After reading Dale Carnegie’s book How to stop worrying and start living, one concept stuck with me in the end: learning how to live in day-tight compartments. This is one of the main concepts discussed in the book that enables us to reduce worrying. However I think this can be used in a wider scope than just a remedy to worry.
Dale Carnegie is also the author of one of my most recommended books, How to win friends and influence people. So when I found out that he also wrote a book about worrying and anxiety, I knew that I am going to learn a lot. The concept of living in day-tight compartments was actually discussed in the very first chapter, but this idea was the most influential for me. If you feel like you do not have the time to read the whole book (which is just an excuse), give the first chapter a chance and you will not be disappointed.
What does living in day-tight compartments mean anyway? This term was first coined by Sir William Osler based on a quote that changed his life:
It is not our goal to see what lies dimly in the distance but to do what clearly lies at hand. – Thomas Carlisle
The Past and the Future
People have a natural tendency to try and see what is going to happen in the future. We are naturally curious and gifted with analytic thinking. We plan the things we want to do in the future, or are even able to “go back in time” by accessing memory from what happened in the past.
Thinking about the future often results in worrying that the outcome of things will not go the way we plan. We also worry that there is something that is going to happen that will change the course of our lives. In the same vein, people also think a lot about what has happened in the past, wondering why it happened, why it happened to them, and wondering how things today could have been different if the past did not happen the way it did.
Both of these, being anxious about the future and revisiting what happened in the past, are not helpful at all. The past is already gone and cannot be changed, and the future cannot be fully determined no matter how much we try.
Living in day-tight compartments means that we only think about and focus on the current day. In a compartment, the walls on the left and the right side are closed, meaning we cannot see or go through them. This is the same as time: we cannot go back to the past or see the future. The only thing that matters and what we can control is only what happens within the compartment, in the present moment.
One example that the book gave about this concept is a story about a lady whose husband had died and she is now facing financial difficulty. Because of this heavy burden, she dreaded life and constantly feels overwhelmed. She worried how she can pay the bills, how to keep the car payments, and other related problems.
She found a job that requires her to travel to different places and she thought that going out will help her forget about her troubles, but it doesn’t seem to help. Eventually she discovered the concept of living one day at a time when she saw a sentence in an article:
Every day is a new life to a wise man.
She pasted that sentence in the windshield of her car that she uses for work. Every single day reminded her to forget about the yesterday and not think of tomorrow. She found that it was not so hard to live only one day at a time.
A personal decision
This new year I decided that I will apply this principle in my life. I have been studying Stoicism for the past few years, and this definitely fits in what I would like to have as a philosophy of life.
I see myself as a planner and an organizer. I have a tendency to have a plan on what I am going to do for the rest of the day, the week, and the month. What often happens though is that unexpected, uncontrollable circumstances come in and disrupt the perfect plan that I have in my mind. When this happens, I become agitated, frustrated, and stressed.
I found that this kind of thinking is counterproductive. There are times when everything goes according to plan, and I feel happy when this happens. However, the negative feelings I experience when things do not go my way seem to be stronger than the positive feelings when they do. Because of this I find it more useful not to be so attached to the plan in the future.
We cannot predict what will happen in the future. Even if we think we have total control of the situation, circumstances may change, people may change their minds, the environment may not cooperate, and so on. These things are outside our control but they have a direct impact on what is happening in our lives. It is a foolish endeavor to be affected by things that we have no choice or control on.
Living in day-tight compartments forces me to stop thinking ahead of the current day. The only important time is the time I am living in the present.
Personally, I now think of this at the start of the day: my life will end when I sleep. This may sound morbid or too fatalistic, but it helps me to regain my perspective in life: that tomorrow is not guaranteed. And so my decisions throughout the day, how I treat others, how I appreciate the moment, anchor on the thought that it will all be over when I fall asleep.
Is planning for the future bad?
This does not mean that planning for the future is a bad idea and should not be done. We should definitely plan for the future:
- Save money for a child’s needs
- Save money for retirement
- Purchase an insurance plan for unexpected situations
- Think on ways to improve our health and well-being
The bad thing is to be obsessed with what is going to happen in the next day, the next week, or next month. Being anxious about things in the future produces unnecessary stress in the present. These stresses sometimes even become the agents themselves in making the future become what we are anxious about.
We need to plan and set up things in the present for events in the future. However, after that we need to let go and not to worry about the things that are going to happen. We will find that most of the events in the future are things that we do not have any control, so worrying about them will not yield anything beneficial. Most of the time, these events that we fear most do not actually happen, so we are essentially wasting our lives worrying for nothing.
The Present Day is Enough
In the book How to stop worrying and start living, Dale Carnegie gave two examples from the Bible that shows that only the present day is enough. Jesus said this about worrying and being present:
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. – Matthew 6:34 NIV
And in the Lord’s prayer there is one verse that makes us think:
Give us today our daily bread. – Matthew 6:11 NIV
Dale Carnegie reasoned that Jesus did not pray about tomorrow’s bread, or complain about the stale bread from yesterday. The only request is for today’s bread.
This is a good thing for us to think about. The only life we have is the present moment, the only day we have is the present day. We need to strive to live the best life we have today.
Max Lucado wrote a good mantra for living one day at a time:
I choose joy.
I choose peace. I will live forgiven.
I choose patience—Rather than complain that the wait is too long, I’ll thank God for a moment to pray.
I choose kindness—for that’s how God has treated me.
I choose goodness.
I choose faithfulness. Today I’ll keep my promises. My wife will not question my love.
I choose gentleness. If I make a demand, may it be only of myself.
I choose self-control. I will be impassioned only by my faith and influenced only by God.
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When this day is done, I’ll place my head on my pillow and rest.
Choosing these attributes and living them throughout our whole lives seem difficult to do, perhaps even impossible. But if we think that our lives are only in the present day, that makes it easier for us to choose and live out the things that are good.
Photo by Daniel von Appen on Unsplash