“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he's always doing both. ” – James Michener
Each of us probably thinks about excellence now and again. Am I doing enough? Should I be making more of an effort? Am I passionate about this? Feeling like you aren’t doing enough, or not knowing why you are doing something in the first place is a pretty lousy feeling.
But here’s the kicker - the secret of pursuing excellence (and I define that as having answers to the questions above and confidently going about something you’re doing), and the beauty of it, is that it’s in the eye of the beholder. It’s whatever you define.
That fact, arguably, can be just as daunting. Especially for those of us who hold ourselves to incredibly high standards. But the art of living isn’t so much about working day and night to achieve this self-defined standard of excellence. It actually frees you in that you can pursue your vision of excellence by choosing to implement things that are important to you in your daily life. Sometimes those things will be small and sometimes major but it doesn’t matter. It has a snowball effect. Do one thing every day. And then another. And another. Before you know it, you’ll be pursuing excellence in the other things you do too. And one day, you’ll be that person that gets it. The one that knows it’s all the same as long as you’re doing it in the spirit of excellence.
Here are 5 strategies to get the snowball rolling.
Strategy 1: Exercise. Set goals, track your progress, be accountable for your excellence
Wearing a fitness bracelet (the kind that tracks your steps and calories while you go about your daily life) is a very tangible and relatively simple way to set fitness goals and reach them. You can choose how many steps you want to take in a day, set calories burned, hours to sleep and reminders for drinking water, for example. Exercise can often be a binary game – either you went to the gym or you didn’t. Either you can cross it off your list for the day, or you can’t. With a fitness bracelet, you aren’t setting yourself up for disappointment at the end of the day for not reaching your goal. Rather, in real time, you can see how you’re doing and make an effort to increase the number of steps you’ve taken.
Staying fit has its obvious benefits. But having a small device that trains you to set a goal and try to meet it daily has a larger impact. It has a simple cause and effect mechanism that trains you to instinctively strive for the best. In small, incremental and manageable ways you can see yourself setting a goal and meeting it. Everyday.
There are a lot of different brands out there. Here are 3 well known ones to get you started.
Strategy 2: Learn something
I want to learn something new. I like tackling a new skill. I have no interest in going back to school for the third time. But I want to learn. Think about what you’d like to learn. If you’re not sure, experiment. The hard part is sometimes just starting. But the great thing is, you don’t have to commit to another degree. You can take a class or go to a lecture or practice a language you learned in highschool (and have long since forgotten) when you have a free moment.
Here’s an idea to get you going. Learning something makes you feel high. My favorite learning app these days is Duolingo. This app is awesome. You can choose almost any language and practice when you have a moment here or there. It can be a language you already are somewhat familiar with, or an entirely new one. You can set daily goals (even just 5 minutes a day) and meet them. I’m studying Italian with it and frankly, I’m addicted.
Strategy 3: Be mindful and calm your cluttered brain
It’s a word thrown around a lot. You probably think it’s a bit new age. But it has a pretty basic and true principle: being mindful is our ability to be present and fully aware of what we’re doing in a given moment while tuning out the clutter of what’s happening around us. Most of us are already capable of doing this to an extent. Here’s the way it works.
You sit at your kitchen counter with a cup of coffee. You observe the present moment as it is and maybe appreciate that your coffee smells good, like the Folgers commercial.
You’re able to do that for about three seconds and then you start thinking about how your husband annoyed you this morning. Or how you have 527 emails to get through and it’s not even 10am. Or that you have socks piling up in your laundry basket. You make a mental note, and let it go. You return to appreciating your coffee and how good it tastes.
Then you start thinking about your socks again. Don’t be hard on yourself for whatever thought pops up. Just practice recognizing that you’ve wandered off again and bring yourself back to that cup of coffee.Rinse, and repeat.
If you do this at different times in your day, the benefits will begin to appear. If you find yourself struggling, try paying attention to your breathing. It’s something you have to do anyway so now you just have to pay attention to it. It’s a way to turn off your thoughts for just a moment. Also, don’t multitask. It’s pretty hard to focus on the present when you’re doing 3 things at once.
Strategy 4: Doing something is better than not doing something
We all procrastinate sometimes. Though you probably have that annoyingly perfect friend who somehow always seems on the ball, efficiently and effortlessly getting everything done. Finding ways to do more and procrastinate less is a crucial part of striving for your vision of excellence. If you’re not doing, you can’t wholeheartedly say that you’re doing all in your power to achieve the things you want to achieve and be the person you want to be.
The psychology behind procrastination is a field unto itself. People come up with a variety of reasons or excuses not to do something today. I’m too tired, stressed, busy, young, old and the list goes on. Those reasons can sound pretty convincing. But what is standing behind them is a discomforting feeling around doing the hard work of making meaningful changes. Fear of discomfort (and we are wired to protect ourselves from pain or anything that might threaten our pride or balance) is what drives procrastination. And while it may feel good in the short term, it’s tiring to constantly think about the things you could and should be doing in the long term.
Breaking that bad habit can be hard to do. Here are some ways to try:
- Write down your goals: make a list of the things you want to accomplish today, this month or this year and give yourself a deadline
- Build accountability: Ask your friend, your work colleague or your partner to help keep you on track. It can be as small as a reminder if you completed a certain task today or as big as a word of emotional support by reminding you of the things you’ve accomplished in the past.
- Build momentum: Step out of your comfort zone at least once a day by completing the small task you would have put off.
Strategy 5: Seek out new experiences
My favorite way to experience new things is to travel and see the world. Hands down, it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do. I do it every chance I get. It’s a pretty obvious one though and probably warrants it’s very own attention since I have a lot to say on the subject (and I’ll save it for some of my other articles). But there’s an experience less talked about but definitely not less important.
Volunteering can have a strong impact on you. Beyond contributing to the world (the planet, people, animals – whatever) and making you feel warm and fuzzy inside, it has a somewhat selfish benefit too. My mom is a pretty special person. She has her own very successful business that she runs together with my dad, and works very hard to make it that way. And still, she has decided to sit on the board of multiple organizations that are important to her. She does things she hates to do like help fundraise and speak in public. She does things she likes to do like plan events and get people involved. She has no time. She has a disabled daughter, elderly parents who she loves and cares for and a husband who wants some attention too. But she somehow found the time. No excuses.
When you put as much effort into volunteering as you do your job, you become that person that lives to a certain standard of excellence no matter what you do.
Summing things up,
If you find yourself frustrated that you haven’t quite figured out how to pursue excellence in what you do, just start by doing. One thing at a time. To get momentum, you need movement. Eventually, your efforts will compound and you’ll feel you’ve mastered a certain je ne sais quoi that what you do, you do it well and maybe even with a little style. And that’s really the objective at the end of the day - to master the art of living, isn’t it?
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