- Five-year plans and punishing morning routines are often perceived as being integral parts of the path to success.
- But the obsession over a perfect life can distract us from appreciating our days as they really are.
- A variety of experts and writers suggest appreciating the present as it is.
Essayist Charles Chu's former idea of a perfect life was recognizable to anyone who has been 22 and idealistic. Travel the world. Become a millionaire entrepreneur. Universally charm the opposite sex before marrying a PhD who equally adores literature and math.
It was his "Eight-Year Plan," and the answer to his present dissatisfaction and social isolation.
In a piece for The Polymath Project, Chu outlines why that plan was so misguided — and why he ultimately scrapped all of it.
Life can't be controlled
Many of us try to create perfect daily routines in addition to planning for the next decade or more of our lives. That can involve trying to copy the likes of Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos to incorporate some of their successes into our own lives.
But, as Chu wrote, "Life is always more out of our control than we would like it to be." It's rarely possible to succeed at aligning real life with a 5 a.m. wake-up, meditation, and exercise session.
Vanderkam does journal and exercise each day, but rarely at the same time. Part of the reason: People get so caught up in having the perfect routine that, if they miss even a small part of it, they'll just give up on the whole plan.
Whether we're trying to succeed at something as small as 9 p.m. bedtime or as big as becoming a globetrotter, it can be challenging — and isolating. Chu wrote:
When I was most-obsessed with my Eight-Year Plan, I was tyrannical, self-hating, and not so fun to be around. Friends and girlfriends were to be “liquidated” if not useful for personal growth. Time not spent productively was a failure of willpower or planning. I rarely took any days off and — when I did — I did it because taking time off would help me come back later and work harder.
I tried to compress all sides of myself to a single, sharp and focused point. But over-focusing also means tunnel-vision, and tunnel-vision means that much of the picture gets left out.
"Why," a girlfriend once asked me, "do you never stop and look up at the sky?"
Focusing on building the perfect life can detract from the beauty of today
Instead of obsessing over the perfect life, we should appreciate the present as it is.
A truly perfect life "is something that can only exist in imagination — or, in my case, always somewhere five-to-eight years in the future," Chu wrote. By obsessing over something that can't exist, we miss out on what we could enjoy today.
The current productivity ethos of designing our ideal selves through crushing morning routines and lofty plans doesn't help us appreciate the current moment.
"The perfect life is always just around the corner but, if you stop for long enough and breathe, you may find that the minimally-decent life is here already, just under your feet," Chu wrote.
Focusing on the present is a skill that can be cultivated. One key way is by meditating, which forces us to be cognizant of our current moment. "Happiness is predicated on being aware," host of "The One You Feed" podcast Eric Zimmer previously told Business Insider. "It's important to start training that muscle."
Read the entire essay in The Polymath Project here.
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