Four years ago this month those lyrics up above were playing over and over again in my head. My wife had recently left a well-paying corporate job (with killer benefits), we’d sold almost everything we owned, and were getting ready to downsize from a four bedroom house where our next door neighbors included a peacock and flock of chickens to a 450 square foot beach cottage where neighbors would be skateboarding past our front door all day. And as I stood there on the verge of a seismic shift in my world, I asked myself: well…how did I get here?
I looked successful
I was designing high-profile books and art directing a popular magazine in the scrapbooking industry. I got paid to publish my hobby in magazines. Manufacturers sent me boxes of their newest products, and I hung out with the “big names” when I went to CHA. (It still cracks me up that there are “scrapbooking celebrities”. For real.)
My wife had a well-paying job with amazing benefits. We’d bought a house and spent every weekend doing DIY projects. When I look back at the scrapbook pages I made during that time, we looked like a happy couple who totally had their shit together.
The reality was different
The scrapbooking industry was ULTRA conservative, and I’m, like, super gay. So I had people on the internet calling me a wide and imaginative variety of horrible things on a daily basis. Because that wasn’t enough abuse for a day, one of my clients would screaming at me over the phone almost every morning. Another regularly paid late, at one point racking up an outstanding balance of over $10,000.
My wife hated her job. The house we’d been so excited to buy was a money pit. At one point we were living with concrete floors, un-mudded drywall and no hot water. I was working 14 hour days and pulling regular all-nighters to try to keep up with mortgage payments, building materials, and the constant stream of plumbers and electricians.
One day I went to the doctor because I felt like hell
I’d been tired, and couldn’t seem to drag myself out of bed. When I could, I couldn’t focus on anything. It was really affecting my work, so I finally gave in and went to the doctor. I told her about all of my symptoms.
She told me she suspected I was severely depressed. When she asked me “When was the last time you felt *really* happy?” it took me a while to answer. I sat there, thinking, trying to pinpoint the last time that had happened. After maybe 5 minutes I said “I’m not sure. Maybe two years?”
Two years. I’d spent two years of my life being miserable (and making my wife miserable). That wasn’t how I wanted to live my life. I knew I needed to make some drastic changes.
I was thinking about that feeling last week when I read Jeff Chandler’s WPTavern post on “The Mantra of Family Comes First”. It’s one of those things we all say is important to us, and we’re totally going to make a priority, as soon as we hit this deadline or debug that code or finish that project. (Or tweet that funny OH or show someone a dancing unicorn video on YouTube or play a game of Plants vs. Zombies)
I wasn’t ready to change until I was hit over the head with the fact that I was wasting my life doing things that made me hate my life. I wasn’t prioritizing my family’s happiness, and it as making us really…unhappy. (Duh, right. Then how’d it take me so long to figure out?) It took me getting to that low point to decide drastic change was less scary than the status quo.
Ways I Prioritize Happiness:
From the outside my life looked pretty sweet. I ran my own business. I’d bought a house. I had a brand new Mini Cooper. I was doing all the things that I thought successful adults did.
But I’d never stopped to think about whether the standard definition of success jibes with what success looked like to me. So when my wife and I sat down to talk about how we were going to change our lives, we started with redefining what success looked like for us.
I like spending all day with my family, so working from home was important to me. My wife couldn’t wait to get out of an office and make things with her hands. We both wanted to live in a quiet neighborhood close to water. We wanted to live our lives prioritizing happiness.
And so we squeezed into a tiny one bedroom cottage on a quiet street with great neighbors. We walk a lot, and started kayaking. I found a job that lets me work from home, while my wife rehabs furniture in the back yard. We’re happy, and we like our lives. For us, that’s success.
Having a plan
If I don’t have a schedule, my life quickly devolves into a whirling ball of chaos. I am a little OCD about plans, because they help me stay sane. I have a daily schedule I print every morning that has my day divided into 15 minute increments. I don’t always follow it, but I start each day with a framework to make sure I can accomplish everything I need to.
I also keep a hot list. I keep track of what I need to do, and prioritize each task with big red numbers. That way I know what needs to get done. Until the top priorities get crossed off, there’s no Facebook, no Twitter, no weeding my tomato garden.
I tend to get caught up in non-essential stuff and then panic and work late because I never got to the high priority items on my list; I was too busy answering every email as it hit my inbox. I have “shiny object syndrome” and can easily get off task. My list is a reminder of what I should be doing.
At the end of the day I take everything on the list that isn’t done, transfer it to a new list, and re-prioritize it. If I get the important stuff done first, I can push some of thee less essential stuff until the next morning and go watch the sunset. It also helps me clear it out of my head so I’m not stewing over an unfinished task instead of listening to my wife talk to me.
I don’t just have plans for the day or month, though. We talk about plans for a year from now. Three years from now. Five years from now. Like they say, those who don’t have a plan are planning to fail. It’s more of a “let’s head in this general direction” because shit happens, but at least we’re not going in circles in the woods.
Realizing I’d been miserable for a couple of years has made me do some crazy things. Things that I would have mocked a short time before weren’t so ridiculous when I was desparate. Thing like hire a life coach and read self help books and start meditating. I’ve made it a priority to become more mindful. I try to be present in whatever I’m doing: talking with my wife, eating, and yeah, even breathing. (Yes, I know I’m a dirty hippie. Shut up.)
When I put my phone down and actually listen and engage in conversations with my wife, they’re more meaningful. When I give my wife my full attention I’m telling her that she’s more important to me than anything on the internet. The bonus is I say “You didn’t tell me that!” a lot less.
Don’t get me wrong–I still have days where I slump like a troll on the sofa mindlessly clicking reload on Twitter after working way too many hours. That’s why they call it “practicing” mindfulness :D
Taking care of myself
When I don’t sleep well, I’m useless at work. If I’m tired it takes me 4 hours to get an hour’s worth of work done. I can’t focus, and I resent every stupid second of the stupid all-nighter I have to pull. And forget about writing code. I’ll hose something so completely that one bad decision takes me half a day to debug and fix.
If I don’t eat well (or at all), I get cranky. I get easily distracted. I hate everybody and everything. And, once again, it makes simple tasks take way longer than they need to. So now I’m working late *and* I’m hangry. I can sit at my computer until 4am and I’m still not going to do good work.
Exercise is important too. It helps me clear my brain out. It’s also something I can do with my wife. I’m not going to run a marathon any time soon, but a 30 minute walk can help me clear out the cobwebs. I also love taking a couple of hours a week to go out in my kayak. The quiet and the rhythm help me refocus.
I know it sounds trite, but I also have to make time to play. It’s one of the things I took away from “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown. When life is a grind, you need a release. So no matter how busy I get, I try to carve out 30 minutes a day to do something that brings me joy. Some days it’s working in my garden. Some days it’s playing with my dog. Some days I might only find 10 minutes to color in a coloring book. But every single day I try to do something just for fun.
Communicating with my Wife
Sometimes my wife and I are so close that I think she’s a mind reader. She’s not. So we talk about what success looks like and how we plan to get there. We agree on what kind of sacrifices we’ll have to make to get there. We make decisions about changing our diet and exercising more. It can be difficult to have some of these conversations, but it’s more difficult not having them.
Life isn’t concrete. Your needs change. Maybe your idea of success includes moving to a house where there’s room for extended family to visit. Maybe it means travelling the United States in an Airstream trailer. Maybe it means opening your home to care for an elderly relative. Be willing to be flexible and adjust your plan as life throws curveballs at you. The only constant is change, so you might as well embrace it.
In the end, it’s all about you
Not everyone has the same priorities. My priorities are probably a lot different than yours, because my life is a lot different than yours. Figure out what’s important to you and your family.
Make the kind of life you want, not the one your friends or family think you need. It’s hard to do your thing. It’s hard to prioritize happiness. Do it anyway. It’s *so* much better than the alternative.