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.
The major challenge in life is getting over errors in your own thinking, attitudes, emotions, and habits. People who find life excellent and effortless have simply learned how to get out of their own way.
Most people are of the mindset that life is generally difficult, and only by their own smarts, will, and hard work are they able to overcome challenges and do well for themselves. It pits us as the hero against the universe, as we valiantly make our way through the ups-and-downs that life throws at us. It blames life for our difficulties.
A fantastic story, and a total self-delusion.
The reality is that all difficulty in life is created by us. Much of our attitude, philosophy and habits – what guides our daily decision-making – was cemented in late childhood/early adulthood and has simply been reinforced every day. From foods we don’t like, to a lack of skills or disciplines, to a limited view of the world or other people, to things we aren’t willing to do. These are the things that cause all of our problems – our own limitations.
How does it work?
There are really four main areas where it reveals itself:
Habits – procrastination, lack of discipline, self-destructive behaviors, repeated shortcuts, errors and assumptions
Attitude – closed-mindedness, negative self-image, negative world view, pessimism
Philosophy – lack of focus on guiding principles, lack of perspective, lack of urgency
Knowledge – lack of critical thinking, lack of advanced skills, misinformation
These continually reinforced internal errors are the cause of 100% of what we call ‘problems’, including difficulties with health, money, relationships, and mental/emotional well-being.
Why do we do this?
We don’t really know any better. A delusion, by definition, is a strongly held belief, despite evidence to the contrary. So, for example we may admit that our poor attitude is causing a problem at work, and yet still blame everyone else at work! And the same goes for all aspects of our life – money, relationships, health, and so on.
Perhaps the most fundamental error we make is in determining what we can control. We can control a lot more than we think, but choose not too. And at the same time, we focus on trying to control too many things that we can’t control.
How do we fix it?
First, we first have to recognize that we’re making these mistakes. When we get upset at traffic, or weather, or a boss, we’re already making a mistake. Once we’re in traffic, dealing with weather, or getting criticized by a boss, those things are already out of our control. Of course we can try to react as best we can, but what we should focus on is avoiding behaviors that may have caused the situation to begin with. We can leave earlier or take a different route. We can prepare for a storm or carry an umbrella. We can talk with our boss about what we can do better, and then do it!
So many of the things we identify as life problems are totally caused by our own shortcomings, and are totally avoidable. We just cannot or will not see the true cause of the problem. Often there’s a time delay – sometimes years – between cause and effect. The problem is not that your rent went up – the problem is that you didn’t save enough money over the last 20 years to afford the kind of place you want to live. The problem is not that you have high cholesterol, the problem is that you’ve been eating animal fat for decades.
And regardless of whether we caused the problem to begin with, we can always control our response to a situation, and the level of responsibility we take in trying to resolve it – specifically just how much we turn to bad habits, shortcuts, assumptions, and lack of perspective.
Don’t wish life were easier, wish you were better.
What does fixing it look like?
Fixing these errors makes life easy. Not just ‘easier’ but actually easy. It’s akin to swimming with the current versus against it.
Once you start to improve your Habits, Attitude, Philosophy, and Knowledge, you begin to see life, and yourself, differently. You see yourself as you are – a creative force shaping your own life – and not a victim or a hero fighting against life’s harsh reality. And as your attitude changes, you can see that not only is life not against you, it is an amazing force that makes everything possible. So, it simply becomes a matter of choosing and doing what is necessary to get to where you want to go.
Climbing a mountain with a map, a full stomach, a good night’s rest, water, food, the right gear, the right companions, weather reports, and good health, is typically successful and enjoyable!
On the other hand, heading out without preparation, a map, water, etc, is not only foolish, but predictably leads to suffering and failure. What it is NOT is noble or heroic. And yet we applaud people for walking 5 miles each way to a $10/hour job, or patting people on the back because they’ve somehow made it through another year with their poorly-run business, or have gotten all their hectic daily tasks done without a plan or purpose, again.
Struggling in life because you continue to fail to improve yourself, learn new skills, or remove personal problems, is not heroic, it’s foolish, self-inflicted, and diminishes your life and the lives of everyone around you.
The real difficulty of life
When you take it easy on yourself (not correcting bad habits, attitude issues, poor philosophy, and misinformation), life gets difficult. But if you do the difficult work of improving yourself, life becomes easy.
The even better news is that self-improvement is only difficult at first. Like anything, once it becomes a habit it becomes automatic and effortless.
So if you want to live the life you desire, happily and easily, all you have to is shift your focus. Stop focusing on how life is so difficult, and start focusing on making yourself less difficult.
You’ll find that once you start removing your own problems, life’s problems magically disappear.
The real worth in achieving a goal is the person you become in order to accomplish it.
It’s pretty obvious that in order to get different results, you have to do different things. However, there’s more to it than that. In order to things differently – long enough to make a real difference – you have to become a different person.
The vast majority of people stop at ‘sounds good, I’ll do different things’, and never get to ‘I’ll become a different person’. Therefore, they fail at achieving their goal. And failure is by far the norm. New years’ resolutions, diets, missed targets, broken promises, and the most common one – total aversion to ever setting goals. Hell, most people go through life avoiding the word ‘goal’.
So, why do people omit the most important step of the process? The answer is fear.
We fear change. We fear stepping out of what we know and are comfortable with. So, while we might be able to fake and force our way through taking different action for a while (exercising, dieting, budgeting, etc.), it’s not possible to fool yourself into thinking you’ve actually changed. And, soon enough, you’ll return to who you are.
The good news is that this fear of changing yourself is unfounded. It’s entirely based on a lie, and the lie is this:
“It’s not worth it.”
There’s only one version of you who would say that, and it’s the current version. When you achieve the goal, you will never say it wasn’t worth it. If you do, then you didn’t pick a worthy goal.
By definition a worthy goal has worth, and therefore it adds value to your life. Everyone who ever achieves a goal will confirm that, and the version of you who finally achieves your goal will say it too.
So to be successful in achieving a goal, first drop the lie. Start the process with the truth: It’s always worth it. You might be surprised at how that changes your commitment, your confidence, your focus, and your drive to see it through.
It’s always worth it because of the person you become.
How folding laundry helps you live better
Procrastination is perhaps the most widespread and debilitating negative habit in life. Life is about living – flourishing, growing, being. That means taking action, it means doing the things we have decided are important to us in life – no matter how trivial or tedious – when it’s the appropriate time to do them.
Let’s say we have ‘fold laundry’ on our list of things to do, but when it comes time to do it, we put it off. We just don’t feel like doing it right then. So, it sits for a while, a few hours or a few days, finally getting done when we force ourselves to do it (or someone complains enough to motivate us). So what’s the big deal if the laundry sits for a little while? The small task of folding laundry, even as small and individually unimportant as it is, is still a part of the whole system that makes up your life. It’s a piece that makes it possible for you to live the life you’ve currently chosen. The big deal with procrastination is the negative habit it reinforces, and the mindset it perpetuates.
After all, if we can’t take action when it’s time to do something as simple as fold laundry, how can we possibly take action when it’s time to do much bigger things?
Our standard answer is “when it comes time to do the big things I’ll have the motivation”. The reality is we won’t. And even if do find the motivation, we’ll only be doing it to avoid negative consequences. There are some serious problems with this do-it-later approach:
- It may be too late. Little things eventually become big things. The time to take care of them is when they’re small and unimportant. So, putting off health, finances, personal development, and relationships until there are serious consequences is a losing strategy.
- It makes us do the least. It sets up a life in which we only do the uncomfortable things in order to avoid potential negative consequences (e.g. a missed tax deadline, serious surgery, a disappointed loved one) instead of taking on difficult challenges to produce positive results. In life, there’s a huge difference between playing to win, and playing not to lose.
- It imposes limits. It erodes our self confidence. We don’t trust that we can get things done. We avoid taking on big or complex tasks, and we never shorten timetables – always opting for easier tasks and longer deadlines when given the choice.
If you want to be able to lift heavier weights in life, practice. Build your strength by lifting small things every day.
Why it’s hard to overcome
Procrastination is learned, like any habit. It is also very deeply rooted in the brain, and in our daily behaviors. What makes it worse is that it’s reinforced and accepted in society. It’s joked about, spoken of casually, and considered to be just part of human nature.
The debilitating effects of procrastination are often hard to detect, rationalized, and made light of. But I’ve learned that procrastination is a chronic disease in life, quietly destroying confidence, opportunities, success, and happiness. And yet rather than deciding to fight and eliminate it, we spend our lives feeding and reinforcing it. That’s a powerful negative habit indeed.
The reason it forms into such a strong habit is because it’s a manifestation of fear, and fear is by far our most powerful emotion.
Specifically, it’s about the fear of failure, loss of control, and discomfort. We are programmed to fear those things, as our brain interprets those things as having a strong association with serious mental and physical pain. However, it’s completely inappropriate to have the same fear about walking into a dark cave as it does when faced with folding laundry. But, that’s how the brain works.
However, since we are human beings, we have the power to react differently, in any way we choose.
What must be done
Successful people have learned how to minimize or eliminate procrastination, because they understand that it’s extremely detrimental to where they want to go in life.
We can find lots of tips for overcoming procrastination out there, and most say a version of the same things: eliminate distractions, force yourself to do it, break it up into smaller tasks, and reward yourself for minor progress. Those are perfectly good techniques, but they are useless without a shift in mindset.
I’ve learned that in order to overcome powerful negative habits, there first has to be a shift in our mindset. And for procrastination, the following is what needs to be re-programmed:
The emotion must be extracted from the task.
The fear must be removed first, then we can move forward unencumbered and get things done. We have to lighten that heaviness each and every time we approach the task, or even think about the task. Without removing that heaviness, that resistance, we’ll struggle. We must lighten the load.
How it begins
The very thought of the task will trigger your typical (habitual) response. It will sound like this:
- I have to do this
- I don’t want to do this
- This is the last thing I want to be doing
- I don’t even know where to begin
- I have no idea how to do this
- I’d rather be doing something else
This is procrastination. It’s a triggered emotional reaction. The imagined dread of doing the task comes almost instantly, seemingly naturally, and feels totally associated with the task itself. So, the task becomes the source of totally inappropriate emotion.
The habit we’ve formed has tied various ‘uncomfortable’ tasks with an avalanche of unrelated emotion. In reality, the task itself often has the potential to be a learning experience, to be very satisfying, and to be a great use of our time. At the very least, it’s something we’ve decided is a necessary and useful task to get us where we want to be in life. That’s a positive!
So, why such strong misplaced negative emotion when we think about a simple task? The answer is simple: We’ve mistakenly formed poor thinking habits, and we’re projecting unrelated and unwarranted fears and anxieties on tasks that inherently have no emotion in them.
How we start
The first step is to recognize that we don’t have to do anything – we want to do it.
It’s worth doing, and doing well. That’s reality. You’ve decided in one way or another that it’s important to complete the task, either as a standalone action or as a part of a bigger goal. You’re the one who added it to your list and/or agreed to do it. It’s never not your choice. It’s never a must or a should. You always want to do it, and if you really truly don’t…then absolutely don’t do it! But the worst thing you can do is choose to add it to your own list and give it some importance to complete, and then delay and create stress over it. It makes no sense, and it’s thinking that must be countered and corrected.
How we really change
The next step, after realizing it’s always our choice to do a task on our list, is to let go of the outcome.
Worrying about how it will turn out serves no purpose, and only hurts our creativity and productivity. We need to let go of the outcome before we begin. Be okay with it being late, not getting done, being a total failure, or any of the ‘very scary’ outcomes that are causing you fear. Be okay with thinking you’re not sure it’s the best use of your time.
Worrying about outcomes is a complete waste of energy, energy that is much better used focusing on doing your best at the task at hand.
The bad habit of procrastination injects hesitation, resistance, and dread in a completely inappropriate way. It has convinced us that there’s something to fear or avoid in performing routine tasks, not to mention complex tasks and difficult tasks. And just when we need focus, positivity, and perspective, there isn’t any. Procrastination shuts the door on those qualities, and we suffer through our daily tasks – if we even get around to doing them.
The real lightness
You’re never better off waiting, delaying, or avoiding something that is part of living the life you’ve chosen. Understand that fact, and release the inappropriate heaviness of emotion tied to the outcome, and you’ll feel a new lightness about everything you do.
As you get better at it, you’ll find that not only are you moving through life easier, but your results are better. You’ll be doing things with a certain ‘craftsmanship’ and care to everything you’ve chosen to spend your precious time on.
When you truly begin to overcome it, fear will no longer be part of your planning process, and you’ll find yourself going after challenges that you once thought impossible.
And since all of your chores will be done, you’ll have time to do it all.
People generally know what they need to do in order to get better results in life – exercise, diet, budgeting, planning, practicing, etc are all things that we know we should be doing to better ourselves, but we don’t. Instead, we struggle with it.
One reason is that we’re not good with long timescales, future consequences, or solving complex problems. In fact, didn’t you find it heavy even reading that? So, we get easily overwhelmed, frustrated, uncomfortable, and we abandon the effort.
Separate problems, remove them from the whole, and work on them as standalone items.
We talk about our lives as one complete thing, but it’s actually made up of many pieces or systems that are not related – at least in terms of how well they’re working. Having a low bank account doesn’t give you cancer, and not having your resume up to date doesn’t break your car. Now of course everything is related to the whole of your life and happiness, and many things do impact and relate to eachother (your mental health affects job performance, which affects your bank balance, and so on). But, in terms of each separate aspect of your life working well or working poorly, they are independent. What’s more, it’s not possible to tackle everything as a whole – it’s overwhelming and nearly impossible to fix all at once.
So, the key is to separate each area of your life and get to work on it. Pick something to start with – health is a good one – and get to work. Learn about healthy eating, plan a new menu, buy different foods, eat them. Set yourself up for success by planning things out, reading books, and establishing new habits. Fail. Try it again with new information and a better attitude. Fight the urge to let go and release control back to ‘whatever, it’s fine’. If you’re frustrated, focus smaller. Focus at a level that makes you comfortable. Keep your eyes down on that one thing, and resist the urge to look ahead or look around at everything that you could be working on. Fight. Focus on it. Separate it out and give it your attention. Pretend your life depends on it.
And then, once you’ve gotten it working just the way you want, move on to the next item on your list – armed with new skills and confidence.
Below is an excerpt of Work The System, Chapter 7 – A Room Full of Boxes. It’s one of my favorite books, and my favorite visual about self improvement:
You walk through a door into a large, dimly-lit room. It’s one you’ve been in before. The room is empty except for several dozen wooden boxes varying in size. The containers, each with a hinged wooden lid, are scattered around the room. You begin by replacing the burnt-out light bulbs and then pushing the boxes around so they are in order, taking time to organize them so you can perform your work in a logical way.
Because of the previous neglect of the contents of these boxes, you knew before you came here that completing this job would require some effort. You hunker down and get to work.
You open the lid of the first box and find a mechanical apparatus within. It’s made up of gears, wires, and levers, and because you have learned how to fix such devices, what you see makes sense. You examine the intricacies within, and it is apparent that adjustments are necessary. You make them. In the course of your work you notice an obsolete component. You replace it with an updated version (you always carry spares). This revision will make the device more efficient and reliable.
Then you oil the moving parts and finish by cleaning up the mechanism, wiping it off. Finally, you thoroughly test it to make sure it’s working perfectly. It is.
You close the lid and move on to the next box. You repeat the process. One by one you move through all the boxes, making each of the unique mechanisms within them perfect, closing the lids afterward.
It indeed takes time to complete your work, but the time went quickly as you spent your hours in a creative, constructive mindset.
You’ve finished, and you stand in the doorway and take a last look around the room. The boxes are in neat rows, their lids closed, and you are confident the devices within the boxes are working perfectly. You know the output will be very good now because each of its mechanisms is working flawlessly. How could it be otherwise? You also know you’ll be vigilant, watching over the details, not allowing it to fall back into disarray. There will be routine maintenance.
As you turn off the lights and walk out the door, you feel intensely satisfied with your work and with yourself.
Clearly the methodical and mechanical nature of this example will appeal to some more than others. However, whether or not it’s your cup of tea does not change that it’s true. That’s how it works. Your body, mind, and everything around you works mechanically, 1-2-3, as a system. Work with that reality, and you get the results you want. Ignore it, or work against it, and you won’t.
Separate each system (box) of your life, go to work on it, and watch your whole life change.