Katherine Miller lives a strange life. She only actually works for six months of the year.
She’s a Process Engineer for a mining company in Australia. The cause of her unique work schedule is the mine’s location. It’s in a remote area inaccessible from any major town. There aren’t enough people around to hire locally, so her company has built a village in the region.
This means that the workforce is rotated in and out. In Miller’s case, she works for 12 hours a day for two weeks before somebody else takes her place for the two weeks that she’s off.
The lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Being away from home for a few weeks at a time isn’t easy, and the work days are challenging. The whole idea is even more daunting if you have a family.
Miller, however, enjoys her job. She’s excited about solving problems, and each day allows her to do exactly that. In spite of the compromises, she can’t imagine having it any other way.
Being in her mid-twenties, she doesn’t have a family to worry about, and on top of that, she also doesn’t have a home. When she works, housing is provided, and when she’s off, she chooses to travel with the money not spent on rent and living expenses.
Her life is a version of the often romanticized “work hard, play hard” maxim, and she loves it.1
Of course, not only is an arrangement like that not feasible for most people, but it’s also not universally appealing. Everyone has their own definition of work and play. That said, there’s an underlying formula in Miller’s life that we all can use to live an interesting life by:
• Crafting routines that add meaning and identity
• Designing for autonomy to create empowerment
• Balancing with variety to maintain appreciation
We have more flexibility to redesign our life than we think. More of us should actively do so.
Craft Routines That Add Meaning and Identity
Routines aren’t sexy. They rarely provide any immediate returns, and they can make us feel caged. There’s little short-term spice in following the same loop day in, day out. If we’re doing the same thing over and over again, there’s a lot else in life we’re not doing.
In spite of their short-term unsexiness, however, routines help us meet the demands of life. They limit the decisions we have to make, and they better allocate our focus.
In a study published as a collaboration between the Columbia Business School and Ben Gurion University, researchers analyzed 1,112 rulings made by judges on parole boards. The judges began their day with a session, took a break, and then finished off another session.
They were measured for the number of favorable rulings they made throughout the day, and the researchers found that each session began with about a 65% chance of a positive ruling and went downhill after that. This was true for the sessions before and after the midday break. The longer the judges made decisions, the less consistent their judgment became. 2
This is a well-known phenomenon in behavioral psychology. It’s called decision fatigue.
Good routines allow us to bypass unnecessary decisions, so we can orient ourselves when it matters. They cut out needless choice in the short-term to reward us in the long-term.
Pretty much anything that modern society values as a great accomplishment requires a routine to fuel it. To get the most out of something, whether it be a career, hobby, or a relationship, we need to invest time, and we need to do so systematically and consistently.
It’s not always exciting for even the artists or entrepreneurs, chasing their dreams, to get up and get to work at 6 AM every day, but that’s a part of pursuing something valuable.
Without routines to automate and guide our behavior, we get pulled in far too many directions, and that stops us from making the choices that we need to craft a purposeful future.
That said, the fruits of the labor don’t just show themselves in the form of accomplishment. The process of meaningful investment, even if it isn’t always fun, keeps us grounded. It connects us to a source, and there are moments in life when that can be of critical importance.
Without the commitment of good routines, it’s far harder to forge a sense of long-term identity.
Design for Autonomy to Create Empowerment
Routines generally get an unfair reputation, but sometimes, there’s a good reason for it.
No matter what the routine, there’s a cost that comes with the discipline that it infuses into our life. It has a degree of control over us even if we pursue it by choice because it limits what we can do beyond the parameters that it enforces.
To live an existence of more than just limitations, we need to design parts of life for autonomy to create empowerment. Autonomy is closer to living in the moment. It welcomes some of the instant gratification and pleasure that we need to enjoy life on a more consistent basis.
In 1997, Richard Ryan and Christina Frederick conducted an extensive meta-analysis of six different studies to measure the effect of subjective vitality (a positive feeling of energy and aliveness) on general well-being across a multitude of factors.
Interestingly enough, not only did they find a correlation between the two, but they also drew on established theories of human motivation and found that autonomy, in particular, played a large role in energy levels of the subjects across the studies. When people had a degree of control, they showed higher levels of vitality, which subsequently influenced their well-being. 3
Too many choices might be exhausting, but reasonable empowerment is exciting. It adds a sense of possibility beyond what we know, and that’s liberating. There really is more to life.
There are far too many people simply going through the motions, while not being content with how they’re living. They live their life for an indeterminate future. It’s a suboptimal strategy.
If that’s you, then maybe it’s time to prioritize more autonomy in your life. If you feel stuck, then maybe you need more control than the illusion provided by what appears as “free time.”
Naturally, for many of us, certain commitments aren’t too flexible. Bills need to be paid, and relationships need attention. That said, there are still more options than we intuitively think.
We all get 168 hours a week. If you do an honest audit of how you spend them, you’d be surprised at how much wasted time can be carved out for activities that create autonomy.
Balance With Variety to Maintain Appreciation
Routines add meaning, and they uncomplicate our lives, but autonomy adds the flavor.
That said, there is such a thing as too much autonomy, too. In small doses, it’s invaluable, but we can also easily become desensitized to its appeal. By nature, autonomy pushes us towards instant gratification, and although the pleasure it brings can help us get more out of life, the problem with instant gratification is that it leads to a cycle of more. That’s not a good thing.
The more we get, the more we want, and the game of relativity warps our perception quickly and unsuspectingly. It cheapens the good but still has us craving more. On the surface, it can open up an ocean of possibilities, but in reality, that only leads to disorientation.
Over short periods, there will be a misbalance here and there. As the months and years add up, however, we should have a healthy divide between the two. To maintain appreciation, we need to balance the pleasure invited by autonomy with the meaning inspired by routines.
Let’s recount the story of Katherine Miller.
Over the course of the year, half of her time is spent doing something she really enjoys at work. Sure, it’s hard stuff, and it has its ups and downs, but for the most part, that’s her source of usefulness and identity. It keeps her mind engaged and interested.
The other half of the year, she spends traveling. It’s a lifestyle in which she practically chooses do whatever she wants in windows of two week periods. It allows her to get away from some of the more mundane aspects of living a life of consistency, and that’s empowering.
Taken to the extreme, in a different world, if she did one exclusively without the other, she might find herself engorged and excited for a while, and it might even last for up to a year or two. But in most scenarios, either extreme would likely leave her dissatisfied in the long run.
Knowing the balance needed to appreciate the many layers of life is a personal undertaking.
It makes sense to develop an understanding of where on the spectrum you stand. As famed researcher Daniel Gilbert points out in Stumbling on Happiness, “The secret of happiness is variety, but the secret of variety, like the secret of all spices, is knowing when to use it.”
All You Need to Know
In truth, it’s virtually impossible to dissect what it is that makes us happy. There’s no comprehensive package out there that’s broad enough to enlighten everyone. We’re born with different genes, we live in different environments, and we entertain different perspectives.
We can somewhat target unhappiness, we can list correlations that research has uncovered, and we make loose predictions based on experience, but the more we aim for happiness itself, the more elusive it often appears.
In some ways, we can reason that there’s a way there with a healthy mixture of meaning and pleasure. And if we settle with that, by focusing on optimally incorporating the two, we can at least live an interesting life. That’s the focus here, and there are three parts to it.
I. Craft routines that add meaning. They might not always be sexy in the short-term, but they’re invaluable in any quest to accomplish something over time. They allow us to bypass needless choice, and they ground to us to an identity. Without them, we would be paralyzed into making decisions that misalign with future prosperity.
II. Design for autonomy to create empowerment. Routines, whether good or bad, often have a degree of control over us. They confine what we can do, and that’s not always ideal. To live beyond just limitations, we need autonomy, too. We need the option to indulge in the easy pleasures of life, and we need to feel liberated and in charge.
III. Balance the two with variety to maintain an appreciation of both. Excess of one or the other is unhealthy. It’s about stabilizing the meaning and structure of routines with the empowerment of autonomy. If you feel trapped by your routines, you need a dose of autonomy. If you feel desensitized by the autonomy, you need to mix in a few routines.
That’s it. It’s by no means a blueprint, but it can serve as a useful mental model. In fact, it’s very much incomplete, and different people will extract their own nuggets of value from it. The only point is to inspire thinking about how to live deliberately. Autopilot doesn’t cut it.
Balance doesn’t always mean an even divide. It’s about what works. Explore and play around.
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