment? How do I make it count – the day, the week, the year, the experiment?

I don’t have a grand plan, not really. I take small steps. I feel like I’m making good progress on a variety of interests and skills. I haven’t hit a plateau yet in terms of sketchnoting. There’s always more to learn. There’s more to learn about coding, Emacs, writing, Japanese… My interests will swallow up whatever time I want to give them, and I’m still far away from the point of diminishing returns. This is why it’s easy to ignore video games, movies, malls, aimless browsing of the Internet. There’s so much more that promises long-term value. (Although I occasionally check out news sites and comics, because you never know what might be useful; and I can spend a day reading just for the heck of it.)

Time abundance; making room for small things and experiments. I’ve been curious about making better use of speech recognition in blogging. It might let me write more naturally, and the practice in forming thoughts might even help with my occasional stutter. I was training the Dragon NaturallySpeaking recognition engine, dictating one of its pre-programmed selections in order to improve its accuracy. While reading an excerpt from Success is a Journey (Jeffrey J. Mayer) out loud, I realized that I no longer quite identify with “success literature:” you know, that genre of books full of exhortations to work hard and follow your passion.

Practically all motivational speeches I’ve heard include some variant of “Work your tail off to make things happen.” Sometimes I wonder if I’m short-changing myself because I’m not working hard, like the way my dad works (up early, up late, always making something happen). Should I work long hours at a start-up, carefully tuned to be just shy of burning myself out? Should I be squirrelling away more savings for an unknown future?

I like this pace, though. More contemplative than chaotic, with the occasional sprint of enthusiasm. I’m drawn along by curiosity rather than driven by desire. It isn’t that I need, but that I wonder. Keeping my wants and commitments small gives me plenty of freedom to ask questions and experiment. I give myself space.

Despite this, people tell me that I get a lot of things done. I tell them it looks that way because I share what I do, while most people forget what they’ve done. What have you done today? Not much? I think you’ve done more than you remember. I don’t know how my day stacks up against other people. I feel that I do less, but I try to make it count. It’s only when I look at my task lists and weekly reviews that I see the distance covered by small steps.

Anti-advice: What if you don’t have to work hard? What if you can start small and grow out from there? What if you don’t have to cram the day full, as long as you’re happy with the way you made it matter?