Day In, Day Out

by Deanna Zachgo
by Deanna Zachgo

A few weeks ago, I signed up to take part in a giant survey on happiness. I learned about it via an NPR podcast on TED talks. Three times a day, the program sends a prompt to my phone and asks a series of questions to gather data on all kinds of things—pets, food, procrastination, sleep habits.

What I had not anticipated was the way the app would create The Observer mind for me, helping me to notice and understand what I’m doing, day-to-day, week to week. It turns out that I’m an optimistic and productive and happy person—if I get enough sleep and can get outside regularly. It also turns out that when they ask the question, “Do you HAVE to do what you are doing right now?” I can almost always answer “no.” And the answer to the follow-up question, “Do you WANT to be doing what you’re doing right now?” is almost always yes.

Those two questions in combination are a revelation. How do I spend my days? It’s pretty much always the same. During the week, I have breakfast with my beloved, then walk my dog for a couple of miles, then come back and start writing. Or sometimes, I procrastinate for a while, then start writing, but either way, I usually get to work sometime in the morning. Turns out, that makes me happy. I love writing, even when I…er…don’t. There are days it’s challenging, hard, and days I hate the work I’m doing, but I’d still rather be doing it than almost anything. It’s my choice to write. MY choice, not anyone else’s.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

Annie Dillard

When I went to New Zealand a year and a half ago, I missed my then-not-quite-a-year-old granddaughter a lot. A lot more than I thought I would. Being so far away often gives me a great magnifying lens on my life, allowing me to see what really matters, and that time, it was her. I made a decision to set aside one afternoon every week, and one weekend night a month to spend with her. Month in, month out, I drive over and pick her up from daycare and we spend the afternoon together. Not often doing much, honestly. Sitting around sometimes, reading. We wander over to the park or hang out in the garden or maybe cook something. Same thing on the weekends she stays overnight. We read. We play around, we just hang out. Nothing much.

And yet, it is everything. When she is grown and I am very old, I can wander down memory lane and touch those days. When she is old and I am gone, she will have those afternoons to link us together. Day in, day out.

Day in, day out, I walk a half hour or an hour. Week after week, that daily constitutional keeps my heart strong and my joints loose even if I’m not the svelt sort of grandmother I once imagined I would be.

Day in, day out, I write, too. The weeks pass, and words pile up—sometimes quickly, sometimes not so quickly. Months go by and books are roughed out, and edited, and polished, and finished. Years go by, and a body of work slowly builds.

Isn’t that peaceful? I mean, it really is an easy way to think about your life, finding the simplicity of what makes you happy and doing that in an ordinary, every day sort of way.

If happiness and peaceful production come from being in harmony with spending your days the way you want to spend them, where does unhappiness come from? Spending your hours in ways you don’t want to spend them, which means day after day you’re doing things you dislike. Which means month after month, you are in a state of resistance, which means year after year, you build resentments and anger, and probably a host of health ailments like stiff necks and frozen gall bladders.

Are you spending your hours doing the things you want to do, the things you feel are yours to do? One person might thrive building a business, while another only wants to play with his children. Of course, we are all writers here, so that’s where I want to put the focus of the questions: are you finding the time you need to write your work in a peaceful, habitual way, or is it a constant source of strife and stress to make that time? What other daily practices could you change to get the writing done?

Check in with yourself over the next few weeks to see when you are happy or not happy. Try the app, maybe. It’s free and it’s illuminating. Notice where you have control over your life and where you don’t. Where can you get rid of things that are not productive–watching too much television? Wasting time on Facebook (I timed myself recently, and FB time is a BIG time sink)? Notice, notice, notice.

Mary Oliver asks us, “Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Hour by hour, we spend it.

How are you spending your hours? Engaged in the writing or trying to find more time for it? Can you identify a couple of time wasters, things you can maybe get rid of to make more time for the writing you love?

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About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.

Comments

  1. says

    Happiness. A much undervalued quality, if the spoutings of the business community are a measure. Like you, Barbara, I’m happiest when writing or spending quality time with my wife and daughter. Simple things. The rest is just ‘padding’. I don’t yet have an iPhone, but when I finally make the move, I’ll download this app; looks like a great motivator for actually doing what matters.
    Thanks for this post.

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  2. says

    Lovely post, Barbara. I find happiness to be rather fleeting (comes in moments) and probably should wave in and out so we know what makes us unhappy. I’ve been into focusing on ‘fulfillment’–which is not quite the same thing as happiness. Writing fiction is often a fulfilling and meaningful activity. Weeding the garden makes me happy but not at all fulfilling. Love the Annie Dillard quote!

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    • Amy says

      I agree that weeding the garden makes me happy as well. I just have to wait for the fulfillment/happiness/satisfaction when the flowers bloom and look nice or the vegetables and berries are ready to be picked and eaten.

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    • says

      Love the distinction between fulfillment and happiness. Somethings have both, but others just one. I love weeding (actually gardening gave me my highest marks on the happiness scale), too. Just being outside, doing that non-verbal thing, has a big payoff.

      Of course, it doesn’t get the pages done.

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  3. says

    Marvellous Barbara. I have been fortunate enough to mostly choose what I do every day, yet when a bad back slowed me down in the last 6 months, I suddenly realised how busy I have been since 2005 and probably before that! I enjoyed what I was doing, but oh, too busy! My bad back was aying, ‘stop breaking your back!’

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  4. says

    I agree with Paula, just lovely. And wonderful reminders! And on a day I am running late to the dentist! (Something I’d rather not do, but have to if I want to keep enjoying my teeth.) Thank you!

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  5. says

    So true Barbara. Sometimes writing is hard. Sometimes it’s frustrating. Some days I come to the computer reluctantly, but still I do sit down each morning and write and though I might value a day off now and then to recharge mind and soul, more than that one day and I’m noticeably fretful over not writing. Still, I indulge in those two time sucks you mentioned… except I’m of two minds about TV. I only watch drama (story), and I think if it’s good story it can fill the creative well too, though books are better.

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    • says

      No argument from me on TV. I’m a fan, too, and my family teases me that after many years of never watching much at all, I now almost always have something in progress (currently Parenthood on Netflix, Mad Men and Game of Thrones and Years of Living Dangerously On Demand). It is a lot easier to watch television the same way you’d choose to read a particular book, and the big thing about it is that the delivery is super fast, which means more stories, but also more time for reading. Double win!

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  6. says

    Whoops, to continue. So, now I mainly do what makes me happy and hopefully helps others be happy too. Yes, walking, swimming, writing, being a therapist but not so much now, having the time to read more books and learning and undertaking new and interesting creative projects.
    Looking at how we spend our time every day, between work, kids, partner, ageing parents etc, it is so important to also create time for ourselves to enjoy our life.

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  7. says

    Over the last year, I have come to be happy most of the time.

    It has been a conscious choice. Valerie Alexander, at speakhappiness.com, got me thinking about choices, and how happiness, as a state of mind, is a choice I can make most of the time.

    There are plenty of things wrong with my life, as with everyone’s, but I still get to choose how I will respond. I used to be faintly depressed most of the time – and that didn’t serve any purpose. No one noticed, no one particularly cared – and I pulled down the general satisfaction level.

    Not intentionally – I thought I was being realistic. I have been disabled for almost a quarter of a century. My children have had their problems. My husband worked too many hours. You know the drill: there is no scarcity of life events that can cause unhappiness.

    But it didn’t help deal with those events. Not at all.

    Now, like you, I get that writing time – by carefully managing energy and other commitments – and find happiness there every day. This time of year weeding gets me outside into the beautiful spring weather we all waited for so long during this past hard winter. There are MANY things I can do. I’m working on the ones I can’t.

    And I’m happy most of the time – and drag myself back there when I need a reminder.

    I agree with the previous commenters: lovely post, lovely thoughts.

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    • says

      Alicia, this made me chuckle: “I used to be faintly depressed most of the time – and that didn’t serve any purpose. No one noticed, no one particularly cared – and I pulled down the general satisfaction level.”

      So true! And we all know this behavior–most of us have indulged it and we certainly know people who carry their little sad cloud around with them everywhere they go. How wonderful that you found a way to bring on your own sunshine. Love the site you recommended. I can see I’ll be visiting more in the future.

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  8. says

    “…your one wild and precious life.” How gorgeous. I love that I get to do something everyday that challenges me and stretches me. Writing is all that and more. Your advice to notice, notice, notice is profound. I noticed a while back that I was pre-stressing about the things that I imagined were going to keep me from my writing. I was resisting things that weren’t even there. How insane is that? But noticing it helped me laugh at it, then change it. We live in a stressful and distracting culture. I engage in media blackouts (no news) for extended periods, time better spent in the woods or with my granddaughter. Took me a while, but I’ve learned to feed my soul and steer clear of the junk food as best I can. Wonderful words this morning. Thank you!!

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    • says

      Very impressed that you do news blackouts. I know people who do no-Internet Sundays and things like that, too. I’ve been practicing more of that, not plugging in so insanely all the time (I can open my phone approximately 1000 times a day! Why? What am I looking for there?)

      Granddaughter time really is pretty spectacular.

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  9. tom combs says

    Thought provoking post.
    Attitude is significant imo. In some writing circles i hear “there’s nothing harder than facing a blank page”, and other woe-is-me variants on the rigors of writing. REALLY?

    I think those of us that are afforded the luxury of indulging our passion are among the luckiest of all. For most on the planet the struggles, pain and privation are fundamental. What a gift to engage in the challenge of creativity and self-expression!

    I like many others often lose sight of my tremendous good fortune – your post has been a nice reminder. Thanks.

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    • says

      Tom, I hear those things, too, and think: why then would you be a writer? It’s not alway easy, of course. Creative work does have its elements of struggle, but as you say, the richness of being able to spend time on self-expression, self-actualization on the level that we as writers do is an enormous gift.

      Lovely response. Thank you.

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  10. Amy says

    This post has come at a good time for me. I have continued to ask myself “Where did the day go? And why do I feel as though I have accomplished nothing or only the things that have to be repeated day in and day out?” Yesterday after reading another writing blog on using “chunking” with my time I thought, What I really need first is to know what I am doing on an hourly basis. For me, I think I have developed a bad habit of “looking” for “work” that needs to be done around the house because for so many years we were trying to sell our condo and with two small children it would become dirty and disorganized from daily living. Do I derive happiness from this use of my time? No. A sense of satisfaction that I completed these tasks, yes, but then they reappear later in the day or are repeated daily. I realize I need to shift my focus/priority and do more writing because it does make me happy. It allows me to be creative and to clear the thoughts and ideas from my head. Thank you for this timely post.

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    • says

      Knowing how you spend your time is a huge step, Amy. I found it helpful to keep a log for half hour increments, nothing fancy, just to see where I was spending all that time I was panicking about. It was helpful.

      Especially when you have lots of other responsibilities, the busywork that never gets done can be a time waster. I find I need a clean kitchen before I start work (no idea why), but the floors can be as disgusting as they wish. :)

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  11. says

    I love your posts. They make me feel so peaceful. Were you a Zen master in your former life?

    Before reading your post, sometimes the day-in-day-out nature of being left me feeling encased in carbonite. Your words have helped me to see it from the other side of the looking glass, and it looks much more comforting…like something you can count on when everything around you might be going to hell.

    Sophia / She Likes It Irish

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    • says

      My sister would howl over me being any kind of Zen master, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

      Whatever helps make the day more peaceful for you–I’m all for that. Sometimes it really is a matter of shifting perspective, as you say, looking from the other side of the glass. (Lovely!)

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  12. says

    Your post reminds me of a gem of a book, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women’s Work by Kathleen Norris. I am drawn to it every once in a while because it affirms the way I live, raising the children, keeping house, writing and praying. We’ve been busy singing for Holy Week liturgies, and the children have spring break (finally!) and it is so lovely. Next week we’ll return to our normal school/work routine and I’ll echo Tom above in giving thanks for having this writing life. For to be creative, one must first have the basic needs met.

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  13. says

    I’m a fan of anything that increases mindfulness. Speaking for myself, it’s too easy to get pulled into automatic behaviors and urgent-but-unimportant tasks. It’s also good to be re-minded that we’re constantly choosing our attitude even if certain behaviors are compelled for periods of time. Thanks, Barbara. Off to check out the app.

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  14. says

    What a wonderful and perfectly timed post, Barbara! I’ve been spending a lot of time in “resistance” lately and I feel it taking over! Time to re-prioritize. Thanks for sharing!

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  15. says

    I love having that “observer mind” you mentioned. I’ve caught myself repeating the same mistakes over and over again and taken steps to correct that behavior. As a result, I’m generally a happier person. Meanwhile, I watch other people living in self-destructive patterns and I keep wondering why they don’t see it. Why they don’t do anything to change it.

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  16. says

    This was so perfectly timed for me. I have just made the decision to devote a year to writing and have been angering for weeks as to whether or not it was the correct choice. What you say of happiness and noticing that when I write, though I don’t have to do it, it makes me happy has really given me the boost I needed.
    Thank you!

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    • says

      Sending great wishes for a productive and satisfying year. Remember, you will fear and doubt as often as you are exhilarated. It’s part of the process.

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  17. says

    And speaking of stiff necks and frozen gallbladders……. Since actively pursuing my ambition to publish (achieved, thank you very much!) I’ve suffered both, due not to what I’m doing with my writing, but what I can’t do with it because of other drains on my time. I LOVE being a writer, even the sometimes tedious business of editing and tweaking. But I do not love the marketing aspect, and having to learn the ins and outs of self promotion while trying to raise a house full of kids and working part-time can take its toll. It’s wonderful to recognize what feeds your bliss, but another animal all together to keep it well nourished.

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