Last night, a little before midnight, I drove over a brick wall in my wife’s car. (I wasn’t drunk, the car is fine, and, well, the wall has seen better days.) What I realized as I crouched down in the light of my headlights, stacking up piles of bricks and marveling at the mess, is that while I certainly didn’t intend to drive over the wall and I have no plans to do it again, the whole experience was incredibly enjoyable.
I have no doubt that the primary reason for this (any questions you may have about my sanity put to one side for the moment) is a distinction I recently heard from the supercoach George Pransky.
He asked the following philosophical question:
Is life a series of tasks to be completed or experiences to be enjoyed?
My first, unthinking answer was that it must be a combination of both. But when I looked deeper into the distinction, I came to some interesting conclusions…
1. “Life is a series of tasks to be completed.”
We all have a number of things on our to-do list, whether we write them down, stick them on our computer or do our best to keep track of them in our head. And the quality of our lives is often related to what we do with the items on those lists and how it is that we do them.
For example, I had a client a few years back who was consistently complaining of overwhelm. When I asked him what he had on his plate, he would pour out a litany of tasks and to-dos. While most of them were eminently achievable, I could see that he was creating the feeling of overwhelm by stacking them one on top of another until he’d created a “Dagwood sandwich” of tasks and was feeling like he’d bitten off more than he could chew.
Normally what works in that situation is to get the person to slow down and do one thing from their list as if it’s the only thing they have to do that day. When they’ve finished that, they can choose another thing, and so on until the list (or their day) is complete.
I have used this approach myself on numerous occasions and it never fails to relieve the pressure I’ve been putting on myself to get everything done and to open up a feeling of spaciousness in my life.
But this particular client was such a compulsive list maker that after a few weeks of attempting to use this new approach, he was more overwhelmed than ever. When I asked him what was going on, he said that by separating out each task and project, he now felt that he would not have a day off until the Christmas holiday.
When I looked at his “master task list”, I could see the problem. Alongside things like “complete e-mail”, “write up report”, and “phone Smithers about the sales project”, he also had items like “exercise”, “take the kids to the movies”, and “dinner out with wife”. (I was somewhat relieved that was the only wife-related task he had written on the list!)
In other words, he had turned his entire life into a series of tasks to be completed – which meant that no matter how efficient he learned to be, there would never be an endpoint, or in fact any point to anything that he was doing other than to complete it.
And while one of the reasons we tend to enjoy completing tasks and crossing things off our to-do list is the dopamine/serotonin release our brains give us each time we do it, ultimately that chemical high has nothing to do with true and lasting happiness.
2. “Life is a series of experiences to be enjoyed.”
Over the past few days, I have been co-leading a group of committed, loving people in something we’ve called “The Big Chat” – a place to explore the big questions in life and create big games to play and impossible goals to reach.
Several people in the group stumbled across a fearful thought which was limiting their vision of what was possible and driving a lot of their behavior around their work. While each one had it worded slightly differently, the thought goes a little something like this:
“If I don’t succeed at this, I’ll have to spend the rest of my life stuck in a horrible job doing stuff I really don’t want to do.”
While we could have disputed the thought, changed it into its positive opposite, or simply let it go, the course co-leader, Bill Cumming, took things in a different direction.
“What if”, Bill suggested, “you really got that there’s no such thing as a horrible job?”
“Imagine that you went to work behind the counter of a fast food restaurant – if you turned up each day having chosen to greet each customer and each task with energy, enthusiasm, and as if you had the most important job in the world, can you see that you could absolutely turn that job into a delight?”
That’s not to say that you need to stay in a situation you’re not enjoying just because theoretically, you could begin to enjoy it if you brought a different attitude (angle of approach) and mindset to it. But if your fear of being stuck in a hypothetically “bad” situation is holding you back or even driving you away from going for what you really want, it’s probably time to acknowledge that if people like Viktor Frankl could find meaning and even moments of peace and beauty in a concentration camp, chances are you and I could find a way to enjoy working in a McDonald’s.
Here are a few additional distinctions between these distinctively different approaches to life:
The conclusion I came to as I reviewed these distinctions was not so much that one approach was better than the other or that I had to enjoy every minute of my life or I was somehow doing something wrong.
It was a simple noticing:
Whether I view something as a task to be completed
or an experience to enjoy is entirely my choice.
And as I put the last piece of brick back into a pile by the side of the driveway and headed off to bed, I found myself incredibly grateful for the choice I had made.
Have fun, learn heaps, and enjoy your day!