I have a radical proposal. An experiment that might just change your life. If you want to try it, I’ll do it with you.
It goes like this:
Live most of your days according to your normal habits, doing your job and your everyday stuff the same as always. Then one day a week, let’s say Tuesday, you live by a specific dictum:
From the minute you wake up, do without hesitation the thing that most needs to be done in each moment, regardless of how appealing it is. Bring your full attention to each such act, as though it’s your sole purpose on earth. Let go of every other concern.
In other words, on Tuesdays, and only Tuesdays, you devote yourself to doing the wisest and most helpful thing you can think of in each moment, all day long. You don’t try to strike any sort of “balance” between doing what you want to do and doing what you know is best. You choose the latter every time.
If the moment calls for taking a big gross garbage bag to the dumpster, you calmly pick it up and go. If it calls for broaching an unpleasant topic with your boss, you broach the unpleasant topic with your boss. If it calls for starting your term paper today even though you could rationalize waiting till Saturday, you sit down and start. If it’s time to slip your phone back into your pocket rather than scrolling another page of Reddit, you do it.
Doing this stuff feels however it feels, and you don’t worry about anything else. All day long, you simply defer to your honest interpretation of the right thing to do, which is whatever seems to promise the best overall consequences for you, your future self, and the people around you. And you see what happens.
(You can still enjoy any incidental fun, ease, and comfort that comes your way in the process.)
Note that this is not the same as trying to be maximally productive. The moment might not always call for toil or difficulty. When you’re tired and know you should rest, you rest. If it’s movie night with the family, watch the movie with the family. Again, do what you honestly think is the right — and by that I mean the most right — thing to do. Burning yourself out by working till midnight probably doesn’t serve you and others best, so it isn’t the right thing to do.
You will make mistakes, of course. The temptation to compromise, to delay doing what the moment calls for, will keep returning, and sometimes will draw you off course. That’s okay. You will fall short to some degree or another. What matters is whether you’re really trying to do this.
Whatever happens, you don’t cease your effort until you fall asleep that night. Then, for six long days you can go back to your usual compromise between doing the utmost good and doing what you feel like. If you still want to.
That’s the proposal.
What do you think would happen if you did this experiment? Would life get better or worse? Would Tuesday come to feel like a scourge on your week, a Sisyphean death march you wouldn’t wish on anyone, or the day you feel most truly alive and happy with yourself?
Two Ways to be Good (Enough)
I did something like this during my Stoic experiment last year, and have done it many days since, and in my experience those days are hard but immeasurably better than normal days. You feel engaged and unconflicted. You don’t ruminate or worry, because you know you’re making the best day you can. Life feels meaningful and satisfying, and you go to bed with no remorse, which to me felt miraculous. As Marcus Aurelius promised in his version of this dictum, “. . . a man has but to observe these few counsels, and the Gods will ask nothing more.”
Again, it’s not about executing a perfect day. It’s about devoting yourself to the best possible use of your life that day, and seeing what happens.
As I get older, this mode of being — living each day like it’s Do-the-Right-Thing-at-Every-Moment Tuesday — seems increasingly to be the only way of living that makes sense. Dividing your effort between doing the right thing sometimes, and doing the not-quite-right (but easier or more pleasurable) thing other times, seems to betray a somewhat confused life strategy. Essentially you’re playing a game of “One for me, one for my best self and the good of the world. One for me . . .“
It raises an interesting question: who is “me” if it conflicts with your best self and the good of the world? And why are we giving it half the proceeds of our lives?
The ancients were on to it, as usual
If you look at what ancient humans say about how to live, it’s always some version of this full-time devotion to good. The Stoic tradition, the Buddhist tradition, and the Biblical tradition all propose an everyday version of Do-the-Right-Thing-At-Every-Moment Day.
They don’t say, “Have a good time, but do enough difficult stuff to be able to consider yourself a good person,” as modernity seems to prescribe, but rather, “Train yourself in each moment to always do the morally best thing, with love and without hesitation. Make this your purpose in life and sacrifice everything else for it.”
The promised reward seems to be that life gets a hundred times better when you live like this, and not just for you. Everyone around you benefits from your actions and example. You aren’t just creating the best possible life for yourself, but the best possible world.
Your actions have a powerful compounding effect, after all. They affect your own future in dramatic ways, as well as the futures of all the people you interact with, and who they interact with, and so on. Every little act, right down to the attitude you’re carrying when you step onto the bus, is a moral choice with ever-rippling consequences. It matters whether you indulge in complaining to your wife about the bad driver you encountered, or whether you look down on your co-worker for her decidedly self-important Instagram posts — and not just a little. Even slight goods and harms can compound easily, in our subsequent actions, attitudes, and relationships, echoing far beyond our own lives and even our own lifetimes. No wonder the ancients got so serious about this.
The Highest Stakes of All
With the stakes of our moment-to-moment conduct being so high, these old traditions tend to frame this elective aspiration as the most serious of moral issues. The first, last, and only moral issue, in fact. We’re faced, they say, with an eternally recurring choice between the freedom of virtue and the shackles of vice. Nirvana and Samsara. Heaven and Hell. The stakes of this battle are incalculable — thus is the human condition and you fail to recognize it at your peril!
Okay — so that sort of dire language might create a little too much pressure for our modern, pleasure-addled minds. (Perhaps it was less of a stretch for beleaguered Iron Age peasants.) That’s why I propose starting with one day a week at first, as an experiment, just to see what this ancient idea has to offer. If that seems like too much, then try a shorter period — say between 9am and noon that day. Begin where it seems manageable, and if it feels like there’s something to it, scale it up.
Either way, I suspect that we put ourselves under greater pressures by not taking up some form of the great ancient moral challenge. Having committed to doing your best, moment-by-moment, is difficult in terms of the day’s effort level, yes, but it also creates constant rewards and an exhilarating sense of relief. For once you’re not trying to get away with anything, and you know it. You’re not doing anything to undermine your own values. You become impervious to most kinds of remorse and worry, because you’re making life turn out the best it can. You’ve unshouldered a load of rocks you didn’t know you were carrying.
When you experience some hint of this sort of clarity, it really does seem like this approach to life, or something like it, is the best idea humans ever had.
Join the experiment
I’m interested to hear what you think of this. Does it sound horrible? Revelatory? Both?
I claim no mastery of this approach to daily life, but I can say it doesn’t stay as exhausting as it seems at first. When you know you’re going to do the right thing at each juncture, you only have to worry about the pain of effort, which is nothing compared to the pain of remorse or self-loathing or meaninglessness. There’s no difficult tradeoff to agonize over — one way is clearly better. You finally get to live as that fortunate Future Self who’s constantly reaping the fruits of your many benevolent past selves.
So I’m serious about this experiment. I’ll be doing it on each Tuesday of November, and will write about it on the experiment page. Join me, and share your experience in the comments.
If you’re intrigued but hesitating, ask yourself why not do it, if there’s so much to gain and so little to lose? It doesn’t conflict with anything important, like your job or family obligations. The opposite in fact.
Personally, the only serious reservation I’m left with is that it’s hard. It’s better, sure, but it’s hard, and when a hard thing is optional I tend to turn it down, because life always seems too hard already. But maybe that’s why.