The Discipline of Joy & More Thoughts on Off the Clock by Laura Vanderkam

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I’ve compiled some additional thoughts on Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done by Laura Vanderkam. You can read about my time diary experiment here.

Progress is motivational, and makes time feel expansive. In the time-perception survey, people who strongly agreed with the statement “Yesterday, I made progress toward my personal or professional goals” were 20 percent more likely than the average survey respondent to believe that they generally had enough time for the things they wanted to do.

Time is elastic. It stretches to accommodate what we choose to put into it. Investing in your happiness might mean going for a walk on a beautiful spring morning, even if it means you start work a little later. Generally, the work gets done because it has to get done, but in one world you’ve started your day with a bit of bliss, while in the normal version of life you haven’t. It can mean making space for a hobby or a regular get-together with friends. Even bits of time can be used for bits of joy, like reading via the Kindle app on your phone rather than checking email. You will eventually answer the emails that require answers. You always do. But if there’s anything else you want to do, happiness comes from doing it first.

Vanderkam highlights the importance of making time to do the things that make us happy first, before the other things. It reminded me of the Eisenhower Matrix that prioritizes the Important-Urgent and the Important Non-Urgent over all other types of activities, but Vanderkam suggests that most Important-Urgent work eventually gets done so why not spend a little time on the things that can energize and motivate you?

I tend to agree with the view. I’ve found that no matter how much work has piled up and no matter how daunting a deadline may be, I’ve never regretted taking a little bit of time to go for a run, get a lift in, play around with Sidney, or grab a bite with my wife. And even when I’m in the midst of cranking on a pile of proposals or working out some messy issue from work, Vanderkam suggests that part of the key to happiness is learning to “enjoy while enduring”:

While your time is, mostly, a choice, parts of life aren’t going to be blissful. Sometimes this is because of past choices, or choices made about the future. Sometimes it’s pure circumstance. Dark moments are inevitable. On some days, time’s eternal ticking can be a blessing. Nothing lasts forever. But if it is possible to flip the switch from enduring to enjoying, or enjoying while enduring, this can change the experience of time. To do so one must become, for lack of a better phrase, good at suffering.

She uses endurance athlete Amelia Boone as an example of someone who, while toughing it through 24 hours of intense and painful obstacle courses, finds the time to enjoy the sunrise and the camaraderie with fellow athletes. This example reminded me of the few Spartan races that I endured with my friends and how, between the discomforts and physically taxing obstacles, there were many moments of joy when we reached a fueling station for water and snacks or when the sun would come out and warm us after we had been freezing from a muddy obstacle. A more daily example is my commute to work and how it’s possible to switch from enduring to enjoying as I accept the crowded subway cars and unexpected delays while losing myself in a good book or being productive in jotting down ideas for an upcoming meeting.

The ability to enjoy while enduring is a really useful skill that can lessen the trauma of a poor experience. I recall an instance when my Barrel partners and I were stranded at LAX for several hours due to plane delays. While we were unhappy about the situation, we made the best of it and had ourselves a little airport picnic with some leftovers we had packed up from the restaurant the night before. We made makeshift plates out of coffee cup covers and had ourselves a fancy gourmet picnic. It helped to pass the time, and we had a good laugh about it.

Thoughtful people naturally construct stories to make sense of their lives. It takes real work to keep one unpleasant aspect of your life from becoming your entire narrative. Many intelligent people can’t muster themselves to do this work; hence, the tendency to brood.

Similar to the importance of enjoying while enduring, the ability to understand and be aware that life is so much more than a singular, negative experience or circumstance is an important key to happiness. I remember when I had greater difficulty with this, letting stresses like money, someone else’s relative success, or a perceived slight really cloud my mind and keep me in a funk. These days, I’ve become better at letting go and moving on to the next thing, understanding that there’s no real upside in being preoccupied with negative thoughts.

The discipline of joy requires holding in the mind simultaneously that this too shall pass and that this too is good. This alchemy of mind isn’t easy, but the good life is not always the easy life. Happiness requires effort. It is not just bestowed; it is the earned interest on what you choose to pay in.

I absolutely love this concept–that joy takes work, focus, and discipline. And in the context of time, joy requires the acceptance and appreciation that time is limited and that good moments come and go. This is why I think it’s so important to continually make plans to spend time with people I love, endure a little hassle to experience things that I’ll enjoy and remember, and keep the mind sharp and nimble so that I remember to savor what’s been good, deal with what needs dealing, and discard or ignore the things that ultimately don’t matter.

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