How Can We Improve The Trajectory Of Our Lives?

Life Tools + Systems + Mental Models

Sometimes the days just bleed together. Each cycle of sunrise to moonlight carrying the energy of a disheveled middle-aged man sitting poolside in his underwear, carelessly ripping matches into ignition and tossing them into the candy blue water. One after the other, after the other1.

It all just sort of flickers by like that, doesn’t it? There’s that weird blend between zombified corporate schedules, and the awareness just trying to enjoy, let alone make improvements during, our personal time. But what we do from day to day rarely changes. People and society operate on patterns and consistency. Everything can end up feeling the same.

We end up in the long march of life: go to work, go home. Go to work. Go home2.

When we notice that pattern and start speaking about it directly, it’s hard not to laugh. It’s even harder not to obsess over. I am so consumed by this concept, I can feel myself reaching for my tinfoil hat right now and mapping the distance to the nearest street corner next to the “the end is near” guy. It feels like this is all I talk about, but what else is there to talk about? Is it that crazy to recognize that cycle, think “good god what the fuck are we doing”, and try to do something about it?

No, I’m sure it’s fine. It’s society that’s wrong.3

 

Lost Time

Life is generally the exact opposite of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Where Bueller’s moment of stopping and looking around defined the highlight reel for an incredible day, we exist in all other days. Ferris borrowed a friend’s Ferrari, we hope our commuter train car doesn’t smell like a portable toilet. He broke his thumb catching a ball at the Cubs game, we hope today isn’t the day that we break our hand smashing the whiteboards and TVs in the daily stand-up meeting room. He had the Art Institute of Chicago, we get the droplets of..liquid..on the toilet seats of the communal bathroom.

Go to work, go home.

While Ferris playing hooky was a lesson on living life to its fullest, the boring reality of life is that society, and existence, both happen on a schedule and in repetition. This is why we find an almost sexual excitement when we see things like the Ferrari joy ride or an incredible concert – it’s not the daily grind. It’s not the pee covered toilet seat.4

What’s so mind bending about the passage of time is that the days all feel the same, but when we look back everything is different5. We cruise into the office five days a week, we order pizza on Friday’s, hit the gym when we can, and make the finger guns toward our favorite barista as our coffee is ready upon approach at the register. Every day feels like that, and then in December we look back and go, “who the fuck is playing Christmas music already?”

Only through blocks of time going missing can we appreciate the greater progression at hand. And it’s only through the sum of our smaller, consistent actions within each day can that progression take place.

Even more alarming is how time seems to continue to accelerate. We get red leaves and pastel peeps faster than we can recall what we had for breakfast. It’s like being trapped in a house where all the walls have hairline cracks and sand is pouring in.

Time is just something we can’t control. We’re just in it. And as something which just happens, it begins to slip by unnoticed.

That is until we get glimmers realizing the next block of time has passed us by. Little existential sanity checks like eating a dozen doughnuts naked in the dark on your birthday, waking up next to the toilet on January 1st, or getting asked “how about this weather” for the fourth time this week and internally LOSING it (fuck you, Greg. Shut up about the weather).

We all get these glimmers of awareness, but they’re often not enough to change the trajectory of our life. With work, the new Loki series, date night, that rattling noise in our house driving us to into a Kubrickian madness – I mean who has the time?

Another block of time tip toes away, God damn where is it all going?

Go to work, go home.

 

The Arc of Existence

The perceived guarantee of another tomorrow, together with the years ahead of us, act as the bookends of the static contentment we all experience. It’s important to recognize and evaluate our relationship with these bookends to better understand our relationship with time and patience. Being diligent and patient with the mental chaos of hundreds of little failures and false starts on the way to mastery? Yep, that’s good stuff; good patience. Convincing ourselves that we have plenty of time to decide on something, so why do today what we can put-off to tomorrow (and tomorrow’s tomorrow, because tomorrow is Friday after all)? That’s a self-sabotaging bamboozle. One that plays out day after day, year after year.

It’s the kind of bamboozle that reveals those cozy bookends to be slowly closing vice grips. Crushing our time and opportunity like an existential juicer so we can have something to savor on our deathbed. Too much? You’re right. Let’s just go to work, then go home.

However, I recognize that an overly oppressive view on anything can often have the opposite of the intended impact, and this is no different. If we’re too obsessed with optimizing our time or doing something, even if we pull it off, what’s left? We’re just some husk of a person who’s a robot. A slave to schedules and lofty expectations.

Back to the bookends – if we’re too loose with time, we’ll spend our days wondering. Whether it be paralysis from fear of making the wrong choice, not making the time to do anything, or just the general fog of existence – these things make it easy to throw our hands up and say tomorrow is the day, because I am tired or annoyed today. Even something as small as Greg asking about the God damn weather can make us feel “off” for the day.6

It’s also important to simply acknowledge that sometimes what we want to do is butts.* It’s just butts. Cooking is exhausting. Greg is a jackass. Reading can be boring and drive you insane if you’re tired. And remember, life finds a way to nudge us, especially when things are butts. Like how beer is simply delicious, two are more delicious than one, and you know the local bar might be busting out the Guardians vinyl tonight. All this is to simply say that life is a collection of ups and downs – a series of zigzags. 

That’s life. But what’s significantly more important is seeing that and embracing it. Choosing to show up for the zigs (Good? Good.) and the zags (Bad? Bad.). When you’re showing up for a zag, you may not hit everything you set out to do, but making an effort – simply showing up to some extent – limits the downside of that day. It makes the zag bottom out a little sooner, and makes it easier to get back to a proper zig. I sure hope this is not too confusing to follow.

More directly, focus your attention on having no Zero Days7 – do not let a day go by where you do nothing to push yourself further toward the future you want. It feels lame to say, but it takes a fuck load of the pressure off. Garbage day where you’re compelled to smash all your belongings and move to Utah? Read one page of that book you’re chipping away. Your day is no longer a zero.

These little victories compound. This can reshape the trajectory of your life. This can be a life altering concept if you carry it with you. And it was captured by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Self-Reliance:

“There will be an agreement in whatever variety of actions, so they be each honest and natural in their hour. For of one will, the actions will be harmonious, however unlike they seem. These varieties are lost sight of at a little distance, at a little height of thought. One tendency unites them all. The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency.”

To reiterate Emerson’s 1800s syntax: life is comprised of the thousands of little actions we take. And while they often feel unrelated, and get lost in the minutia of each respective action, there is an underlying tendency between them. Even though all journeys have ups and downs, when we examine the all the zigs and zags on a sufficient timeline, we can see the clear trajectory of our journey. Of our life.

Far too often do we trick ourselves with the narrative that doing something is not itself enough. We preemptively evaluate how much we think or feel like we’ll get done. And if that non-existent measurement isn’t grand enough, we instead do nothing. Because that somehow seems more justifiable. Because we’re stupid. Zero compounds into nothing.

Go to work. Go home.

 

1% Better

So how we make sure the zigzags matter? That they’re trending the right way? By having no zero days. By being 1% better.

Focusing on the trajectory of life lets you focus on progression. And that removes some of the pressure centered on outcomes, and a lot of the pressure to “optimize” our time each day. This removal of pressure is key because our goals can often sit like Atlas stones on shoulders, just waiting for any hiccup to throw us off balance, overwhelm us, and squash our progress in its tracks like a juicy heirloom tomato.8

In Atomic Habits, James Clear presents how powerful the idea of 1% better can be. The core of this concept is the impressive impact incremental changes can have by compounding over time. One of the comparisons Clear offers is the measurable impact of shifting the route of an airplane by just a few degrees. “Imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees, south, you will land in Washington D.C. instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at takeoff – the nose of the airplane moves just a few feet – but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart.”

Think of almost anything meaningful in life which grows and develops. You will instantly realize how everything is the process of incremental improvement. Plants spend months simply forming roots and growing before even budding a flower. The world’s strongest lifters have spent years adding five more pounds to bar and recovering from injuries. Our loved one’s grow over years through the sum of little experiences and choices which take place each and every day. We like to measure life through the watershed moments, but the truth is those rarely exist in isolation, if at all. Our recognition of change in an instant rarely appreciates the work and time that truly led to that moment being possible in the first place. 

 

“It gets easier. Every day it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part. But it does get easier.” 9  

 

Every project, journey, movie plot – everything has ups and downs. While annoying as hell to deal with, they give the other meaning. It creates a balance of purpose, the duality of life, as demonstrated by those sixty-nining tadpoles10. Emerson’s arc of existence covers the downside because there will always be downside. You’re not solving for downside, you’re solving to make the downside worth something to you and your journey. And that your journey is generally going the right way. Not much else can be planned anyway.

I often see (and have personally suffered from) people do nothing because they don’t know what to do. They’re worried they’ll somehow pick wrong. Or they’re worried they’ll pick right and fail. If you see the arc for what it is, you’ll grow to appreciate that these things matter less than action and progression. Because doing nothing doesn’t build toward anything, it just insulates you from living. And maybe it’s true with that approach your arc wont spiral downward, but it will always have a ceiling. It will have capped, unknown potential.

1% better as a strategy provides a mechanism to alter the reality we will see when looking back from the years ahead. Once we get started, the days will once again all be the same, except we’ll have changed the arc. One page a day will eventually lead to a book that may never have been read, one set in the gym will lead to a personal fitness record we never would have hit, and a collection of no zero days will compound into a life we may have never lived.

That’s why we keep it in mind. It makes everything easier, more digestible. Reading 220 pages? Yikes. Good luck. Reading one page each day? Pfft. Easy. 

Our time is so much more than each passing day, but we need to leverage each passing day to eventually see it.

With love/paranoia,
Nick

 

 

Notes

1 – Inspired by Breaking Bad

2 – The long march of life. Go to work, go home.

3 – It’s the children who are wrong

4 – “But, Nick. The daily grind is how we pay for all this stuff.” Yeah, so?

5 – This quote gets misattributed to a lot of people, and simultaneously attributed to “anonymous”. I won’t misattribute this to someone, but I want to explicitly state this phrase is not original to me, but found it very beautiful when reading it.

6 – We all know a Greg. Don’t be a Greg.

7 – Originally read this concept in a fantastic Reddit comment

8 – My mind is on the farmer’s market I’m going to this weekend

9 – The Jogging Baboon in BoJack Horseman says this to BoJack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRcWl8k6WQU

10 – Sorry, yin and yang

* – Butts? Very good. Something being butts? That’s bad.

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