24 Dec The Joy List
It’s a new year soon.
And as I look forward, I’m also looking back. Not to this past year but to quite a few years ago. Five, in fact. And there’s something from that time that I want to share.
I’d just come off one of our most successful years Natie, my branding agency.
We’d completed branding a global organization and had worked hand-in-hand with them for a year and a half. We had another 14 clients on the wall and our team was crushing it.
But I wasn’t feeling on top of the world. Quite the contrary.
In my head, I had a pie chart of time spent in my life and it looked something like this:
In my 5% of time, all I wanted to do was sleep.
I was unmotivated and frustrated. And tired. It’s hard to tell when you’re in the thick of it, but in hindsight, it’s clear. I was totally burnt out. I was done. Felt I had nothing to give.
“Eitan, WTF is wrong with you? The agency is killing it. You’ve created personal pieces that inspire people around the world and have been viewed in the tens of millions. Family is good. Kids are good. Come on, get on with it.”
This went on for months. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what to do about getting my creativity and work mojo back. But obsessing about it just kept me stuck and frustrated.
Finally, one day – yet another tough day – after sitting with all sorts of wonderful people and unable to get anywhere, I sat down with someone who lent me her ear. Someone I trusted who had my best interests at heart. Someone who knew me.
After hearing everything I had to say about me how miserable guts, she asked me a simple question.
“What do you want, Eitan?”
Sheesh. I told her that no matter what I did and no matter how much I was doing, I felt depleted. Nothing I was doing was working. I was trying to take more time for myself. Taking the pressure off work. I was looking for something big to make me get more motivated.
She wanted to know if I was game to try something else to rid myself of the frustration. A different approach.
Yes. Yes. And yes.
She asked me, “What are some of the things you enjoy.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, some of the things you like doing. What brings you joy?”
Silence. For 2 minutes.
“I like coming up with ideas. Working with my team. Creating films and writing pieces that resonate and move people.”
“That sounds like a lot of pressure! Tell me about the things that bring you joy. Like, what do you derive real pleasure from? It can be anything. Also little things. Especially the little things. Step out of the comfort zone you’ve grown used to.”
Silence. For 3 minutes. My tank was empty with the little things.
After a while… first thing that came into my head.
“I like going to the movies on my own. In the middle of the day. I like buying the biggest popcorn and getting the biggest Coke Zero. I like disappearing for a bit. I haven’t done that in ages.”
“Great. What else?”
“I like going to the beach in Tel Aviv and watching the sunset. Or first thing in the morning.”
“Listening to albums from start to finish. Really listening to them while doing nothing else. Ones that mean something to me. Not just a few songs but all the way through from start to finish the way the artist intended the songs to be heard.”
More things started to come:
Going for a spontaneous bike ride in the city at night when the streets are quiet.
Getting together with a close friend and being my absolute self.
Building big, expensive Legos.
Taking portrait pics of people as they look into the camera.
She then said, “That’s fantastic. Now, write all of them down. Right now. Make a list.”
I did with her sitting there. About 20 things. None of them too big. None of them over the top. Just…things.
Walking around the city without Google Maps letting me know where I am exactly or what’s in the area.
Quality fun time with my wife where we laugh out loud.
Memorable play dates with my sons.
Going to arcades to play video games.
Eating Ramen noodles.
Not being on the phone.
“Ok”, she said. “You have a list.”
“Great”, I said cynically. “Let me guess. Now you want me to do all these things?”
“No. What I’m suggesting is that over the coming week, take a look at the list and see if you can do one or two things from it. Don’t go crazy and try to do everything. That’s not the point.”
I said OK.
That week, with the list in my iPhone Notes app, I went about doing the usual things I’d do. At some point, I looked at the list, dreading it. But I had some time on my hands.
“Listening to an album I like from start to finish. Really listening to them while doing nothing else.”
Hmm. I can do that.
I found The The’s DUSK, put on my headphones, closed my eyes and for 42 and half minutes I disappeared. Matt Johnson’s scratchy vocals repeatedly singing, ‘If you can’t change the world. Change yourself. And if you can’t change yourself….change the world…’
First time in forever.
I looked at my list again and reached out to a close friend. We met at the beach, had a few beers, talked about everything under the sun then watched it paint the Tel Aviv sky in pinks and blues as it dipped into the Mediterranean Sea.
All in all, that first week, I did more than one or two things. I did five or six. It wasn’t always easy. It was almost like I had to force myself out of my work work work mindset just to physically get out there again. But by the end of the week, even though the needle of my mood hadn’t moved tremendously, I felt a shift.
I continued doing things from the list the next week. And the week after. Occasionally I would repeat things from the list or add some new stuff I enjoyed.
Treating myself to a vanilla milkshake.
Helping someone, just because.
Making one-minute films celebrating each of my two kids.
Going away spontaneously somewhere for an overnight.
Over the course of months, I continued. Half a year went by. All those months eventually turned into a full calendar year. What required effort and what seemed to take more effort than I was comfortable with at the beginning became easier. I felt better. Much better. Less depleted. More like myself.
I looked back.
Slowly but surely, what happened was that the initial 5% that was mine where all I wanted to do was sleep had turned into around 20%. And in that time, unlike taking time off to just mentally wander aimlessly….I was doing things I wanted to do. Which made me less depleted with my family. With work and clients. With my own creativity. With everything.
It wasn’t just deciding to do things that bring me joy that was the trick. It was a combination of things.
1. Most of the things on my list were things I could easily do.
They didn’t require that much effort. I wasn’t trying to figure out something humongous or intimidating.
2. Choice is a beautiful thing. Choice is power. Choice is control.
Instead of aimlessly floating (which is frustrating), putting something down on paper, thinking about it, and then doing it with intent made all of the difference. Making my own choices, as opposed to not putting in the effort to even think about choices, empowered me. It gave me control.
3. Little by little, microbundles of joy started adding up.
Five minutes of pleasure a day became half an hour. One hour a week suddenly became four hours a week. It all added up. Incrementally. Like little micro bundles of joy.
4. The micro bundles also led to other things.
They literally inspired me to make further changes. One was an overarching decision to be more selfish in my personal life. If something isn’t coming from a place of desire, what’s the point? It’s just a drag. Less I should do this and more I really want to do this – it felt healthier. I started to hang out less with people that were, on the whole, a negative influence. I just decided to stop investing in those kinds of relationships and actively invested in the more positive ones.
It also led to bigger changes at work like saying no to clients that I had a bad feeling about. Those that wave big paychecks at you but who are going to be a spirit-suck. Working with partners who were too problematic. Putting too much unhealthy stress on yourself because you should get the result, rather than because you want the result.
That experience was years ago. But I have taken the lessons of that year with me every year since to this day. It’s made a big difference in my personal life and work life – I have zero complaints. And besides being a family man and a father (which is hands down the thing that brings me the most joy in the world), have I figured out the big thing in life that makes one constantly happy?
I think so.
But it’s not one big thing.
For me, it’s an accumulation of the many small things.
I seek them out. I make enough time for them. They add up. They make a difference.
And that’s the big thing.
It’s easy to forget. I try not to.
I have a joy list.
Here’s to yours.