Life is better sans the manual

Published Jan 14, 2024


Durban — Once upon a time, back in the olden days, life didn’t come with an instruction manual.

People reminded each other about this all the time. If you made a terrible decision or life-altering mistake, there was bound to be some kindly, sympathetic observation that we are all just human and doing the best we can without a handbook.

Friends, family and close workmates would rummage through the treasure chests of their own experiences and offer advice. Some you could learn from, but some was outrageously unuseful. Then you would store the lesson in your own life hazards filing cabinet, learn from it (mostly) and occasionally offer one up to someone else having an existential crisis.

Then came the self-help, how-to publishing revolution.

Early entrants included the how to win friends and influence people genre, and when those flew off booksellers’ shelves, the world noticed.

Everyone saw dollar signs and anyone with even the vaguest claim to know something about something wrote a book telling everyone else how to do that thing. It’s amazing we aren’t all happy billionaires.

The mountain of stuff, except for a review copy of not sweating the small stuff, didn’t even make a molehill near the couch: life was too busy trying not to sweat the small stuff, avoiding the bulldozers of the large stuff and doubling down on the personal mission of doing and being better.

Now, it seems, one has to have a manual for everything. A little aside: a list is not an instruction manual so don’t confuse them.

Instructions are there to make you feel bad when you fail; lists are advisories or reminders and, if you’re any good at managing them, items can get moved to tomorrow or, better, “later”.

I’m a sucker for lists, and I can’t help myself: I have to read every “listicle” I come across. I have a dozen at a time for work, shopping, passwords, numbers and reminders. They are often consulted, ignored, turfed or transferred to the next list. Just writing it down eases anxiety because the task has been recognised, you know you will eventually have it covered and can inhale and rest easy.

Which brings up something I found on my regular online updates trawl: how you should rest.

From The Washington Post, this story said most of us don’t give our brains enough proper rest and listed nine ways to get better at it.

I flunked at the first step: exercise.

Moving swiftly on, it suggested focussing on a hobby to occupy your time and attention; taking more breaks during your day to re-energise; rethinking long workdays (real luxury); practising “micro” pauses in which you take three deep breaths or look or walk outside for 90 seconds; shutting down laptops and phones for as long as you’re able to give yourself a tech break; taking shorter, more regular holidays; and my two faves, making a today list and tracking where your time goes.

The today list is cool. Long, impossible to-do lists overwhelm and set you up for failure.

If you list only the things you can realistically do in a day, you’re a winner.

But the next list kills me: every 30 minutes, write down what you have been doing in that time. The idea is that you’ll see a pattern of where your time is going and carve out some free rest time. It doesn’t say that, perhaps, if you’re working an 8-hour day, you’ll make 16 lists, and run out of time to do things, and stress out about not even getting your today list done.

Life is so much better without a manual.

Independent on Saturday

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