Early in my adult life I wasn't into any of that inspirational goal-setting stuff that I saw others doing. To me, grown up life seemed pretty simple. Work hard, be good at something, eventually you'll make a lot of money doing it.
Of course, that's rubbish. When you're working for other people, the reward for hard work is usually just more work. You also tend to be given more of the work that you're good at, even though it's not necessarily work you enjoy doing. And money is a poor measure of success. There's plenty of rich people in the world who are miserable.
As I got older I realized two things:
- Working hard without a goal in mind can easily move you further away from where you really want to be.
- The main thing that I want more of in my life is happiness.
So, if happiness is a goal that is important to me, then my days should be filled with things that either make me happy, or move me closer to that goal. To have more days like that, I needed to know what those days should look like.
Which brought me to the question, what does my ideal day look like?
When I asked myself that question a few years ago, this is what I came up with:
Wake up around 5am, drink a glass of water, and go downstairs to my home gym for some exercise. Afterwards, head back upstairs and make breakfast for my family. Eat my delicious breakfast burrito, drink my coffee, and read a book on my Kindle or some saved articles from around the web on my iPad.
After breakfast, spend a little time with the kids before they head off to school or go do their own thing. Then I'll go and do a few hours of writing or other projects that I have on. Just before lunch, go through my emails and add anything to my todo list that needs a follow up, then go and eat while reading my Kindle or watching some YouTube clips.
After lunch, do a little more writing, then hit my todo list items for an hour or so. In the late afternoon, go do some exercise with the whole family, like a bike ride, a walk, or play basketball at the park. Pick up something fresh for dinner, and cook a nice, healthy meal for the family while the kids chill out or do their homework.
After dinner when my wife goes to the gym, I’ll do a little reading, Netflix, an online guitar lesson, or just play some video games. Get to bed around 9pm for a good night’s sleep.
That all sounds pretty good to me. Unfortunately, my days were nothing like that. In fact, not even my weekends were like that. I was so far from my vision of an ideal day that my heart sank a little, and I thought to myself “Geez, this is f***ed up!”
Looking at my ideal day, there are some themes that emerge:
- Time with family
- Healthy eating
- Work that I enjoy doing
- Control over my time
- Fun leisure activities
- A good night’s sleep
When I compared my perfect day to some of the jobs that I’ve had during my career, none of those themes were present in the typical day. I would wake up tired from a late night, scoff down some breakfast cereal, and rush out the door to catch the train into the city. After a half hour of being squished in a peak hour train carriage, I would walk into the office and sit down at my desk.
The day then consisted of an endless barrage of other people’s priorities. Lunch consisted of whatever food I could quickly run out and buy, then hurriedly eat as I dealt with more of other people’s priorities and tried to pretend I couldn’t see my gym bag sitting under my desk. After staying late to deal with yet another of someone else’s priorities, I would squeeze into another train for the ride home.
At home we would cook whatever fast, convenient meal we could throw together, then I’d log in remotely and try to close some overdue tasks before stumbling into bed when I couldn’t stay awake any longer.
That’s a far cry from my ideal day.
There were only two ways I was going to achieve something close to my ideal day. Either I needed to win the lottery, or I needed to stop letting my job consume my entire day. Since the lottery win was not likely to happen, I set about trying to fix my day job. I needed to find a job that allowed my days to include most, if not all, of those themes from my ideal day.
That meant I needed to find a job that allowed me to work more reasonable hours. Having more time away from work meant I could spend time with family, get regular exercise, and take the time to eat healthy. During work hours, I needed to have more control over how my time was spent, so I wasn’t constantly reacting to other people’s priorities, and could do more of the work that I enjoyed. Yes, I would still need to do things that I didn't want to do. That's life. I just didn't want that stuff filling up my entire day.
In the years after I first asked myself that question, I worked in many different roles that fit my ideal day to some extent. Some jobs had flexible hours, as long as the work got done. Others had a gym near the office, or lockers and showers in the basement, so I could work out at lunch and ride my bicycle to and from work. Some had clear technology roadmaps with reasonable target dates that didn’t require a non-stop 150% effort. Some of them had none of those things, and I didn’t stay long before moving on to another job.
Yes, crunch-time during projects might mean staying late a few nights here and there. Upgrading systems sometimes means working on a weekend. Critical outages need you to keep working on them until they’re fixed. But those should be exceptions, not normal days. A company that is constantly running on crunch time, or suffering constant outages due to poorly designed systems, was not where I wanted to work. Some overtime or on call work is a fact of life in IT, but a consistent 50+ hour week fighting fires is just not something we should accept as the norm.
Now, the obvious point here is that the ideal day is not necessarily what you can expect to live every single day of your life. Your day to day life is going to vary once you factor in things like relationships, having kids, maintaining a social life, the weather, and so on. Sure, I’d love to take the kids down to the park every single afternoon, but two or three times a week is more likely. They have other stuff they also like to do on their own. Week days will look different to weekends, winter will look different to summer, and so on. There’ll be a natural ebb and flow in your lifestyle, and that is normal.
Your ideal day will look different to mine. Perhaps you don’t mind a long commute, because it lets you get some reading done. Perhaps you prefer to spend your weekends playing video games, hiking in the wilderness, or building your own furniture out of recycled wood. There is no right or wrong. It’s all about what you want. To maximise your career and achieve a happy life-work balance, you need to know what you’re striving for.
And that starts by answering this question:
What does an ideal day look like for me?
Try it and see how close you are.