Start by defining what a great day means to you.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
― Howard Thurman
Do you ever lie in bed thinking you ticked off so many to-dos but still didn’t have a great day?
If you don’t really feel alive, it’s likely because you focus on the wrong things. And the most dangerous thing is to measure your day based on the level of your productivity.
Doing a lot of exciting work is good. But being too busy to feel alive isn’t.
Stop numbing your mind with work. Here are seven better metrics to judge your life. Using some of them will transform your days from good to great.
1.) Did you do something meaningful?
For a long time, I believed the only purpose of life was happiness. What other reason is there to go through life’s ups and downs if not to be happy?
But chasing happiness is the fast-track to an unhappy life. Happiness isn’t something you can catch. That’s why neither things nor achievements can make you happy.
The first time I felt long-lasting happiness was after meditating for ten days, eleven hours a day.
Because happiness is the freedom from desire, you can let go of desire when you detach from what you think you need.
Apart from meditation, there’s another way to let go of desire and feel happiness: stop making life only about yourself. Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
You don’t need to work at an NGO to do useful, honorable work. You can find it in tiny actions such as:
- Create a meaningful gift for a person you love.
- Take your parents on a day trip.
- When somebody says they’re having trouble with something, find a way to help.
- Write an article about something you learned and share it with a group.
- Go food shopping for a neighbor that’s in need.
- Do something at work that’s outside of your responsibility.
Now you might argue that these things bring you away from what you want to achieve. That you will waste time and not be productive. But this over-optimization is what prevents you from feeling alive.
Life is no chase. There’s nothing to catch. If you want to feel alive and happy, do something meaningful and compassionate.
2.) Did you spend time in nature?
It’s easy to get lost in front of our screens. When we feel busy, we feel like making progress.
Yet, our laptops will never make us happy. You won’t find a single person on a deathbed mumbling, “I wish I spent more time on the internet.”
Don’t focus on the laptop life. Focus on the natural life. Hours spent outside, surrounded by water and forest, is the best thing you can do.
Japanese scientists have proven the health-promoting effects of the forest in several studies. Just looking at the forest lowers your blood pressure, slows your pulse, and decreases the concentration of the stress hormone cortisol.
Nature makes people healthy all by itself. The rustling of the leaves, the scents of the trees, birdsong, and the splashing of the streams heal people and strengthen their health.
“Natural stimuli are fascinating,” says Dr. Anja Göritz, professor of psychology in an interview with the German Times, “They captivate people and attract their attention. The mind is pleasantly occupied.”
To move your day from good to great, spend time outdoors. Go for a walk after lunch. Plan a weekend trip to the next national park. Make camping trips during summer. Start measuring your days by the time spent outside.
3.) Did you learn something you didn’t know before?
Knowledge is power. That’s why learning can improve any life. Yet, only very few people make learning an ongoing habit.
Reading is the easiest way to learn every day. Books expand your mind. They make you discover truths about the world and yourself. Page by page, they help you live a happier life.
Use your curiosity as a guide. How much do your days engage your curiosity? If the answer is “not much,” consider changing something.
This study followed aging individuals while tracking their curiosity levels. They found that people with high levels of curiosity were more likely to live five years longer.
So, read outside of your typical field. Say less and ask more and better questions. Spend time with children. Let curiosity guide you to learn something new.
4.) Did you feel your mind-body connection?
My boyfriend has worked out almost every morning for five years. Before COVID, he jumped out of bed at 5:50 AM and biked to the gym. Now he exercises at home. He doesn’t listen to music. He’s fully present in his body.
I always admired his willpower. But he says he doesn’t need willpower anymore. Once you feel your mind-body connection, you want to feel the connection between your brain and your body.
And while I’m not yet where he is, doing yoga every morning helps me grasp what he’s talking about. When I connect with my body through movement, the day gets a new quality.
Throughout centuries, philosophers and scientists have hypothesized about the mind-body connection. There’s no consensus yet. We have been left with what many refer to as the mind-body problem: What is the relationship between mind and body?
And while neither philosophy nor modern science has given a clear answer, I just witnessed how it can transform my days from good to great.
5.) Did you sharpen your mind?
The body is one part of the equation. The mind is the other half. Yet, most people don’t prioritize mental health. They chase around, trying hard to take care of the world and, meanwhile, forget to take care of their mind.
“If you take care of your mind, you take care of the world.”
— Arianna Huffington
Meditation is the most effective way to take care of your mind. Mind training tackles different topics such as dealing with a monkey mind, letting go of fear and anxiety, and returning to the present moment after distraction.
Scientists attest to the manifold benefits of meditation. This meta-analysis with more than 1,200 adults found meditation can decrease anxiety. Another study discovered that individuals who completed a meditation exercise had fewer negative thoughts when seeing negative images than the control group.
Meditating is one of the most powerful habits you can build.
Your meditation muscle will grow day by day. By seeing your thoughts as thoughts and letting them go as they arise, you’ll let go of inner chatter. As Mark Twain said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
6.) Did you have time to think for yourself?
Whenever I have a spare moment, I try to fill it. I listen to podcasts, read books, have a conversation with my beautiful boyfriend, answer messages, or hop to the next task in my bullet journal.
And while these activities can be enjoyable and add energy to my life, they have a marginal return on thinking utility. After a certain point, every additional minute of doing decreases the ability to think for yourself.
When we’re so busy doing, we don’t spend single second thinking. Entire days go by without a single deep thought. At the end of your life, you realize you’ve lived the life of others.
An easy fix is to eliminate distractions that take away your time. Get an alarm clock and ban your phone from your bedroom. Leave your phone turned off until lunch. Disable all notifications and use your time to think and connect the dots.
7.) Did you spend undivided attention with fellow humans?
Two friends met at a party. It clicked; over a few months, they enjoyed their time together — until she fell back into her old beliefs. She prioritized her physics research and became a sloppy communicator. At one point, he ended it.
Many people struggle to put their relationships first. Ryan Holiday found great words for this:
“Many relationships and moments of inner peace were sacrificed on the altar of achievement.”
During quarantine, many people have first felt the true benefit of relationships. Human connections give us energy, a sense of belonging, joy, and a feeling of oneness.
Researchers confirm what we instinctively feel. Robert Waldinger, psychiatrist and former professor at Harvard Medical School, shared in a TED Talk how relationships are the most important ingredient for a healthy, happy life.
This is probably the most important point of the entire article. Because if you don’t get your relationships right, having great days is almost unattainable.
Care for your friends. Trait working time for people time. A great day for me always includes deep human connection.
All You Need to Know
Now, most people on this planet don’t have the luxury of transforming their days from good to great. But as you’re reading this, you belong to the privileged people who do have a choice.
Start by defining what a great day means to you. Consider using some of the above metrics as inspiration:
- Did you do something meaningful?
- Did you spend time in nature?
- Did you learn something you didn’t know before?
- Did you feel your mind-body connection?
- Did you sharpen your mind?
- Did you spend undivided attention with fellow humans?
- Did you have time to think for yourself?
Don’t make these things other achievement items on your to-do list. Pick what you like and screw the rest.
Making time for some of these things is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your future self. Repeat it often enough, and you’ll find yourself lying in bed being grateful for all the great days in your life.