How to live in day-tight compartments and why you should

It was a beautiful spring day in 1871 when a young medical student picked up the book that would change his life.

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
30th Apr 2018 • 6m read

It was a beautiful spring day in 1871 when a young medical student picked up the book that would change his life.

Anxious about taking his final medical exam, this future doctor was (understandably) looking for a distraction and found it in the words of British philosopher, Thomas Carlyle. As he mindlessly flipped through the pages, he couldn’t shake the feeling of dread about his upcoming exam. Then he read a sentence in the book that stopped him dead in his tracks.

Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance but to do what lies clearly at hand.

These twenty-one words were enough to shake William Osler out of his jittery state and decide that what he needed to focus on was today—on what he could do now—rather than focusing on what might happen tomorrow. He realized, in that moment, that worrying about his exam was not going to get him any closer to actually passing it. He needed to focus all of his energies on what he could achieve today and that would help him get closer to his final goal of becoming a doctor.

Thirty years later, Osler would address the graduating class of medical students at Yale with a piece of advice that commonly finds its way into the self-development bestsellers of today. His advice was simple—live in day-tight compartments.

Life sometimes gets heavy. We have plenty to do and numerous problems to deal with. We get into an anxiety mindset and find ourselves living in the future instead of focusing on the now. We behave like deer caught in the the headlights—frozen in fear and going around in circles as we try to think our way out of our problems, rather than taking action. Anxiety sets in. We get stuck. Suddenly, everything seems so much worse than it actually is.

Osler believed that living with this constant baseline level of anxiety is the reason why so many of us struggle to achieve what we want to achieve. He adopted mindfulness and living-for-the-day as a habit, long before it became cool to do so. When he gave his lecture about day-tight compartments at Yale, the memory of the sunken Titanic was still fresh in the minds of the audience. He used ships as an analogy—like large vessels filled with watertight compartments on long voyages—we should spend our own voyage focusing on living each day to its fullest potential, before working through the next.

The load of tomorrow added to that of yesterday, carried today, makes the strongest falter. Shut off the future as tightly as the past…To youth, we are told, belongs the future, but the wretched tomorrow that so plagues some of us has no certainty, except through today. Who can tell what a day may bring forth? ...The future is today—there is no tomorrow! The day of a man’s salvation is now—the life of the present lived today, lived earnestly, intently, without a forward-looking thought, is the only insurance for the future. Let the limit of your horizon be a 24-hour circle… Waste of energy, mental distress, nervous worries dog the steps of a man who is anxious about the future. Shut close, then, the great fore and aft bulkheads, and prepare to cultivate the habit of day-tight compartments.—Sir William Osler

I know what you might be thinking...but if I live for today, how do I work toward future goals?

As the saying goes, most people overestimate what they can achieve in a day and underestimate what they can achieve in a lifetime. Osler was one of the most prolific achievers in the history of medicine. He did this not by eschewing goals but by setting them and using each day to inch closer to them. He perfected the tasks that he completed each day and eventually built up enough productive day-tight compartments to reach the heights of medical achievement. You can do the same! By setting goals and using each day-tight compartment to hyperfocus on one task that gets you closer to your goals, you can transition from a life of endless distractions and worry to one lived calmly, mindfully, and productively.

How to transition to day-tight compartments

You can kickstart the process by resetting the thoughts that you allow yourself to have. When you're worried about something, trying to ignore the anxiety by brushing off your concerns is futile. Instead, acknowledge them and prepare for the worst (mentally) so that you can let them go.

Get everything out of your head.

Trying to deal with all of the worries in your mind is useless if you don’t actively take the time to separate and attack each worry individually. As they roll around in your head, they contaminate and amplify each other—which just makes it all seem worse! Take 30 minutes to sit with yourself and get to the heart of every niggling worry that's getting you down. Write them all out. Now, go through each one and perform the following mental exercise. For each item on your list, ask yourself, "What is the worst that can possibly happen?" Accept it. Come up with possible solutions. Remind yourself that worrying about this is not going to prevent it. You may need to do this multiple times for each worry that you have. They won’t just magically disappear. But as you get the hang of countering every concern with the exercise above, you’ll find that they slowly start to dissipate because you’re taking the time to properly address them, rather than letting them ferment at the back of your mind.

Focus on today and deal with tomorrow when it arrives.

A good day in most people’s books usually consists of two behaviours—keeping away from bad habits and sticking with the good ones. The step above should help you quit at least one bad habit—worrying about the things you can’t control. This step is more about setting the habits you can control to get you closer to your ideal future. When you start to break out of an anxious mindset, it’s critical that you avoid going backwards. Thinking about your goals can be overwhelming, and the immensity of them can sometimes take you back to a state of worry. Don’t let them! This is a positive habit that you will need to develop by reining in your thoughts when they start to slip away into the worries of tomorrow. As with any habit, the more you practise it, the easier it gets. The opposite is also true. Letting yourself slip back into that anxiety mindset will strengthen the bad habit and take you back to living on constant edge. To counteract this, break your goals down into immediate, manageable time structures and fully dedicate your day-tight compartments to a handful of these. Learning to focus intensely on one thing at a time is a skill that very few of us have and yet, it is the only skill that has consistently produced success stories. Combining this intense focus with the recognition that you only need to focus on today is a powerful way to lead a life you can be proud of, without succumbing to unnecessary anxiety.

Realize that you have sixteen waking hours, three or four of which at least should be devoted to making a silent conquest of your mental machinery. Concentration, by which is grown gradually the power to wrestle successfully with any subject, is the secret of successful study. Failure to cultivate the power of peaceful concentration is the greatest single cause of mental breakdown.—Sir William Osler

Undress your mind each night.

Osler advised his students to develop the habit of stripping away the day’s worries, just as you do your clothes, at the end of each day. Osler believed that this ritual of clearing away residual anxiety each night would leave you ready to truly rest and be ready to tackle the next day-tight compartment in your life.

Undress your soul at night not by self examination, but by shedding, as you do your garments, the daily sins whether of omission or of commission, and you will wake a free man, with a new life. Many a man is handicapped in his course by a cursed combination of retro- and introspection, the mistakes of yesterday paralyzing the efforts of today, the worries of the past hugged to his destruction, and the worm of regret allowed to canker the very heart of his life. To die daily, ensures the resurrection of a new man, who makes each day the epitome of life.—Sir William Osler

Spend each evening following a chillout routine. Just as a morning routine is absolutely critical for success as a physician, an evening routine which primes you for proper rest needs to be integrated into your daily routine. Osler was a big fan of journaling to get his worries out of his head and onto paper.

We all want to live a happier and less stressful life, while achieving the goals we’ve set for ourselves. Osler is a shining example that leading such a life isn’t necessarily complicated. It just requires patience and a willingness to make each individual day worthy of being part of the greatest voyage of all—your life!