“Too often we get distracted by what is outside our control. You can’t do anything about yesterday. The door to the past has been shut and the key thrown away. You can do nothing about tomorrow. It is yet to come. However, tomorrow is in large part determined by what you do today. So make today a masterpiece. You have control over that.” – John Wooden
“What do you say we build a masterpiece together?” – Pete Carroll
“Did today matter?”
Chris Guillebeau offered those words to the small crowd gathered in Chicago for the launch of his latest book: Born for This. As he and I sat talking together after the event, I couldn’t get the question out of my mind. “Did today matter?”
Guillebeau’s prompt contains a simple truth. What we do with every day matters. Do we spend our time going through the motions, or do we fill our days with the people, projects, and purpose that we prioritize most?
To make a masterpiece of our lives, we must create masterpiece days.
The Making of A Masterpiece
In 2016, “masterpiece” was one of my theme words. I set the goal of embodying it by having one masterpiece day.
Every night, I asked myself, “Did today matter?” I then scored it on a scale from 1-10. The score took into account how I was feeling, what had happened, and how it compared to my ideal day.
It took until December to get my first masterpiece, but then it happened twice before the year was over. In 2017, so far, I’ve had more than a dozen. I’ve also had more than a fair share of days I marked as 9.5 or 9.5+ out of 10. (I have a history of perfectionism. More on that below.)
So, what makes a day a masterpiece? For me, the formula was pretty simple. Masterpiece Day = Fundamentals + Creative Production + Progress Towards Highest Goals + Love & Connection.
The last part was (and is) the most essential: Love & Connection. Spending high-quality time with family and friends, connecting deeply, laughing, loving others, and being loved. When my heart was full and happy, the day earned a higher score.
Important! Masterpieces Are NOT Perfect
We’ll explore a process to create masterpiece days shortly. First, I want to echo Henry James, “Excellence does not require perfection.”
I would often get to the end of a truly exceptional day and think, “Today wasn’t perfect… I wasn’t as good to Kristen as I wanted to be,” or “I snapped at Gus,” or “I was two minutes late to…”
No day passes without an opportunity to iterate or improve. (And, no day ever will!) As such, I had a hard time calling any day a 10. Eventually, I understood that a masterpiece day doesn’t have to be flawless. Perfection is an asymptote that we can never reach. (As is self-actualization.)
I began focusing on positives and highlighting wins instead of counting mistakes and docking myself. What a day contained was far more important than what it lacked. Going next-level Pareto (say, 80/20 x 2) and having days that were 96%+ of ideal was something to encourage.
Additionally, some of my best days were ones where I caught myself heading down a path I wasn’t proud of, and made an adjustment to bring it back on course. Making a mistake but then quickly recognizing and correcting it is something to celebrate. (aka miss-takes)
A final note. Although it may take a long time to get to a masterpiece day, just the process of going for it makes it hard to have “bad” days. Since I started tracking in mid-2015, my absolute worst day was a 6.5. Even the down days end up OK when you’ve identified the most important components, prioritized the fundamentals, and always strive to improve.
How to Craft A Masterpiece Day
Making a masterpiece day starts with thinking about the ideal. We need to have a vision of what an ideal day looks like so we know what we’re aiming for. Then, we can begin taking steps towards making it a reality.
We’ll begin by exploring Macro and Micro Perfect Days in a process influenced by Lewis Howes’ School of Greatness. Then, we’ll apply science-backed tools and compound magic.
So, take out your journal or a sheet of paper, or open up a new text doc, and…
Step 1: Describe Your Macro Dream Day
First, describe on a macro level what your ideal day looks like. In a paragraph or two, write the story of your masterpiece day in broad terms. What do you spend your time doing? Who are you doing it with? Where are you? What are you working on? Who are you being?
For example, “In my perfect day, I wake up before dawn, rejuvenated from a long night of restful sleep. My beautiful wife is sleeping soundly next to me, with a serene look that displays her joy about our life together. I rise, execute a morning routine that grounds, energizes, and prepares me for the day. I watch the sun rise over the water then settle down for a session of deep work: writing and illustrating my next best-seller. After my wife wakes, we share some form of physical activity: running, biking, practicing yoga, boxing, and others. Our bodies are healthy, strong, flexible, and balanced. Following a cold shower and nutritious fuel, I begin…” etc.
When you’re finished, take a moment to imagine yourself experiencing that ideal. Put yourself in it, feeling the incredible emotions. Believe that you can achieve what you’re striving for. “I truly believe,” said Russell Wilson, a key part of Pete Carroll’s Seahawk masterpiece, “that your positive mindset gives you a more hopeful outlook, and belief that you *can* do something great means that you *will* do something great.”
Step 2: Define the Micro Details
Remember the philosophy professor and his jar of rocks. There are a limited number of hours in a day, and we need to make sure we dedicate time to our highest priorities before they get crowded out.
Below the story of your ideal day, write out hour-markers, or general time blocks, and start filling them in. How much time do different activities get, and when? Take the abstract and begin to make it real.
Here’s a sample template for my current ideal. Simply executing some version of this guarantees a great day. Going from great to a masterpiece depends on the quality of the deep work, service, and deep love blocks.
I use a general sequence* rather than exact times, as my schedule changes from day to day. It can also be helpful to schedule containers that might change depending on the day. For example, a social block might mean either dinner with friends, game night, or other shared group activity. *[AM fundys, AM work, Mid-day reset, PM work, Close + Prep, Deep Love, PM fundys, Sleep]
Step 3: Rub It Against Reality
Borrowing a trick from Gabrielle Oettingens WOOP, it’s time to compare your ideal day to today – or tomorrow. We’re unlikely to jump right into masterpiece days immediately, but we can begin to make progress.
Within the constraints of your current situation, are there one or more components of your ideal day that you can commit to starting now? Do them immediately, or put them on the calendar for later today or tomorrow morning.
Looking at the rest of your masterpiece day, think about what might get in the way of you realizing it. Do you have prior commitments to causes you’re not excited about? Bad habits to work on? How might you get in your own way?
Begin to create a plan for how you’re going to overcome those obstacles. For poor habits or less-than-stellar behavioral choices, use WOOP’s If-Then implementations. “If I feel/notice/am tempted to do _______, then I am going to _______.”
For longer term challenges, chart a rough course that might get you to where you want to be, and begin taking action on the first steps. For example, if you’re working in a career that doesn’t excite you, maybe you can begin studying or taking temp work on the side.
Step 4: Iterate and Improve
We’re not going to get it right on the first time. Or the second. Or third. And that’s OK. Masterpieces aren’t painted in a single sitting with one continuous brush stroke. Keep painting, adding stroke by stroke as you iterate and improve. The goal is to make progress towards a masterpiece bit by bit.
Remember, I worked on this for years before getting really intentional about it, and even then it still took me 12 months.
Think of each day as data that you can use to make the next day better. Every day, or at least every week, take notes on what went well, what didn’t, and how you can get better.
In the morning, (or the prior evening – as I prefer to do) ask yourself, “What would make this day amazing?” Identify between one and three most important tasks (MITs) to focus on. If you nail the fundamentals that allow you to show up and execute on a high level, and you set good targets for what to focus on, all you have to do is knock them down.