Tell me if this sounds familiar. Some days you just feel exhausted. You may not have even done anything productive and yet you wind down at the end of the night and quietly think “why do I feel this way?”.
The good news is that everyone has days like that. Learning why you feel that way can help improve your happiness a few points. Who wouldn’t want to shift a few thoughts around and end up 10% happier?
As some of you may know, I tried an experiment in 2020 where I set themes every month. My December theme, Enjoy, was focused on intentional happiness. While I’m no expert in this subject, I have been trying to read more about it.
One book I read that stood out was The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything=Have Everything. The author, Neil Pasricha, seems like a down-to-earth guy. While going through a divorce, he decided to start a blog: 1,000 Awesome Things. Each day for 1,000 days he would write an article about something awesome.
These ranged from opening and sniffing a pack of tennis balls, to the first scoop out of a jar of peanut butter, to double spacing your essay so it takes up way more pages and 997 more. The titles alone are enough to make me smile.
Although I didn’t read these through at the time he published them, the activity of writing these is a form of gratitude. Each day Pasricha was taking time to reflect on the day and find something to be appreciative of.
By the time he’d reached 1,000 new doors had opened for him. He was now a NY Times #1 best selling author, a TED speaker and now writes on his blog about whatever he wants – which tends to focus on personal happiness, productivity and personal potential.
That Sounds Exhausting
Writing 1,000 blog posts sounds absolutely exhausting to me. I’ve written fewer than 300 here on Minafi in a much longer period of time. There have been days, weeks, and even months where I didn’t want to write a single word (and I didn’t). I can guarantee that there were many days he didn’t want to write either.
When I feel that way about a project now I just let myself be unproductive. I think to myself “I don’t really need to do this”, and I allow myself to back out of an agreement that’s only with myself (or perhaps my weekly plan).
But something happens when you do this over and over again. At some point, you stop believing in yourself when you say “I can do it.” You feel drained, unmotivated, and unproductive. But is pushing through on projects you don’t enjoy really the solution?
No! The reason you feel that way isn’t because you didn’t meet some arbitrary productivity goal. That may be part of it, but it’s not the entire reason. In fact, Pasricha lays out 9 reasons why we feel this way in The Happiness Equation. It’s worth reading, but for simplicity, I’ll share them all here:
- Be happy First. This is the primary takeaway from the book. Instead of relying on something external to make you happy, make the choice to be happy.
- Do it for you. Don’t decide to be happy for someone else. Do it because you want to be a person who’s happy.
- Remember the lottery. Lottery winners aren’t inherently happier. Once your income reaches a certain point, money has diminishing returns.
- Never retire. Never stop learning, challenging yourself, or growing. (but it’s OK to retire from your job).
- Overvalue you. Take care of yourself and invest in yourself. Spend time doing things you enjoy.
- Create space. Take steps to create space for your goals, ambitions, and hobbies. This includes both physical space, mental space, nature space, and time.
- Just do it. Make progress on what you want to do – however small. Even researching the next step is progress.
- Be you. You don’t need to put on a mask or pretend to be someone else. You’ll be happier if you’re natural.
- Don’t take advice. No one knows what will make you happy. Others can share what’s worked for them, but it’s up to you to figure it out.
I love these. They’re elaborated on in much more detail, but this is a good tl;dr.
He makes it a point to mention that if you’re depressed then advice like “be happy” is absolutely not going to work. If you’re at that point I’d encourage you to find a therapist and work together on a plan (and it is work). The hours I spent in therapy in my 20s/30s calmed me down in ways I can’t even describe. In my case, it was mostly occupational therapists at my job. That was causing most of my anxiety and it’s well worth the time.
Now though, I get most of my personal growth through self-evaluation – a combination of personal journaling, reading self-improvement books, scouring blogs, and looking for those elusive mindsets that I can adopt to improve my happiness. This book helped with that.
Doing vs Thinking
One exercise in the book (and there are a bunch of them) stood out to me – and only partially because it involves graphing. Here’s the exercise:
On a sheet of paper draw a vertical axis and a horizontal axis meeting in the middle creating 4 quadrants. In these quadrants we’re going to place activities throughout the day based on two criteria: how much thought is involved and how much action (doing) is involved.
- Top left: “Think” – These are actions that are high in “thinking” but low in “doing” (reading, math). These require you to generate your own thoughts but don’t require any action on your part. They’re one way.
- Bottom right: “Do” – These are actions that are high in “doing” but low in “thinking” (running, yard work). These require your action to get them done.
- Top right: “Burn” – These are actions that are high in “thinking” and high in “doing” (playing a sport, building something, working through the night, taking care of family). This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re running around. Your “doing” could mean focused work.
- Bottom right: “Space” – These are actions that are low in both “thinking” and “doing” (social media, sitting on a beach).
With this graph filled out, you can begin arbitrarily plotting tasks you do every day. Try going through your day from when you wake up and plotting points for anything you spend more than few minutes on. When I tried this, my graph looked something like this:
Adam says: for extra credit you can make the size of each bubble based on the amount of time in a given week you spend on that task.
One thing to point out: these are my own personal scores for thinking and doing. A writer would likely rate the “thinking” as a 10. A runner would likely do the same for running. A CrossFit Athlete the same for CrossFit. A teacher the same for teaching.
Is there an activity that comes to mind for you that maxes out your thinking and doing? For me, that’s programming – specifically pair programming. Pair programming is when multiple programmers (usually two, hence the name) share screens and work together to solve a coding problem. Pair programming can be one of the most educational experiences, but it’s absolutely exhausting. I remember coming home from work some days and not even having the energy to do more than stare blankly at the TV.
None of these are set in stone either. You can browse Reddit with an intention to look for specific answers – ditto for YouTube. This is a snapshot of how I mostly use these sources (and a few made-up ones for reference).
Remember #6 from the above list (“Create Space”)? One aspect of that is finding time. Take a hard look at this graph and figure out if there are points that are just too big – or ones you’d like to get rid of altogether.
There’s a reason why the thinking + doing quadrant is called “burn”. Too much time there and you’ll burn out. You need time away to recover. You need time away from checking emails, replying on Slack, taking care of family, and even your goals.
The hard part is balance. In every moment of your life, you’ll be in one of these quadrants. Well-rounded people know when it’s time to jump from one box to another. The key to not burning out, and giving yourself time to recover is to jump between these boxes. Learning enough about yourself to feel confident moving around is a learning process.
That’s been my absolute favorite part of FIRE – I’m constantly in control of which box I’m in. If I’m not feeling like doing something in the “burn” quadrant, I’ll shift what I’m working on.
Too many people seem opposed to early retirement because they believe they’d spend all of their time in the bottom left quadrant and want to go back to work. What they really want is to get out of the bottom left quadrant! You can do that without going back to work.
It’s one of the reasons that creatives thrive in FIRE, they have lots of projects to jump around between! When I realize I’ve spent too much time in the “burn” quadrant, I switch can switch over to something else at any time.
I’ve found that I feel equally tired if I spend all day in any of these quadrants. Spending all day on Reddit can give me the same tired feeling as spending all day reading, or all-day programming. Likewise, if I’m in dire need of a change, spending all day in one quadrant feels like heaven.
Sometimes you need that time to just work on something mindless (high in “Doing”, low in “thinking”). I have a tons of mindless activities that I love! Yet for many people their “mindless” activity if their job. Waking up, commuting to work, going to the same meetings every week and having the same thing expected of you. It’s comforting in its familiarity.
When I think about parts of my jobs I’ve missed it’s usually that feeling of mindless productivity. Maybe that’s why during my first year out of work I hiked so many times. ?
The hard part is knowing when you need a break.
Something else interesting happens when you combine activities on this chart. I love going for hikes while listening to audiobooks. That’s thinking + doing, but somehow it doesn’t feel anywhere nearly as draining as items in the top right quadrant. Ditto for reading while taking a bath or cooking a familiar meal while listening to music.
Is It Possible to Have Too Much Space?
Yes, absolutely! In fact, it’s one of the reasons why so many people are scared to retire. They believe they’ll hang out in the space quadrant and that’ll become their new life. Why challenge yourself if you don’t have to?
For people with that mindset I say the same thing: try giving yourself a little more space. You can start small – an hour a week to do whatever you want. If you can’t find an hour to keep yourself occupied then that’s its own problem. In that case, you can research new hobbies (think) or make a personal goals list to get yourself excited.
The takeaway here is to not confine yourself to one type of action. If you’re feeling burnt out, exhausted, or just not enjoying yourself, you have the option to change what you spend your time doing. Try mixing it up! The more you do, the more you’ll discover what it is in life that you truly enjoy.
The above visualization was made with Google Sheets data, the free version of Tableau and edited in Sketch to add the Minafi logo.