How to measure and not measure a life
I’ve recently completed an extraordinary four weeks of research, writing and travel in Spain, ending in Barcelona after two weeks in Toledo, via a few days stay in both Zaragoza and Burgos. The pressure of unfamiliar places, the space to devote time to walking and soaking up the places, and writing, is perspective altering. A whole month away to dive deep into a passion is a privilege and a challenge and I can feel shifts taking place in how I view my use of time and the nature of my future work.
Life, David Henry Thoreau tells us, is precious. We do not want to find ourselves at the end of it having not lived. So how do we know that we are living, that we are sucking out the marrow of life?
For me it has to do with the courage to live as the person I want to become. That has made me think hard about my art and my work and about what I need to let go of in order to measure my progress.
The apophatic way
In theology, the via negativa (negative way) describes divinity by what it is not. This is the tradition of what must be absent for something, in this case ‘God’, to be God. So much of what consumes our lives and out time is inessential. We need a negative way in order to pursue great things.
The speaker Stephen Covey illustrates this with a large clear bucket. Into the bucket go the elements of our lives. One set comprises pebbles, which represent the thousand and one small demands on our time. The other set is big rocks that represent the important things: family, transformational relationships, meaningful work, passions… If we tip in the pebbles and then try to fit in the rocks, we will fail to make room for the things that matter. If we take care of the rocks first, the small things will fit around them.
Greg McKeown goes even further in the book Essentialism, pointing out that many of the small things could disappear without anyone noticing. And in Good to Great, Jim Collins says,
If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.
Taking time away from my normal environment and routines is a powerful reminder that what we don’t do, the things we don’t want to be, are vital.
What do you need to let go of to be the person you want to become?
For me, some of those things are qualities or mindsets that limit me. Things like:
- making excuses for not keeping promises to myself
- small thinking
- attaching to outcomes rather than to the hope, expectations and process
- complaining instead of problem-solving
- self sabotage
Other things that I’m acutely aware of needing to let go are those things that so many of us tolerate in life and that, once tolerated, set the tone of our days, weeks, months and more… Life is too short and too precious to tolerate:
- wasted time:
I don’t mean day dreaming or rest or play or creative mooching. What wastes time (and our lives) is more often those small pebbles — hours on Facebook, demanding emails, inessential nonsense…
- bullying and harassment:
Sometimes aggressive and difficult people can teach us a great deal about ourselves by how we react. I recently had an onslaught of demands and undermining from someone over quite an extended period. It made me reflect on lots of aspects of my internal response and the importance of doing the creative work I’m committed to and letting it speak for itself. And it also made me much more clear about setting boundaries and what none of us should tolerate.
- bad literature
Story is my way of making sense of the world. Narrative matters in every civilisation and era. Not only do I want to make Cinnamon Press more and more a home for excellence and not only do I want to push my own writing further but, even more fundamentally, I have no time for story that lie. I don’t mean stories that are imaginary or fantastical. I mean story that deliberately misleads, that sells hatred and division, that promotes the myths of facism or greed. Story is too urgent for that.
The katophatic way
Having a concentrated period to be in flow state, writing and immersing myself in unfamiliar places, concentrates the heart. The tradition of katophatic theology deals in what we can positively say. We need to know what and who we don’t want to be; what we need to let go of, but we also need to know what we want to embrace.
What do you need to embrace to be the person you want to become?
We will all have different answers to that question depending on our passion and our values, but there are also constants that we an all benefit from:
- commitment to our intrinsic motivation
that is, the courage to follow our passion and our quest.
We might think this is easier for those of us living in rich countries who happen not to be handling tragedies, but often those in difficult or even appalling situations have a lot to teach about valuing the small, vital graces and connections of each day.
We need to live in hope, not to allow cynicism to take over
- keeping promises
to ourselves and those who are most important and transformational in our lives
None of us have utterly charmed lives. We all know illness, loss, grief… Yet some navigate this with a grace and dignity that is awe-inspiring. To have the courage to face whatever a day brings and to take risks for what is right is powerful.
- being who we want to become
We have to live as if we are that person. We have to believe it’s possible and we have to hold to the values that this person would live by.
And then there will be individual components to this answer. For me it would be a daily morning routine of journalling and yoga; a particular way of eating that focusses on whole foods and as close to a ‘Blue Zones’ diet as possible; writing; travel; family and friends and work.
What are your positives?
Measuring and not measuring
We can measure our life by what we let go of and what we refuse to tolerate. We can measure our life by values and what matters most to us. These measurements that are not measurements in the normal sense. There is no length or weight but, metaphorically, these things have depth and substance and quality.
Yet there are some parts of our lives that are amenable to measurement. I think we have to be careful to limit these. I recently gave up reading a book at the point it told me that by focussing my attention in the moment I would be precisely 10.8% happier. Rubbish!
The qualitative aspects of life are just that and we know when we achieve peak moments and have extraordinary experiences without scales to verify this.
Similarly, there are things in life that we might critique, debate and discuss, but they don’t have an objective score. A book might be brilliant or awful, it might be peddling hate or inspirational, but it can’t be ranked as such. We might have things to say about its tone or techniques or the style of prose, but to quote Ursula K Le Guin:
art is not a horse race
Some things, however, we can measure. Even here, I’d caution doing it with moderation — we don’t have to count every step, or track our sleep or weigh ourselves every day. But having a good idea that we are getting enough sleep, that our weight is neither heading for obesity nor malnourishment, that we are moving our bodies… a modicum of measurement can be helpful here.
And measuring can be particularly helpful when we look at how we use time. At the beginning of the year I did a huge journalling exercise looking at all the ways I use time. I thought about all the maintenance tasks that keep life ticking over, from grocery shopping to laundry; all the work tasks associated with Cinnamon Press; and all the things I do for rest, recovery or the sheer joy of them, like spending time with family or my own writing projects.
A measure of time
Doing this kind of measuring earlier this year, I found that least 40% of my time was going on the most unfulfilling tasks, from emails that were contentless to providing answers to questions that had already been aswered, often several times. Moreover, because I was answering emails all through the day and going back and forth between different types of tasks, I was wasting a lot of time on the switching. Overall, I was spending only about 30% of my time on the most rewarding tasks and passions.
I began to change this by time-blocking, for example doing all email in a block as the last work task of the day and then switching off the computer. A couple of months later I also uncommited to tasks that were inessential and that didn’t help me or anyone else; it’s amazing how much can go. I started using most evenings and weekends when I was at home (not travelling for launches or teaching a course) for my own writing and reading (a revolutionary step after 13 years of working seven days a week).
A month before coming away on this writing break, I revisited the exercise. It was a delight to discover that despite the fact that I’m still doing all the work needed for Cinnamon, and enjoying it, I’ve shifted the types of work and time use significantly. In fact, I’m now spending almost 80% of my time on the tasks I love, the passions that inspire me and activities that rejuvenate and nurture. And I’m no less productive and much more creative.
Delighting not measuring
Which brings me back to my time in Toledo, Burgos and Zaragoza.
I was there because of a huge shift in my thinking, namely that the writing I do, which is my first love (in terms of activities, not people) and which feeds my passion to work with the others’ writing as an editor and mentor, has to be the biggest rock that goes into the bucket of my life first, alongside major priorities like family, fitness, diet, values and travel. I’m here because I stopped putting the pebbles in first and threw some of them out of the bucket altogether.
I can’t measure or quantify the delight of this perspective shift, but I’m aware of it all the time. Making it has taken a huge amount of thinking and effort and it’s a work in progress, but I am clear that each of us has to make these vital decisions about our precious lives. Consider this from the last half of Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘The Summer Day’:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the field,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I plan to travel, love, work, spend time with family and friends, take care of my body. I plan to write because it’s my passion and my legacy. As Picasso says:
The work that one does is a way of keeping diary.
My writing is my diary of becoming a different story and offering that story to the world.
Becoming a Different Story
I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life and looking to connect with others, thinking about the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life sign up to my email list or just feel free to continue the conversation.