And, no it’s not just an excuse to avoid all responsibilities.
I first came across the concept of living in day-tight compartments while reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. In fact, it can be found in Part 1 (Fundamental Facts You Should Know About Worry) Chapter 1. Sir William Osier, an extremely successful physician, was asked to speak at Yale University and there, he attributed all of his success not to his “mediocre” brains, but to his ability to live in “day-tight compartments”. His message was basically not to waste energy thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Instead, we should focus all of our energy on today.
Now I think at first glance this advice could be taken as an excuse to avoid all responsibilities. If we only have to think about today, then we might as well have as much fun as we can right now right? Well not exactly. Dr. Osier clarified that it’s not that we don’t prepare for tomorrow or the future in general, but that we do it in the best possible way. And what is the best possible way? Using all of our intelligence and enthusiasm to do today’s work as well as we can. He also added that in reality, this is the only way we can prepare for the future because all we have today is today and all we can do today is today’s work. There’s no reason to waste time dwelling on anything else.
Ok so now we kind of understand that living in day-tight compartments isn’t just an excuse to slack off. But what does that mean for actually living your life?
To me, living in day-tight compartments is all about presence and working hard. It can involve planning and preparing for the future if and only if that is part of today’s work. But mindless worrying about the future? No thank you.
So let’s take a typical day. Let’s say you wake up and suddenly have a million tasks running through your head. That’s ok but what do we do? For starters, maybe we take a step back and take a deep breath. This will help us refocus on the present moment. Then maybe we take out a pen and a pad of paper and start jotting down all of these tasks, saving some to be addressed later, and compiling another list of those that can be completed today. In other words, today’s work. Amazing, we’re off to a great start. Maybe then we wander downstairs and open the freezer looking for something to eat for breakfast. We see the box of waffles which sends us a wave of thoughts about how hard it is to eat healthy all the time. But wait. We only have to worry about today. So all we have to do is eat healthy today. Much easier. So we make ourselves a nice berry smoothie for breakfast and open a book to start reading. We remember that one of our New Year’s resolutions was to read 20 books this year and we start feeling stressed about the magnitude of that goal. Last year we only read 5 books. But wait, we only have to worry about today. So, instead of thinking about those 20 books we just have to read for the next 30 minutes and enjoy our smoothie. Much easier.
So far we’re starting to see that a lot of living in day-tight compartments is all about perspective. If we can focus on today and the work for today in, and only in, the context of today. Suddenly a lot of our worry and stress disappears. Even though we’re doing the same exact work, how we think about it affects how stressed we feel, how hard the work feels, and even how well we get the work done. So why not choose to live in today and save up all that extra energy we usually waste worrying. Anyways, back to today.
So now that we’re doing reading it’s time to pack up and go to work. But we’re running a little late now because we got so into the book and now we’re about to hit the worst of rush hour. Being stuck in traffic is the worst, it happens so often ever since we moved. But wait we only have to worry about today, and you know what the extra 10 minutes means we get to finish our favorite podcast. Not such a bad deal. Ok but then we get in to work and we instantly remember that our project is way behind schedule. How will we make everything up? But then we remember, stressing about all the work we have to do doesn’t actually help us do the work. So we make another list of the most useful things we can do today. Suddenly work isn’t so stressful anymore. Everytime we lose focus we just kindly guide our mind back to whatever we are working on now. And just like that, the day is over. But now that we’re leaving work we realize we’re actually really tired. But we’re supposed to go to the gym today because we told ourselves this is the year we’d finally get in shape. Getting in shape is a lot of work. But wait, all we have to do is go to the gym today. Well, that’s not so bad. Maybe we will actually go. And an hour later we’re in the car and by now we’re starting to feel really good about our day. We make a nice healthy dinner, last meal for the day that’s an easy bucket, and then all we have left to do is go to sleep. But we have so much trouble getting to sleep these days that we don’t even really feel like trying yet. But wait, we only have to fall asleep just once, just today, and so we might as well go to sleep and let it happen. And before we know it we’re fast asleep after having absolutely crushed today.
Now obviously this story is a huge exaggeration, but I’m hoping that it helps illustrate how the principle of “living in day-tight compartments” can be applied in real life. I almost think of this type of presence as a form of meditation because we are continuously bringing our mind back to the tasks and thoughts of today and releasing everything else. We won’t succeed every single time we try to stay in today, but like anything, the more we practice the better we’ll get.