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?

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.