by Bruce Grierson
For a lot of us, a typical day is so full of compromises, distractions, and interruptions that it ends up being neither productive (if it’s a work day) nor relaxing (if it’s a play day). We’re half-on/half-off much of the time, checking emails and running errands, chasing little stuff as if it were big stuff, and losing track of the difference. Days like that end up being, if not exactly wasted, at least forgettable. They run through our fingers and they're gone. They never make it onto the scoreboard because they were about … nothing.
So for the last year I’ve been trying an experiment: Once a month, I take a day and wrap it in a mission. I give it over to one achingly neglected bit of business. I clear the decks in advance. Unplug the phone. Farm out the kids. Put an “Away” message on my emails. And then, on the appointed morning, dive in.
I call each of these one-day sabbaticals a Big Day. It doesn’t matter what the day is about, so long as it’s about one thing. That’s my only rule. The goal is to build a mountain I can get up and down in 24 hours.
Psychologists have found that taking vacation breaks —detaching physically or mentally from your workaday routine — is restorative only to the degree that what you do during that time is both richly absorbing and obligation-free (i.e., you aren’t “on call” to your boss). But here’s the rub: Whatever the nature of the self-imposed time out, the emotional boost you get from it lasts for between three and four weeks. So after a month, you need a refueling.
I’m not saying Big Days can never be about work. It feels incredibly good to tackle a half-finished job, knock it off, close the file, and send an invoice. But in general, it’s worth resisting the temptation, when faced with a deliciously interruption-free stretch of time, to just beat back the biggest fire on your desk. There is "work work" and there is, if you like, "soul work." The soul work, more important but less urgent, gets bumped like a standby passenger again and again unless you commit to it, circle a date on the calendar, and allow no substitutions.
My friend Curtis Galbraith, an early adopter of the Big Day concept, spent a day like this recently. He used to be a songwriter, vocalist, and bass player for a number of indie bands of some repute. Then he became a suburban dad. He knew the music was still in him; it was just buried under 10 pounds of laundry. So after much tweaking of schedules and juggling of duties, he carved out a day. And on that day he retreated to his basement studio–complete with mixing board and fruit-carton sound baffling on the walls—cleared away the skis and file boxes that had infiltrated the space, and created a song from scratch. He wrote it, recorded all the tracks, and at the 23-hour-59-minute mark, pressed Save. (There was a little sleep in there as well, but not much.) Then he emerged from the bunker to resume his life, already in progress. He was tired, but buzzing. He’d fallen a bit behind on the home front, but he quickly caught up, and now he had a cool new song in the bank—one that never would have existed had he not seen its creation through right to the end.
My own best Big Days have delivered not a finished product, necessarily, but a feeling. A state change. After my hardest but most memorable Big Day to date—an experiment: How far could I go in a day under my own power?—I was walking three inches off the Earth for about a week. My wife reported that I was a different guy. I was attentive, I had energy. I was glad to be home, because I had truly, in a way that’s hard to describe, been away.
There’s another reason that once a month is about the right frequency for a Big Day. Any more is too big an Ask of your family. Any fewer is a lost opportunity. You never know how much time you have left above ground.
Twelve full days, over the course of a year, is actually quite a lot of time. Plenty of different kinds of itches can be scratched. For 2017 I decided to come up with a theme for each month and some examples of Big Days that might fall into it. Feel free to steal this template if it works for you:
Prepare for a natural disaster. Plan your next great vacation. Grok at a deep level a potential career change. Know what to do if somebody collapses or gets injured on your watch.
Put some new skill on your resume — riding a unicycle, playing the ukulele, learning a simple coding language like Scratch, drawing a recognizable portrait, getting your scuba certification.
Revisit that half-completed project that stalled and just git ‘er done. Complete the family genealogy. Fill in the gaps in your favorite movie director’s body of work. Finally make the home movie from all the footage you shot last summer. Re-open the file on some challenge that defeated you (Mt. Rainier!) and slay it.
Tackle that thing you’ve always meant to tackle — so long as it’s tackleable in a day. (Even if it isn’t, you can tackle it in installments, one Big Day at a time.) Read the novel on your night stand.
Take a big unpleasant task and just disappear it — and then enjoy the huge weight off your shoulders. Declutter the house, get your finances in order, paint the upstairs.
You can’t really “think out of the box” — that’s a myth. But you can grow the box, bit by bit, by having novel experiences. Have a “Yes” day, a blind day, a "mystery travel" day. Read the kind of book you never read. Try not buying anything for a whole day. Or not complaining. Go cold turkey on some vice.
Scrub in on someone else’s venture — a bird count, charity ride, a research trip — or create a collective Big Day of your own. Organize a neighborhood cleanup. Paint stenciled fish on the pavement next to storm drains. Work with the “ghost bike” project to attach biographies of the cyclists who died at those locations. Plant a guerilla garden in the infield of a traffic circle.
How far can you walk, bike, or kayak? How high can you climb? How does it feel to stay outdoors for a full 24 hours?
Memorize all the world capitals, or the name of everyone you meet in a day. Try something that for you takes insane courage—like busking, or preparing five minutes of comedy that you perform that night at an open-mike event.
Mend fences with an estranged relative, write thank-you letters to old teachers, coaches, or mentors, track down a long-lost high-school pal. Or make a new friend in some story-worthy way.
Create something from nothing — a blog, a personal brand, a cheese board, a winning caption in the New Yorker’s cartoon caption contest.
Prepare an elaborate meal for a lover or serve a simple one at a soup kitchen for strangers. Volunteer to sort clothes or deliver presents for a holiday charity. Create Big Days for other people.
For more on this idea, go to onebigday.net