I like to think of life as having two very distinct pursuits: purpose and fulfillment. Purpose is what you were meant to do on this earth, whatever you interpret it to be. Sadly, I believe most people don’t have this at all. For some it is their careers, or their families. For others, it is religion or faith (the most extreme version, of course, being terrorism). Fulfillment, conversely, is simply what makes you happy in life. It is composed of the various things that enrich your experience here on earth. Money, of course, is the prime means of fulfillment for, I’d say, 90% of people. Sex is another big one. Also fame, social status, and lavish vacations to tropical islands… but then again, these are all linked to money.
I would like to direct your attention away from these money-centered means of fulfillment and towards simple steps you can implement immediately in your day-to-day life, which can yield surprisingly powerful results in just a few weeks. I have built these into my life over the course of my first two years in college, and along with all of the various activities I am engaged in, these little habits have immensely improved the “quality of life,” as so many people claim to seek. Put more simply, I believe the easiest way to enrich life is to turn the fleeting into the tangible. Here is how you can enrich your own life.
Note: these steps are distinct from productivity tools and time management skills, which are equally important; those tips are saved for a future essay.
1. Build yourself a time machine.
What I mean is, figuratively, a way to return to any moment in your life and retrieve data or memories for purposes of action or reflection. Unfortunately, very people do this. Instead, they live entirely in the present and let the countless experiences and information they receive on a daily basis slip by them, unused, forgotten. Just sit and think for a moment about what you did today. What did you eat for every meal? Who did you meet? What did you guys talk about? Did you come up with any good ideas or interesting observations? Did you have any dreams the night before? These simple details seem negligible at the moment, but accumulated over the span of a year they become a valuable, insightful representation of who you are.
Consider the following exercise. At the end of every day, write down ten words to describe your day. Only ten, so make them count. It’ll only take about a minute, less if your memory is good. Now do this every day for a year. I’ve been doing it for almost two. Start to see the trends, the things that nag you from day to day, the growth of a project, or a love, the similarities between months and seasons and years once you start overlapping. Start to see your memory improve, and notice how, looking back to any random day four months ago, with little effort you seem to be able to recall not just what the ten words were referring to, but also another event that day you didn’t mention. And another idea you had, a good one too. Maybe even a dream.
Now you have a time machine.
Let’s make another one. This time, just list the music you listened to that day. Perhaps, if you listen to music while you sleep, just jot down the mix you made. Or if you’re not as much of a fanatic as I am, limit it to just a mix a week, or a monthly mix of your top ten favorite songs, the songs that you will inextricably link to this month for the rest of your life. The kind of song you will listen to one gloomy day two years from now, when you feel more alone than you have ever felt, and suddenly remember your high school sweetheart, the song you used to play in July, when life was comfortable, when all there was to do was coast along the highway with the windows down and the melody flowing…
Now you have another time machine.
These are the two journalistic lists I personally use and cherish the most. There are plenty more useful ones too. For example, you could start keeping a detailed budget of every single purchase you make every single day, and eventually build some neat graphs of your spending habits (maybe you will find that closer to exams, you buy way too much food). After all, that is a good habit to pick up eventually. Or, you could start harvesting the interesting links you find online and archiving them by week. What is the problem with internet bookmarks? They have no date attached to them. Half of finding good content is remembering when you found it, and how it related to the rest of your life. You can also do the same kind of archiving with your random thoughts and ideas, the movies you watch, the books you read, the food you eat, the people you meet, your short-term and long-term goals. Get into the habit of writing everything down. Literally, everything. Nowadays I am moving away from the simplicity of the Ten Words and writing more comprehensive, enriching journal entries using Evernote. I guess it’s a full circle back to the days when there literally was nothing to do in a day but record what happened. Except now, we can do so much more while still recording it all in a fraction of the time.
What’s even better, with digital technology we now have a myriad of other tools and media we can use to make time machines in our daily lives. Which brings me to my next point…
2. Get a camera, and use it every day.
It can be an iPhone or it can be an expensive DSLR camera (I personally prefer the latter, but the former has its merits as well). It can be a point and shoot camera for about $100 that fits in your pocket and captures absolutely everything, photo or video, which I did during my senior year to document my last season in percussion. You can post photos on Instagram, Flickr, Facebook, or you can just store it all on your computer, never published. (Quick aside: when it comes to different photo-sharing sites online, my advice is to differentiate in the type of photo you upload to each. For example, on Twitter or Instagram I post location- and event-based photos, taken right at the moment and shared immediately. On Facebook, I share photos I take of people, the kind that I can tag. On Flickr, I post my professional and artistic photos, the kind that I want in my portfolio.) The point is, photography is one of the best time machines because we are naturally visual people. Our closest connections to our world, and thus our memories, are achieved through our eyes. So take advantage of eyes that never forget.
Of course, this is not to downplay the other senses if we are talking about life enrichment and memory accumulation. I have heard from older friends that on big vacations you should put on a special fragrance or cologne during the entire duration of the trip, and then never use it again. One friend told me that on his honeymoon he used a certain cologne, and years later he found it in somewhere in the house and dabbed it on for a try. Almost instantly, both he and his wife recognized the scent immediately, and even began to remember forgotten details about their tropical vacation. Smell, apparently, is one of the strongest time machines. Hearing could also be powerful, but it is not as easily accessed as visual memory because it is temporal in nature. Having said that, I would like to help design an iPhone app that automatically records the past minute of audio from the safety of your pocket, wherever you go, constantly deleting and overwriting unless you choose to save the previous minute with the press of a button. Imagine how powerful a database of sounds could be twenty years from now, when those sounds are no more. Birds in spring. The rushing of the Niagara. An engine stalled on the highway. Your father’s singing.
Like I said, personally I feel that a more expensive camera will produce higher quality shots which in turn provide more value to you as tools of memory. But I am a big fan of artistic shots as well, and there really is a new beautiful medium being formed out of the spontaneous iPhone photographer generation. Whatever you choose, I strongly recommend you make a habit of taking at least one picture a day. There is a popular project on Flickr called 365, which forces you to either take a picture of yourself or of anything, daily, for an entire year. That is yet another time machine, and might I say a very fun one to use.
Of course, you can’t spend all of your time recording the present, or reflecting on the past. While these habits are extremely enriching, you still need to be constantly supplying the substance to make memory meaningful. And so, I strongly encourage you to evaluate your daily work habits. How much of a day is actually spent doing nothing productive, nothing worth putting into a time machine? What I mean is, if you find yourself ever bored in life, something needs to change.
3. Create a never-ending list of things to do.
To be honest, my daily task list is both my greatest fear and my greatest pleasure. I currently use WorkFlowy for this because it has a beautiful collapsible bullet interface that allows you to organize action items and hide detail when the scope becomes immense. Now my definition of a task list is one that never gets smaller. In fact, it gets larger and larger over time. Today, my task list has over 40 items on it. And every time I cross an item off, I add two more in its place. Instead of making me feel more and more behind, this simply drives me to work more and more efficiently. And at the end of every day, a program called iDoneThis sends me an email asking me what I did. I simply go to my task list and transcribe all my completed tasks, which typically are close to a dozen. Over the course of a few months I will be able to look back on a calendar full of productivity and accumulated accomplishment. Yet another time machine.
The great thing about productivity, when it comes to enriching your life, is that it’s entirely relative. A CEO’s task list may involve meeting with multiple influential people, drafting a comprehensive merger plan, writing dozens of emails, and preparing for an interview with a major news station. A teenage girl’s task list may involve completing all the various homework assignments from each of her high school courses, taking out the trash, cleaning the dishes, meeting a friend at the library to study, getting through 100 pages of her newest fantasy novel, and getting to bed before 11pm. A younger boy’s task list may simply have one item: to make his mother happy, because it is her birthday. Ultimately, when all three of these people call it a day, with all tasks completed, they will all feel an equal amount of accomplishment and self-esteem. That is the beauty of task lists. Adjust them to your own daily expectations, and if you are feeling a little down, clutter them with the simplest of tasks, like “Go outside for 5 minutes,” or “Post a message on an old friend’s Facebook wall,” or “Clean your desk,” or “Ask your little brother how his day went.” Knock out twenty simple tasks within an hour, and be surprised at how happy that makes you feel, and how motivated you then are to tackle that one really difficult task for the next two hours.
While there is much for me to say regarding productivity and time management in a future essay, the ultimate goal is not just to get things done, but to feel good about it. Yes, we all have plans, dreams, and aspirations, but at the end of the day all we truly have is what we have accomplished. Begin to focus on the little things you can do every day to make yourself feel productive, and then begin to challenge yourself to raise the bar every single day. Of course, not everything can be done alone. Sometimes you need help to accomplish your goals, or you simply seek the creative power of a team to create something entirely new. And so I give this final suggestion…
4. Turn friendships into collaborations.
It may seem blasphemous at first. Do I use my friends as tools just for my own productivity? Of course not; in fact if you think about it more and more, collaboration is essentially what friends should be for. Yes, we tend to appreciate our friends the most because they are there for us when times are tough, or because they have shared the same experiences and interests as up growing up. I once said: “Friends are not those you tolerate, but those who tolerate the world with you.” I have since developed a deeper understanding of what makes me truly love and respect my friends. They share the same passions and creative spirit as me, which, when channeled together, can produce incredible accomplishments neither of us could have done alone. I love working on projects with my friends because they become tangible representations of the bond we have, the duration of time when we brought all of our lives and history together to make something new.
Just recently, I looked through my list of closest friends and thought: What can I make with each and every one of these people? As in, what passions and dreams do we share that got us to be close friends in the first place, and how can we make something substantial out of them at this exact moment in time? I tried to come up with a small project to pitch to each and every single one of them, so that the next time we hung out, it wouldn’t just be to catch up on our summers or our personal lives; it’d be to work on this collaboration. Then maybe that would be something we could talk about in the future. A shared time machine.
This obsession probably started sometime near the end of last quarter. With a friend from Slovenia, I planned to build an architecture think-tank at Stanford and eventually do some design competitions with him overseas. (Now my think-tank is a group of eight Stanford friends with whom I am working on a collection of various projects this quarter.) When I was in New York, I collaborated with a friend in San Francisco on five short narrative films, which will be released in a few weeks. Back home, I embarked on a short inspirational project with an incoming Stanford freshman from my high school to tell the story of dreams within our community. And currently I am planning many more collaborations for this following school year, including music, films, design, creative writing, pair blogging, academic competitions, and education. What’s great is, I begin to care about these people more. I begin to ask more of them and gain inspiration, understanding, and respect as a result. And quite honestly, this way we have even more stupid fun together.
I recommend that you take a moment to think about the artistic, athletic, or academic passions you share with your closest friends and initiate some projects with them while you are still living in the same area. At the most basic level, pairing up with a buddy to go to the gym can immediately enrich your relationship, while also gaining you (or losing you) a few pounds. Next, think about something you love doing on your own. Writing, performing, studying. Could it be even funner with a friend? If so, why waste those precious opportunities to make a lasting connection?
These days I always find a reason to be happy because I have built the framework for a constantly improving life. With every day, I gain more memories, more accomplished goals, and more great ideas to add to a growing, comprehensive definition of who I am. And better yet, it has never been more easily accessible in the form of text, pictures, films, and music. These simple things may seem inconsequential, but accumulated over the course of the lifetime, they become, essentially, your life. So why wait another day? Write ten words. List the tasks you have completed. Save the five articles you read today in a folder. Try out one of the many amazing web programs I have listed in this essay. Jot down the song that was playing in your head. Also jot down who it reminded you of. Take a picture of yourself, right here, right now, reading this essay. Add “Post the photo on Facebook” to your task list, and then do it. Checkmark it. (Buy a hard drive and keep your photos very, very safe.) Start a blog to record your life. Ask a friend to join you.
My definition of being rich has nothing to do with money. These pockets are overflowing with the unforgettable moments in life.