I’d like to confess something.
Until recently, I’d get jealous quickly — when I saw someone doing what I wanted to, or ‘living the dream’. (Thank you Instagram.)
But I’m not alone, am I? Even the most contented people can’t help the occasional feeling of jealousy when someone does better than them.
Comparing yourself to someone else is as bad as smoking cigarettes. Everyone knows that. But I just couldn’t help myself. I compared their lifestyle to mine, and moped over why the ‘fame I deserved didn’t come to me.’
In this state of mind, I’d resolve to work hard and improve my life.
However, the jealousy would subside as fast as it arose. I’d revert to my old self faster than a criminal who just got out of jail. The ‘resolve’ lay forgotten under a stockpile of a thousand other promises.
Do you feel the same way? Then let me tell you why. Because when I looked closer, I figured out exactly why this happens.
Turns out, I was looking at achievers all wrong.
What I Should Truly Feel Jealous Of
I felt jealous of achievers’ success. But I conveniently ignored their efforts. They sleep less, they make numerous sacrifices, they show up each day to do the same thing for years.
On one side, there were achievers, pushing themselves to do what they had to. On the other side, there was me, complaining that I couldn’t find time after work, that the daily commute was exhausting, my boss was a jackass, my colleagues were mean, the work wasn’t challenging enough — the odds were stacked against me.
But the truth is, achievers didn’t have a better life than mine. In fact, many of them faced far worse odds. What I should’ve turned green with envy over was their effort and disciplined attitude towards work.
How did (do) they find the time to put in the effort to reach where they are?
The Secret of Compounding Results
Imagine spending your hard-earned money on things you want but don’t need. Soon, you’ll get bored of them. Then you’ll spend more money on other things which hold your ephemeral attention. And the cycle goes on.
Now imagine investing the same money in a portfolio which gives you consistent returns over the next ten years.
Which option will leave you better off after ten revolutions around the sun? Which option will make your money grow?
Since ‘time = money’ is a common equation, let’s now substitute money with time.
Most people spend their work hours — 10 am to 7 pm — on… well… work.
They spend their remaining time — 7 pm to 10 am — preparing themselves for work. Preparing includes ‘mental relaxation’ like watching Netflix, scrolling through Instagram, checking their notifications, or all of these. Or, because they can work 24/7, they spend this time working too (or thinking about it).
Weekends are even worse. They wake up late, binge-watch the latest seasons, wait in line to eat at crowded places just to post photos on Instagram… they might complete chores and meet friends on Saturday. But by Sunday, they’re filled with dread about a day which is still over twelve hours away.
No wonder Sunday afternoon is one of the most unproductive times for most people. Don’t believe me? Just scroll through this hashtag.
In his seminal book Flow, researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Me-hi-ee Cheek-sent-me-hi-ee) wrote,
“If left to their own devices and genetic programming, most people do stuff like worry about things or watch television.”
But achievers are different. (Of course they are!)
They optimize their time at work. But they don’t let ‘work’ or ‘life’ get in the way of their personal goals. For them, time outside of work is worth its weight in gold. They make it a rule to invest time on what’s important to them every day — self-improvement. This, when compounded over time, magnifies into large proportions.
When I compared my routine to theirs, I found why the ‘fame I deserved didn’t come to me.’
Outside of work, I spent mind-numbing hours watching television. I kept watching reruns of cricket matches until I learned them by heart. If I didn’t, I felt a void. I may not be fond of Netflix or Game of Thrones, but felt like I was married to the TV.
The result? I never found time to do what I thought I should’ve been doing.
For most people, their work day is their ‘day’. Their routines revolve around the eight hours of 10 am to 7 pm (30 percent). And when this day is over, they’re left with nothing in the tank. Their mind refuses to engage in a meaningful pursuit and instead, rushes into the welcoming arms of Jadis the White Witch — instant gratification.
If you surrender 70 percent of your day to the 30 percent, how will you ever get close to your goals?
Okay. Enough admonition. We’re done talking about the illness. Now let’s focus on the remedy.
Remember how you went out to play after school as a child. Playing outside wasn’t ‘constructive.’ (Well, technically it was, but what did you know then?) Yet, it refreshed your mind and let you focus on your studies afterward.
Consider the time after work your play time. Here’s how I use it, and so can you.
Have you felt so exhausted after wrapping up work that you don’t feel like doing anything?
Yes, we all have horrible, blood-sucking days. But let’s be honest. Those days are few and far in between.
How often does your mind complain about having no energy left when you have to hit the gym, or do anything which offers positive long-term returns?
Now compare that to the energy with which you fire up the Netflix app, or get dressed to go to the movies. Do you feel tired? Or fresh?
Here’s the thing.
Your mind isn’t really ‘tired’ after work. Instead, it craves for change. The only rest it needs is seven hours of good sleep.
I finish work at 6 pm and start my commute back home. This is when I tell myself I’m not tired, no matter how the day was. In fact, the harder the day, the more liberated I feel, because I can now focus on myself. I plan how I’ll invest my time — what I’ll do at the gym and how I’ll spend the last 2 hours of my evening. By the time I reach home, my mind is already raring to get going.
Prepare yourself for a change which will stimulate your mind. Remind yourself that you’re not tired, that the time you invest now will yield rich results in the long run.
And then move to the next step.
Do you disagree with the idea of a 7 pm-to-10 am day because you spend anywhere between one to three hours commuting every day? I feel your pain. I go through the same thing.
But how I use my commute time is what makes the difference.
I can watch movies or scroll through social media. But that just makes me grumpy, sullen and angry. Or, I can listen to a podcast, read a book or watch TED talks. These actions boost my creativity.
I prefer to do the latter.
There are times when I don’t commute by public transport or a cab. I use my motorcycle instead. At such times, I can’t consume content. So I use this time to train my mind to focus. I reflect on a specific question and look for a deep answer. Or I think about what I want to add in my next article.
Within minutes, my monkey mind jumps from one branch to another. Or I catch myself thinking about the same point over and over again. This means I’m either running from focus or am stuck in a loop.
When I notice this, I non-judgmentally bring my mind back to the important thought and note those thoughts down in a diary when I reach my destination.
The effects of this action are twofold. One, I don’t dread the traffic because my mind focuses on something it enjoys, rather than reacting to external circumstances. Two, I strengthen my ability to focus for longer periods of time.
I plan how I’ll spend time after work with the same intensity as I plan my work.
But doesn’t this sound counterproductive? Isn’t it better to be spontaneous with your non-working hours, to be your own boss?
You’re right. Partly.
When I let each moment decide my actions, I enjoy free will. I can choose between working on a side-project, learning something new or working out.
But these moment-by-moment-decisions take a toll on my willpower, and drain out whatever is left after the workday. The result? I end up plonking myself in front of the laptop or mindlessly scrolling through social media all evening.
Here’s some bad news: the more you don’t do what you think you should, the more you compromise your willpower. Then when you need it to do something mentally demanding, willpower doesn’t show up.
Now here’s the good news: You don’t have to spend three hours each night working on something which demands your mental energy. Apply the 60/30 Rule, coined by Thomas Oppong. Devote just 60 minutes of your evening to doing meaningful work for the next 30 days.
Doesn’t sound difficult, does it?
Plan how you’ll spend 60 minutes of your evening in the morning. Remind yourself about your schedule on your homeward commute.
So you’ve put aside 60 minutes to do something meaningful. Now the next question is: What are you going to do?
Having a passion is overrated. Grossly.
True, people like Warren Buffett and Josh Waitzkin discovered what they enjoyed early in their childhood (yeah yeah, Elon Musk too). But for the remaining 99 percent of us, things are not that simple. Most people still amble aimlessly from one task to another.
So if you don’t know what you want to do, it’s okay. Pick a hobby. Programming, designing, playing a musical instrument, cooking — anything that appeals to you. Keep a diary to note what you do and how you feel while doing it. Then do more of what’s rewarding, even if it demands effort, and reduce actions which don’t stimulate your brain cells enough.
Right. Set aside 60 minutes to do something meaningful. Check.
Pick a hobby to pursue. Check.
When you start working on your meaningful activity, you’ll encounter the biggest enemy of self-improvement — distraction.
I know what I should do. But I’ve already told you how much I love the TV. Not to forget mindless browsing, which comes as naturally to me as brushing.
I’m a human being. So I overestimate my abilities to not give in to distractions. And before I know it, I’ve wasted 45 minutes of the time I had allotted for meaningful work, on distractions.
So I took drastic steps.
While writing, I turn off the internet. If I must use it, I activate the SelfControl app to block social media sites. I’ve also disassembled my TV connection. If I want to watch it, I must assemble the setup first. That’s an arduous task itself.
Such actions give my mind the signal that the task I should work on is a priority. And since I don’t have access to distractions, I can put more effort into it.
What will you do to fire your distractions?
I had a classmate, who studied lesser than me. Yet, she consistently topped the class while I stayed bang in the center.
If you can’t focus deeply on what you do, all your work is useless.
When you have little to show after spending a lot of time on something, you’ll feel discouraged. You’ll start thinking you’re better off doing something else. It’s natural.
But when you’re happy with what you achieve in a short span of time, you think, “I wonder what I can do if I spend more time on this.”
Deep work is tough in the beginning. Like, hair-pulling tough. You’d rather stand in the way of oncoming traffic.
But over time, your mind begins to cooperate. Then, this cooperation spreads into your everyday work and increases your sense of fulfillment in each task — at work and outside it.
The intensity with which you work is far more important than the time you put in. Time spent will never be a substitute for intensity.
(Tip: To strengthen your focus, practice meditation, even if you’re an atheist. Focus on your breathing for ten minutes. Block out other thoughts. Over time, this will sharpen your intensity of focus.)
I’ve seen many people go through the motions of doing something over and over again.
They read 30 books in 30 days, but don’t remember a word. They play a guitar cover perfectly but struggle to compose original music. Such people might spend hours doing stuff, but they might as well be buttering bread.
Daily reflection is part of every successful person’s arsenal. Achievers reflect on important things, like the direction which they’re headed in, like making sense of their circumstances, like how they can get better, and more.
Spend the last ten minutes of your day with a diary. Reflect on your actions, on what you did well and what you could’ve done better.
You can learn a lot from the ideas you put into your mind from the external world, but you can arguably learn even more by breaking them down and making better sense of the thoughts already roaming in your head. — Zat Rana
Bringing it Home
I realized I felt jealous of successful people because I wanted to do what they did. But I kept thinking, “My work will never be good enough.”
I now realize how wrong I was. I could look at their efforts and discipline, and learn from them. I could turn my jealousy into inspiration and determination.
Instagram quotes tell you to go big or go home. I’ve been going home. A lot. Because when I would pick something I enjoyed, I’d jump into the fire without a fire proximity suit, and get burned. (I know, not my smartest move.)
But I don’t have to go home if I don’t go big. I don’t have to become world-class at anything. And that’s okay. I just have to become one percent better than the day before.
Make goals, but don’t carve them in stone. Life has a funny way of twisting and turning in ways you never expected. Keep walking. Trust the process. The path will eventually reveal itself.
How you spend your time outside of work will dictate what you‘ll achieve in your life. Will you do what it takes to get to where you want?