A guide to living your life in the fast cycle lane

Mon, Nov 21, 2011, 00:00

Aiming for the best possible life is silly as it is guaranteed to end in tears, as life is difficult and bad things happen

AS I cycled to work the other day, I did something that I almost never do: I tried to think strategically about how I live my life.

The result was nearly fatal. I had a near miss with a cement mixer, and so my life, with all its strategic imperfections, almost ceased to be.

Such an accident would have proved conclusively, if somewhat violently, what I am now going to try to prove in a safer, more prosaic way – that thinking strategically about your life isn’t necessarily such a great idea.

The impetus for this exercise came from a new book by Matthew Kelly who has “dedicated his life to helping organisations and individuals become the best version of themselves”.

In Off Balance(which has a rave review from the head of P&G on the back), he is now helping us to be satisfied professionally and personally at the same time.

He starts off well by saying what I’ve long suspected: that work-life balance is bunkum. It makes no sense because work is life and life is work and because balance isn’t necessarily something we want anyway. And even if it were, it’s not achievable, as no one can ever have it all.

He then argues that life is like a business in that it’s all about allocating scarce resources. To do this well, we need a long- term plan and we need to appraise ourselves as we go along.

The first step, he says, is to draw up a list of the things that matter to us – such as work, relationships, children, faith, health and so on – and arrange them in order of priority.

Over the kitchen table early one morning, I applied myself to the task.

It took me about two seconds. Children come at the top of any such list. Work comes further down, though higher than, say, getting my hair done.

Writing the list was easy but it raises a harder question: do I allocate my time according to these priorities? Absolutely not.

At the very moment that I was working on the list and reading the book, my son was next to me eating his Cheerios with his iPod on.

He asked for a bagel with honey to take to school and, not having listened to him, I absent-mindedly smeared it with peanut butter instead.

If children really were top of my list, surely I would have put the book away, reached for the honey and engaged him in an improving conversation about the euro over breakfast.

Does this mean I’m living my life wrongly? According to Kelly all may be well: the simple fact of being sometimes obsessively absorbed in work doesn’t make you a bad parent.

He argues that being stretched at work makes you happier and therefore much nicer to your family when you see them.

This strikes me as a convenient fudge. When I’m really engaged in my work, I go on being engaged in it when I am supposed to be focusing on my family.

Hence the poor performance with the bagel.

Still, I am trying to resist the obvious conclusion that the breakfast story shows that my whole life is wrong. In my heart I’m pretty sure that it is wrong, but not more wrong than most.

Instead, what is definitely wrong is Kelly’s starting point.

Aiming for the best possible life is a silly idea as it is absolutely guaranteed to end in tears, as lives are difficult and bad things happen.

And as for the priority list, what it means is that when push comes to shove my children matter most, but most of life is not lived in the place where push comes to shove.

Minute to minute, I decide how to allocate my scarce resources by a sophisticated internal mechanism that responds to ideas of duty, pleasure, habit, love, novelty and so on. I only change course when things go wrong.

Back to the scene at the breakfast table. Because my son seemed okay in his adolescent trance, I went on being interested in work. If I thought that things were not okay with him, I would have put the book down.

That is my strategy: do what you are doing until it is clear it’s not working, then try something else.

This approach saves me a lot of time. Kelly’s approach involves half an hour spent meditating each morning, as a result of which he has decided it’s good to drink a gallon of water every day.

Without any meditating, I drink getting on for a gallon of tea, Diet Coke, coffee and wine instead.

I’m aware that such fluid intake could damage my liver and my teeth enamel, and if either starts giving me any trouble I’ll rethink my beverage selection strategy at once. Otherwise, no need.

However, as a result of my soul-searching today, I have found one thing that isn’t working in how I live my life and which I’m changing as a result.

It’s something more life-saving than life-changing: when on a bicycle, look where you’re going. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011)