How Can You Be Free When There Are Things You MUST Do?


Most of the challenges we face in life are the kind that last a long time. A lot of them last your whole life long.


To show you what I mean by that, let me give you an example. You have to watch what you eat. Well and good, but here’s the kicker: you’ll never be done watching what you eat. You had to watch what you ate last year, you have to do it now, and you’ll have to do it next year. By definition and by its very nature, nutrition is the kind of problem that stays with you. Sometimes you’ll have a better handle on it than others, but you’ll always have to eat something.


You took a shower today. You’ll have to take a shower tomorrow too.


You mowed the lawn today. You’ll have to mow the lawn next week too.


You paid your bills today. You’ll have to pay your bills next month too.


Most of the challenges we face in our everyday lives have this same perpetual structure: no problem ever gets fully solved, everything degrades by degrees, and you always have to put more effort into the system to keep it from falling apart. In many ways, life is repetitive.


Now, you can choose to take this in one of two ways. The first is that you can say, “My God, what’s the point of it all? What could possibly be more dreary and boring than a life that’s made up of nothing but a lot of nested cycles ceaselessly repeating till it ends in the grave?”


Let’s be clear: I’m arguing against this view, but I don’t think it’s wrong. Because on its own terms it’s true enough. I think we can all agree that there’s something nightmarish about looking at life as a matter of being caught in a loop. And any person so inclined could find a virtually endless number of quite legitimate reasons to feel trapped somewhere in a cycle not of his or her own choosing.


We’re all caught in the cycle of our own language. We’ve all got a particular manner of thinking that we cycle through on a weekly or yearly basis. We’re all caught in the economic cycle of boom and bust. We’re all caught in the cycle of waking and sleeping. Election cycles. Daily cycles. Weekly cycles. Monthly and yearly cycles. Cycles within cycles within cycles, to the point that the whole thing starts to look like a Ptolemaic map of the universe with all its cycles and epicycles. Endlessly running through the cycle, the ouroboros swallows its own tail…


Is it any wonder the word “everyday” has taken on such a dreary and depressing connotation?


In the end, you can’t argue against this way of seeing the world. The facts are there to support it. Once someone has chosen to experience themselves as the passive victim of a malevolent universe with its cruel machinery, there’s no talking them out of it. They’ll always have plenty of excuses to justify their innocence and prove beyond any doubt that other people were given chances they didn’t have, or that they’re just too profound to do anything but suffer in a life that’s not worth anything.


Are they wrong? Well, no. Not objectively at least. But deep inside themselves they’ve decided not to accept reality on its own terms. And that’s an idiotic choice to make, by anybody’s standards.


Which takes me to the second way of reacting to the repetitiveness of life: you can choose to embrace it. That’s where freedom lies, really. It’s in choosing to do willingly what you have to do by nature.


Does that mean it’ll be any less tedious to get up at the same time every morning and go to bed at the same time every night? No.


Does that mean you’ll be bursting with joy when you floss your teeth, one by one, for the eight hundredth day in a row? No.


Does that mean you’ll ever get used to the fact that that lousy lawn won’t just sit still and stay mowed? No.


But when you decide that you’re going to choose to do these things, the whole character of the thing changes. Sure, you’re going to feel some irritation and resistance at the fact that you’re doing the same damn thing yet again. But it’s no longer the resistance of fighting against some external power that’s imposing its will on you; it’s the resistance of bringing the resentful part of yourself in line with the part of yourself that’s good and self-disciplined.


And that’s the value of consistency. When you consistently do something that’s good for you, it’s often the case that the best thing about it isn’t that you’re doing this whatever-it-is that’s good for you. It’s that you’ve formed a consistent habit and managed to turn that into a source of self-discipline.


Freedom is a funny thing. I think we’ve all got this spontaneous idea that freedom is the freedom to pick out the brand of chips you want, or something trivial like that. We think of freedom like it’s the opening up of a wide range of possibilities. That’s true as far as it goes, and I think the measure of a free country is that it opens up that range of possibilities. But the responsible use of freedom calls for a voluntary self-limitation. When external laws don’t bind you, you have to be a law to yourself.


That’s what consistency means: it’s the voluntary acceptance of the self-limitation that comes with discipline. There’s no strength without discipline, and there’s no discipline without voluntary self-limitation.


You can’t always choose to be enthusiastic about the everyday realities of your life. But you can choose to face the everyday realities of your life. Face them willingly and wholeheartedly, full of the awareness that this is your choice and you’ve committed to it without reserve. Over time, with consistency and self-discipline, you’ll mold yourself into the kind of person you can be proud of being.


Monday Motivation: What You Do Right Now


There’s nothing easy about motivating yourself. Let’s face it: if it was easy, you wouldn’t have to do it all the time. Motivation would be something like graduating from school, where it happens all at once and it’s done with.


I think that way of thinking is one of the things that really sucks away at our motivation. Because we always want to think of our work as something we could get all over and done with, if only we made one big push.


We’ve got a painfully linear way of looking at our lives. Everything has a clear starting point and a clear endpoint in time and space—or at least that’s the way we like to think of things.


I don’t know why it is, but we’ve got a tendency to think of life (and all the events in our lives) in terms of a linear structure. You’ve got your rising action, you’ve got your climax, and you’ve got your falling action.


So we always think that if we can only push hard enough, we can get to that climax and finally get the whole thing over and done with. That’s basically the model of time and motivation we walk around with in our everyday lives.


Good and well. Except for the fact that it turns out to be an outrageously inaccurate way of looking at the world.


Granted, there are some genuine division points in a human life. Graduation, or marriage, or having your first child are definitely paradigm shifts that we could think of in a linear way. So on a broad time scale, the linear model makes a lot of sense.


On a very short timescale too, the linear model makes sense. Let’s not get too precise here, because I’m just putting these concepts on for size… but when I say a “very short timescale,” let’s just take that to mean anything less than a full day.


With a very short timescale, I can wake up, go through my morning routine, do my morning work, eat lunch, do my afternoon work, entertain myself for a few hours, and go to sleep. There’s a high degree of linearity on that scale, because every event is separate and not likely to be repeated.


I only wake up once.


I only eat lunch once.


I only go to sleep once.


It’s clean, it’s linear, and it makes sense. And on the scale of one individual day, it makes sense for me to think I can get everything done in one big push and not have to worry about it again after that. So you can see how the linear model of time makes sense on the scale of a whole lifetime or on the scale of a single day. But what about in between?


In the average week, let’s say, I wake up seven times and go to sleep seven times. I eat lunch seven times. I work five or six days.


The specifics of my life aren’t important here: what’s important is that we start to see patterns emerging. I know it’s a pretty elementary point to say that a day is a 24-hour cycle, but that’s exactly the point we need to remember: when we’re going through our lives, we’re going through a pattern of nested cycles.


A day is nested in a week. A week is nested in a month. A month is nested in a quarter. A quarter is nested in a year. A year is nested in a decade… and so on, and so on, and so on.


The point is, when you start looking at life in terms of weeks, months, and years instead of days, you notice different things. You start to notice that habits become important. And that’s what I’m trying to establish here: in the long term, the habit of sustained action is far more important than any moment of inspiration could ever be.


So often we think of motivating ourselves to “get over the hump,” or to reach some point where everything will be pretty much clear and settled forever. But the point I’m trying to drive home here is that nothing ever gets settled forever.


So if you’re trying to motivate yourself to move forward, you need to work on motivating yourself in such a way that you can accept what you’re doing as part of a day in, day out process. In the long term, it’s more fruitful to think of your actions in terms of habits.


Think of it this way: when you sit down to do something, imagine there’s a part of you saying “I choose to do this, in this way, at this time, every day for the rest of my life.


That’s a bit of an overstatement, but it confronts you with something very real: with every action you take, you form your character. If you allow yourself to put off some task you’re dreading, you’re training yourself to put things off in the future. But if you tackle the thing you’d like to avoid head-on, you’re training yourself to tackle the things you’d rather avoid before they get out of hand.


There’s always going to be that piece of you that would rather avoid doing things that are hard. There’s no shame in admitting that.


But what’s shameful is when we allow that desire to avoid things to keep us away from doing what we know we really ought to be doing.


It’s shameful to spend half your afternoon scrolling through Facebook instead of getting to work on that project.


It’s shameful for the guy to avoid approaching the pretty woman because “She probably won’t like me anyways.”


It’s shameful to hide and turn away from reality because you’re not sure how you’ll deal with it.


So what’s the takeaway here? The takeaway is that you should never forget that you’re deciding who you are every moment of your life. Who you are today has a real effect on who you’re going to be twenty years from not.


Form yourself through your actions, consciously and intentionally, and you won’t be disappointed.


How Routines Can Help You Stay Sane

Maybe it’s better to write about routines on Monday than it is on Friday, but here goes…


I’m sure you’ve all had the experience of going into panic mode because you’ve got something huge that needs to get done todayWe’ve all been guilty of putting things off longer than we should.


You sit down to work, and you realize this is a bigger project than you thought.


Then your heart starts pounding.


Then your hands start to sweat.


You keep looking at the clock.


It’s a terrible feeling. Anxiety shoots down the back of your spine, and you feel it in the back of your head.


And what caused it? Usually it’s procrastination.


Back when the Puritans were first settling this country, they knew how bad procrastination can be.


Seriously. Go take a look at the sermons of Jonathon Edwards. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and all that. He’ll tell you exactly what a heinous sin procrastination can be.


As well he should have! They were settling a new society in the wilderness. Do you think they had time to spare?


(Seriously, go check out Jonathon Edwards if you’re ever feeling unproductive. Better motivation than Tim Ferris and Tony Robbins put together!)


Anyways: the question is how do you fight procrastination?


The answer: habit and planning, ladies and gentlemen. Habit and planning.


Habit is good. Planning is good. But if you manage to make a habit out of planning, you’ve got a winning combination!


Granted, it sounds a little boring and old-fashioned. I remember the days when I’d hear talk like that and imagine some old grandpa wagging his finger at me disapprovingly.


But (and I know what an old cliche this is) Rome wasn’t built in a day. Every major accomplishment takes major effort and planning.


With routines and planning, you can manage to project your efforts through time. That’s how you get it all done.