There is a form of exercise or philosophy that has appeared and reappeared in self-help books for decades, if not centuries, and it goes something like this: Once you make the decision to do something, the methods by which you will do it start to seem easier, and options you did not see before suddenly spring forward. This is true whether the decision to move forward is your own, or if the decision is made for you.
For example, let us say that you hate your apartment. Deafening sounds from the nearby train tracks awaken you at all hours of the night and the neighbors downstairs divide their time equally with frighteningly violent screaming matches and inappropriately loud love-making. “But,” you say, “I can’t afford to move right now.” You need to wait for the next raise, you need to set some money aside, you can’t find anything affordable, and so on. Then one day you receive a letter from your landlord kindly informing you that he has decided to sell the building. Your lease, which automatically converted to a month-to-month agreement when your initial term was up years ago, would not be renewed. You have 45 days to vacate.
Suddenly, all sorts of options begin to present themselves. Instead of reading the housing listings, you actually go look at houses. Instead of planning on setting aside money tomorrow, you make major financial sacrifices today. Maybe an expensive moving company is replaced with a rental truck and a half-dozen friends you can pay with pizza and beer. Most importantly, in many cases, you’ll be happier that you finally got out of that apartment you hated, even if you were forced to do so.
Many people know and apply this trick. You probably know them as the “goal setters” of your group. They don’t say they’re going to take the family on a month-long road trip someday, they say they’re going to take the family on a month-long road trip this summer. And then they go. That summer. If so many people understand this “trick,” so to speak, why are even those that use it regularly still failing to live the lives they truly want to be living? I believe that certain aspects of life are so heavily ingrained that it never occurs to us to do anything else.
I’m going to show you that this is not only true, but has been true for all time, and I’m going to do it by giving you the low-down on two incredibly similar self-help books written exactly 100 years apart from one another.
The first is a book called How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, and it was published by successful British novelist and journalist Arnold Bennett in 1910. A relatively short work of non-fiction, Bennett, speaking exclusively to men because of the prejudice of the time period, discusses how time is the greatest asset one has. One of the points he stresses over and over is that you can use time to earn money, but all the money in the world cannot buy you time. The book is basically a collection of tips, tricks and suggestions for the working man to make better use of his time. He does this in part by offering suggestions on how one might spend their time more valuably, such as reading the classics or studying music, but also offers specific time periods of each day where these additional life-fulfilling endeavors can take place without disrupting the normal workday, such as by waking up earlier than usual.
Bennett even goes so far as to assert that most men don’t really like their jobs, and rarely give them much effort. Do you know what Bennett doesn’t suggest, however? He never once even hints that maybe, if classic literature or music is one’s passion, that is where one’s time is best spent. The book would more aptly be called How to Live on 16 Hours a Day, because he takes great care not to make suggestions that disrupt the workday in any way. How is it that a respected intellectual who writes a book based on the premise that time is the most precious gift we have not once run into the question of whether or not an individual who hates their job may be spending a large amount of time in the wrong way?
It’s simple: that’s the way the world worked in 1910 London, just as there are certain ways we perceive that the world works today, and it takes a lot to change that perspective. Keep in mind, when this book was published, Bennett was a successful novelist who had left his “day job” as a journalist ten years prior. I have no evidence to back this up, but I picture Bennett, even as a self-employed novelist, maintaining an office outside the home and getting up every single weekday to go there and work, whether he had writing to do or not, whether he wanted to or not, simply because that’s what he was supposed to do. It’s almost as if there is this primal instinct telling us that we are meant to work hard, regardless of what the purpose of that hard work is for, or how fruitful it is, or whether or not we even care. As I wrote last week, there’s nothing wrong with hard work. It’s commendable, important to achieve progress, and necessary to achieve goals. But it should be driven by purpose or passion or a need to provide the basic necessities for oneself, not because of a baseless, archaic idea that it’s just what we’re supposed to do.
Fast-forward exactly 100 years. It’s 2010, and another writer, this time non-fiction author Laura Vanderkam specializing in career and time management self-help reads, publishes a book titled 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. Sound familiar? Do you see where this is headed? Like Bennett, Vanderkam focuses on ways to prioritize and make time for our goals, whether that is working out, writing a novel, or spending more time with loved ones. There is a new twist: Vanderkam interviews incredibly successful, happy people and collects data on how they spend their time and manage their priorities. After her findings, as well as ample scientific research, found that mornings were when people were most focused, she even followed the book up two years later with another called What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. Like Bennett suggested, she found that most successful people get up very early and got their “passions” out of the way before most people wake up.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Vaderkam’s writing and advice, just as I enjoyed Bennett’s suggestions for making better use of one’s time. I certainly don’t perceive myself to have some enlightenment that transcends the cultural work ethic that has been embedded in our lifestyle for more than a century. I am just beginning to question these standard practices myself. My point is, when the focus is on spending more time on our priorities, on doing what we love, why cram it all in before breakfast without at least exploring the idea of living our priorities all day, every day?
I will admit one major difference between these two authors that could explain why this would not appear in Vanderkam’s works. She focused her interviews on successful, happy people. The reality is, unfortunately, that most people are not successful, and even less are happy. Bennett, in the foreword to his second edition, made a point to note that he was not speaking to the successful, happy people of the world. Vanderkam’s advice was certainly aimed at helping unhappy people become happier, but this was still an attempt at helping people make better use of their free time, rather than helping them make better use of all of their time. This makes an assumption that Bennett did not: that people like their 9 to 5 jobs, and just wish they had more time for the other stuff.
In Vanderkam’s case, I still believe there is some level of that primal instinct I talked about, that there is a certain way we are supposed to do things, and striving for rigorous, time-consuming careers is one of them, regardless of whether we are passionate about such things. This attitude is certainly changing (interview a kid fresh out of college and you’ll get an idea of what the new work-life balance expectations are), but not to the degree I’m suggesting. Just as I pictured Bennett taking the train to an office every weekday to maintain normal working hours without any basis for doing so, I picture Vanderkam as the classic type A workaholic. This would make sense, because she clearly loves what she does for a living. She’s already making the best use of all of her time.
But what if you don’t love what you do for a living? Instead of getting up at 5 am and working on that novel for an hour before taking care of the kids and heading to a job you hate, couldn’t there possibly be a better way? I don’t have all of the answers, but it seems to me soul-crushing jobs tend to find their way to our doorsteps when we begin with a focus on money, rather than a focus on goals first, and then using money as a tool to achieve those goals.
Let’s pretend my dream in life is to rent kiteboards on the beach in Maui all day, and I’m a college drop-out living in Connecticut. This may seem like a pipe dream. But is it really? Maybe taking that accounts payable job with a postcard from Maui pinned up in my cubicle and a vacation to Hawaii every few years is bearable, but if I start with the goal, and then work backwards, might things look different? How much is a kiteboard? How many kiteboards does one have to own to make a decent living renting them on the beach? Are any special licenses required? In short, how much money do I need to make this happen?
When all of these questions are answered, I may suddenly see different opportunities and different priorities. Maybe I sell everything I own, move to Maui, and take a big pay cut so I can work a block from the beach, all the while saving, buying one kiteboard, then two, scheming, planning, and whether I find success or failure, probably having a lot more fun than in the cubicle in Connecticut.
Or maybe the most realistic answer is to work the higher paying job for a few years, save up the money, and make the move. Either way, a significant change has been made, even if it is only a change in perspective. If I calculate that it would take three years of mind-numbing accounts payable work until I have enough money to go off and follow my dreams, rather than working to pay rent and buy expensive distractions with no particular plans for the future, am I going to look at that postcard from Maui pinned up in my cubicle a little bit differently?
You better believe it.