When you ask someone what they want from life, most people will tell you that they want to be happy.
Push a little bit more and they will tell you they want to do something useful or meaningful, make a difference, leave a legacy, or fulfil a calling.
We call that succeeding.
That is, the activities we undertake every day provide us with personal happiness or satisfaction and have long term benefits for yourself and/or other people.
Some people are happy because they do something that helps others long term, even short term. Others do so out of some form of obligation or guilt and do not derive happiness from it.
Many people find each day something of a chore, that is neither satisfying nor brings long term benefits. And an increasing number of people fill their days with fun activities that provide little benefit to anyone.
Look across the room to your fellow diners and it’s highly likely that the next table are all staring at their phones. A passenger in the car next to you is playing a game. Kids sit glued to their tablet. We carry devices around with us that link us instantly to a world of entertainment and distraction.
Then there’s work. Which, in comparison can seem to be a lot less stimulating, but you gotta do what you gotta do. Then the blessed relief of a beep means an interesting and exciting message has been pushed through to your device and a shot of dopamine spikes through your brain bringing the promise of untold pleasure and fun.
You open your inbox and see message after message demanding attention but you want to ignore because they’re not the fun type of message. In fact, they cause a jolt of cortisol to flush through your brain and a little norepinephrine that triggers your fight or flight travel centre to divert energy from your stomach to your arms and legs.
Every day you are faced with choices about what to do when. It’s tempting to take the short term happiness generators, or maybe you’re the sort of person who buckles down and does the most unpleasant task first saving the fun stuff for later?
It’s going to help you know what you spend your time on now and evaluating using this chart.
This chart has two dimensions and five different modes of behaviour that we use to characterise our relationship to any activity.
You simply ask two questions about an activity you undertake:
- Does this activity make me happy (or provide a degree of short-term satisfaction)?
- Are the results achieved from this activity worth my effort in giving a long-term positive impact on my life?
There are no “right” answers to these questions, and your rating score is entirely down to you (by all means keep changing it until you work out what is really a 10, and what is really a 1)
In an ideal perfect world, we would find great short-term happiness in everything we do, and each reaps the long-term benefit. In reality, we all do things that run short of the perfect score for us, but the more we can get the balance and the higher, the better. For high performance, you do those things that bring the greatest long-term benefit in the shortest time. For most fun you do those things that bring the greatest happiness over the longest period of time. In the end, it’s your choice but the better the overall balance, the more likely you are to enjoy each and every day.
You can then plot your regular activities on a chart like the one above. Which activities are Surviving, which stimulating, sacrificing succeeding or are they sustaining?
Stimulating activities feed your short-term satisfaction but do little for long-term benefit. Watching an amusing YouTube video, most television programming, an alcoholic drink or three, smoking a cigarette or taking drugs may provide a quick “high” but long-term could even be harmful. It’s increasingly easy to fritter your life away on fun but meaningless activities and many of these activities are addictive in part because of the ease of stimulating dopamine spikes in the brain.
Sacrificing activities are low in short-term satisfaction but high in long-term benefit. Doing work that you hate because you “have to” to achieve a larger goal, for instance, or working out at the gym (when you don’t feel like it) to improve your long-term health. A life spent solely on sacrificing activities would be the life of a martyr—lots of achievement, but not much joy.
Activities we do in the surviving area score low on both short-term satisfaction and on long-term benefit. These tend to be things we do because we believe that we have to do them, or that lovely word “should”. Even though we have little to show for our efforts. Some people seem to fill their days with such martyr-like activities, perhaps awaiting someone to recognise just how wonderful they are for doing so. A life spent solely on surviving activities is a hard one indeed.
In the middle of them all, sustaining activities produce moderate amounts of short-term satisfaction and lead to moderate long-term benefits. Typically for many, the daily answering of e-mails is a sustaining activity. It is occasionally interesting (rarely thrilling) and usually produces moderate long-term but hardly life-changing benefit. Many of our day-to-day routines of shopping, cooking, and cleaning may be viewed as sustaining. A life spent solely on sustaining activities would be “okay”.
Of course, the activities we know that we want to spend our time doing are those in the succeeding area, scoring high on short-term satisfaction and high on long-term benefit. These are the things that we love to do and get great benefit from doing. At work, people who spend a lot of time in the succeeding box love what they are doing and believe that it is producing long-term benefit at the same time. At home, a parent may be spending hours with a child time that the parent greatly enjoys while valuing the long-term benefit that will come to the child. A life spent in succeeding is a life that is filled with both joy and accomplishment.
Consider your current job (or whatever you are doing now) and take a typical day (a week if you change what you do each day) and record what you do, for how long and what score out of ten you give that activity against the two questions.
- Does this activity make me happy (or provide a degree of short-term satisfaction)? Your 10-point scale goes from “this makes me miserable” to “I love to do this”.
- Are the results achieved from this activity worth my effort in giving a long-term positive impact on my life? Your scale here goes from no benefit whatsoever for my effort to this matters so much and is really important to my future.
For example, you may spend 3 hours in meetings, 1 hour traveling to and from work, 90 minutes on emails, 30 minutes surfing the net searching for information, 30 minutes in the coffee-room, an hour for lunch, 2 hours preparing a presentation, 30 minutes for phone calls to clients.
Remember, this is just an example, you can break it down further and of course, you will have more distinct activities in your day.
The benefit of doing this is that you quickly identify the activities that you enjoy doing the most and those that bring you the most benefit. Searching the Internet, for example, can be very satisfactory in the short-term, especially if you are searching for something in your area of interest. But half an hour can disappear with little to show in actual useful long-term results.
Once you have your scores, review your activities with how much time you spend doing them in a typical week.
Tot up the number of hours that you spend in each of the five zones: Succeeding, Stimulating, Surviving, Sacrificing and Sustaining.