Three Questions That Make Each Day Count

Steven Gambardella

A Minimalist Routine for Personal Growth

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At the end of the day we can often feel flat.

What did the day count for? How much of the day do you even remember? The days can blend into each other when our lives are structured around work and family routines.

An often recommended method of making each day count is to journal in the evening. There are many ways of journaling, from keeping a detailed personal diary to tracking positive habits with simple lists. Adding an accountability journal to your routine will help support your personal growth objectives and help maintain your mental well-being.

Here’s a minimalist approach to accounting for yourself at the end of each day. I took lessons from the most practical philosophers I’ve studied to help define a daily well-being practice and make the auditing of that practice as simple as possible. Asking yourself the three questions below every evening will help your cognitive, emotional and spiritual development.

You don’t need to write your answers down, but it will benefit you even more if you do. This routine can be layered onto your existing journal habit, or stand alone as a thought pattern before you go to bed.

1. What did you learn today?

Learn at least one thing every day. Choose any topic you fancy: the history of Europe, the capital of Romania, the basics of Agile project management, memorizing Juliet’s famous “a rose by any other name” soliloquy from Romeo and Juliet, prime numbers or chess openings.

It doesn’t matter what you learn, just learn one new thing. Read articles, books, or watch TV shows or YouTube videos that educate you. Maybe ask a colleague or a friend to explain something to you.

Every little thing you learn will be an incremental improvement to your cognitive ability and wisdom. Those tiny improvements, like small but regular investments, will compound over time.

The great historian Plutarch compared education to the kindling and upkeep of a fire, rather than the filling of a vessel. By actively seeking new knowledge every day, you are committing yourself to personal growth and edification — you’re putting yourself into a receptive mindset that may change your life. Positive change, after all, is the end result of learning.

2. Who did you help today?

Throughout your day do at least one thing to help somebody. It could be as simple as writing a short encouraging text to a friend when they need it. It could be making a donation of money to a charity. But I would encourage you to make sure the help you give is personal: make at least one daily good deed for somebody in person.

Offer help either to a stranger or somebody you know well. The UK’s Mental Health Foundation website has plenty of evidence to show that altruism is good for your emotional well-being and can measurably enhance your peace of mind.

Altruism places us in community with others. It reduces our feeling of isolation and alienation from other people.

People who take issue with helping strangers often say “charity begins at home”, but think of the household of humanity. The ancient Stoic philosophers taught that our relationships are like concentric circles. In the middle of the circle is our selves, the next circle our close family, then our extended family, then our friends, our community, fellow citizens, countrymen and women, and then the people of the world.

The Stoics believed that we ought to bring all of these circles as close to the middle — our selves — as possible. Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic emperor and philosopher wrote, “A rational being’s good is community. It has long been shown that we were born for community.”

Altruism is quite literally acting in commune with other people, it is the recognition in actions and not just words that you are part of the greater whole.

3. Who do you forgive today?

Did somebody annoy you today? Was it the manspreading guy on the subway seat next to you? Did a colleague make the same mistake for the third time? Was somebody rude to you on the telephone? Have you fallen out with a friend? Forgive that person. Wish them well instead.

What’s the alternative to forgiveness? Anger. The Roman philosopher Seneca warns against harbouring “the most destructive of the emotions”. If we preoccupy ourselves with anger and bitterness, we’ll simply harm our own well-being. Anger, Seneca wrote, is “very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces on the very thing which it crushes.”

By forgiving somebody you neither pardon nor condone their behaviour. Neither is forgiveness necessarily about giving the benefit of the doubt. Forgiveness is understanding that people and the world are never going to be perfect.

This is an important reminder because we are most often upset not by misfortune itself, but by our expectation that everything will go right for us. We cannot control how other people act and forgiveness is spiritually reconciling ourselves with that fact.

The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus showed that we are barely in control of anything at all. We are never fully in control of what happens to us, we are in control of how we react. If we understand that we’ll find more peace of mind. “It is not events that disturb people,” Epictetus taught, “it is their judgements concerning them.”

There’s a good reason forgiveness is at the heart of most world religions. It’s a spiritual practice that has practical benefits. The American Psychological Association compiled research that suggested that forgiveness is beneficial both mentally and physically for the forgiver. Forgiveness has also been instrumental in healing societal wounds in South Africa, Rwanda and Northern Ireland.

So every day ask yourself those three questions: what did I learn? Who did I help? And who do I forgive? If you can compound some of your answers together like a Venn diagram you’ll get an extra valuable (and memorable) lesson.

For example, if a difficult person keeps upsetting you, you can learn how to handle the particular challenges with that person, forgive them and help them understand how they are upsetting you. From one bad situation you have learned, forgiven and helped. As a result of that, your relationship with that person is in a better place.

Try these three steps each night. Taking account for our present will help shape a more positive future.

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