Is such a thing even possible?
Lou Reed thought so, though sinking into a heroin fog probably isn’t the soundest strategy for long-term fulfillment – or even short-term happiness, if remembering what you were happy about is part of the deal.
Not long ago, Melbourne-based writer Madeleine Dore wondered if you could construct a Perfect Day by geeking out on the science of self-improvement. She’d been experimenting with introducing one new habit into her routine each day. But what if you took the best ideas of famously productive people and strung them together in a rigorously scheduled daisy chain of virtuous efficiency? It might be like an electric jolt for mind, body and soul! On the other hand, it might be, like, an electric jolt for mind, body and soul.
There was only one way to find out.
And so, one August day, Dore’s “Perfect Day experiment” began at 6:08 am, when…
…resisting a second round of snoozing, I gulp down half a litre of water. Some mornings I add Himalayan salt and lime juice, which supposedly helps to reset your biorhythms.
Out of my pyjamas and into an “air bath” – a habit borrowed from 18th-century revolutionary Benjamin Franklin, who believed in the health benefits of nudity. He would sit naked for 30 minutes in a cold room to boost his immune system. I cave in after 10 minutes without detecting any benefits from having a cold toosh.
Having quit coffee a week ago, I make a cup of green tea before settling down at my desk to complete 10 minutes of free-flowing creative writing. When I’m finished, I set an intention for the day, such as “smile more” or “be kind”.
Although monotonous, eating the same thing every day is a common time-saving habit. I alternate between microwave scrambled eggs with spinach and a pre-prepared frittata.
Eating breakfast at my computer, I dedicate some time to answering emails and transcribing interviews.
Exercise in the morning seems to be a popular habit among busy creatives. I head out the door for a short run around the park. While still breathless, I listen to a “positive thinking” meditation recording during my warm-down stretches. Bundling habits has become key to create automatic cues for behaviour and manage my growing to-do list.
Before hopping in the shower, I pop a tablespoon of coconut oil into my mouth and do 20 minutes of “oil pulling” while getting ready for work – the idea being that toxins cling to the oil, so spitting them out improves oral health, whitens teeth and clears skin.
Social media has been restricted to twice-daily checks, so instead of mindlessly scrolling Facebook during my morning commute, I listen to a new podcast and enjoy the view of passengers staring at their iPhones.
The Pomodoro Technique has been a recurring favourite among interviewees. It involves working for bursts of 25 minutes followed by a five-minute rest. I find it to be a great way to get started with my working day.
To ensure I take my vitamins, I put them right next to my computer and set a daily alarm to remind me.
Many creatives I’ve interviewed have enforced breaks. I make a concerted effort to get up from the computer each day to take in some fresh air and go for a walk or run an errand.
Mastering the art of saying no, I politely decline when a colleague asks me out for a drink, the reason being I don’t have the funds as I have to stick to my daily budget. Part of the experiment has been to track my spending in the notes section of my phone.
Head to the op shop with a bag of dresses I haven’t worn for a year – part of my give-something-away habit.
Aware of my restrictive comfort zone, I push myself to do something that scares me every day. Like doing a cartwheel in the park, it feels liberating to connect with my daring, playful side. So I take the plunge and ask out a guy I’ve become fond of through Instagram.
Cooking in bulk on weekends, combined with a sugar and alcohol ban, means that dinner is meatloaf and vegetables Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
It has been years since I’ve made something with my hands. For this experiment, I do a sketch each night. There was an initial fear of putting the pencil to the page, but then I reminded myself of a mantra common among artists I’ve interviewed – don’t worry about it being good, just create.
I hop on the piano for 20 minutes’ practice. I gave up learning when I was nine and have regretted it ever since, so I’ve taken up lessons again for this experiment. I follow up with juggling practice for brain-training while I listen to another podcast.
With the early mornings, by this time of the evening I’m exhausted. I drag myself to the bathroom for my nightly routine: remove make-up, dip face in ice-cold water to banish under-eye bags, cleanse and moisturize.
To cultivate gratitude, before bed I scribble a list of all the things I did well on a Post-it note – from clearing out my email inbox to paying someone a compliment – and stick the note to the wall as a positive reminder.
Social media can be a time-waster, especially in those moments before bed when clickbait articles seem appealing in your sleepy haze. I switch my phone to flight mode and pick up a book instead.
I read four pages of a novel before falling into a sweet slumber.
An experiment worth trying, but not worth repeating.
The whole exercise taught Dore that a theoretically perfect day, when it’s micro-managed to the hilt, is suffocating.
“You need to be able to procrastinate, think, do nothing,” she says. A poem with no white space isn’t a poem at all — it’s a train wreck. A day with no white space is a trial. Efficient? The Bataan Death March was efficient, too.
In fact, the schedule was so oppressive that, again and again during her day of do-goodery, Dore slipped up.
But those trance-breaking little moments of failure turned out to be the most satisfying moments of all.
And so Dore pivoted. An idea bloomed in her mind for another kind of Big Day, a “Plan B” that would be a kind of antidote to the “Plan A” she’d just tried. This one wouldn’t be about virtue and efficiency at all – just the opposite. It’d be a sanctioned break from the cruel overlord of routine. A Sabbath from her habits.
One day a week she’d cut herself slack. She’d fire the overlord.
After a full day spent should-ing all over herself, it would feel, in just about every way, like freedom.
Postscript: In some ways Madeleine Dore’s Perfect Day Experiment is still shaping the way she constructs her days.
“Rather than trying to follow the perfect schedule, I have a handful of things I know make my day more enjoyable (writing, exercising, cooking, putting my phone away at night, reading), and I aim to fit them in where I can. If the experiment taught me anything, it’s not so much about filling our lives with more and more things to do, but getting better at filling them with the things we want to do.”