In the modern world, it is incredibly easy to fall into a life routine that just feels like an endless repetition of the same overly full day after overly full day, where there are so many things to take care of that you start in on tasks the second you wake up until you fall into a daze on the couch in the late evening. Long stretches of days like that can suck the meaning and joy straight out of your life, leaving you feeling as though you’re just walking through the paces on some endless journey that will never lead to anything joyful.
People respond to that feeling in a number of different ways. Many of those responses, like engaging in retail therapy or diving into a “quarter-life” or “midlife” crisis, are incredibly financially painful and often end up causing that seemingly endless march to get even longer.
The solution, I’ve found, is to find little things to fill the “cracks” in your day that add meaning and value to life. Whenever I find myself with a spare few minutes or a spare half hour, rather than just sitting there idling, I do something that refreshes me mentally or physically or reaffirms my life. Better yet, these things have no cost whatsoever.
Here are eight things that I do with those little windows of time.
I Vigorously Exercise with My Own Body Weight
My goal is to get myself out of breath and my heart pumping for as long as I can during whatever time window I have available. I want to be panting and feel my heart beating along at a nice fast clip at the end of it, with my body really feeling the flood of endorphins that exercise can bring, but without leaving myself feeling completely dead from overexertion.
Doing this is a fine balance. Generally, what I do is keep pushing myself until I start to feel overwhelmed, then I scale back to something light, then pump it up again once I feel like I have my breath under control.
At the end of such a session, the natural endorphins from exercise are flowing through my veins and I feel like I can conquer the world, especially after a brief rest. I don’t worry so much about “targeting muscle groups” or things like that; I’m mostly focused on having a strong core, having enough aerobic health to somewhat keep up with my kids, and feeling good every day.
Most days, I simply use the free daily bodyweight workout from Darebee.com. It requires no specialized equipment and usually includes a mix of body movements that hit a lot of different muscle groups mixed in with some cardio movements designed to get the heart rate up. The variety makes it fun.
I Record Things I’m Grateful For
It’s a simple question that I ask myself: what am I grateful for in my life? What things fill me with joy? What things make me proud? What things am I glad to have in my life?
I simply spend a few minutes thinking about those things, then recording them in some fashion. Usually, I write them down in my pocket notebook. Sometimes, I’ll type them out and save them in Evernote or Day One. I don’t worry so much about making a perfect recording of those things, but I do like to save them every once in a while, at least.
How does this benefit me? It forces me to think about things outside of myself for a little bit. It reminds me that it’s not all just about me. It makes me consider all of the people and things in my life that give value to me without really expecting anything in return for them.
Considering those things makes me appreciative of what I have, even if I’m frustrated at the moment. It makes me want to work and to help nurture and protect those things that I appreciate. Almost always, after reflecting on the things I’m grateful for, I want to do something to help repay that gratitude, and when I think about how to do it, it often provides fuel for continuing through my daily routines.
I Mindfully Meditate
This one’s really simple. For five or ten minutes or so, I simply close my eyes and focus on my breathing. I breathe in. I breathe out. That’s it.
Whenever my mind starts to wander from my breathing, as soon as I’m aware of that wandering, I consciously bring it back to my breathing. Breathe in. Breathe out.
This simple technique does a lot of powerful things. For one, it calms me down. If I’m feeling anxious or agitated, it cuts through those feelings like a hot knife through butter. For another, it improves my focus. My focus on the task at hand tends to be greatly amplified for a while after doing this.
Perhaps the best reason, though, is that it’s essentially mental weightlifting. It doesn’t just have a short term effect. It improves focus and calm over the long haul, as well. I tend to think of it in terms of, say, bicep curls or sit-ups. Every time I notice my attention has wandered and I bring it back to my breathing, that’s a mental bicep curl or sit-up. If I do it regularly and do it often enough, my focus slowly increases over the long haul and my anxiety slowly decreases.
It’s a wonderful feeling, both over the short term and the long term.
I Learn Something New, Often As Part of a Long Journey of Learning
Whenever I have a window of time open, I’ll often use it to learn something new.
If it’s a short window of opportunity, I’ll do a lesson or two in Duolingo in order to learn a new language. Duolingo is an amazing free tool for learning new languages at a conversational level, which is not only useful for one’s personal life, but can help professionally as well and it has a powerful impact on your mind’s ability to learn.
If it’s a longer window, I might read a chapter of a book or a Wikipedia article on something that I’m curious about in order to gain a basic understanding of the topic. Perhaps I’ll go to Coursera or EdX and listen to another lecture in a college course.
The goal is to simply learn something new, to incorporate a new idea into my thinking or a new technique into my skillset. Doing so not only enriches me, it also adds to my overall understanding of the world and also improves my ability to learn things quickly.
I Walk or Hike with a Question in Mind
Whenever I’m struggling to come up with an answer to a problem in my life, I go on a walk or a hike somewhere for a little while – maybe just a few minutes, maybe for an hour or two. I take that question with me and spend that time alternating between thinking about the question on my mind and the environment around me.
What I find is that when I’m walking around and especially when I’m walking in nature, my mind feels calmer. When I let my attention gradually meander back and forth between appreciation of my environment and the question I have in my mind, I find that the question gets passed back and forth between my conscious mind and my subconscious mind, often building right toward a good solution.
Many, many articles have been written in this way. I’ve used this technique to organize ideas in my head so that when I sit down at a keyboard, the final article just flows right out.
Many personal problems have been solved this way. Many philosophical questions have received personal breakthroughs.
Not only that, if I’m out walking around, I’m gently exercising. My blood is flowing a little bit. If I go up a hill or walk at a fast pace, my breathing might elevate a little or I might perspire a little. All of those things are good for my long term health as well as my current sense of well-being.
I Document My World in Photos
One of the things that bothers me the most about earlier periods in my life is that I didn’t document a lot of the things that were the foundation of my day-to-day life. There are basically no pictures of the route I bicycled to work every day for years. I have almost no pictures of the various places I’ve lived over the years. I have very few pictures of the beautiful things I’ve walked by on a regular basis for years.
I’ve found incredible comfort and joy in documenting these things. I’ve started taking pictures of things that seem routine, but when I think about them, they’re pretty special to me, like a little statue that I walk past almost every day when I go on a walk or an image of my children bursting in the door after school on a normal day, or of my dog relaxing on the back of a couch.
I’m saving lots of these images in Day One and I already find it enjoyable to leaf through entries from even a few months ago. These are things that I look forward to seeing years down the road when I try to remember the little joys and little routines of my life as it is right now, because I certainly wish I had some record of the little joys and little routines of my life at earlier points.
I just take pictures of the ordinary beauty and save them. It’s simple, but it’s peaceful and joyful.
I Make Something from Scratch
Whenever I feel really overwhelmed by life, my first temptation is to kind of shut down. I want to go binge-watch a Netflix series or read a page-turning book for several hours, but I find that when I finally step away from that kind of escape, I haven’t really done anything and the problems are still there.
Instead, I’ve started to find a much better escapism in making something completely from scratch.
For example, a few days ago, I felt completely overwhelmed and I needed to check out for a little while. I could have gone to the basement and watched a show, but instead I went into the kitchen, pulled out some flour and a few eggs, and made a bunch of pasta completely from scratch. I made a bunch of sheets of it by simply mixing the eggs and flour and then spreading it very thin and repeatedly folding it over on itself and rolling it very thin again.
After a while, I diced some tomatoes, took a few herbs I had on hand, and cooked it all together to make a very thick sauce, and then I turned all of that into a tomato-cheese ravioli.
The whole thing was about as “from-scratch” as I could make it. It was honestly an excuse to “get lost” for a little while, and I did feel as though I escaped from some challenges for a bit, but when I “came back to reality,” I had actually made something really cool. We had a splendid family dinner before us, one that everyone enjoyed.
I find that this kind of “escapism” is a lot like what Matthew Crawford describes in his wonderful book Shop Class as Soulcraft. When you allow yourself to make something or build something or repair something, you can easily just get lost in the craft of doing so, and getting lost in that craft is somehow very healing for the heart and mind.
I Go to a Religious Service
A religious service is a mix of meditations and devotions and songs and touching. It’s quiet and loud. It’s sad and happy and imperfect and somehow beautiful. If you let it, it can sweep you away in its currents. It doesn’t even have to be a religion that you believe in. The simple act of sharing a religious service with people and exploring the varieties of religious experience in the world can leave you feeling deeply in touch with the world around you. When I do it, I feel somehow calmer and more peaceful and grounded, no matter the service.
I don’t try to analyze it. I try to get lost in it. I try to feel the prayers and I try to get lost in the songs. Am I communicating with or understanding a higher power? Honestly, I don’t know, but I do know that it feels good to be lost in the shared moment of a community of faith. Even better, I often feel like I understand the people around me more, as though we have some deeper bonds than I often realize in my daily life.
Almost every community of faith opens its doors to outsiders. You usually don’t have to be any sort of a member to participate, and if you go in without judgment and open your heart, you’ll often feel a connection to something bigger than yourself, whether it’s the music or the community or something else entirely. It can move you if you let it.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to bring a particular feeling into your life. You don’t need a getaway to feel calm. You don’t need a gym membership to push your body. You don’t need a yoga class to clear your mind. You don’t need a new car to feel free again.
You can already find those things in your life if you open yourself to them.