I had a good day. My back was hurting, the baby cried, the toddler wouldn’t leave him (or me) alone, and I never did get around to washing my giant pile of dishes. I also broke the washing machine. But it was a good day anyway. I went to bed feeling satisfied.
So I started wondering what makes a good day. It doesn’t seem to matter very much what actually happens. Sometimes a good day is spent partying with friends. Sometimes it’s spent at work, just doing your job. Sometimes it’s a day of housework. Sometimes it’s spent quietly at home not working. It can be fun or just calm, noisy or quiet, at home or out, alone or with others.
So if good days come in all kinds, what makes them all good?
And, more importantly, how can we have more of them?
My current theory is that good days are days where you feel satisfied because you accomplished something you wanted to do, or at least made progress in that direction.
If you were supposed to go to work but instead you slept in and drank tea, you probably wouldn’t consider it a good day. But if it’s a day off, and you sleep in and drink tea, then that’s great, because you’re accomplishing your goal of having a relaxing day off. And at the end of the day, you will be able to sigh with satisfaction as you crawl back into bed, saying, “that was a good day.”
Now if you can only have a good day by accomplishing a goal or making progress to the goal, then that implies that you have to set goals.
To do lists
There’s a lot of different ways of setting goals for the day. The most obvious is probably the to do list. Writing a to-do list is great, because it says, “here are these concrete tasks that I want to accomplish today.” It is a simple and relatively easy way to take control of your time. It’s easier to maintain than a schedule, and it really helps you remember your goals so you can accomplish them. It’s also been shown that crossing things off a list when you do them gives you a little dopamine rush. Crossing things off lists just makes your brain happier.
A lot of people think that to do lists are sad–just piles of things you don’t want to do, but have to. But there’s no reason you can’t put pleasant things on your list too. After all, self care is an important part of life. If you want to put your feet up and drink a glass of wine in the evening to help you wind down, why not write that on your list? Is it any less valid of an activity than washing dishes, or renewing your driver’s license? Is taking a few minutes to relax and read a mind-broadening book somehow inherently less valuable than cleaning the bathroom, just because it’s more pleasant? I don’t think so.
Of course, cleaning the bathroom is important. But aren’t you more likely to be able to keep up with your routine housekeeping tasks if you get a little break now and then?
If you write “clean bathroom and then eat chocolate” on your to-do list, won’t that make it more pleasant? (Unless you are one of those unfortunate people who doesn’t like chocolate. In that case, replace chocolate with whatever makes your life better.) And by all means, put “write to do list for tomorrow” on your to do list for today.
The idea of crossing a bunch of things off lists doesn’t appeal to everyone. But there are other ways of setting goals for the day. Some people theme their days. For example a housewife (oh how I dislike that term) might decide to make Fridays kitchen day, or Saturdays laundry day. Or maybe every second Saturday of the month is yard work day.
But these methods assume that your goal involves accomplishing tasks. But sometimes our real goals aren’t about productivity but about just living. If you aren’t feeling well, maybe what you really need to do is set a goal to rest and relax.
You can also set virtue goals. Today, I will smile more. I will yell at my kids less. I will be encouraging and supportive.
St Ignatius of Loyola writes about virtue goals in the Spiritual Exercises. He calls it, “particular examination of conscience” and suggests a method for it, which is not unlike the method that Benjamin Franklin used for his famous “virtue journals.”
Whether or not accomplishing goals is really the secret of having a good day, learning how to set goals and work toward them is definitely essential to having a good life. My last post was about the tool I use to help me stay on track with my goals. What methods do you use?
Some Helpful resources. (These are affiliate links. I get a commission for qualifying purchases, at no extra cost to you. However, I am recommending these books because I liked them and think that you will benefit from reading them, not because I am paid to do so.)
This book simply and clearly explains how habits are formed, why people so often fail to form the habits they want to form, and how to stop beating your head against the wall and start making real progress
This is the best book on using (or not using) tech to make your life better instead of letting it control your life. One of the best written books I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big
This book is hilarious, as you would expect from the author of Dilbert. Parts of it are rather random. Half autobiography, half self help book, half comedy, it is full of good advice and funny stories. (Yes, I know that makes three halves.)