Want to improve your life, one daily habit at a time? My dad offers some pretty good advice.
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The other day my dad sent me an email with the subject line, “YOUR COLUMN.” (My dad is sometimes big on all-caps.) It began:
In the tradition of 12 step programs and your excellent columns, I offer the following for your use, adaptation, or rejection.
My dad (Bill Murphy Sr., if you’re doing the genealogical math) has enjoyed business successas a lawyer who built his own firm, and who has worked for himself since the early 1970s. He and my mom raised five kids together, and they’re still going strong. They’re devoted to their grandchildren, and moreover my dad is a man who enjoys both his work and the rest of his life.
In fact, as I read his email, it occurred to me that he’s achieved many of the things that younger people tell me are among their goals in life. (Of course, I’ve been too close to realize it.)
My dad went on to offer four daily habits, each of which made great sense to me, and which I know he’s backed up with experience. However, I also know my dad well enough to realize that offering onlyfour pieces of advice isn’t exactly his nature, so I racked his brain. Here’s what we came up with.
1. Carpe diem.
You know that this is Latin for “seize the day,” right? This is the first daily habit on my dad’s list. No matter how yesterday went–whether you had great triumphs or whether you wish you’d spent the whole day in bed, remember that every new day is a new opportunity. You can’t rest on yesterday’s accomplishments, and you never have to repeat yesterday’s mistakes.
2. Spend as much time as you can with the people you love.
Your spouse, your kids, your parents, your close friends–whoever they are–make sure that you find lots of time to spend time with the people you truly care about. If you want to feel really guilty about this, check out the calculator at seeyourfolks.com, which will calculate how many more times you’re likely to see your parents based on past experience and life expectancy. (We’ll wait here while you go give them a call afterward.)
3. At the same time, love the ones you’re with.
There are many different kinds of love, and here my dad is talking about showing respect and concern for the people you spend your days with. “That is simply, love everyone,” is how my dad put it, and he added a quote from Thomas Merton: “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone–we find it with another.“
4. Work hard.
You can’t always determine what you get out of something, but you can often control what you put into it. When I was growing up and I’d be anxious over some school assignment or other project, my dad would usually ask me the same question afterward: “Did you give it your best shot? Then forget about it.”
5. At the end of the day, go home.
This one seems simple, until you start to realize how most of us are almost 100% on and accessible all the time now. Now, I’m not going to pretend that either my dad or I truly live up to this advice, but it’s a good goal to have.
6. Later, go to bed.
“Get the rest you need. Your body needs sleep–not just ‘rest and relaxation’–for it to work well,” my dad insists. He’s right of course–and it’s even become fashionable to admit thatpeople need sleep.
7. Get some exercise.
My dad’s sport is swimming, and while he came to it late, my dad has the zeal of a convert. A few years ago he did a half-mile open water swim off the beach in Narragansett, R.I. Regardless of what sport or activity works for you, my dad advises, your day will be improved if you do something athletic. Science backs him up.
8. Have a little faith.
As a lawyer–the kind of lawyer who takes on real clients and tries real cases in court–dad has pretty much seen it all. He also has stronger religious (Catholic) faith than most people I know, perhaps in part because he’s had his faith tested in many ways. It helps immensely if you believe in something bigger than yourself.
9. Learn another language.
My dad studied ancient Greek and Latin in high school. More recently, in his 60s, he decided to try to learn Farsi, I guess to better understand what some of our nation’s enemies were saying about us. Whether you’re literally learning another language or simply learning how to do new things and to challenge your preconceptions, the lesson is clear: Keep learning.
10. Read every day.
In a few weeks, guess what I’ll get my dad for Father’s Day: a book, most likely something on the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller lists. It’s what I’ve been doing for decades, so why stop now? I can’t think of many people I’ve known who read more than my dad. Importantly, he usually reads about things that have nothing to do with his work.
11. Keep your wardrobe simple.
My dad gave me this advice years ago when I first started working–so of course I completely ignored it at the time. However, had I gone ahead as he’d suggested and bought a handful of white and blue shirts, for example, and worn them every day, it would have been one fewer decision to have to make in the morning. It looks like that kind of simplification worked for Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, anyway.
12. Shine your shoes.
Shined shoes make you stand out these days, because most people are so casual. You can probably substitute something else for this habit. Just pick things that advertise to the world that you take care of small things. So maybe you also take care of bigger things.
(Here’s a text from my dad a few hours before this column ran: “Just read it again. On point 11, change ‘one less decision’ to ‘one fewer decision.’ Your grammar is wrong. Then, point out this message as an example of point 12.”)
13. Tell the people you love that you love them.
Hey, we’re back to love. Don’t just spend time with the people you love, as advised back in No. 2. Make sure you actually tell them that you love them. For example, when I talk to my dad, he’ll tell me to tell my wife that he loves her. Unnecessarily but amusingly, he’ll add that I should be sure to mention that he means he loves her “appropriately.”
14. Don’t worry.
This is one of those do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do pieces of advice, as my dad is in fact pretty good at worrying about things. That said, worrying rarely improves the odds of good things happening, and can actually diminish those odds.
15. Be kind to animals.
My dad has had dogs since he was little. He treats animals well. His advice? If you want to treat a dog well, treat it like a dog. Don’t try to make it into something it isn’t, and doesn’t want to be (for example, a little human being). Help it become the best possible version of itself.
16. Find good assistants.
For many years, my father had the same, excellent secretary. He taught me long ago that even during the times when you’re working by yourself, you have to be willing to depend on others for help. The most productive people in the world often succeed because they refuse to do some things.
17. Repeat as needed.
This is perhaps the most important bit of advice on my dad’s list, so it’s fitting to have saved it for last. None of these items are actions so much as they are behaviors. The first time you commit to them, you won’t see results. Over a lifetime, however, they can greatly improve your life. Aristotle put it best: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”
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