We already know WHAT to do.
We know what we need to do in order to get in shape and generally take good care of our bodies.
We know what we should do to keep our mental and emotional health in good order.
We know what we should do in terms of treating others and approaching life to have healthy relationships and be happy.
We know what we should do with money, and with our car, and our homes, and our computers, our appliances, and our furnishings to keep them all in good working order.
We know it all. And if we don’t know, it’s easy to find out.
The ‘what’ is not a problem. And, the ‘doing’ is not the problem either. People do these things all the time – they exercise, they manage relationships, money, work. People don’t neglect their finances because the raw physical activity of typing numbers, or filing receipts, is too challenging.
The challenging part is learning HOW to do it. How often, how hard, how soft, how efficiently, how precise, how…when you don’t feel like it, how…when the going gets tough, how….when you can’t envision the reward.
The how is the key. And the how is simply learning and practicing these skills:
Discipline is the master skill. It is required in getting started, staying on track, and keeping the right (positive) attitude and perspective. We call it discipline, but it’s a bunch of micro-skills working together…self-control, will, motivation, perspective, happiness, toughness, self-compassion, vision, and probably a dozen other mental micro-skills and traits that make it up. It’s essential, so it’s the most important skill to learn and practice.
Focus is key in channeling energy in the right amounts. Again, it’s a skill to learn, not something that comes naturally – at least not without a big rush of adrenaline in an emergency situation for example. Focusing on maintaining your refrigerator is not something we are genetically coded with. And focus is limited, so learning focus is about learning how to precisely apply and govern our attention and energy. What gets our attention, how much of it, with what energy level, and when.
Effectiveness goes hand in hand with focus, and acts as the command and control of focus. Effectiveness is about balancing planning with doing. Effectiveness is the tree you climb along the trail to make sure you’re taking the smartest, easiest, most logical and direct path. Effectiveness is the skill of balancing energy with direction, knowing when to apply the brakes, when to stop, and when to pour it on. Without it, focus and discipline are wastes of time and energy. Summoning all of your discipline and focus to keep sailing onward day after day is wonderful…unless you’re sailing in the wrong direction.
Habits, or habit-forming, is a simple skill, but is practiced only by the advanced. Habits are extremely powerful, allowing us to rapidly outsource difficult physical and mental tasks to our automatic systems. There they become nearly effortless force multipliers. They are the whole driving power behind significant, lasting change and progress. Habit-forming is self-programming, turning simple daily actions into powerful long-term results.
The beauty of these skills is that they are universal. The how skills apply to everything, from optimizing health, to growing wealth, to getting an extra 50,000 miles out of your car, to growing better tomatoes in your garden. Whatever the valuable end goal may be, it can be done by learning and practicing these simple skills.
The how skills allow you to transform your desires into accomplishments.
As human beings we’re too emotional, and that causes nearly all of our problems.
That goes for all problems big and small – everything from war to weight gain is linked to emotion. It’s our over-emotion that drives us to run to comfort, to lash out, or avoid things we know we should be doing.
But first, let’s acknowledge that emotion is also incredible and important. Our feelings – joy in watching a child at play, a sunset on a summer evening, pride in a job well done, the excitement of a big sporting event, or the quiet of a snowy day, these are all things that we long for. So we welcome positive emotions, and we look for them all the time, often attaching them to events like these. And they do feel good – arguably the best moments of our lives – and there is certainly no need to tamp them down or purposely feel them ‘less’ in an effort to get emotion under control.
On the other hand, there’s no need to build up these moments as if they’re so overly special either. It’s absolutely possible to feel the peace of a sunset on a dreary, rainy day in a city. It’s also possible to feel excitement and overjoyed just walking down an empty road. Having control over your emotions, even positive emotions, only brings more joy and happiness, not less. You live MORE not less.
In fact, lots of people chase the constant rush of an emotional high (drug or adrenaline) their entire lives, and they do arguably experience the absolute highest of highs, and yet their lives are often less well-lived than most.
So, of course positive emotions need not be tempered. However, a healthier view can be adopted that sees all emotion as an internal creation, and not something that comes fleetingly and beyond our control. Learning to master positive emotion means that we can feel joy and peace any time we choose, doing anything we’re doing, at any moment. But that takes practice, and learning control.
Like the best race driver, it’s not just pure unchecked speed, but control of that speed which gets them the best results. Control over that energy and power – allowing it to flow, but with the bigger picture in mind – always looking for ways to find more while keeping it in perspective – is an important part of living better.
The bigger issue is that most of our thinking is negative. Simple brain mechanics. Our genetics are those of prey animals, and therefore we are always on guard for danger. And these days the most common, everyday ‘threats’ are to our peace of mind, our ego, and our feelings. So we’re always very sharply tuned for slights from others, disappointment, annoyance, and difficulty. We’re constantly trying to avoid ‘problems’, all day long. And while all the books say “see problems as opportunities”, that’s difficult to do. Regardless of your level of maturity it takes serious practice to genuinely see a flat tire as an ‘opportunity’. Very very few ever get there, and most never try.
But one thing that can be done, without any practice and very little effort, is to simply remove some emotion from your day. Just observe your thoughts as you go about your day, hear yourself talking about what this or that means, especially trigger words like “should, shouldn’t, need, can’t, won’t”, etc. You’ll be surprised just how much emotion you bring to every little thing you do, and everything people say to you.
If you step back just a bit you might see yourself adding that layer of storytelling to your life, and you’ll see that’s where you’ve inserted unhappiness, disappointment, worry, or stress where none actually exists.
Start with one thing that bugs you tomorrow, and catch yourself in that moment. Think through how that ‘problem’ could be solved if you simply went about it as if your feelings weren’t important or even part of it at all.
If something breaks, just fix it, or call someone to fix it, or borrow another one, or go without it. Why would we become personally unhappy simply because we broke a belt on a vacuum, for example? Seems pretty silly to add an emotional story or personal component to something like that, especially given our limited time in this life.
Here we are spinning around on an enormous rock in the vastness of space, in a universe that we don’t even understand…maybe the smartest thing to do is simply order a new belt, and keep on smiling as if we were watching a beautiful sunset.
Most people understand ‘time is valuable’ in theory, but they not to apply it in their daily lives.
However, the few who embrace it wholeheartedly make their lives extraordinary.
Time really applies to our lives in two ways:
- Longer-term planning.
- Effective use of daily time.
These two pieces go hand in hand. Without planning or top-level decisions about time and priorities, we never know what the best use of our time is on a daily basis.
And without attention to how we use our time every day, we can never realize our plans or make progress toward our goals.
What a life without longer-term planning looks like…
Most people drift along in life without a plan, often sprinkling in some short-term goals like paying off a debt or changing a job. There isn’t any progress or growth beyond sporadic, small milestones to define one year from the next. “Last year we took a trip”, “this year we bought a car”, “next year we’ll paint the house”. In this way our lives are essentially like waves lapping the shore, repeating over and over. The years may look or feel a little different each time, bigger or smaller, crashing louder or softer, but they are basically waves on a beach when we have this mindset.
Without longer-term planning or goals, procrastination reigns, as there’s no urgency tied to life’s real deadline – our expiration date. The days just continue to loop over and over, so really what’s the difference between doing it today or in a few days…they’re all pretty much the same day anyway (with a different name).
Without a roadmap, life comes at us, often in unforeseen and tragic ways. And it’s not just the big stuff – small problems happen more often when we have no longer-term view. Things are neglected, and simple problems that could have been avoided are not.
Life without a longer-term plan or decision-making often sounds like a list of temporary updates by frightened people. “The weather is okay today”. “I feel okay today”. “Things are good right now”. Until a disturbance comes along…and then it’s all about trying to get back to ‘normal’ again…waves crash and recede….
What a life WITH longer term planning looks like…
The purpose of top-level, longer-term planning or decision-making is to define how we want to live our lives. And when we actually define our desired outcomes in life – specifically, not vaguely – it’s 1000% more likely that we will get the results we want.
Rather than a daily/weekly/yearly cycle, life becomes a straight-line continuous process, each day a further step along in a journey toward a defined destination. Obstacles are faced and overcome with a purpose, not a desire to revert back to some normal state.
And since long-term planning requires looking ahead, challenges are anticipated. Tools, resources, bodies, minds, relationships, ideas, are all vital in order to get where we’re going, and therefore they are well cared for – well-maintained rather than neglected. This results in fewer problems of any kind – big or small. And when obstacles do arise as expected, we’re prepared (and have a reason) to not only resolve them quickly – but learn from them so as not to repeat them. Problems themselves are seen with a longer-term view, and we get better and better at rising to challenges. This allows us to reach for bigger goals. In this way, problems themselves ENABLE progress, rather than hinder it.
What a life without effective use of our daily time looks like…
How we spend our days is really where the rubber meets the road in life. Goals and planning can seem lofty and hard to get our arms around, but everyone can answer the question “how was your day?”. And the answer to that question – even the asking of it – is rooted in the cyclical mindset. How was today different than yesterday? Certainly tasks were completed, chores done. Perhaps some progress was made on a short-term goal or two. But without a direct tie to a longer-term plan, we always end up spending time on things that do not matter. What’s worse, that’s time we have forever surrendered being able to spend on things that DO matter.
Keep in mind that this is not about spending time on things of value, like work, family or health. This is an important distinction. For example, a business-owner spending time working at their place of business is time spent with value, for sure. But it’s far from the smartest, most effective way to spend their time. They are much better off working ON the business itself, helping it grow and succeed longer-term.
Take personal finance. Clipping coupons is arguably a valuable way to spend time. However, tracking spending in a budget or planning investments is a vastly more effective way to spend time if your goal is to increase your bottom line.
So it’s not just about spending time on things that are of value to you. That’s important, but it’s not nearly as important as doing the ‘right’ things if you’re interested in getting where you want to go in life. The best use of time does both – focuses on important things, and does them smartly, even on a moment-to-moment basis, in order to get the results we want in life. And since our reality is that we have a fixed amount of time in which to live, it makes sense then that the best use of our time is an effective use of our time – directed at moving us closer toward the life we wish to live, not further from it. And those are the only two directions.
What a life WITH effective use of our daily time looks like…
An effective day is a thoughtful day, with activities in sync with our longer-term goals, and plenty of flexibility for exploring, ideas, and room for life to unfold.
This means looking at each new day as a chance to continue the next steps along our journey, with time to enjoy and take pictures along the way. It’s about plotting a course, taking the wheel, allowing for course corrections along the way, and keeping our eyes on the destination in the distance.
It certainly doesn’t mean that you have control over everything in your life. But it does mean that you take control of what you CAN control – which is actually an amazing number of things (here are just a quick 50).
Living right now
It’s all about connecting our daily actions with our longer-term goals. Without a goal or purpose, there is no growth, and life without growth is very hard to distinguish from simply running out the clock.
Of course life is not about living only for the future. Life is lived in the now. But, it’s also true that our ‘now’ is something that is continually being redefined by our actions. Spend all of our money ‘now’ and very soon our ‘now’ will be all about figuring out how to live with no money! And on the other end of the spectrum, time is just as foolishly spent solely in pursuit of long-term wealth and dying from exhaustion one day with a billion $ in the bank.
There is obviously a balance. But, the best balance is skewed more long-term. This is because life unfolds forward, and because we have a hard time seeing time in our lives. Time is just a concept, and an elusive one at best. “Time flies”, “Would you look at the time?”, “Where did the time go?”. And the mechanisms that rule our lives are just as elusive and hidden – a year’s worth of choosing a donut instead of an apple, 10 years of ignoring that lump, 20 years of not getting around to reading a book to improve a skill. These things all catch up to us without much notice.
The great secret here is that while just a little neglect and short-term thinking can have a (negative) impact, it also takes very little in the way of improving focus, planning, and effective daily life to realize exponential jumps in results, in a very short period of time.
In fact, a real winning strategy would be learn to align your daily choices with what brings you both long-term results and short-term happiness. Love exercising. Love eating healthy foods. Love spending time growing with family/friends. Love your work. Love learning. Love doing the laundry. Love paying taxes. Love everything you do, every day. And if you can do that, you have truly learned to live every moment of your life.
Man is made or unmade by himself.
In the armory of thoughts he forges the weapons by which he destroys himself. He also fashions the tools with which he builds for himself heavenly mansions of joy, and strength, and peace.
Man holds the key to every situation, and contains within himself that transforming and regenerative agency by which he may make himself what he wills.
There’s an invisible thread behind almost all stress and tepid results in life, and that is our nearly universal tendency to avoid decisions.
Allowing things to remain ‘open-ended’ and unresolved – both minor and major things – results in a life that is unpredictable, pockmarked with stress, and produces mediocre results across the board.
When we don’t make decisions about things in our life, some critical things happen:
It generates the bulk of our stress
Having things unresolved in our lives, especially having many things unresolved at once (very common), is the greatest source of stress in our lives. These are the things we worry about. They’re the things we imagine going wrong, that we over-inflate in importance, and that we internally struggle with. Money issues, health problems, unresolved conflicts, unorganized to-do lists, people problems, things in need of repair, etc, etc. That’s the whole gamut of things that eat away at happiness and peace.
It means things don’t happen
Usually when we fail to make decisions, things simply don’t get done. If you never get around to planning your retirement or going to the doctor or writing that letter or changing that habit, then guess what…it won’t happen. So you actually have made a decision – not to do it. But, in your mind you’re keeping the possibility open that it might happen. That’s just a recipe for self-disappointment. It’s no different than deciding not to walk forward but keeping the possibility open that you’ll somehow arrive 50 feet further ahead. The world doesn’t work that way. Steps are required, and first must come the decision to take those steps.
It causes other problems
When we don’t make decisions, we open ourselves up to all kind of unforeseen consequences. Failing to decide about a career, or a move, or a relationship keeps us clinging to a bad situation. Failing to make decisions about our health and wealth often ends up causing great pain and hardship later in life, not just for us but for our friends and family. We see it in others, and in society as a whole, so many things left unattended, undecided, and they almost never magically work out for the best. Why would that be different in our own lives?
It allows us to escape responsibility
Perhaps the most damaging effect of avoiding decisions is that it creates a very heavy wall of self-deception. Leaving something undecided – take for example our finances – actually means we have decided…to not take responsibility for our finances. The economy will continue to operate and affect us, so we haven’t opted-out of anything by opting-out of the decision to take control of what we can control. Think of it like taking our hands off the steering wheel. The accident that’s coming is our responsibility. We can’t say to the police officer “I wasn’t making any driving decisions, so it wasn’t my fault”. It IS our fault. It’s our responsibility. So by failing to make decisions we are actually just trying to avoid responsibility for the outcomes.
Why do we avoid big decisions?
Because we’re afraid. If we say we’re going to take control of our finances or our health, we’re ‘on the hook’ for the outcome. That means there’s a chance we’ll fail and feel bad or look bad. That’s all we’re trying to avoid, when it comes down to it. We all want good health, and money to have some comfort and freedom, and good relationships, happiness and inner peace, successful pursuits, freedom from bad habits, and so on. But yet we’re frightened of saying we’ve decided to do those things well. We’re so afraid of actually deciding to make those things happen that we often just don’t. And that’s a tough realization.
Why do we avoid small decisions?
What’s less apparent is how avoiding decisions on small things affects our lives. Our daily procrastinations – failing to carry out tasks that sit forever on a to-do list, avoiding a decision about selling an item, leaving bills for later, and so on…these things eat away at our lives. And it’s not just procrastination, it’s also simple choices we could make right now that we instead leave wide open. Often it’s under the guise of ‘being free’, but it actually ends up stealing our time and freedom, stealing our ability to pursue meaningful things.
So how do we change this?
Start with the little things…decide on what kind of coffee you like best and buy it from now on. Make grocery lists and then go buy just the items on the list – don’t waste time staring at endless rows of colorful boxes and cans. And while you’re at it, make a Christmas shopping list and just go buy the items on it. Choose what kind of shoes/jeans/toothpaste/seltzer you like, and buy only those. And then if you suddenly decide you like something else, completely change and buy the new brand! But make decisions. Choose and go forward. If they’re small decisions, the consequences of getting it wrong are just as small. And you can always change if you decide you want something different.
And then move on to the big things…decide to take great care of your health. Choose to remove all of your bad habits. Decide what you’d love to do in life, and then decide to do just that. Take time right now to determine what’s important to you in terms of health, wealth, and happiness, and then decide to do it. And just as importantly determine what’s NOT important and remove those from your choices and your to-do list. Then you’ll understand what real freedom feels like.
Our ability to make decisions in life about what we want – the ability to choose our own path – is our greatest gift. And when we’re bold enough to actually do it, we have decided to finally live.
Usually when we think of patience, we think of a person waiting quietly in a long line, or being very tolerant around a rambunctious child or puppy.
And it’s true those are examples of patience. It suggests that the person has a level of inner calm. But that’s an outward appearance, and doesn’t reveal how widely that person applies patience in other areas in their life. Further, it doesn’t tell you whether someone is actually upset at a deeper level, and is just good at burying it publicly – only to have to deal with it later in private. Many people practice patience in public only to have to ‘unwind’ later in private. Learning to get good at being frustrated is not patience.
What is patience?
Here’s the definition of patience: the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.
So, patience is not about learning how to hold our temper when we’re upset. It’s about actually gaining the ability accept things – say, life – without getting upset. Patience is a learnable skill, and it’s the foundation of most of the key elements in living life better.
Of course, outward patience is important. We’re human beings and it’s important to master an outward patience socially and with relationships. That’s a skill that’s primarily a product of negative feedback – we do it because we learn that losing our cool makes us look foolish, and can have a range of undesired consequences.
But really where patience has the biggest impact is not outward, but internally in our everyday lives. The capacity to accept discomfort in a variety of seemingly small ways – internally – is where patience makes the biggest difference.
10 key areas where patience makes a big difference
The patience of priority
The ability to do what’s most important first, versus just ‘getting stuff done’. Learning to endure the discomfort of not feeling productive, not getting small wins or immediate gratification.
The patience of resilience
Sticking to it, with faith in a long-term outcome, versus giving up when you don’t see quick results. Learning to endure the discomfort of continuing to move forward with slow progress or setbacks.
The patience of focus
Giving one thing at a time your full attention, versus being pulled in all directions. Learning to endure the discomfort of feeling you’re not doing enough, not getting everything done that you need to get done.
The patience of detail
Doing high quality work, versus taking shortcuts just to get it done. Learning to endure the discomfort of doing seemingly tedious or unnecessary work.
The patience of planning
Thinking things through, versus ignoring the future. Learning to endure the discomfort of having to think and forecast, instead of acting now and getting an immediate reward.
The patience of proof
Seeking out and sorting through information, versus making assumptions. Learning to endure the discomfort of allowing things to be unknown and unresolved until you have all the facts.
The patience of solutions
Pursuing strong, creative solutions to problems, versus plugging in simple fixes. Learning to endure the discomfort of thinking differently, delaying a solution, and even failures before long-term success.
The patience of commitments
Sticking to a promise to yourself or others, versus allowing yourself excuses. Learning to endure the discomfort of staying on course regardless of changes in situation or new obstacles.
The patience of learning
Continually improving, versus assuming you know enough. Learning to endure the discomfort of admitting you are ignorant, and spending time learning to be better.
The patience of openness
Changing, versus being fixed. Learning to endure the discomfort of abandoning some beliefs, and creating new habits and behaviors.
Isn’t it the same as willpower?
No, but it’s in the same family. Willpower is the ability to power through and achieve a desired result. With willpower, you push on even though you might be upset. In fact, those emotions often drive the outcome. Patience is softer. Patience exhibits the same control and strength as willpower, but without the furrowed brow. That is what makes it much more sustainable, and a positive force that builds on itself. Willpower pushes, patience pulls.
Patience is ‘willpower with a smile’, and developing it as core inner skill is critical to living a better life.
Here are the rules to follow for getting rich:
Control Your Thinking
In order to do things in a way you want, and have them turn out the way you want, you will have to acquire the ability to think the way you want to think. To think according to appearance is easy; to think truth and principles regardless of appearance is laborious, and requires the expenditure of more power than any other work. There is no labor from which most people shrink as they do from that of sustained and consecutive thought; it is the hardest work in the world.
Believe In Abundance
See the world as limitless. Don’t look at the current supply of things to determine what’s possible. Let abundance guide your thinking and decisions – there is more than plenty of everything in the world, including money, things, time, knowledge, skills, and love. The best way to help others is to become greater yourself.
Act In Balance
Seek out total balance in your endeavors. Pay equal time to your body, your mind, your spirituality, others, yourself. Spend just as much time working on your body as you do on your family, your job, your finances, your beliefs, your car, your lawn. Neglect nothing. If you find you have too many things to handle, do fewer things, but always spend equal time on three key life areas – body, mind, soul. Spending a lifetime serving only others is no different than spending a lifetime serving only yourself. Both are errors. Life is to be lived broadly, and your life is not less important than another’s – to think so is to misunderstand that life is precious in all forms. Equally, to put yourself above others in an imbalanced way is a mistake. Imbalance in time/effort spent in any one area will reduce the whole of life.
Look for ways to create and add value. Do something differently than someone else has done. Offer something for sale or trade that is worth much more to the buyer in actual use. Mine iron and sell it to a refinery. Refine iron and sell it to tool manufacturer. Manufacture a tool and sell it to a builder. Build a house and sell it to a homeowner. Always look to add value somewhere in the system, and create something with your time and expertise that benefits another person much more than it costs them.
Be grateful for everything, all of the time. This doesn’t just mean all good things – it means the bad things too. The ability to prosper in life is made possible by all things, not just the things you prefer or desire. Corrupt politicians, lazy people, unfair rules, unfriendly competitors, terrorism, natural disasters…they are all part of reality. And to reject any part of reality is to deny life, delude yourself, and limit yourself. It’s all part of the mix, and in order to live life to the fullest you must embrace it all.
Think only about positive things and the things you want. Don’t waste any time fretting over what should have been, what troubles surround you, what troubles may befall yourself or others. Never use your mental energy to focus on the negative and its’ causes. Instead, direct your attention on positivity, the desired results, and the steps to get you there.
Have faith in yourself and in your ability to work through difficulties and make things happen. Have faith in the universe to provide the structure, raw materials, and magic to allow you to create the life you desire.
Take immediate and consistent action toward your goals and desired outcomes. Act early, act often, but most importantly act in the present. Do all of the simple things every day that make progress toward your desired life.
Follow the 80/20 rule (20% of the things you do produce 80% of the results). Do the most important things, do them first. Do things with the most return on investment, the things that move you most quickly toward your goals. Fight off procrastination and time-wasters. Look for force multipliers.
Do Your Best
Whatever you choose to do – do it to the best of your ability. Do everything you can do to become your best. Push yourself. Do the best you can.
Be passionate about your life, your work, your goals. Find what drives you, and drive to it with fervor, every day.
Always think bigger, especially when planning, setting goals, creating, challenging yourself, or helping others. Ask if this is the best you could dream of, and if it’s not, think bigger. Big goals create passion and focus. Make your life so big that you can’t help but wake up every day excited about getting to it.
Convey a largeness about yourself, a personal abundance. Be open, be giving, listen to ideas, absorb information. Help others achieve their dreams. Seek out ways to benefit others while helping yourself prosper.
Acceptance and action…people very often see these as two completely different choices. We can either accept something the way it is, or we can take action to change it.
However, the most effective way to approach life is to embrace both in combination. And in fact almost all of our “problems” can be attributed to a misunderstanding of how acceptance and action work together.
Effective people know that the first step in any situation is to accept it fully. This is true of our physical appearance, our emotional state, someone else’s behavior, a temporary predicament, or a major situation. In other words, all of our life’s experiences. Acceptance must be the first step. If we skip this step, or take the opposite stance (“This is unacceptable!”) then we invite strong negative emotions to dominate our actions and mindset. Refusing to accept a situation is what causes panic in an emergency, an outburst in a frustrating situation, depression, anxiety, stress, worry, anger, and just about every other negative emotion. So, the first step has to be a full acceptance of reality.
Acceptance is not surrender. In fact, it’s the opposite. Acceptance is the critical first step to positive action. It keeps our thinking clear and unobstructed by negative emotion. It allows us to then make smart and effective choices about:
- Whether or not action is necessary or helpful
- What choices or options we have, and what is beyond our control
- What kinds of actions we need to take immediately
- What kinds of actions we might take later to avoid a recurrence of the issue
- What lessons we can learn
- What opportunities have emerged
- How we can remain happy regardless of the situation
These are very effective lines of thought, resulting in smart decisions and great results. And they’re made nearly impossible if we jump past acceptance (declaring something as ‘unacceptable’) and immediately begin trying to fight it or fix it.
‘Fighting’ isn’t really action, it’s done internally, emotionally. It’s an internal conflict that results in anger, lashing out, avoidance, complaining, self-medication, and a wealth of other poor behaviors and results. Fighting is the worst choice because we’re not only refusing to accept the situation, we’re also not taking any action to change it! It can burn us up inside.
Internal conflict is the cause of the early demise of many people, because it is the source of our bad habits. It’s more commonly called ‘Stress’, and since ‘stress is normal’, and the associated stress-relief behaviors are encouraged in society, it goes unchecked. It’s an infinite loop: encounter a life situation we don’t like, find it unacceptable, complain about it, stress about it, and eventually have a drink (or go for a walk, or watch tv) to dull the internal tension. Repeat.
Never resolved. The result is actually self-harm. Some call that a mental disorder, and by ‘some’ I just mean experts on the human brain and human behavior.
‘Fixing’ is better than fighting, but can have unseen consequences. Fixing includes behaviors like snapping a comment back at someone, grabbing a child’s arm to correct behavior, quitting/leaving in a huff, yelling, panicking, forcing or hitting something to get it to work, and so on. Often these are snap actions, but can sometimes be drawn out – for example, crafting and sending a series of angry emails, or sending a scathing review of a business’ services. Whether a snap reaction or a series of long-term behaviors, what they have in common is that they’re emotion-driven. The clarity and perspective of acceptance is not present, and neither are you.
Because they are not well considered, these are often actions that have long-term negative consequences. A ruined relationship, bad feelings with an employer or organization, something physically broken (including yourself), or some other unintended result that then has to be dealt with, and may be more serious and harder to repair.
Effective action starts with a choice. We can choose to:
a.) embrace the situation as is, or
b.) take clear, positive action to affect a different result
So effective ‘action’ can often be simply choosing to embrace the situation. We can choose to let go, smile, allow it, be present, be grateful, and not focus on the negative. That’s an action, and a very powerful one.
It could be to get creative and make a bad situation fun or productive – listening to an audio book in traffic, or practicing meditation in a dentist’s chair. There is almost always an option to be more present, less immobilized or overwhelmed with negative emotion, and to gain more perspective in any situation. Monks do it, and so do Navy SEALs, both to great effect, in very different circumstances.
Once we’ve accepted the situation, we are also free to decide that we want to change it. And this isn’t necessarily a slow, contemplative process that requires sitting and thinking before taking action. The action can appear instantaneous, but it is not the same as ‘fixing’. Fixing is behavior driven solely out of a negative: (“I don’t like being in this situation!”). Effective action, on the other hand, is driven from a positive: (“I’m in this situation, now what can I do?”). It’s positive, it’s clear, it’s ‘goal-driven’, and it’s thoughtful. That’s why it produces better results – it uses more advanced parts of our brain. ‘Fixing’ is simply abiding a primitive response by the brain.
For example, if you find yourself having fallen into icy water, obviously there’s no time to get out a notebook and think it through. Immediate action is required. However, action resulting from not accepting the situation will likely produce ‘fixing’ behavior – panic, flailing, quick exhaustion. On the other hand, taking a fraction of a second and accepting the situation “I’m in this icy water, now what can I do?”, can result in much more effective actions (and survival rates). Most people who drown in cars, for example, are found to have simply forgotten to remove their seatbelt.
Of course, those are extreme situations, but presented for a reason – they show that even in critical situations (perhaps especially in critical situations), acceptance is the most important first step to determining effective action and moving to a desired state.
Acceptance, first and fully. That alone helps you answer the critical next question “what can I do?”. With acceptance first, the answer to that question will be much more clear, and any action taken will be vastly more effective, because it will be powered by reality and clear thinking, instead of by automatic negative emotions.
We make life hard for ourselves by making two common mistakes:
1. We make it complex when it could be simple.
2. We try to handle this perceived complexity with complex solutions.
We tend to see life as a chaotic mass of future plans, tasks, challenges, commitments, social norms, planned and unforeseen events, accidents, luck, the unpredictable actions of others, weather, genetics, and so on. It’s no wonder then that we can easily feel out of control, unsure, frustrated, and overwhelmed – and that’s just in the span of a single day.
In order to deal with this perceived complexity, we employ a set of somewhat random strategies and tools, applying different solutions, different focus, different rules, and different intensity, to a wide range of circumstances and challenges. And, not surprisingly, we get a wide range of results.
Making life easy with simple guidelines
The good news is that this can all be very easily improved, in one simple shift. The result is a life that feels much more enjoyable and within our control.
The simple mistake we’re making is revolting against adding even very basic structure and discipline in our lives. We do this because it feels too restricting and limiting, and we want to live freely. So, we attempt to live without any basic framework for actions and decisions, only to end up – ironically – restricted and limited by our results.
Take for example personal finance, specifically budgeting. Most people don’t have one, and if they do it’s not written down (which means they don’t have one). They want to spend or save freely as they wish. And so when they’re presented with spending and saving opportunities, they view them as complex and confusing decisions, influenced by – and affecting – all of their other finances, and perhaps even their happiness, health, and peace of mind. Wow!
So, they attempt to match this complexity with complex strategies like micromanaging monthly expenses, engaging in revolving credit, assuming and mismanaging debt, making poor assumptions, trading time for money by DIY’ing, couponing, bargain-hunting, and so forth. And those are just the choices they make on the up-and-up. In more desperate situations, things can get even more ‘creative’, which just creates more serious problems in the long-term.
They end up dealing with all of these compounding issues simply because they avoided taking an hour and putting together a budget.
But it’s actually even easier than that.
Ask simple questions
All we really need to do is to put some basic guidelines in place, in the form of a series of common questions.
So, staying with the money example, what if we asked the following questions before making a purchase?
- Will spending money on this make me more money?
- Will spending money on this be the only cost (opportunity cost, taxes, maintenance, repair, time)?
- Will spending money on this improve my health or happiness?
- Can I purchase it right now with cash?
- Did I save and/or plan to buy this?
With questions like that, you almost don’t need a budget. The answers will provide enough of a framework – and a simple one – that will guide you to good outcomes 99% of the time. Maybe your priorities differ, and therefore your questions will be different. Maybe you’ll use a single question, or 10. That’s up to each person to decide. That said, the more simple you keep it, the easier it will be to remember and use. Usually 2-5 questions is the right number.
Here’s a simple one for eating properly:
- Do I know what’s in this?
- Is it good for my body?
Those two questions could completely replace diets and dietary guidelines. You could add a third question “does it fit in the palm of my hand?”, and bingo, you’ve covered portion sizes. Eating healthy is really very simple.
Instead, people have made it totally complex – hemming and hawing over every bite, every meal, every pound – and then employing equally complex solutions – charts and calorie counting and scales and diet books – to try to figure it all out and get the results they want. There’s actually no need to introduce complexity on either side of it, and yet we add it in heavy doses to both ends.
We frame problems as complex, and then seek to solve the issues with complex solutions.
Instead, we should be doing the opposite. We should frame problems simply, and solve the problems using a simple lightweight framework of guidelines. That’s a proven way to get excellent results 99% of the time, across a wide range of situations.
Just follow the lines
We have learned to do this when we drive. We can’t possibly know every tiny bend in the road along the way, yet somehow we manage to drive effectively and get to our destination without banging along and hitting everything, including oncoming cars. We do this with two simple guidelines, literally. The road has ‘suggested lines of travel’. They’re not physically keeping us from crashing. They’re suggestions, they’re GUIDE-lines.
We just stay within the lines, and it gets us there smoothly 99% of the time. Simple.
Good guidelines work everywhere
The secret to good guidelines is thinking them through in advance, and then sticking to them. Lines on a road were well-planned, for a reason. So all we have to do is follow them.
The same goes for any set of guidelines in your life, whether it’s health, wealth, relationships, business, or anything that’s important to you. Of course each area will have its own guidelines, but if they’re well-thought-out, limited to just a few, and kept simple, they’ll be easy to remember and follow, especially with some practice.
And what happens is nothing less than amazing. You start to gain control over your life and your results, based on what’s important to you. It’s a simple shift, but it has amazing power to change your life for the better.
The choice we all make is whether we pick a course and steer, or just drift along.
Drifting is what 95% of people choose, and for good reason. It’s much easier, or seemingly so. Plans and decisions are made lightly, thinking is usually short-term and vague, busyness and distractions are the daily focus. Elements like understanding, purpose, goals, strategy, discipline and mindfulness take a back seat, if engaged at all.
That is not to say that it’s the easier path in life. In fact, it’s the more difficult choice, because it never really solves problems, or seeks to create long-term happiness. With drifting, daily life isn’t tied to a well-crafted larger plan or purpose, so it leaves people fighting daily fires, ‘always busy’, with bad habits, unhealthy and unhappy, and often dealing with (avoidable) undesirable results in the long term.
With drifting, enjoyment is an aside from daily life – reserved for evenings, weekends, or chunks of time away from their normal life when they can finally ‘unwind’. Sometimes it’s an actual vacation, but on a daily basis it’s often the escape of sports, gossip, social media, junk food, alcohol, coffee, whatever they need to feel better to get through the day.
That said, drifting is certainly not a life without value. In any life there are great moments, amazing days, lucky wins, along with crushing defeats, challenges, hard work, laughs, love, and all of the beauty of life. And that’s why it’s also easy to assume that there’s nothing wrong with drifting as an approach. And let’s be honest, since it’s just a personal choice, there actually isn’t anything wrong with it as a life choice. The ‘drifter’ will still experience the river, the rapids and calm, the beauty and danger of it all. The river is always an amazing journey, regardless.
The difference is that the drifter won’t be nearly as in control of their journey as the person who actively steers. That includes where they end up, where they stop along the way, how many rapids they avoid, how many favorable currents they catch, how much of the river they see, and whether or not they get soaked or stay dry along the way.
A very small fraction of people learn to steer in life. It takes a bit more daily paddling and course-correction, but it can dramatically change your experience.
Steering is not a guarantee of a perfect trip. Boats still sink, tides turn, and so on. Even with steering, we can be pushed off course and end up where we didn’t intend. However, ‘steering’ also involves a change in attitude, so we’re more likely to make the best of a bad situation or to turn it positive. In fact, specific results actually matter less, because we can choose how to see the journey however we wish. So, we double our chances of a positive experience – first by actively steering to avoid trouble, and second by wearing a life jacket in case we get dumped overboard.
Steering is about taking actions that align with a desired journey and destination.
Steering is about taking the time to learn things before making decisions, thinking things through, planning them out, and then taking thoughtful action toward an end. It’s about casting off weight and carrying just what’s helpful and important to us. It’s about choosing a destination, navigating to it, paddling hard sometimes, resting and enjoying sometimes, and making course-corrections as necessary. It makes for a much nicer trip, and it saves a lot of paddling back upstream, carrying the canoe to a new location over land, and wringing out wet clothes and gear.
It’s about avoiding self-created problems. Steering seeks long-term solutions, not quick fixes or avoidance. It’s about stopping and patching small holes rather than spending the whole trip bailing water (and arriving with a capsized boat anyway). It’s about learning how to avoid rough water instead of paddling harder and longer.
Steering is about doing all of the little things that add up to big things – keeping your boat pointed in the direction you want to go, wherever that may be.