Just one day at a time
At holiday periods, such as Christmas and the New Year, a lot over-eating and over-drinking occurs.
So you might like to try a little experiment at some stage over the next few days, preferably just after an over-indulgent meal…! (This was written at that time of the year.)
As you sit down to eat take a moment to visualise all of the meals that you will eat over the next week. All of the breakfasts - all the midday meals – and evening meals. And snacks.
How much will you eat?
Imagine all that food in one huge pile on a table in front of you…
Now imagine all the food you will eat over the next month – the next 12 months – the next twenty years! piled up on the floor – until it reaches the ceiling. Imagine you can see and smell and feel it!
Don't do this for too long as it might make you nauseous or at least put you off your food for a while. Now consider what it would be like if you were to do this every time you felt like eating or sat down to eat - and how it might affect your attitude towards eating.
How much will you do?
Now imagine doing the same with some other everyday activities. All of the walking you will do. All the times you will greet your family. All the times you will dress, breathe, sleep, stand up and sit down, dress and undress, take a shower, brush your teeth.
But we don't think like this...
Agreed! We don't think like this about such matters – about the necessary activities in daily life.
We just get on with things
We just get on with them without thinking, analysing or wondering why. We recognise that they have to be done so we do them without thought or disagreement.
Neither do we think about how many times we have already, in the past, cleaned our teeth and will have to clean them in the years ahead. Brushed our hair – in the past and will have to do so in the future. Taken a shower in the past and will do so in the years to come. It would be quite pointless!
We need to do these things daily so there is no point in thinking about such past or future activities. We simply take them a day at a time.
Thinking ourselves into depression
In that case how is it that we do apply this form of long-distance thinking to our working life and to things we have to do but do not want to do?
...because this is one of the ways in which we unintentionally think ourselves into very negative and depressing moods.
Certain life areas become 'don't want to do but have to do' areas that we home in on! Having 'selected' them we continually remind ourselves that we do not like them. And that we will 'have to' continue doing them for years and years to come! And so our thinking and the moods resulting from this thinking become overwhelmingly depressing.
“I've got to keep getting up and going to work till I'm 60 – and I'm only 31!”
“It's the same old routine – work, eat, sleep. Roll on Friday!”
“I've got to put up with his/her bad moods for the rest of my life!”
“Bills, bills, bills – a lifetime of struggle ahead!”
We selectively imagine a future that is filled with life's less-than-delightful issues and is, therefore, one of unending and relentless toil and trouble. And then proceed to feel bad about the thoughts we have conjured up.
Now I don't know about you but, as a sure way of getting deeply depressed, that type of thinking would work for me. Especially if I were to continue with it for weeks or months!
It depressed me
In fact it did work for me – though fortunately only for a short while. I was still in my teens and I'd begun to get into the habit of thinking too far ahead and thinking about all of the obstacles, problems, and difficulties that lay in wait. I was still at school and quite empathised with Percy B Shelley's thoughts in his poem 'Ode to the Skylark' in which he talked about the human propensity to “think before and after and pine for what is not” as a way of getting into a state of 'dejection' or depression.
And then, in Dale Carnegie's book 'How to stop worrying and start living' I came across a comment that made a huge difference for me. It was a quote by Sir William Osler, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford. He exhorted people to learn to “Live in day-tight compartments” rather than try to think of the entire past and future each moment.
Osler and watertight compartments
Speaking in 1913, just a year after the sinking of the Titanic (incidentally but probably irrelevantly), Osler suggested that, like the captain who has control of the ship's watertight compartments, we might…
“Touch a button and hear, at every level of your life, the iron doors shutting out the past - the dead yesterdays. Touch another and shut off, with a metal curtain, the future - the unborn tomorrows. Then you are safe - safe for today! The load of tomorrow, added to that of yesterday, carried today, makes the strongest falter. Waste of energy, mental distress, nervous worries dog the steps of a man who is anxious about the future."
His message may not be original (according to the Bible the same message was being offered a few thousand years earlier…) but is nonetheless valuable. Osler suggests that doing a good job of handling today's issues – without being weighed down by those of yesterday – is the best way of preparing for tomorrow. And then, when it arrives, handle tomorrow in the same manner.
Putting it into action
Learning to concentrate realistically on the here-and-now will take a little time. As with any new skill you will benefit from practising each day.
Incidentally, this message does not contradict the value of forward planning. Having realistic plans, with both short- and long-term goals, is an important way of keeping your life focussed and on course. Neither does this message mean we should stop learning from past mistakes because if we do not learn from our personal history we are destined to repeat these mistakes.
How to do it
If you find yourself dwelling un-usefully on the past ask “Have I learned from and moved beyond this event? Is continuing to dwell on this benefiting me? Because if it is not beneficial there is no point in continuing to think like this.” (Substitute your own words – but keep the meaning).
If you find yourself worrying about the future ask “Is it realistic to be anticipating this right now?” If it is then ask “Do I have a plan for dealing with this to the best of my ability?” If it is not appropriate, perhaps because you are looking too far ahead, say to yourself “It is pointless to worry about this right now.” And then change your thinking
In both cases remember that it is your mind – your property. Use your property wisely, take full responsibility for the moods you create for yourself and do it all, in the words of that country and western song “one day at a time…”
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