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The Ancient Art of Using Time Well

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I don’t remember anything about the 188-minute film Magnolia except one line. A dying man bitterly expressing his regrets says to his nurse, “Life ain’t short, it’s long. It’s long goddammit!”

I remember simultaneously hoping that this unusual opinion was true, and realizing that I didn’t want to spend any more of my life watching this particular movie. I’d like to believe I stopped watching right then to plant a tree or call my mother, but I know I didn’t.

However much time life is prepared to offer, not wasting any more of it has been at the top of my mind recently. I just turned 40, or it feels like I just did – I’m already closer to 41. I also recently discovered the source of my lifelong difficulty in getting everyday things done, which I am now learning to work with. Thirdly, there’s the purpose-clarifying effect of the pandemic. Aside from its direct threat to our lives, the virus has suppressed and delayed “living” as we know it for a full year and counting.

Given these developments I can’t think of a better use of my time than learning to make increasingly better use of my time. If there were some kind of religion devoted to making the best use of one’s precious time on this earth, I would convert immediately.

There sort of is, and I sort of am. My periodic infatuation with the ancient Stoics has become more like a persistent shoulder-tapping. Their emphasis on living each moment purposefully makes too much sense to ignore, given my temperament and particular bag of issues. Wherever I go, online and off, aphorisms spoken by bearded marble busts keep appearing to me, like Scrooge with his Christmas ghosts.

For example, these bits from Seneca:

We are not given a short life but we make it short; we are not ill-supplied with time but wasteful of it

People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.

Both remarks are from a work entitled, ominously, On the Shortness of Life. The latter quote made me realize I almost certainly finished watching Magnolia solely because I had already paid $4.99 for it at Blockbuster video. If I’m lucky enough to become a dying old man I will be sure to tell my nurse how much I regret making just those sorts of choices.

Seneca watching me roam the aisles of Blockbuster video, c. 1999

Most days of my adult life have been characterized by a sort of pervasive disappointment over how I’ve used my time, with little success in adjusting for it. Since my ADHD diagnosis, I’ve become much more aware of why and how time disappears. I’ve even begun to have, on the odd day, the surreal experience of going to bed with little regret over how I used my time.

Now that I know this is possible, there’s nothing more important to me than learning how to make more days go like that.

It turns out that the skills I’m developing that seem to enable these oddly well-lived days are almost perfectly aligned with Stoicism –attending to the task at hand regardless of its appeal, following a daily routine dutifully, doing one thing at a time with undivided intentions, and renouncing frivolous diversions like needless phone-checking and irrelevant inner monologues.

The optimal way to use one’s time might then be something like this: in every moment, be fully honest with yourself about what you probably should be doing, and do it without ambivalence or compromise. Bring your attention and your body and heart fully to that thing, and ask for nothing else but the opportunity to do it. Live that way the best you can each day, and do it better the next day.

That’s basically the Stoic doctrine. The obvious problem is that it sounds really, really difficult.

Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Doubt

Feeling inspired by my bearded ghosts, I decided to try it anyway — to live a whole day in which I simply keep turning towards whatever the moment calls for, regardless of how appealing it seems. I treated each motion as the job I was put on earth to do. Marcus Aurelius called this “doing the work of a human being,” pointing out that if you are a human being it is silly to try get away with doing anything else.  

The day became a surprisingly straightforward procession of tiny physical and mental jobs. I didn’t worry about anything except moving gracefully into whatever action made sense next – get the garlic powder from the pantry, open the toner door in the printer, read this email and determine what the sender is asking. I took these jobs seriously, putting each of these tiny jobs at the center of my world for the few moments it took to complete, as if it were the only thing I needed to do before I die.

I seldom felt any doubt about what I should be doing, and even though I was constantly doing (sometimes unpleasant) things, there was nothing tedious or tiring about it. It all felt purposeful and satisfying, right down to picking stray lettuce bits out of the recycling bin, hanging up the tea towel I had just used, and reading Step 6 of the instructions to my alarm clock.

Marcus Aurelius, not checking his Twitter mentions

Throughout the day I experienced continual impulses to stop or delay Doing the Work of a Human Being. I had frequent urges to inject little bits of entertainment or diversion in the middle of my Work, or rationalize doing something a little more fun but which made a little less sense, such as organizing my recipes after lunch instead of going right into cleaning out the fridge as planned.

Still, because these impulses were clearly undermining what was working so well, it wasn’t hard to turn them aside. Each time I did, it felt good, and also right – like switching off a radio that’s distracting you from your homework.

There was no sense of trying to balance my desire for doing good and useful things with my desire for comfort and pleasure. I let the good and useful always outrank the pleasurable and comfortable. Operating this way entailed a fair amount of physical discomfort, but it felt far more emotionally comfortable than trying to manage two competing sets of values.

And here’s the interesting part: pleasure and comfort arose constantly anyway. I enjoyed them when they did, with no sense of tradeoff or guilt. However, I didn’t do anything just because it was pleasurable or comfortable, and ironically that made for a much more pleasant and comfortable existence.

Best of all, there was no regret whatsoever about how I spent my time. Not during, not after. It was like living in a regret vacuum. I used the time to live.

Bodybuilding for the Will

I have no idea whether any of the above appeals to anyone else, but there’s nothing on this earth I want more than to live more of my days like that.

I want to devote myself to practicing this kind of Stoic living the same way some people devote themselves to bodybuilding or chess or Bible study. It suits my temperament, aligns with my values, and makes good use of my mindfulness skills. It also provides strategies for my biggest problems – lack of moment-to-moment purpose, and susceptibility to diversion.

Socrates, choosing death over compromising his principles. Notice his excellent muscle definition

Stoic practice does take a kind of all-in attitude. You have to intend to bring it to all the day’s moments, not just some, otherwise you’re back to the old do-good-vs-feel-good balancing act again. However, as Stoic professor William B. Irvine points out, if you do take it seriously, the improvements are dramatic and immediate, unlike with, say, Buddhist practice.

Getting serious about Stoicism involves a few different practice elements, and I have a plan for that. One particular aspect of it would make an interesting public experiment though.

What I’m going to do

For 30 days I’m going to practice Stoicism as seriously as I can, and that means dropping certain familiar, pleasure-focused ways of spending time — namely watching movies and TV shows by myself, eating or drinking things just for the pleasure of it, and using my electronic devices for non-utilitarian reasons. I also won’t put on “background” entertainment like podcasts while I do other things.

Chrysippos, about to fold laundry without the aid of a podcast

Those activities are essentially time-for-pleasure tradeoffs, so instead of them I’ll do things that are constructive but still rewarding. For me that means reading, writing, exercise, meditation, connecting with others, or learning about something I want to understand. There’s plenty of pleasure to be found in these activities, but I don’t do any of them for only that reason — and I never regret any of them.    

I will still do leisure activities with other people. Walks, visits, meals, board games, sports, and even the odd movie. I want entertainment to be a social thing, if anything, not just a way for me to pass time comfortably.

Basically, if it feels like it aligns with the Work of Being Human, I will do it. If it feels like it conflicts with it, I will refrain. Each instance of either makes me better at it.

This campaign will run from April 12 to May 11. You can follow my observations on the Experiment Log.

Aside from learning to use my time in a more fulfilling way, I’m interested to discover how dependent I’ve become on entertainment and diversion. It seems oddly scary to even try this and I’m about to find out why.  

Wish me luck. Memento mori.

***

Colosseum photo by Yoal Desurmont. Seneca bust photo by J. Grandmont. Others public domain.

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{ 84 Comments }

Havu April 12, 2021 at 2:48 am

Thanks David for an inspirational post. I have similar regrets and this does sound like a recipe for living life well. Very hard of course, trying to change all one’s habits in one go. Good luck!

The thing I’m a bit worried about in adapting this kind of lifestyle is whether it makes life too serious and demanding: “I should be using every moment well and not wasting any of my time”. Some part of my brain might easily translate it to “I should be working all the time”. But I know it’s a misunderstanding, making the best use of one’s time may well include entertainment and hobbies as well, and rest, of course.

Another problem that might arise if I tried this is aiming too high and being too idealistic, and forgetting to be compassionate with my shortcomings.

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 9:04 am

There are definitely a lot of fine lines to be sorted out here, and I’m sure I’ll learn more about them during the month. I know that you know this but I’ll say it for anyone who doesn’t — the goal isn’t to never waste another moment, which is definitely too high a bar. The point is to cultivate an ongoing intention to use life for what I value. It is a completely different way of operating than using it to seek pleasure and avoid discomfort, which is always a danger for human beings, and something I have spent much of my life doing.

The line between passive entertainment/pleasure-seeking and constructive hobbies is pretty clear to me. The passive stuff can wait until I can make a social occasion out of it. The rest of the time I’d rather be reading, meditating, physical activity, or making stuff.

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Joel April 12, 2021 at 2:51 am

Good luck! This is an impressive ambition and I hope it goes well for you.

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Fen April 12, 2021 at 2:58 am

Good luck to you! I think an important part will be making sure you schedule enough rest now that you are totally focusing. For one thing, you may get so productive that you will get bored! For me as I’m not overwhelmed it’s okay to have a bit of fun at the same time, and it helps me motivate myself. Having fun through doing might work for you though, as you’re self-employed(I think??) and therefore your time works differently.

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 9:10 am

Rest is important and I plan to actually rest more. When I decided not to watch movies or shows, part of me thought that there will be times I’m so tired that I won’t be able to do much other than watch a show or something. But in that case, why don’t I just go to bed and spend that time sleeping? If the issue is not enough rest, then resting is the “Work of Being Human” in that instance.

Self-employment definitely changes the priority structure here. It is a lot harder to structure one’s time when work time isn’t decided by someone else, but that also lends greater flexibility to the equation.

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Brandon April 12, 2021 at 11:10 am

I have to say that I disagree with this perspective. I am also a bit of a fan of the stoics, though not necessarily the best student, and I think the idea of being productive from sun-up until sun-down runs totally contrary to what it is to be human… or for that matter, an animal on planet earth.

All animals lounge around without necessarily sleeping. Higher-order animals play. It seems only natural that even higher-order animals like us might use their brains for diversion (like watching a movie).

There are plenty of times where I am emotionally too tired to deal with anything but not physically sleepy. What do you do with such time, if not do something somewhat mindless like watch a movie? I agree there are better and lesser movies that one could pursue, but simply refusing to engage in any similar activity seems overdone.

The human pysche needs change, needs new experiences, needs alternative perspectives. We get those from books and we can get them from movies as well.

Just an no tool, wielded correctly, is a bad tool, so too movies are just tools to be wielded appropriately. You can overdo it for sure, but where is the rationality in rejecting them outright?

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 1:41 pm

@brandon

Something I think needs clarification here is that “the Work of a Human Being” I’m referring to isn’t necessarily labor. It is just whatever is the most appropriate thing to do given my values, which could be anything — eating, sleeping, playing a game, relaxing on the couch. Rest and recreation is a part of it. I have no intentions of being productive from dawn to dusk.

As far as entertainment goes, there’s nothing wrong with it per se. I’m referring mostly to my long-time habit of spending many entire evenings just trying to pass time comfortably, such as by watching a mediocre movie by myself, when there are a zillion things to do that are both interesting and also create some lasting meaning or benefit and make me feel like I have actually lived. What activities do that differ between people. A film buff might find watching Chinatown on a Sunday afternoon to be time well spent, but I know I don’t. The only real criterion is whether it is in alignment with my values or in contradiction to them, but in my case passive entertainment is usually the latter.

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Gabriela April 12, 2021 at 3:01 am

Love the challenge, I have been toing with the idea myself but I could not gather the strength to do it .

I believe that everything taste better after a period of deprivation… a simple measure to turn life into an intense experience again and for free… so good luck!

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 9:21 am

I agree about deprivation — another way to see it is that too much of something greatly diminishes its value. When sweets are rare, they tastes so much better. When they’re there every time we have the impulse, they’re barely better than neutral — the downsides are so much more prominent and the specialness of them is gone.

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Vilx- April 12, 2021 at 3:14 am

Nice article, as always. I’ll have to mull this one over.

Two things however came immediately to mind.

One – but don’t you have a nagging feeling in the background “But what about these other 3 jobs? Surely they are just as important as this one! by focusing on this one, you’re neglecting the others! And you know there’ll be trouble if they’re not done on time…”

Two – Personally, I often feel like I spend most of my life doing “things that I should” and hardly any that “I would like”. It’s annoying. I don’t know if it’s a justified feeling; I do waste time in my daily routine as much as anyone, so I don’t complain… but it’s there. And I wonder – shouldn’t this practice just aggravate this discontent?

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 9:29 am

Always good to hear from you Vilx.

One — I know that kind of feeling and experience it often. My belief is that it arises from not wanting to do the one thing that is clearly the most important thing to do right now, at least in my case. When I’m being as honest as possible about what I should probably be doing, I experience much less of this conflict. If two things really do seem equally important, then all you can do is pick one.

Two — I have always been on the other side of that issue, and I might be unusual in that. ADHD always made me very averse to complex tasks, and grasping onto pleasures and diversions. All my life I’ve heard people express the opposite problem, where they feel compelled to keep working and never give themselves a break. Fundamentally I think it is the same thing happening — we’re attracted to the side that makes us feel secure, and suffer the consequences of neglecting what’s important on the other side.

I think Stoicism would address either issue. The “work” of being human isn’t always work in the sense of labor. The right thing to do might be to rest and reflect, especially if you don’t often give yourself the time for that.

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Woollyprimate April 12, 2021 at 9:10 pm

I think most advice has an opposite. You pick which one you need. Get shit done. Or stop doing so much shit and relax.

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John Norris April 12, 2021 at 3:18 am

Memento mori – remember that you die. Good advice. Thank you David!

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lisa power April 12, 2021 at 5:13 am

Love this …as usual you untangle subconscious knots I have in my brain .. is there a difference between stoicism and mindfulness ? Also do you write out a to do list the night before?
Ticking off a to do list is also great way to feel accomplished … will be more aware now of ‘time fillers’ phone checking , tv and I too listen to podcasts as I do tasks … lots to seriously consider

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 9:48 am

There is a big difference, but mindfulness makes a great compliment to Stoicism.

Stoicism is a philosophy of living. It emphasizes the gift of rationality, which allows you to live in alignment with your values and minimize needless suffering. It makes use of a lot of thinking exercise to create perspective and gratitude.

Mindfulness can be thought of as a set of attentional skills, which have all sorts of benefits on many levels. Mindfulness helps you keep your attention where it is most relevant, which is central to Stoicism. It also helps you achieve equanimity towards pleasure and discomfort, so that you’re less compelled by them, which is exactly what Stoicism is after.

The two pursuits interact in interesting ways, and there are many common themes. I’m sure the ancient Stoics would have *loved* to hear what the Buddhists were doing at the time. There are even some theories of cross-pollination — Westerners who went East and came back with ideas that influenced some Stoics.

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lisa power April 12, 2021 at 5:22 am

Love this… as always you untangle subconscious brain knots…
I wonder in this practice do you write a to do list the night before ?
Also wonder the difference between mindfulness and stoicism?

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 9:50 am

I always write a to-do list the night before anyway, but this time I will be adding a Stoic reflection to that process — how did the day go, what would I do differently, and so on.

(See the above comment for differences/similarities between mindfulness and Stoicism.)

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Jon April 12, 2021 at 5:41 am

Thanks David, and glad to hear you have gotten to the bottom of your lifelong difficulty!

Also I like the Pyramid Song reference. :)

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 9:50 am

Ah I’m glad somebody got it! I do put occasional Radiohead references in my posts.

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Freya April 12, 2021 at 6:00 am

“Get the garlic powder from the pantry, open the toner door in the printer, read this email and determine what the sender is asking.”
As a fellow ADHDer, I read this and appended: “in that order.” That’s the perfect picture of a semi-productive day with adhd. Task after task in no particular order, leaving a trail of unfinished projects in my wake.
But it doesn’t have to be that way! Hooray!
Thanks for writing!

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 9:54 am

Hahaha, yes… basically I am putting all of my actions in a more sensible order :)

Seriously though, I think this way of operating is especially helpful for ADHD, because we are so easily compelled by impulses to interrupt ourselves or slip away from our conscious intentions. It requires a kind of gentle but frequent questioning of your actions: “Is this what I really intend to be doing with my life?” and then course-correction if necessary.

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Melinda Rusaw April 12, 2021 at 6:07 am

I love your writing and your ambition. Thank you. I am 68, a woman. My family has a perhaps similar drive to make a day full as I hear you say. Ours is big work outside as well as learning to the depths. At the end of a day clearing land and making a beautiful meal and being aware of my good use of every minute I am satisfied. I have learned to enjoy my daily routines, but life is long and I often think over my details and successes and think why can’t I simply laugh or move without so much thought. I can plan a great party and be a thorough host, but can’t really let go and sit down. I look forward to heaven especially to shed the skins of purpose.

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 9:59 am

Hi Melinda. This is something mindfulness practice has really helped me with. It gives you practice in just being where you are and appreciating what is happening. It has helped me to appreciate perfectly ordinary moments, as well as understanding what it is that is hard to let go of in moments where it seems difficult or impossible just to sit down and exist in the moment. Purpose doesn’t need to be all about doing — being can be purposeful too.

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Sharon Hanna April 13, 2021 at 10:38 am

Wow Melinda. Love your way of expressing especially “to shed the skins of purpose”. Wow. Are you a writer?? What land are you clearing?

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Elisabetta April 12, 2021 at 6:22 am

It reminds me of the theory of flow. I share the same desire to make better use of my time and honestly I think that focus and purpose are the key ingredients to make any task fulfilling and purposeful. Even entertainment can be turned into a learning experience. It depends how much thought you put in it. I also share your ways of nurturing yourself: reading, learning, exercice, meditation, nature, healthy food and mindful social life. I believe those are basics for happiness as long as one focuses on each moment with the desire to live it to the full.

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 10:06 am

There is very much a flow state to living this way. I haven’t read Csikszentmihalyi’s book by that name, and I really should, as it seemingly connects to just about everything I am interested in. I have always struggled with a moment-to-moment sense of purpose, and this has given me a glimpse of it.

I appreciate the point that even entertainment can be purposeful and fulfilling, and I know what you mean. When pleasures are experienced in ways that align with your purpose, they feel wonderful. When they conflict with it, the feelings are mixed, which says something about the primacy of purpose over pleasure.

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Elisabetta April 12, 2021 at 1:13 pm

Csikszentmihalyi’s book is an absolute must for you. When I read it I thought it was the most valuable book I had ever read. And so far it is still true. I read many many books but rarely find so much real life changing theories. If there was only one book to keep that would be Flow. If you read it this month it will greatly help you in your challenge and in your ADHD condition.

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 1:32 pm

Great. I just put it on hold at the library.

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Robert April 12, 2021 at 7:14 am

Well my thoughts are we make hard work out of living by trying too hard to live, we get given this life by our parents and we all take a different path but we all end up in the same place inside Mother Earth, so just do what you enjoy, don’t hurt each other, live life as best you can just for the present moment is the best way, because the present is when you achieve things, not yesterday or tomorrow, today but, do not repeat past mistakes, learn from those and improve, you will be pleased I am sure!

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 10:11 am

Thanks Robert. I agree with you that we can make hard work out of living by trying too hard to live. My sense is that this is what it feels like when we’re trying to get our sense of living well out of the wrong things. Many people end up spending their lives chasing kinds of enjoyment that do not fulfill them. This experiment is part of a process of figuring out what kinds of enjoyment really are in alignment with fulfillment and a sense of life well lived.

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Bob Magnant April 12, 2021 at 7:42 am

Life is good but it is different than it was 80 years ago and it is changing constantly. Today we have many new opportunities to change our world and I try to be optimistic, accurate and positive; things change and we also have. We adapt or adjust but never need to compromise our values or our beliefs; it is all good. Ah, technology!

https://books.apple.com/us/book/my-80th-orbit/id1558045480

Thank you for Raptitude and enjoy!
It’s free…

Bob Magnant
My 80th Orbit – a look at life

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 10:14 am

Congrats on the 80th orbit Bob. I am halfway there and I’m grateful to have the experience of others to draw from, in that ultimate quest of determining what your values are and how to live them.

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Jill Stafford April 12, 2021 at 7:55 am

This post is pure serendipity. I am realizing my ADHD and being checked. Since the pandemic I’ve been working at home alone. My focus on work is nonexistent and my productivity is way down. I shift thoughts and activities constantly. I will surely be following your log. Thanks a bunch. It’s like I’m not alone.

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 10:17 am

Hi Jill. I will learn more over the next 30 days, but I would say that Stoicism seems to be especially helpful for those of us with ADHD, if it appeals to you. Here’s what I said about that in an earlier comment:

I think this way of operating is especially helpful for ADHD, because we are so easily compelled by impulses to interrupt ourselves or slip away from our conscious intentions. It requires a kind of gentle but frequent questioning of your actions: “Is this what I really intend to be doing with my life?” and then course-correction if necessary.

Anyway, I hope you find some clarity in getting assessed for ADHD. Let me know if I can be of any help.

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Sarah April 12, 2021 at 9:00 am

I was introduced to the Stoics 4-5 years ago, and what a difference their writings have made in my life! I have found more clarity and simplicity along with a desire to make the most of this one, marvelous life I’ve been granted.

Regarding daily living, I am in total agreement with being all in on every task; I learned long ago that I am unable to multitask successfully. Interspersed in my day, though, I try to plan occasional blocks of time for more pleasurable pursuits… which for me usually means reading or sewing. I’ll set my timer and forget everything else.

I have a quotation in sight on my table “If someone could only see my actions and not hear my words, what would they say are my priorities?” (I think this is from James Clear.)

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 10:26 am

I’m really glad to hear that Sarah. So far I’m finding modern-day Stoics to be a lot rarer than meditators. I’m looking forward to meeting / talking to more of them.

I’ve come to the same conclusion about multi-tasking, but this time I’ve discovered an additional detail — I often try to do something physical while I’m not completely engaged in it mentally. I’m ruminating while I’m cleaning, I’m singing a song while I’m doing dishes, I’m often reserving my full attention for things that demand it, rather than giving it willingly. That has been one of the most rewarding parts — the feeling you get from doing a thing wholeheartedly, even something like dropping a scrap of paper into the recycling. it feels like a very loving thing to give your whole self to a task, even if it doesn’t strictly require it.

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Andy April 12, 2021 at 10:19 am

Hi David,

I have never commented before even though I have enjoyed reading many of your blogs. Today I thought I would tell you how I came about to living at least 90% of the time in the present moment.

Several years ago I was diagnosed with IBM disease which is an incurable muscle wasting disease that attacks the leg muscles first. After several falls and no ability to get up again without help but still wanting to live independently I have become very cognizant of every step and action I take when walking, standing, or turning.

The spiritual side of me finds it very interesting that it took this disease to force me to live in the present moment and enjoy every little accomplishment I have during the day.

Keep on discovering David!

Andy

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 10:36 am

Thanks Andy. This makes a lot of sense to me. There’s something about running into the body’s limitations that seems to connect us to spiritual concerns, as though it helps us realize where the seat of our “aliveness” really is. Stoicism states flatly that the state of the body is not under our control but is for the gods to determine, and in exchange we have our ability to attend to what’s important despite the unreliability of the body and the world around it. There are also a lot of Stoic exercises for visualizing the loss of abilities we have now but one day may not (sight, speech, mobility, etc), which are meant to bring us into the moment and enjoy all the amazing things we can still do.

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Robyn Quaintance April 12, 2021 at 11:07 am

Hi David: You said, “If there were some kind of religion devoted to making the best use of one’s precious time on this earth, I would convert immediately.”

A Course in Miracles (ACIM) is a spiritual practise that flows well with all life. The book’s main thought is forgiveness. It strongly suggests one take responsibility for all of their thoughts and actions, including everything that happens to them. When one can look inside themselves and deal with every thought and every action, they become very peaceful. One can still do whatever they want, but they do it with compassion, kindness, and love. They feel love for everyone and everything. I am not quite there, but well on my way. This book is a philosophy of life, yet doesn’t tell you what to do or how to feel, it helps you understand how to love, how to forgive and how to get to peace.

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 1:21 pm

Ah I forgot about ACIM. I owned the book once but it was reeeally intimidating just in terms of page count. I am still intrigued by it though and I’m sure I’ll find my way back to it. What you describe here does really resonate with me.

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Robyn Quaintance April 12, 2021 at 7:37 pm

When you finish your 30 day experiment, find your way back to ACIM. Start slow. There is a workbook with 365 lessons….. one a day. By day 78, you will really notice many changes for the better. The book will change how you look at the world and the peace you’ll find will feel incredible…. just by forgiving everyone and everything!

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Woollyprimate April 12, 2021 at 9:16 pm

This could not have come at a better time for me. I suffer from the same problem. I spend a lot of days in inertia (a.k.a. YouTube). I was just telling someone at work that I wanted to learn Morse code and I did three lessons and then let a week go by. I said, “It’s hard to learn something when you aren’t in school and HAVE to do it.” I also wanted to learn Swahili and I haven’t looked at that in over a week, either.

I’m going to try the same experiment, but only for a couple days. I’m not that ambitious. :-)

I have several books on Stoicism. I think I got them the last time you mentioned the Stoics. I heard William Irvine on the Hidden Brain podcast. I will be re-listening to that soon. It was really good.

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Carol in Denver April 12, 2021 at 11:13 am

This post strikes directly on me. I am 80 yrs old, and my almost daily pledge is “I put my heart, mind and soul into making the most of the rest of my life.” Yet I struggle daily to take care of business and not fritter away my time. Creative expression is paramount to me, but I can’t feel free for that if taxes need figuring, dishes washed, seeds planted, end-of-life instructions for children not completed. Your words and your intention wrap around me like a glove, helping me be at peace with my efforts, imperfect though they are.

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 1:23 pm

I know this feeling of repeated resolutions to live wholeheartedly and make each day count. This is just a hypothesis, based on my little experience with it, but the trick seems to be to make that “intention to live well” very granular and specific to the moment. Instead of being about the whole of life, it’s about the piece of laundry I’m folding, the door I’m opening, the coat I’m zipping up. One little thing, done wholeheartedly, and then another.

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Christina April 12, 2021 at 12:39 pm

Another really thoughtful post, David. When I remember “good old days” some of those days circa the mid-90s before we had computers at home and, in many cases at work. In my leisure time I drew and painted. Now I’m shocked to see my devices tell me how much screen time I have had over the course of a week. Our lives have become increasingly lived online and this blurs the lines between all facets of our lives because everything we do looks (and is now starting to feel) the same and that has started to breed a kind of staleness in my body and mind. This is why I won’t give up reading paper books. I actively look for other ways to be less online but it’s so very hard because so many things are made easier by the computer — bookkeeping, connecting with far flung friends/family, art making, research, writing. And the list goes on.

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 1:28 pm

The multi-functionality of the computer is such an issue. You’re right, it makes so many otherwise-offline activities easier, but that means there’s a distracting entertainment device attached to the tools needed for almost every other activity. As you probably know from reading this blog, I’ve been increasingly addled by the increasingly pervasiveness of online technology over the past decade or so, but this year, this winter, it really got to me. That staleness became unbearable and I’m starting to make major changes, this experiment being part of that.

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Sara April 12, 2021 at 1:38 pm

David,
I have major depressive disorder and have fought with it all my life. Medications help but developing coping mechanisms has been the key. Ironically I’m a mental health nurse (: What you’re going to do for a month has been one of my saving graces…continuously moving through life focused on tasks and then recounting them at the end of the day has been a godsend…I wish you well

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 1:44 pm

Thanks Sara. In my limited experience doing there there is definitely something extremely therapeutic about it for my own particular mental health issues. I am looking forward to learning more about why that is. I’m glad you’ve found something that works reliably, and I hope it works for me too.

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Cari April 12, 2021 at 2:54 pm

This holds a lot of appeal for me and I’ll be curious to hear how it goes. I do wonder what the stoics had to say about creativity. I’m all for less distraction born of anxiety, but how did they think about the sort of aimless wandering that leads somewhere interesting? I guess I never associated the stoics with that sort of approach, but that may be a misapprehension on my part.

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David Cain April 13, 2021 at 9:26 am

Good question. I know that they were big on reflection, walking for its own sake, and idle time when it’s appropriate. In my experience it seems to aid creativity. I’m noticing the world much more when I’m not absorbed in reactivity. It also makes you much less self-conscious, which is a creativity-killer, at least for me.

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Brian April 12, 2021 at 4:48 pm

I discovered Stoicism through Ryan Holiday’s books and website (www.dailystoic.com). You can sign up for daily Stoicism mini-essay emails. They take less than a minute to read and are always provocative.
Doing things: I schedule my tasks and what it’s in service of (e.g. Do the laundry so I can enjoy wearing clean clothes) so it doesn’t just land as a task but rather as a means to an end that I value. I acknowledge myself when I complete it and at the end of the day for all of them. I’ve given up whining (“I don’t wanna do the vacuuming”), it’s just a task, why attach a judgement that only weighs me down? That’s a Stoic approach. In one of your previous blogs you talked about breaking tasks into a series of simple steps, one at a time; I like that. Bottom line: you’ll never get it all done, that’s what’s so. I accept it and I use this knowledge to make best possible use of my time. Knowing I’m not getting it all done doesn’t mean giving up and not bothering to get any of it done. Enjoy your experiment! I’ll be rooting for you.

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Woollyprimate April 12, 2021 at 9:18 pm

I like that idea of writing down what the task is in service of. That’s brilliiant! I think it might help with the motivation.

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David Cain April 13, 2021 at 9:27 am

Thanks Brian. I’m starting to make this same connection — the task is rewarding not just because it’s a decidedly “good” thing to do, but because it is directly in service of what you know you value.

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Shannon D April 12, 2021 at 4:55 pm

Excellent post! I have been working on being more deliberate with my “work”, but letting myself be distracted by time wasters, is disappointing when looking back at the end of the day. I will be following your progress and discoveries with great interest! Amor fati!

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Gayle Petersen April 12, 2021 at 9:04 pm

I just can’t waste anymore time doing things that don’t serve my higher good. If the movie, podcast, group, book are not resonating I give myself permission to move on. The older I get the more important it is to me to do “the work of being human”
I don’t have trouble in the silence, no TV or podcast, but checking the phone is a challenge. I love the day when I just “click” and flow. Yes, those days are my favorites. Enjoyed reading you! Best on your journey!

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David Cain April 13, 2021 at 9:31 am

The phone is such a challenge to manage, because it does serve some extremely important functions, namely allowing us to connect with others. I get a lot of mileage out of putting it out of arm’s reach or in another room. That way I don’t use it reflexively so much, but I can go into the other room and use it intentionally if I have to.

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Vikas April 12, 2021 at 9:52 pm

Great post and it seems like an interesting challenge I’d like to try out as well. Curious – are you planning on listening to music (read that you cut podcasts) while you do work or rather to really focus on the activity at hand you’re cutting out other distractions?

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David Cain April 13, 2021 at 9:38 am

The main issue I’m trying to avoid with background entertainment is a splitting of intentions. If I put on a podcast while I wash the dishes, I’m not really attending to either very well. I’d either like to listen actively to the podcast or do the dishes intentionally, but I can’t do both at the same time.

Yesterday I did put on instrumental music while I cleaned, and ended up turning it off. For a little while it helped me get into the mode of cleaning, and then at a certain point I felt like it wasn’t doing anything for me so I shut it off. I don’t know if there’s anything strictly wrong with background entertainment per se, but I’m going to watch very closely for signs that it is undermining my intention to do what’s in front of me.

I am debating putting on an audiobook (in this case about Stoicism) while I fold laundry today, since I’m trying immerse myself in the Stoic mindset while the enthusiasm is still strong. I think the subject matter would feed back into the intentional folding of the laundry. I have done this with dharma talks about mindfulness and it works fine. The test will be whether I feel like my mind is too divided, which I will probably notice pretty quickly.

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Jeremy Enns April 13, 2021 at 3:17 am

Yikes! I was nodding my head along until you mentioned turning off background pleasures like music, podcasts, etc while doing other tasks. Probably a good sign that this would be a healthy experiment for me to undertake myself…

That said, I remember years ago when I stopped listening to music on my daily bus commutes and found that there was so much more interesting stuff going on than I realized when my ears (and mind) were stuffed full of podcasts and music.

Looking forward to following along with the experiment and perhaps dipping my toes in for at least a one-day experiment to start out and see how it goes.

Thanks for the inspiration and insight as always.

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David Cain April 13, 2021 at 9:41 am

This past year I’ve really fallen into the habit of trying to simultaneously entertain myself while I do chores, and it reached the point where it felt like I “needed” to do that. I don’t want to lose the ability to simply do something without adorning it with entertainment.

In the past I have experimented with turning off the music in the car, and as you say, you instantly notice so much more of the world around you. On the whole I like the feeling of living in the world better than constant entertainment.

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Anna Bardon April 13, 2021 at 5:13 am

For a while now I have been really feeling frustrated because i have so many jobs to do and it all just feels impossible. I have an army of excuses not to do them in my head… I have noone to help me, I can’t do it because i havent the right tools, i Havent enough strength, time etc… Instead of starting i would lose my self in surfing internet.. until i decided to make it a project to ‘do the impossible’ I am so relieved and freed… Instead of forcing myself to do a difficult and boring job… i am proving to myself that there are no limitations… I can do the impossible! I spent all day climbing up ladders (i thought i needed my husbands cherry picker tractor to reach the high branches) sawing off branches with a blunt saw ( i thought i needed a chain saw which my husband refuses to lend me) It took me about ten times the time but i actually got a lot done! I think i can do maybe a tree a day which means i can now actually see the end! I feel like superwoman all of a sudden instead of a poor victim of circumstances.

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David Cain April 13, 2021 at 9:42 am

That’s wonderful. I think you would really get a lot out of Stoicism, because it is very much about challenging that victim of circumstance mentality. I’ve become a fan of William B Irvine’s stuff. He has a list of short blog posts on getting started here: https://www.williambirvine.com/21stcenturystocism

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Helena April 14, 2021 at 5:35 am

This article was awesome to read because I’ve been attempting to do this recently, and it’s great to see someone have a similar idea and plan and express well why it feels good.

I get incredibly distracted and unproductive everyday (filling my head with fantasies and daydreaming, or watching mindless entertainment on Youtube that’s fun, but… not very fulfilling in the long run) and avoid doing activities that are much more meaningful to me (but require actual effort) such as writing creative fiction and learning about the universe. So I’ve decided to try to live in the present moment and fill my day with meaningful activities and get rid of that “empty time”. I even wrote down stuff I could do if I found myself without a task and getting lost in thought, like reading articles about a subject, watching a movie I’ve never seen, going for a walk… anything that makes me engage with the world. And it’s hard. Very hard. Like a new workout plan. But it does feel better, like being alive, more calm, more real. My wasting time and daydreaming was always making me so depressed and guilty, but it was so difficult to stop. I think approaching this as an actual project, with intent, is a great idea.

I’m very interested to learn more about your experiment and will do my best to keep up the good work too. It’s getting easier each day, but I find myself relapsing also (which is normal, I think.)

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David Cain April 14, 2021 at 10:21 am

That’s been a large part of my diet too, especially this year — YouTube and mental fantasies/dialogue.

I’m only on Day 3 but so far the key seems to be to really attend to everything you do, even if it isn’t the lofty stuff like creative work. Can I attend to the dishes with undivided attentiveness, as though they’re as important as anything else. Best of luck.

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Clément April 14, 2021 at 6:33 am

Hi David, great post as usual. It really encapsulate a problem that I have, and which more type-A, overachiever types do not grasp (see the comments about needing to rest and chill sometimes, resting and chilling has never been a problem for me, I do way too much of it!).

On the side of doing too much “work” and not enough living, I think I remember Mister Money Mustache writing somewhere that he still injects some fun in his life under the logic that later, he would regret not having had some cool experiences. And for me, I don’t ever think I will look back on having binge-watched yet another mediocre Netflix cop show as a cool and fun experience. I would rather go to bed one hour earlier, as you said.

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David Cain April 14, 2021 at 10:26 am

Yes, I feel the same absolutely, and the phenomenon you describe here is something I want to write about. Some people fall on the other side of a certain line, where they are constantly doing and accomplishing, and don’t allow themselves enough repose or recreation, while many of us are the opposite. I don’t know if the over-achievers are the majority, but our doing-focused culture seems to overrepresent that side of the issue — that the real problem is that we work too hard and don’t relax enough.

I’m not sure what’s true on the balance. We are certainly a very entertainment- and pleasure-focused culture, so it’s hard for me to reconcile the predominance of both overachieving and passive entertainment. All I know is that I don’t want to spend much of the latter half of my life on that kind of stuff.

I think the important distinction isn’t between work and living, but between how we do both of those things — whether we’re motivated by reason and prudence, or the push and pull of desire and aversion. Desire and aversion can push a person to burn themselves out in the office or burn themselves out in front of the TV. The Stoic philosophy is about attending fully to what’s important, regardless of whether it comes from the category of “work” or “living.” It is all living.

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Clément April 14, 2021 at 11:02 am

It is also a subject that I find interesting.
I think that the overachiever category is overly represented in the “lifestyle bloggers” demographic (because to run a successful blog or podcast in the midst of all those that exist, requires in itself quite a lot of work), therefore we might have a slightly skewed view on that. The underachievers for a lack of a better term do not end up putting out that much content about their lives, maybe?
On your second point, I feel that it is sort of a pervasive message in marketing in recent years, where we are told that since we work hard, we deserve this [serie] [beer] etc. But the advertiser does not know if I actually worked hard to deserve this treat! It might be a convenient way to bypass the guilt associated with this kind of consumption, where we end up believing that we indeed worked hard. Just a hypothesis, and definitely something that I end up feeling at times, if I do not pay attention

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Melanie Holley April 14, 2021 at 5:29 pm

This post really struck a chord with me. I have been retired for a year, almost exactly and have been struggling with “what next”? Things have somewhat resolved over the past 3 months or so and I think it’s because I focused attention and effort toward accomplishing tasks that had been waiting to be done. It has helped me feel a sense of purpose rather than just being at loose ends. But here’s my question for you- can you give me some practical advice on how to give up irrelevant inner monologues? I have developed the habit of listening to audiobooks while I shower, cook, clean house, drive. I know I can (and should) try giving that up because I have realized it’s mindless. Most of the time I don’t even care about parts of the story I have missed. But I have a 60 year old case of Monkey Brain and need help turning it off.
Thanks,
Melanie

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David Cain April 15, 2021 at 9:34 am

I don’t think we can turn off the monkey brain, but we can learn not to be yanked around by it so easily. Mindfulness practice is a huge help here. You can learn to notice mental talk as just another sense experience, like external sound, which can simply be allowed to be there while you attend to what’s more relevant.

You can practice awareness of thought by taking a few seconds now and then to just notice the talking in your head, as though it’s a radio someone left on. Don’t worry about the content, just try to hear the mental chatter for a few seconds without interfering. It helps to actually say the word “hear” or “hearing” every few seconds to help you stay aware of the chatter rather than get lost in it.

Just gaining a little bit of objective distance between mental chatter and your response to it can really loosen things up. Then when you’re out and about doing things in the world, you can practice simply dropping mental monologues without resolving them, and returning to the task at hand.

Taking up a daily mindfulness practice will strengthen this and other dimensions of awareness over time.

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Victoria April 15, 2021 at 6:28 am

I think I have the opposite view – life is too short to be dutifully moving from one worthwhile or optimally placed activity to the next.

Being an anxious overthinker, this poem has always struck a chord with me:

“If I had my life to do over, I’d try to make more mistakes next time.

I would relax. I would limber up. I would be sillier than I have been this trip. I know of very few things I would take seriously. I would be crazier. I would be less hygienic. I would take more chances. I would take more trips. I would climb more mountains, swim more rivers, watch more sunsets. I would ride more bicycles. I would eat more ice cream and less beans.

I would have more actual troubles and less imaginary ones. You see, I am one of those people who lives life prophylactically and sensibly and sanely, hour after hour, day after day.

Oh, I have had my moments and, if I had it to do over again, I’d have more of them. In fact, I’d try to have nothing else. Just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead each day. I have been one of those people who never go anywhere without a thermometer, a hot-water bottle, a gargle, a raincoat, and a parachute.

If I had it to do over again, I would go places and do things, and travel lighter than I have. If I had life to live over, I would start bare-footed earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall. I wouldn’t make such good grades except by accident. I ride on more merry-go-rounds. I’d pick more daisies. ”

Or Steve Jobs:

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Asking “Self, what’s the best thing I could be doing now?” and obediently doing whatever my intuition suggests would make me more productive and less anxious about unfinished jobs, but is it really an enjoyable way to live? Isn’t it a bit too much overthinking? I know there’s downtime with it, but it seems only to be granted after mindful reflection on whether it’s the most appropriate activity for the moment or not. I’d only want to keep it up for a few days, to get out of a rut.

TV shows, podcasts, junk food, aimless browsing, etc. are bad when you’re just messing around all day, but they’re fun in moderation. For instance, I don’t have a dishwasher – I find washing and drying while half paying attention and listening to music a lot more fun than mindfully communing with each dish, as (my conception of) Stoicism would have me do it.

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David Cain April 15, 2021 at 10:09 am

Regardless of how we live, we are always going from one thing to the next anyway. Every life is just a sequence of “doings.” The question is what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what sort of life that makes for us.

Just going by what’s fun or comfortable means our motivations will be inconsistent, and our actions will often come with downsides that outweigh the benefits. I found I was becoming less able to do dishes without a podcast playing. That’s making my life worse, not better. It makes more sense to me to figure out what I really value, and do whatever supports those values in every moment I can. It’s not grim at all, it’s the most rewarding way to live that I have tried.

Also, a few things about the “I wish I took more risks in life” trope (A topic I will write a post about one day):

1) There is an element of survivorship bias here — it is only the people who survived their risks and lived to regret them whose stories we want to hear. When you’re 99 years old, about to die, and have the benefit of hindsight, risk doesn’t seem so bad.

2) People who say they wish they took more risks in life probably would have benefitted from Stoicism, which entails moving into things that are rewarding but also difficult and uncomfortable, such as risking rejection, doing what’s fulfilling despite having less financial stability, etc.

I find that I do much less overthinking practicing Stoicism and mindfulness. The poem you share seems compatible with Stoicism to me. The idea that it is grim and no fun is a misconception.

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Al April 18, 2021 at 6:09 pm

How do we apply Stoicism and mindfulness while driving?

My previous W-2 job had me in the car for 2-4 hours at a time, which I spent imagining/reenacting conversations, thinking of solutions to problems, listening to podcasts, or calling family. This never felt long.

Now that I am self-employed, I have less to stress over and any drive past 30 minutes feels like eternity.

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David Cain April 19, 2021 at 9:35 am

Good question. Two ideas here:

1) Practice equanimity with the experience of driving. Both mindfulness and Stoicism center on practicing equanimity from moment to moment — allowing your experience to unfold without fighting with it or trying to make something more interesting happen. If you are a regular meditator and have some experience opening to and being with unstimulating/unpleasant experiences, long drives offer a lot of practice opportunities for that. If that sort of practice would be entirely new, driving isn’t the best first place to get used to it. So go with option 2:

2) Use the time as productively as you can. There are a lot of distinctions to be made here. There’s a difference between reliving conversations in your head, and listening to an audiobook or learning something. Thinking of solutions to problems in an intentional way (a la Cal Newport) is worthwhile, ruminating about problems without trying to solve anything isn’t.

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Gabriel Rocheleau April 20, 2021 at 9:13 am

Wishing you the best of success on this hard but profoundly rewarding path David!

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Elliott Crane April 24, 2021 at 12:17 pm

Hey David, have you read “Atomic Habits”? It seems to discount the value of pure self-discipline in exchange for structuring one’s life to make it easy to live in accordance with one’s values. It seems like a lot of self-help writers gravitate towards self-discipline as opposed to environmental structure, since aspirations towards near total self-discipline stroke the ego in a certain way (I know from my own experience) that environmental structuring does not, even though a lot of research shows that environmental structuring is more reliable and stable in the long-run. Of course both are important, but do you feel you’ve structured your environment to its fullest potential?

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David Cain April 25, 2021 at 4:10 pm

I have, yes (read Atomic Habits) and your point is well taken. In this post I am really emphasizing the “building ironclad discpline” aspect, but that is the low-leverage way to do things. Much of Raptitude is about the environmental approach, knowing that my willpower and self-discipline is historically lacking. The experiment is illuminating the limitations of self-discipline, so I have shifted to an approach that relies less on maxing out willpower.

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Elliott May 3, 2021 at 2:20 pm

Thanks for the explanation and response! Good luck and looking forward to seeing the results.

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Liz C. April 27, 2021 at 12:17 am

“Chrysippos, about to fold laundry without the aid of a podcast” made me laugh out loud, too real. Thank you for sharing your journey!

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Charlie May 1, 2021 at 1:20 am

Hi David,

I’ve recently discovered the blog and have learnt lots already, thank you.

I’d like to know where you’d suggest someone with a very basic understanding of Stoicism should look to grow their understanding?

Your Stoic challenge has inspired me, but I feel overwhelmed as to where to begin.

Best,

Charlie

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David Cain May 1, 2021 at 11:21 am

Hi Charlie. A lot of people have been asking for something like this so I made a sort of “starter kit” post on Patreon, and then made it public. I’ll be sending out an email with this link on Monday, but in the meantime you can access it here:

https://www.patreon.com/posts/50082774

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Victoria May 4, 2021 at 12:31 am

> Also, a few things about the “I wish I took more risks in life” trope (A topic I will write a post about one day):

I hope you do. I’d be interested to read it.

Relatedly, as someone who seizes the day too much, I’ve found the “you regret what you didn’t do more than what you did do” trope to ring somewhat hollow.

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Peter May 4, 2021 at 8:37 am

I didnt know how to express my interest in your idea of creating a group of exercise partners. Can I express interest here? Thanks as always for the heartfelt words.

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David Cain May 4, 2021 at 9:18 am

Hi Peter. Clicking the link in the email automatically tags you for the fitness group. So you are already signed up. I’ll send out details this week or next week.

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Sophie May 5, 2021 at 1:54 pm

Hi David —

I enjoy your posts tremendously, so thank you for writing them. As you mentioned a previous post about ADHD in this one, I hope it’s not too late to suggest this article. When I read it, it floored me about as much as realizing you suffer from ADHD floored you. In a sad but good way, I guess you could say. Perhaps it’s relevant to your situation or that of some of your readers.

https://drgabormate.com/preview/scattered-minds-u-s-scattered-chapter-twenty-five/

I struck a chord in me, as did your article about using time wisely, which I struggle to do. In my view, though, there has to be an emotional foundation for using time wisely, by which I mean that if you don’t think you’re ‘worth the effort’ (which Mate speaks about) then there’s not sufficient (let’s say spiritual) motivation to try to do so, which may include creating new habits. I believe that one’s view of one’s worth is, unfortunately, damaged in many people with ADHD, which is the main reason for wasting time — the resultant feeling of hopelessness.

I hope this isn’t the case with you, and wish you the best on your new experiment, and look forward to reading about the results.

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