Here’s a little exercise or for you, dear reader. Not, I should add, the type of exercise that convinces self-help junkies they are minutes away from enlightenment. Nor one that has the slovenly amongst us feeling droopy-lidded. Instead, an exercise that should be fun…
Try to imagine your perfect day.
Now, before you imagine winning a gold medal at the Olympics in the morning, being massaged by Natalie Portman whilst she lectures you on micro-donations in the afternoon (perhaps that last part is unique to me), and having a fondue and poker session with Yoda, Cleopatra, JFK, Jesus, Jane Austen and Kurt Cobain in the evening, let’s set a couple of rules.
Rules and exercises – I’m sorry – this is rather uncharacteristic. After you’ve spent a number of good hours fantasising about a day that requires time-travel, re-incarnation (whether you include Jesus here is up to you), 84 hours and more energy than a puppy can muster in a room full of squeaky toys, let’s reign it in slightly shall we. No? OK, take your time. After all, my unrealistic day carried my mind happily through an extremely uncomfortable 8-hour journey from Johannesburg to Swaziland in a minibus not much larger than a camper van containing 20 humans, 10 chickens, 1 goat, more luggage than Hannibal took on his trans-alpine jaunt, and an extremely large dollop of tolerance.
Oh good, you’re back. Now to reality and rules… The rule is that the day has to be realistic to you. Which means that if you’re a woman in your perfect day, yet you were born a man, you’ll have had an operation somewhere en route. It means that the day has to be possible somewhere out in your future. It cannot be 2050 if you’re 18. You cannot have invented a machine that enables you to travel in time, given the state of the laws of achievable physics today. You cannot spend all day fishing without getting a slightly sore back and wet feet. You cannot be in Highlands of Scotland for dawn and the South of France in the evening, without spending the requisite time in a jet, even if it is a private one. You are not to be the best guitarist in the world if you have already been playing for 10 years and still haven’t mastered Stairway to Heaven – unless it’s 30 years time and you’ve practiced solidly between now and then, which would make you really rather dull on the day itself. You cannot eat 17 courses of rich foods without feeling at least slightly sick afterward. You can, of course, in your unrealistic day – but please separate out the two. One is the ‘Superman’ day, the other is the ‘just me being me really well’ day. We’re focusing on the latter.
One of the greatest challenges is to be aware of who you are, what you are capable of and what you want from your day. A day that might actually take place, rather than one that only James Bond or Wonderwoman could handle. Think about the moments, the feelings and what you’d like to do on that day. Try to map the day down so closely that you’re aware of each few minutes. How do you feel when you wake up? Who do you spend time with at which points during the day? What do you spend time doing? Where are you? What are your emotions telling you? Are you rushing from one thing to another to try to fit as much in as possible, or do you take time to enjoy the moments? Do you spend time emailing? Do you get drunk? Are you in love? Do you have children? If so, are they with you on that day? Are you working? Are you at home, or on holiday? What do you eat?
When you are realistic about the limitations of your own body and mind and stop fantasising about your possibilities, it becomes more of a challenge to ‘design’ your perfect day. Some of us, myself included, need to fight hard to truly know ourselves when we’re imagining. In my perfect day, I must remember that I will still get tired, make mistakes (perhaps not as many as usual), suffer embarrassment, be cheeky and have one pint too many. That’s me. To remove those things would be the essence of what it is to be me. Perhaps in 10 years time, I’ll have smoothed some of my ‘edges’. What changes in my perfect day is not my flaws, but my ability to cope with them.
It’s a time-consuming exercise for most of us. So the next time your batteries run out on your iPod and you loose the your copy of War and Peace whilst on a 36-hour train journey across Northern India (not a pleasant situation, I can assure you), try thinking about your perfect day. Over time, it’ll start to take shape.
Now think about the days you’ve had in the past that were close to perfect. They might be different to the day you’re starting to formulate, but they stand out as the very best of days. What happened? What made these days so special? How did you feel? Why were they so good?
Why perform these exercises? Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting that we all turn into egomaniac fantasists trying to shape the world in our image (any more than we already are!). I’m not suggesting, for one minute, that your perfect day will actually take place – that’s not the idea. Instead I am inducing this dream-like reverie because, quite simply, it has been one of the most valuable ways that I have come to determine what is important in my life. Because it has helped me stop wishing the unachievable and to start working on the things that are. Because, unlike many of the exercises that have been forced upon me by the books of people purporting to help me, it was an awful lot of fun. Plus, and here’s where things get a little bit paradoxical, it has helped me plan for the future a little bit less and enjoy the present a little bit more. Why? Because my perfect day is very simple. As I thought longer and harder about my perfect day, I realised that there was less and less to it. My dream-day consists of me enjoying the day and not worrying about the future or the past. My dream-day is a pretty ordinary day in which the main extraordinary factors were my thoughts, feelings and appreciation of it. Of all of the fantasies that rattled through the rolodex of my mind, the best ones were some of the simplest. Of the days in my past that have been akin to perfect, the best have been the ones that have been the ones where I’ve been in a good state of mind and good things have happened. I realised that the best days were not the days when I achieved a thousand things – those days were often lost in a blaze of mania. Instead, the best days were those when I was truly myself, and when I had the time and inclination to soak up the events that passed.
My perfect day is a simple day.