The Choices We Have

“Every choice moves us closer to or farther away from something. Where are your choices taking your life? What do your behaviors demonstrate that you are saying yes or no to in life?” – Eric Allenbaugh

Now that our last child is about to leave home, K and I are talking about getting television service. For about 20 years, we have been without TV. The idea was that our children would become better readers without the distraction – and that objective was achieved. All three of our boys are voracious and skillful readers.

So now, as empty nesters, we are thinking that it would be kind of fun to watch some shows together – to spend an hour after dinner, sitting next to one another, laughing at the same things.

To test this hypothesis, we jimmy-rigged an antenna connection for the set that used to play only DVDs, and we spent a few evenings watching it.

The results of that experiment were mixed. There was something wonderful about watching those programs together – the double pleasure of the experience itself and knowing that your mate is “getting it” too. But when it was over, we found ourselves feeling like we used to when we watched television – which is to say a little sad and empty inside. As if we were mourning the time we’d lost.

The other night, we watched a science program together, a documentary about insects. Suddenly, we were having the experience we had hoped to have – sharing something that was both entertaining and illuminating.

That got me thinking about how people spend their recreational time – how much time they devote to it, the things they do, and whether the time they spend is spent wisely.

Broadly speaking, there are four kinds of activities that we engage in: working, sleeping, eating, and relaxing. And it seems logical to assert that – up to a certain point of mental or physical exhaustion – the more hours you spend working, the more successful you will be.

That said, we must acknowledge that all work and no play makes Jack a dull… or cranky… boy. We do need some recreation. The question is: How much?

And the answer to that is pretty simple. Just ask yourself how far you want to go in life. How smart you want to be. How high you want to rise in your industry. How much money you want to make. What accomplishments you want to achieve.

Determine how ambitious you are… and then find out how many hours of work were done per day by people who have already done what you want to do. Unless you are exceptionally gifted (or exceptionally slow), chances are you will have to work about as hard (i.e., as many hours) as they did.

Take the number of hours you sleep and eat and add to that the number of hours that successful people in your industry typically work. Subtract that from 24, and you will be left with the number of hours you can safely devote to recreation.

But there is another question that must be asked: Does it make any difference what kind of recreational activities you engage in? During your down time, does it matter whether you are sitting in front of the boob tube watching Jerry Springer or lifting weights or playing a musical instrument?

Broadly speaking, there are three ways you can occupy yourself during down time. You can amuse yourself with activities that, though fun, are harmful (like getting drunk). You can busy yourself with mindless distractions (like junky novels). Or you can choose to do something that requires a bit more energy on your part but will give you both a high degree of pleasure and the knowledge that you have somehow improved yourself (like practicing yoga).

It seems to me that whether it is the work we do, the sports we play, the vacations we take… we have the same three choices. We can do something that:

  1. Damages us in some way
  2. Improves us somehow
  3. Leaves us more or less the same

Look at almost any activity, and you will see what I’m talking about. In the books you read. In the friends you keep. In the jobs you take. You name it. Some choices will improve you and some will damage you… but most will fall somewhere in the neutral zone: They won’t harm you… but they won’t help you either.

If we fill our lives with mediocre experiences – does that make sense?

Every day, we are given dozens of choices – from which foods to eat to which parts of the newspaper to read to which words to say in any given conversation. Many of those choices seem to be insignificant, but when you string them all together they determine the quality of our lives.

At the lowest end of the scale, there’s the person who spends his time using drugs, watching television, and prostituting himself or stealing to pay for his addiction. At the highest end of the scale – well, I don’t really know who that is. But when I think of rich guys in limos or holy men on mountains… that just doesn’t work.

Most of us live in the middle ground, mixing quality experiences with neutral ones while trying not to harm ourselves … but doing so anyway. We recognize that some of the choices we make are better than others, but we don’t always have the willpower to make the better ones.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? The best choices are often the hardest to choose… because they require more of our energy. The worst choices are usually the easiest to refuse… because we are frightened by them. But when we have experienced them and found them pleasurable, they have the greatest pull on us. The neutral choices – the actions that do little more than get the job done – are the most popular because they are relatively easy and benign. They don’t require much energy and they don’t leave us hurting.

If there is one thing that life gives us all in equal portion, it is the hours of the day. We can’t determine (with any certainty) how many hours will be allotted to us, but we can decide how to spend those that we have.

Think about it over the weekend. I’ll have more to say on this subject Monday.

[Ed. Note: To read more of Michael’s unedited, uncensored (and sometimes unexpected) ruminations, check out his blog here.] [Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]