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#3 What I Learned from Asking 30 People about their Perfect Day

Last year I started asking friends and strangers about their perfect day. I realized 90% of my Kindle books were written by white males from western societies. The thinkers I admired shared a similar worldview. Where could I find different ideas about the good life?

I wanted to learn from a broader spectrum of lived experience. Rich or poor, young or old, accomplished or not – it didn’t matter. I wanted to listen to everyone, even that random dude across the street in Vietnam. We idolize the rich, famous and powerful. Maybe the average, everyday man and woman had something to teach me.

The interviewees were 17-69 years old and hailed from 10 countries. Most were from the US and Vietnam, not surprising given I’m an American living in Vietnam. Slightly less than half were females.

I had no expectations. If anything, I yearned to hear wildly different ideas about their perfect day. Yet after 30 interviews, I’ve found that people mostly want four things: connection, autonomy, progress and a peaceful state of mind.

Connection

Seventy percent mentioned spending time with close friends or loved ones.

Autonomy

Sixty percent wanted control over their perfect day. There would be no externally imposed demands on them. My mom put it best: “I can do whatever I want, whenever I want, spend whatever I want, and be with whoever I want.” (Grace, USA)

Progress

Forty percent wanted to feel like they achieved something. This deep satisfaction could come from getting better at something, doing what they love, or getting important things done.

Peaceful State of Mind

Sixty four percent wanted what I call a “peaceful” state of mind achieved by entering a flow state, or having a clear mind absent of frustration and anxiety. A few described this as feeling thankful. Peaceful seems the best word to describe this present, balanced, and grateful state of mind.

This survey is far from scientific, and maybe I can ask better questions. Still I was shocked to see these four elements appear again and again, no matter the age, sex, and nationality of my interviewees.

Self-Determination Theory

Maybe autonomy, connection, progress and a peaceful mind were deep human needs.

Researching theories of human needs, I came across Edward Deci’s and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory (SDT). 

Their theory, developed over 40 years and backed by hundreds of studies, posits that humans have an innate psychological need to be autonomous, self-determined and connected to one another.

This matched fairly well with what friends and strangers were telling me about their perfect day. They wanted:

  1. Autonomy: a sense of willingness, volition and choice
  2. Relatedness: to feel cared for by others, to care for others, to feel like they belong in various groups that are important to them
  3. Competence: to feel confident and effective in relation to what they’re doing

When these needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive and happy. When they’re thwarted, our motivation, performance and wellness plummet.

Takeaways

I plan to interview dozens (if not hundreds) more people, so the conclusions might change. But so far…

Perfect days are mostly within our grasp.

They are not full of expensive vacations or private yachts. In fact, they are quite simple, even mundane.

What’s stopping us?

I’m left with two questions to investigate.

How can we structure our environment to support our need for connection, autonomy, and competence? This will lead to optimal performance and wellness, and more perfect days. Is our current environment antagonistic or supportive of these needs?

Deci calls this “autonomy support”

What activities support a peaceful state of mind? Well-designed exercise, practice and work can put us into the flow state. Practicing meditation and gratitude can strengthen our ability to be present and thankful, no matter what happens to us.

I’ll be thinking a lot more about self-determination theory, autonomy support, and living in a beautiful state as I continue asking people about their perfect day.

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Vacuums

Marie Kondo has changed millions of lives with a simple rule: get rid of what doesn’t spark joy.

I followed her method; the whole exercise took two days. But afterwards, looking at my tidy closet and empty desk, I felt light, refreshed, and more available.

Her book taught me that we must get rid of what we don’t want to make room for what we do want. Before we bring anything new into our lives, we must first create a vacuum.

Before going on vacation, we hustle to finish our work and tie up loose ends so we won’t be bothered. We create a vacuum to be present, relaxed and inspired by a new place.

But more transformative is to create inner vacuums.

Whenever I want to create a new reality, I try to first ask “What am I willing to let go of within myself in order to create my desired outcome? What beliefs, attitudes, or emotions are preventing me from creating success?”

Right now I am starting a podcast that I hope will help thousands of people. This means letting go of:

  • being, sounding, or looking smart, so I can approach guests – and my audience – in the spirit of true curiosity, learning and sharing
  • making a living with this show, so I can create openly and fearlessly
  • late nights, so I can create during my best hours in the morning
  • being stingy, to create the best content, I need to invest in good equipment

We must create inner and outer vacuums for our perfect day too. If our minds and calendars are full, how can life add anything new?

So my first question when taking action is not “What to do?” but “What must I let go?”

Empty your cup so that it may be filled; become devoid to gain totality.

– Bruce Lee

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The Joker’s Journal

There are many astounding scenes in Joker, but what I remember most is an aerial shot of Arthur Fleck lying in bed, alone in his room, with nothing but a pistol and a notebook.

One lonely man’s thoughts – and subsequent violence – would disrupt Gotham’s power structure.

Joaquin Phoenix also used a journal to become the Joker:

“Very early on in the rehearsal, I was given the journal that he had — his journal and joke diary. And that was really helpful, because I had been there for a couple of weeks and wasn’t sure how I was going to start, and Todd sent this empty journal,” he recalled. “I didn’t know what to write, so I asked Todd for some suggestions, and after a few days, I ignored his suggestions and suddenly it was coming out. It became a really important part of the discovery of the character at that time.”
– Joaquin Phoenix, interview with Daily Beast

It reminded me of how Heath Ledger, in preparation for the Joker in the Dark Knight, locked himself in a hotel room for one month. His tool? A diary full of images, clippings, and thoughts. 

“He would immerse himself in any upcoming character.”
– Kim Ledger

Natalie Portman’s first advice to aspiring actors is to keep a journal and answer two questions: 1) how does the character relate to others and herself? 2) how does he enter the room and what type of energy does he bring? An actor should research and know the character so well that it just comes out of him.

When we are in transition, and evolving into something new, shouldn’t we use the same process?  

You can fill this journal (of the future you) with as much detail as possible:

  • How you move i.e. how do you enter a room? what’s your energy?
  • How you speak i.e. how do you talk to yourself and to others? who do you look up to?
  • How you dress i.e. what’s your appearance?
  • Images, words, and people that inspire your character
  • Key historical events and backstory that shaped you i.e. what motivates you?
  • Acting out scenes and situations as if you were the character 

A big part of transitioning to any new role is changing identities. No amount of conscious thinking can move us to a new identity.

We learn from great actors that to become someone new you need to start with your imagination. Rehearsing, in your mind or in an empty room, your character. Making the character’s psychology and physicality so vivid that others can’t recognize the old you.

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Guardrails

How is it that we can see our friends’ problems clearly, yet our own problems remain impossibly complicated?

All your friends know she is a bad match for him. Or that he needs to stop drinking. Or that he needs tech help.

Yet when it is us, we think, “She is a great girlfriend,” I don’t drink that much,” and “my business is fine.”

Self-awareness. 

Self-management. 

The humility to listen and change.

Three skills for the modern world that are even more essential for the self-employed.

It’s estimated that the number of freelancers will grow from 60 million (2018) to 90 million (2028) and make up over 50% of the American workforce. 

Worldwide this means hundreds of millions of people will soon have to manage themselves. 

In the same way guardrails prevent motorists from driving off the roadway, we need guardrails to do our best work.

Why Guardrails? 

Left unattended, our strengths can quickly become weaknesses.

As an ENFP or “Campaigner” personality type, I see ideas and possibility everywhere. Every scribble on the blank page could be a million dollar, life-changing idea. I believe in my friends’ dreams more than they do. Even when it seems impossible or ridiculous, I take the first step.

Yet too often it is only one step. A month later, I’ve started two other projects but finished none. In creeps the doubt, followed by paralysis. Is this the best idea? Should I pursue another instead? The endless possibilities splinter my effort, leaving me right where I started.

We need guardrails to stay on the road, to keep our strengths just that… strengths.

We need to literally step outside of ourselves, whether that’s 10,000 feet above or pretending to help yourself as you would a good friend.

Imagine seeing yourself in the third person. In what environment would this person thrive? Where, when and why does this person fall off the track? What guardrails would keep this person moving the right direction? 

What Are Your Habitual Blind Spots?

Your innate preferences and blind spots are two sides of the same coin.

I highly recommend Do What Your Are to help you identify your personality type and blind spots.¹ You could also explore different personality types online here.

When I read about ENFPs, it was as if the authors knew me better than I knew myself. Their quote to describe ENFPs, “Anything is possible!” could have been my personal motto. 

The book perfectly described my biggest weaknesses too: difficulty focusing, poor practical skills, and a tendency to start many projects but finish few. Bingo!

What ENFPs must do to succeed is prioritize and follow through.

Guardrails for ENFPs: A Case Study

Once you know you’re blind spots, you know where to put guardrails. 

Below is what I have done to keep myself on track. I hope this helps fellow ENFPs and gets you thinking about your own guardrails.

Blind Spot 1: Difficulty Focusing, Easily Distracted

Guardrail 1.1: Keep goals front and center

My goals are posted on my bedroom mirror. They are also conspicuous in my daily and weekly reflections. This might sound like overkill, but it is exactly what I need to fence in my impulsive nature.

Guardrail 1.2: Limit number of goals and projects per time period

My rule is to never have more than three tasks, goals, or projects per time period. For example, never have more than three to do’s each day, or three goals for the year. Ideally, there is only one goal per time period. What absolutely must get done this week, month, quarter, year?

Guardrail 1.3: Work in time blocks i.e. 25, 50 and 90 minute sprints 

Scheduling and working in time sprints has been my number one antidote to distraction. I commit to one piece of work – whether writing, podcasting, responding to emails – for a minimum of 25 minutes. No phone, no social media, nothing else! I’ve found 50 minutes ideal to enter a flow state without fatigue. Perhaps this is biological or a result of my childhood education that broke classes into 50 minute blocks.

Your most important goals deserve a minimum number of time blocks / day. 

And setting shorter time blocks for tasks you hate can help you defeat procrastination i.e. “I only have to respond to email for 25 minutes.”

Blind Spot 2: Difficulty Following Through, Poor Practical Skills

Guardrail 2.1: Find accountability partners 

Joining a mastermind – a small accountability group – helped my business immeasurably. Once a week I’d have to tell four other entrepreneurs whether I accomplished last week’s goal. Group members also helped me think through my priorities. Again, outsiders can often see your situation more clearly.

Other forms of accountability could be reporting to mentors, advisors or a board.

Guardrail 2.2: Require deadlines and deliverables for ideas 

Deliverables and deadlines force follow-through and output. ENFPs tend to overthink everything, which leaves many projects unfinished. It’s hard to set your own deadlines. Therefore I seek out events that end in a deliverable, whether that’s a Startup Weekend or a group committed to making something over a weekend. 

Other forms this guardrail could take include: 

  • Publish one blog post / week
  • Do at least 200 pushups / day
  • Launch one minimum viable product (MVP) this quarter.

Guardrail 2.3: Hire people to do routine, detail, repetitive work

I’m embarrassed to say that only in my late 20s did I realize some people love to do administrative work, which I despise. I didn’t think I’d be able to find anyone to help me do web research and data entry. Yet dozens jumped at the opportunity to do so. Hiring people also forces me to build systems so value can be delivered without me.

Guardrail 2.4: Work with realistic, practical people

Being idealistic can be a blessing and a curse. I surround myself with practical, common-sense people to protect against the curse. In my first business we had three partners. When we started, two of us would obsess over business models, financial projections and company culture. Our third partner – a serial entrepreneur – pulled us aside one day to think like “Chinese business man” (said with fully racist accent). What materials do we need to design our shop? How much cash do we need for the next three months? Who will work the evening shift? He kept our focus on what had to be done right now. We would have never launched our business without him!

If You Were Responsible for Helping Yourself, What Would You Do?

I would tell Darren (myself) to pick a job where he regularly encounters the new. I would tell him to find a role that rewards spontaneity and creativity. He should use daily checklists to stay on track, and hire an operations wiz as soon as possible. 

I would tell him that he needs more deliverables and deadlines. I would advise him to report to experienced advisors with track records of getting things done. He should also consider getting investors so growth and financial return is made a priority. I would also encourage him to model successful ENFPs. What do they work on and who do they partner with?

As adults, no one will do this for us. 

Self-awareness. What are your blind spots?

Self-management. How can you design your environment so your innate tendencies are harnessed, and don’t work against you?

The humility to listen and change. We all have strengths and weaknesses. The sooner we can admit and design for these, the farther we can go.

Where and what are your guardrails?

Darren’s guardrails as an ENFP personality-type

Footnotes

¹ The authors of Do What You Are offer 16 personality types based on four questions. Everyone falls onto one side of these scales.

How do you interact with the world and where do you direct your energy?
(E) Extraversion vs. Introversion (I)
(E) Are energized by being with other people vs. Are energized by spending time alone (I)
(E) Like being center of attention vs. Avoid being center of attention (I)
(E) Act, then think vs. Think, then act (I)

What kind of information do you naturally notice?
(S) Sensing vs. Intuition (N)
(S) Like to use and hone established skills vs. Like to learn new skills, get bored easily after mastering skills (N)
(S) Tend to be specific and literal, give detailed descriptions vs. Tend to be general and figurative; use metaphors and analogies (N)
(S) Are oriented to the present vs. Are oriented to the future (N)

How do you make decisions?
(T) Thinking vs. Feeling (F)
(T) Step back; apply impersonal analysis to problems vs. Step forward; consider effects of actions on others (F)
(T) Naturally see flaws and tend to be critical vs. Naturally like to please others; show appreciation easily (F)
(T) Are motivated by desire for achievement vs. Are motivated by desire to be appreciated (F)

Do you prefer to live in a more structured way (making decisions) or in a more spontaneous way (taking in information)?
(J) Judging vs. Perceiving (P)
(J) Like to make decisions and control vs. Like to live spontaneously and remain flexible (P)
(J) Seek closure vs. Avoid closure (P)

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Making Your Perfect Day a Reality

How can you live more of your perfect day, every day?

Below are eight exercises to help you make the transition. Our willpower is limited, so we have to make living our perfect day as simple and easy as possible. Then we can build the momentum to make even bigger changes.

1. One Hour
2. Find People Living Your Perfect Day
3. Design Around Constraints
4. The Wheel of Change
5. Identify Your Triggers
6. The Money Test
7. Prioritize Around Values
8. Hack Motivation with Success Spirals

1. One Hour

As a first step, spend at least an hour today giving your fullest gift, whatever that is for today, so that when you go to sleep at night you know you couldn’t have lived your day with more courage, creativity, and giving. 

David Deida

Simple right?

You’ve spent 10 minutes envisioning your perfect day. Now is the time to act.

Don’t wait. Each wasted moment degrades your clarity of purpose.

Even spending 15 minutes a day towards the actualization of your perfect day is a first step. I recommend doing what you love at least one hour a day.

Did your eyes just glaze over?

One hour? I have family duties. I’m exhausted after work. I don’t have enough time. 

If you don’t or can’t spend 1/24 of the day living your best life, maybe the future you’ve been dreaming about for so long is simply a fantasy. 

This one hour should be thrilling and fulfilling! You need it and the world needs it. We need you to be burning bright, not passing days half dim.

When you commit, new paths forward appear.

Even if you realize your vision is a fantasy, you’ve gained outsight.

Do something, anything, now.

2. Find People Living your Perfect Day (or Parts of It)

The fastest way to change yourself is to hang out with people who are already the way you want to be.

– Reid Hoffman

Attending DC BKK, a conference for location-independent entrepreneurs, was life-changing.

I had tried for months to make money online, but couldn’t breakthrough. I had read countless books and blogs and followed their directions step-by-step. 

Business plan. Done
MVP. Done
Marketing channel traction. Done

Where was the money? 

It had been almost a year since I quit my corporate job. Maybe I just wasn’t cut out to be an entrepreneur. How was I going to explain this gap year to employers?

I couldn’t do this on my own. I needed help. With my back against the wall, I bought a ticket to Bangkok for the conference.  

The advice was helpful. But more transformational was being around 40 other location independent entrepreneurs who were making a great living selling cat furniture, yoga scheduling software and condoms. They weren’t any smarter than me. They had just committed to this path – and stayed in the game long enough – to succeed.

I shared meals with Derek Sivers, who had sold his music business for 22 million dollars. Although the keynote speaker, he was as humble, grounded and eager to learn as newbies like me. It was a drastic change from the rigid status hierarchies of the corporate world. Here was Derek, sitting next to me in a t-shirt and sandals, taking notes as a 20-something talked about selling e-cigarettes in China. This world was not about age, status, or experience – it was about building stuff customers wanted.

After that conference I made my first consulting sale. Yes, I used advice from a speaker and made my offer page more frictionless. But just being with this group for three days changed my reference points for what was possible. I could do this!

Who do you know already living your perfect day? How can you spend more time with them (hint: offer them something of value)? Where and when is the next gathering of people you want to be like? Go. Buy a ticket if you have to. It will change your life.

3. Design Around Constraints

24 hours. That’s all we have each day.

Sleep. Eat. Poop. Move. These are our biological needs.

Peak. Trough. Recovery. This is our daily energy cycle.

Designing your day around your time, body and energy constraints – I call them blocks – is a common-sense way to live your perfect day.

For example, I’ve learned that I need eight hours of sleep per day, and that I get hungry (to the point that I can’t concentrate) every four hours. I have the most focus at the beginning of the day; by nighttime my willpower is depleted. Hence one of my rules: no important decisions after dinner! 

I also need to sweat each day or my energy and sleep suffers. That usually takes one hour. Meals with friends last at least one hour, so I usually need 2-3 hours for meals. After my biological needs of sleep, hunger and exercise are met, I’m left with 12 hours. 

Knowing all this, I’ve set up my perfect day to have two long blocks of creative work in the morning and early afternoon, and one shorter block for routine administrative work in the late afternoon. Which leaves me four hours for socializing, play, and miscellaneous time sucks, like errands and commuting. 

Time Constraints:

  • 12 hours for physiological needs: sleep, eating and exercise
  • 12 hours for everything else

Body Constraints:

  • Need 8 hours for sleep
  • Need 3 hours for eating / body maintenance
  • Need 1 hour for exercise
  • Hunger pangs every 4 hours
  • Max 3 hour blocks of sedentary screen time
  • Need nature every day

Energy Constraints:

  • Peak hours 1-7 awake — schedule favorite, most important work
  • Trough hours 8-9 — schedule mindless stuff here or rest
  • Recovery hours 10-11 — schedule routine, less important work
  • End of day hours 12-16 — schedule fun, zero-willpower activities

Schedule

12am: sleep block
1am: sleep block
2am: sleep block
3am: sleep block
4am: sleep block
5am: sleep block
6am: sleep block
7am: sleep block
8am: morning rituals + breakfast
9am: creative block #1
10am: creative block #1
11am: creative block #1
12pm: lunch
1pm: creative block #2
2pm: creative block #2
3:30pm: BREAK (nap, errands, exercise)
4:30pm: admin/routine work block
5pm: admin/routine work block
6pm: LOST HOUR (commuting, errands, interruptions, meetups)
7pm: dinner
8pm: fun block (socialize, play, learn, exercise, help)
9pm: fun block
10pm: fun block
11pm: end of day rituals + bedtime
12am: sleep

This schedule is NOT rigid; in fact I often wake up late. The shape of each day changes with events, outside demands, and your body’s needs and moods. Some of you may prefer NO work on your perfect day, or may prefer a manager’s schedule to my maker’s schedule. There is no formula!  Nevertheless knowing your time, body and energy constraints gives you pre-set blocks to design your day, like legos.

Once you know your blocks, you can fill them with multiple perfect day activities i.e. eating meals with friends, exercising in nature, walking (instead of driving) to work, meals and meetings to get one hour of exercise. 

You’ll also have a standard for your off days. If I’m sick and can squeeze in one creative block and one meal with friends, that’s a GREAT day, even if I spend most of it in bed.

This is a sobering exercise. You realize you have limited hours each day to live your best life. Why not maximize this time and do the right things at the right times?

What are your basic sleep, hunger and exercise cycles? When are you the sharpest?

If you were to divide your typical day into blocks, what would they look like? 

Which brings us to the next exercise…

4. The Wheel of Change

When it comes to transforming your current day to your perfect day, you only have four options. 

The Wheel of Change, from Marshall Goldsmith’s book Triggers
  1. Creating: what positive elements do you want to create in the future (from adding to inventing)
  2. Eliminating: what negative elements do you want to eliminate in the future (from reducing to eradicating)
  3. Accepting: what negative elements do you want to accept in the future (from delaying to making peace)
  4. Preserving: what positive elements do you want to keep in the future (from maintaining to improving)

Then within each of the four categories, there’s a continuum of how much you want to keep or change. For example, under creating, you can invent a new activity or you can add to an existing activity. Under eliminating, you can eradicate an activity or merely reduce it, and so forth.

When we think of change, most of us focus on creating new behaviors, activities and identities. But equally important are the other three categories. We must preserve what serves us well, and be disciplined to not abandon these for shiny objects. We are often reluctant to eliminate things we enjoy that aren’t helpful to our purpose. Finally, sometimes we must accept when we are powerless to make a difference.

What one behavior – if created, eliminated, accepted or preserved – would move you to the closest to your perfect day?

5. Identify Your Triggers 

If we do not create and control our environment, our environment controls us

– Marshall Goldsmith

Most of us ascribe our success to willpower. I got straight A’s because I worked like hell. This narrative runs deep in American culture, from business to fitness.

But the older I get, the more I realize the environment’s role in shaping my success.  

Yes, I worked hard in high school and was co-valedictorian. But this was largely because my mother instilled in me strong study habits. My best friends were also high achievers and co-valedictorians. Studying hard seemed normal.

Changing our behavior as adults is hard enough. We have limited willpower and our environment nudges (and sometimes directs!) our behavior everyday. That’s why we must rig our environment with triggers that make living our perfect day easier.

I highly recommend reading Triggers: Creating Behavior that Lasts, written by world-renowned executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, to learn more. Important for our discussion is to know that our behavioral triggers can be mapped over two dimensions: want and need   

Want vs. Need Triggers from Marshall Goldsmith’s Triggers
  1. We Want It and Need It (where we want to be). The carrot.
  2. We Don’t Want It but Need It (where we need rules, accountability and pain to do the right thing). The stick. 
  3. We Want It but Don’t Need It (where we sacrifice goals for short-term gratification). The candy. We should avoid these triggers, and forgive ourselves for an occasional treat.
  4. We Don’t Need or Want It  (where we don’t want to be). The shit. We should eliminate these triggers, yet also accept that shit is sometimes unavoidable.

To identify your triggers, complete the following exercise.

  1. Pick one behavioral goal you’re pursuing on your perfect day 

Spending less time on social media.

  1. List the people and situations that influence your behavior, and chart them on the want vs. need spectrum. If you’re falling short, you’re probably getting too much of what you want, and not enough of what you need. What’s your plan moving forward?

Situation 1: I’m lonely, bored or need a break, so I mindlessly go to social media for a dopamine hit.

Trigger: Candy (want it, don’t need it)

Plan A: Avoid temptation by taking Facebook and Instagram off phone, install Facebook newsfeed blocker on laptop.

Plan B: Limit distraction by setting 30 minute limit for social media on phone

Situation 2: I need to access social media to find information or for work. But then I get sucked in and forget what I came for.

Trigger: Stick (need it, don’t want it)

Plan A: Open and close a browser tab for each social media task

Plan B: Batch longer social media tasks, during the day and week

Situation 3: Endless texts and alerts from acquaintances who expect me to reply asap. A few are important or from close friends.

Trigger: Stick (need it, don’t want it)

Plan A: Set rules and alerts so important messages come through.

Plan B: Set expectations about timeliness of responses i.e. responding on WhatsApp twice a day.

Plan C: Accept that you can’t make everyone happy; it’s okay to not respond if you’re busy. Just make sure you’re in close contact with people who matter the most.

What counterproductive triggers can you avoid? What productive triggers push you toward your ideal day?

6. The Money Test

If you want a clear picture of your priorities in life, who you are and what you care about, look at your checkbook, your credit-card bills, and bank statement.

– Lynn Twist

We’ve looked at time, but does your money serve your perfect day?

Recently I found myself deliberating over a $180 USD subscription to Masterclass. These teachers were exactly who I wanted to learn from – creative practitioners and masters of their craft, like Malcom Gladwell, Neil Gaman and Judy Blume, who had written countless bestsellers. How did they do it? 

I had agonized over this purchase for eight months (!) but never committed because of the price tag. Finally, a month ago, I sat down and did a quick analysis of how much I had spent on learning this year. 

$70 USD 🙁 🙁 🙁

A Masterclass subscription would bring that up to $250, under 0.5% of my income.

My perfect morning is spent in creative pursuits – writing, hosting, and filmmaking – and I was unwilling to invest 0.5% of my income to learn from some of the world’s greatest writers and filmmakers?

Ridiculous. I’m literally hitting myself myself right now for not acting right away. 

$180 seems like a lot of money with so many free books, podcasts and videos available. But when put into the context of my perfect day, it’s nothing. In fact, it’s the best investment I’ve made this year.

What values does your spending express? Does money flow to your highest values and commitments?

7. Prioritize Your Day around Your Values

The biggest first world problem is comparison syndrome. We see other people doing things and we think, “Look at them. They have more success than us. They must be doing something that’s working.” So we think the grass is greener on the other side and we chase these shiny objects, and when we do that, it actually brings a lot of stress into our lives because we’re doing what other people value and it takes us away from our values.

– Craig Ballantyne

When researching about others’ perfect day, I discovered fitness entrepreneur Craig Ballantyne had written The Perfect Day Formula. Of course I had to learn more!

While I disagree that there is a formula for the perfect day, I do like Craig’s idea of designing your day around your values.

His pyramid of values contains 1) family 2) health 3) wealth and 4) experiences.

Then for each of those values you ask, “In 20 years from now what would you regret NOT doing or achieving?”

I’ve modified his template.

First, what is your pyramid of values? 

Second, in one year from now what would you regret NOT doing or achieving?

Your Pyramid of Values + In One Year, What Would You Regret Not Doing?

For example:

  1. Health: establishing a daily meditation habit 
  2. Relationships: meeting potential long-term partners 
  3. Wealth: spending mornings on creative pursuits 
  4. Joy: writing a book that empowers more people to live their best life

Third, schedule activities supporting these values into your morning, afternoon, evening and nighttime. Craig suggests anticipating common obstacles for these time periods, similar to what we did under Identify Your Triggers. 

Morning / Afternoon / Evening / Nighttime Activity:
Evening Obstacle: 
Plan A:
Plan B: 

For example:
Evening Activity: Dinner with girlfriend
Evening Obstacle: Late for dinner
Plan A: Public accountability to leave office at 5:30pm
Plan B: No glass of wine with dinner if dinner starts past 7pm

Designing your day around your values will drive you to make more right decisions each day.

8. Hack Motivation through Success Spirals

Fail once, lose some confidence and motivation, try less, fail again, and repeat until you’ve no hope left. The biggest hack a motivation hacker can perform is to build her confidence to the size of a volcano.

– Nick Winter

My friend Jimmy changed my life with a simple practice: doing a minimum number of pull-ups per day. It doesn’t matter if that’s 2, 10 or 100. Just do it everyday and get a little better.

Two months ago I started with 10 pull-ups. It sucked. My hands hurt and I felt pathetic. But each day I did at least 10. Soon I upped that to 20/day, then 30/day. Now I’m at 60/day.

Yes, I’ve gotten more ripped too!

But the best part is that I now look forward to my time with the bars. Yes it’s painful sometimes. But hitting my daily pull-up quota is an easy win each day. The message I send consciously and subconsciously?  Every day I’m getting a little stronger. 

Over months that momentum of daily discipline makes you feel unstoppable.

Nick Winter wrote a gem called The Motivation Hacker. In it he proposes a formula (MEVID) for motivation which perfectly explains my pull-up success spiral.

Motivation = (Expectancy x Value) / (Impulse x Delay)

I’m using Nick’s definitions below, and then illustrating them with my pull-ups.

Motivation is the fire, energy, excitement which drives you to act, to achieve your goals. 

Expectancy is your confidence of success. When you’re sure you can win (high expectancy), motivation is high. When you think you’ll probably fail even if you try, you won’t try – motivation is low. Ideally you design tasks with High Expectancy – no matter the task, you know in your core that you can learn to do it well, so you look forward to the challenge.

I know I can do the same number of pull-ups as the day before, maybe even a few more.

Value is both how rewarding a task will be when you finish it and how fun it is while you’re doing it. Working on goals that are important to you brings high motivation. Doing boring, pointless things causes low motivation. Ideally you design tasks with High Value – things so fulfilling that whenever you stop and think about it, you can’t help but grin to yourself.

Fitness is big part of my identity. Working out with Jimmy in the park is fun. I also get a psychological boost everyday. And I feel and look stronger.

Impulsiveness can be thought of as distractibility: how likely you are to put a task off and do something more pressing. When you have other things you’d much rather be doing, your Impulsiveness is high, and your motivation low. If there’s nothing else you could be doing right now, then Impulsiveness is low and motivation high. Ideally you design tasks with Low Impulsiveness – at any time, there’s only one clear thing that you want to do, so you have no problems focusing on it.

I need a break from work, sitting and screens anyway, so I might as well exercise in the park. I can listen to my favorite music too. Also, once you see the results, it’s hard to stop. If you don’t do it, your day feels worse.

Delay is how far off the reward seems to be. This is often hard to manipulate directly: rewards are often delayed so far that we hyperbolically discount them into worthlessness. But sometimes you can set yourself up to perceive Delay differently, thus scoring a big motivation win. Ideally you design tasks with Low Delay – you are always so close to achieving one goal or another that you never lack the urge to finish.

Pull-ups take 15 minutes; the physical “high” is immediate.  

By increasing Expectancy or Value, or decreasing Impulsiveness or Delay, you hack motivation. 

When you know you’re going to succeed, motivation abounds, and vice versa. Design your perfect day so it’s easy to succeed. One way to do this is to set input-based goals (write for one hour) rather than output-based goals (write one page). 

 Examples:

  • You want to meditate. Success spiral: meditate for five minutes a day
  • You want to become a designer. Success spiral: design everyday for fifteen minutes 
  • You want to be more friendly online. Success spiral: support one friend/day online

Just Do It

Design a day full of small wins, and your perfect day is right around the corner.

Act now. Spend a small part your day doing what you love, and make it so easy to do so, that it turns into a success spiral. Spend money and time hanging out with people already living your perfect day. And center your day around your values. Easy wins!

Rig your environment so living your perfect day happens by default. What are your time, body and energy blocks? What can be created, eliminated, accepted or preserved from your current day to get to your ideal day? Do your daily situations have productive triggers?

If you read about these tools but change nothing in your day, I’ve failed.

Just. Get. Started.

Once you commit to action, you’ll start building momentum – and confidence – so that living your perfect day is not only possible, but inevitable. 

Then you can move to evaluating and refining your perfect day.

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Blog Perfect Day

What’s Your Perfect Day?

Photo by Joshua Kirshner

It’s time to have some fun.

If you’re like the dozens of people I’ve interviewed, you already have a good idea of what your perfect day is.

Below are 10 questions that will help you gain an even clearer picture of your perfect day. 

But I want you to take one more step. 

Find a quiet and expansive space, and give yourself 10 precious minutes to be completely comfortable and present. It’s important that you feel calm and relaxed – not rushed.

No hard thinking is required!  Just notice what first comes to mind. Jot down notes if you’d like. 

Don’t limit yourself. After all, it’s your perfect day. There is no way you can fail. And you have all the time, money and resources to do whatever you want. We’ll worry about designing your day later.

Let’s get started.

(feel free to play my 10-minute guided meditation below)

10 Questions to See Your Perfect Day with More Clarity

Get comfortable and relax. Take a few deep breaths.

As you ask yourself these questions, freely receive whatever thoughts, feelings, images that come…

  • What’s your perfect day? 
  • What are you doing and when? 
  • What would you love to do on your perfect day?
  • Where are you? Who are you with? 
  • What does your perfect day feel like? When have you felt those sensations the most?
  • What values would guide your perfect day?
  • What would not be a part of your perfect day?
  • What needs to be released for your perfect day to manifest?
  • What needs to be embraced for your perfect day to manifest?
  • Now that you’ve spent a few minutes thinking about this, what else wants to be known about your perfect day?

After you’ve completed the visioning, spend some time writing about the meaning of these images, thoughts and feelings that appeared, that have come into your awareness.

Allow them to naturally formulate into a sense of personal direction.

Is Your Perfect Day Yours?

What did you realize about your perfect day? Does it ring true?

My goal was for you to access your intuition, the wisdom that comes from your gut. That’s why I mostly focused on senses, feelings, and the now, instead of hypothetical exercises that make you imagine your future i.e. where do you want to be in 20 years?

In my interviews I try to move people from their mind to their gut, so their perfect day feels visceral. I want their answers to well up from deep inside them. This doesn’t always happen. Many times I hear opinions:

  • “People should do ___”
  • “Stoics believed that ___”
  • “Stephen Covey says we should do this ___” 

I try to move people from opinions and philosophy to their own experience and stories. There they can access their intuition. I can feel their energy open and expand when they answer these questions. For example:

  • “People should do ___” → “How does doing ___ make you feel?”
  • “Stoics believed that ___” → “How do you make ___ part of your perfect day?”
  • “Stephen Covey says we should do ___”  → “Tell me about a time when you did ___”

What are the wishes of your heart? Often we keep these secret, or worse, buried. If you feel this way, try asking yourself these questions:

  • What do you secretly wish to do?
  • If your parents were not around, what would you do?

Truth and Fascination

Here are two final questions to test if your perfect day is intuition-based and yours alone.

Does your perfect day feel like truth?

Does your perfect day fascinate you?

If not, you’re likely stuck in your head. Don’t worry. It’s not your fault – you’ve been deeply conditioned for years, maybe even decades, about what a perfect day should be. It has certainly taken me a few tries and my perfect day constantly evolves too. Just do this guided meditation every once in a while until your perfect day feels truthful and fascinating.

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

– Albert Einstein

Resources

 

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Blog Perfect Day

No Matter What, A Beautiful State

I waited for her, fidgeting, telling myself to play it cool. Straightened my shirt. Glanced at my phone again, nothing.

I had driven half an hour across town to meet her at a restaurant minutes from her office. No big deal when you like a girl.

She was twenty minutes late now. 12:20pm. Still no message. I sent her a text:

Are you coming soon?

Heyy. Are you there??
Coming now! Sorry missed the time
Heyy
Wait
Are you a little flexi on time?

I got to run at 1:30pm

Oopsie, I will come by now then
Because I also have to leave at 1:30

She came 40 minutes late. I tried to smile as I ate my noodles. She barely ate. Turns out she had just lunched with her colleagues.

Can you take me back to my office?

I’ve asked many people about their perfect day. More than half mention having a clear mind, absent of frustration and anxiety. This would be part of my perfect day too. Tony Robbins calls this a beautiful state – when your spirit and heart are alive, when you feel joy, gratitude, playfulness, and the best of you comes out.

It’s easy to exist in a beautiful state when everything goes your way.

But what about when your crush forgets about you for the third time? After she promised to come to your birthday and then didn’t show? After she cancelled dinner last minute for a doctor’s appointment?

Ughh. Gut punch. And then the anger and resentment.

It’s easy to spread this suffering state to others. “Can you believe this girl?!” you tell your friends. “Hot girls are the worst!” you tell yourself. You start looking for proof that beautiful women are spoiled and inconsiderate, and of course, you find it.

Even worse, you carry that victimhood and toxicity with you everywhere you go.

How can we live in a beautiful state not only when everything goes our way, but also when someone screws us, injustice happens, everything goes against us, we lose something or someone, no one understands or appreciates us?

This might be the secret to a perfect day.

We chase money, experiences and relationships for how they make us feel.

What if we could access those states, right now, no matter what?

Here’s my five step process. The first two are reactive and the last three preventative.

1. Look Deeply at Your Suffering

When these feelings arise, you have to practice in order to use the energy of mindfulness to recognize them, embrace them, look deeply into them. It’s like a mother when the baby is crying. Your anxiety is your baby. You have to take care of it.
– Thich Nhat Hanh

So many times we run away from our suffering, or numb it with distractions and drugs. Rather, we should breathe and be with our suffering as a mother would her crying baby. The mother’s presence gives the baby immediate relief.

Then the mother looks deeply at her baby. Why is the baby crying?

Why was I so hurt by this girl? Because we had an amazing first date. I hadn’t felt those butterflies in ages. She said she would definitely come to your birthday. She didn’t. Nor did she send any message. You tried again, arranged a dinner. She backed out last minute because of a doctor’s appointment at 7:30pm. Really? You gave her the benefit of the doubt and tried again, this time for lunch. She forgot… again! You’re pissed. Breathe deeply and be with the baby, the hurt, the resentment. Breathe.

You are not her priority right now. Her startup is her top priority. She’s just not that into you. Try to step into her shoes, super busy, running around, so much of life in flux. She just forgot about you. She doesn’t mean any harm. You’ve been there before too, when work was number one, and relationships secondary.

Being present with your emotions, and attending to them like they were someone else is such a powerful exercise. With distance you can see the cause and effect of your suffering with more clarity. You develop more understanding for others.

Thich Nhat Hanh uses the analogy of the mud and the lotus flower: “Your suffering is the mud that allows you to grow the flower of love and compassion.”

This starts with embracing your suffering. The baby only cries louder if you run away.

Some of you might scoff at my situation. He’s upset just because a girl blew him off a couple times? Weak. How about having cancer? Or having to flee a country?  But this is precisely the point: the littlest problems can seem like life or death if we don’t take the time to look deeply. So much of our suffering is unnecessary.

2. Interpret Events in an Empowering Way

We can’t control events in our lives, but we can control what those events mean to us – and thus what we feel and experience every day.

There are many ways I could interpret my crush missing our lunch date:

What a bitch! Girls are so flaky in Vietnam. It’s so hard to meet decent girls!

or

She is sending clear signals about this relationship. You are not a priority for her. Time to let go and make room for women who truly value you. Thank her for teaching you about self-care and inspiring this blog post. 🙂 Drop the comfortable identity of being wronged. Wish her the best with her business and life.

My favorite quote right now is “Life happens for us, not to us.”

How can you organize and interpret references so that they empower and free you? Put you back in a peaceful state of mind?

Tony Robbins shares his “90-second rule” in Unshakeable.

When he starts to suffer, he gives himself 90 seconds to stop and return to living in a beautiful state.

How? First by breathing, slowing things down, stepping outside the situation, and distancing himself from stressful thoughts. Then by finding something to appreciate.

By doing this he trains his mind to find the good in every situation. “What’s wrong is always available, but so is what’s right.”

The problem isn’t the existence of negative thoughts, what hurts us is the habit of believing or identifying with them.

3. Use Rituals to Return You to a Beautiful State

Playing tennis competitively as a junior and in college taught me the power of rituals.

Rituals were done in between points. I’d mentally and physically gather myself, especially after an unforced error. Let go of what just happened. Take a deep breath. Focus back on my racket’s strings, the score, the strategy, the next point. Recite mantras that get me back into the zone.

When we’re in a suffering state – feeling stressed, frustrated, angry, depressed, irritable, overwhelmed, resentful, or fearful – why not go back to rituals that put you in a beautiful state?

These are different for everyone. Tony Robbins has his 90-second rule.

My beautiful state rituals are:

First, making sure to eat nutritious food, drink lots of water, exercise, and get plenty of sleep. Putting aside work and social obligations to get these right. Addressing my most basic physical needs almost always puts me in a better state.

Second, using proven “medicines” to shift my state. For me, these are nature, music, and great friends. If these can be combined even better!

Most would consider Ho Chi Minh a concrete jungle, but even here, I can sip coffee next to the Mekong River or sit still on a park bench, surrounded by trees planted hundreds of years ago.

I have a playlist full of songs to which I visualize my best life. I put these songs on, and instantly my state picks up, gets positive, gets optimistic.

And what warms your heart more than laughing and sharing with good friends?

Third, designing flow into my day. Have you ever woken up hungover and down, not ready to face the world? Or maybe you received some awful news. Don’t lose those days. Just move a little closer to your most important goals. My friend Jimmy calls this “doing what deeply satisfies you everyday.” Dance for one hour. Write for one hour. Do 200 push-ups. Help someone in need. Make a daily practice of getting better at things you value and bring you joy.

Some of my most rewarding days are the ones that I turn around from sucking to trucking, from “my life sucks” to “what a great day!” How? By taking action, no matter how small, to living my best life and progressing towards goals.

What are your rituals that return you to a beautiful state?

4. Practice Gratitude

Every morning I wake up with a prayer on my lips, thanking God and the universe for another day.

My first steps outside I find three things for which I’m grateful. I can always find three.

Thank you legs.
Thank you breeze.
Thank you sun!

When eating I taste the elements in every bite, and consider all the hands and life that labored to get this food prepared and in front of me.

What are you grateful for? Make gratitude a simple part of your day, like taking a shower.

A gratitude practice changes your rules for what has to happen in order for you to feel grateful. Is it having one million dollars? Having a pretty girl like you? Or is it simply for your good health and being alive?

Soon, you can brush off things that used to piss you off. They don’t matter.

5. Meditate

When you walk through a city totally present, earphones off, you see so much more: hidden food stalls, new venues for your next gathering, beautiful moments between friends and family. I could drive down a street one hundred times and never find these gems. I’m moving too fast.

Meditation, like walking through a city, allows you to walk through the garden of your mind, as well as the back alleys and dark corners. What seeds – positive or negative – are being planted, and what’s being watered? What’s triggering your suffering state?

I’ve found that a daily practice of meditation contributes to my sense of balance and well-being. Time slows down and once you identify your triggers for suffering, they lose their power.

You are not your thoughts nor your lightning strikes of emotion. You are the consciousness observing them.

Life’s Too Short to Waste Time Suffering

Think of your last bad day. Maybe someone important to you broke their promise. It’s easy right then to lose the day, and enter a spiral of suffering. You want to kill that driver who cut you off, and you curse the smog that is choking you. The sky looks darker, and everything seems to be going wrong.

In those moments, look deeply at your suffering. Be and breathe with it like you would a baby. Why is this happening for you? Get back to activities and people that make you feel great. Accomplish something that moves you towards your dreams, no matter how small. Be thankful for everything you have. Life is pretty darn amazing.

When everything is going wrong, how do you stay in a beautiful state?

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Perfect Day

Maud, 31, French Teacher

“When I come back home, I feel very tired – a good feeling tired – and I’m happy the day was spent the way it was spent.” (Maud, 31, France)

I met Maud at riverside homestay in Vĩnh Long, where I’d see her in a hammock, reading and enjoying the breeze. She was on vacation from her teaching job in Phnom Penh. We shared a van back to Saigon, where she would soon meet up with her girlfriend.

Maud’s perfect day:

  • No work, but maybe do projects she’d do on a day off, where she has the time “to think and create”
  • Talk and laugh with friends
  • Exercise outdoors to clear the mind (through concentration) and for satisfaction (for getting better at something)
  • End the day “good tired,” not “exhausted because you want the day to end”
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Perfect Day

Nam, Homestay Owner

“I am building a pool for my son, right on the Mekong river. He very much love to jump into the river everyday.” (Nam, 40, Vietnam)

Looking for quiet and fresh air, I escaped Saigon and took the bus to Vinh Long, three hours away. A small town on the Mekong river, Vinh Long is known for its home stays, so I booked the highest rated one.

After crossing the river on a ferry, and walking one km on an uneven concrete path, I arrived at the Mekong Riverside Homestay. A shirtless man lying in a hammock checked me in.

He was Nam, the owner. Two years ago he bought this flooded piece of land, raised it one meter, and started building the first of ten bamboo bungalows. He was inspired by his grandfather, who had lived in a bamboo house that lasted 30-40 years with “no problems.”

My curiosity was piqued. Who was this man who built everything with no construction experience? Who spoke such fluent English?

Two nights later over beers, I learned more about Nam. He had grown up poor on An Bình (the location of the homestay, across the river from Vĩnh Long); as a child, his father was imprisoned for four years after the war. Nam ate rice and tapioca for years, and would fry lychee seeds to make “chocolate” treats.

Sometimes the river was full of fish, which his father taught him to catch. “After the rain, the river is muddy and the fish can’t see good. That’s when you lay your trap.”

After high school, Nam tried out a variety of jobs: cutting hair, fixing computers, making gold rings, and driving boats. The only one he really enjoyed was the latter, boating visitors around the Mekong. After getting married and having two kids, he started his latest “job,” building a 10 bungalow homestay, full of flowers, hammocks and fruit trees.

When I asked him about his perfect day, Nam responded: 

“I am building a pool for my son, right on the Mekong river. He very much love to jump into the river everyday.”

Maybe he didn’t understand me, but that was his answer and it seemed fitting. I left inspired by Nam’s story and his homestay on the river. Isn’t that all we can do? Dream and build something with our two hands? Take an abandoned land and build an oasis for visitors and a pool for our son?

Nam’s perfect day: building this pool for his son and homestay guests

Stay with Nam and his family:

Mekong Riverside Homestay

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Perfect Day

Linh & Linh, Students

“I want to spend a day resting and enjoying myself. Right now I am buried with assignments and work. I would love to rest and spend time doing things I love, like binge watching films, laying in bed, and reading books.” (Linh, 17, Vietnam)

I was at Bâng Khuâng cafe, when I overheard the two Vietnamese teenagers next to me discussing College Confidential, a forum for US university applicants. Why not ask them about their perfect day?

Linh’s perfect day:

  • Lying in bed, watching her favorite movie or reading her favorite book
  • Raining and windy outside
  • Going to the coffee shop and doing work or creative projects
  • Thinking about life

I then turned to Linh’s classmate, also named Linh, whose perfect day was very similar. Both feel “buried” by studies, work, friends, lovers and family, with no time for themselves.

Linh’s perfect day:

  • Lying in bed, watching movies and reading books
  • The perfect day depends on her mood and situation
  • Wants to be more positive, yoga has helped her

Yet both acknowledged that their perfect day depends on their mood and situation, and that maybe being positive is the answer: “Maybe the perfect day is actually imperfect, because nothing is perfect. We always have disturbances but you have to accept it and make it your perfect day.”