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.
I used to hate the words responsibility and discipline. They sounded like verbal prison. They made me pucker, they made me want to run and revolt. They might still give you a similar initial reaction, evoking feelings of heaviness, duty, judgement – unpleasant but necessary.
In fact, your reaction to those words says a lot about why your results are where they are. Maybe everything.
There’s no doubt they’re serious words, but now I see them as empowering words that I run to, because I know what embracing them does to a life. The degree to which anyone aligns themselves with these words – the greater their quality of life. That’s just how things work. Nothing personal, nothing magical, and nothing more complex.
Now, simple doesn’t mean easy. Words alone are just ideas. That’s why we say we “take” responsibility or “practice” discipline. The words paired with actions is what gives them power.
My new favorite book/essay is As A Man Thinketh by James Allen. It’s a great new book by a radical new age thinker…written in 1902. If I had to sum up my current philosophy, it would be very close to the overall message in Allen’s essay.
Here are some quotes from this particular book that resonated with me, and my interpretations in more casual language:
A man only begins to be a man when he ceases to whine and revile, and commences to search for the hidden justice which regulates his life. And as he adapts his mind to that regulating factor, he ceases to accuse others as the cause of his condition , and builds himself up in strong and noble thoughts; ceases to kick against circumstances, but begins to use them as aids to his more rapid progress, and as a means of discovering the hidden powers and possibilities within himself.
How I would put it: Nothing changes until you figure out that you’re the cause of your own problems, and the cause of your own happiness. Once you understand that good or bad results, happiness and unhappiness are totally based on your own mindset and actions, you start to work with your life instead of fighting against yourself.
Men do not attract that which they want, but that which they are. Their whims, fancies, and ambitions are thwarted at every step, but their inmost thoughts and desires are fed with their own food, be it foul or clean. The “divinity that shapes our ends” is in ourselves; it is our very self. Only himself manacles man : thought and action are the gaolers of Fate— they imprison, being base; they are also the angels of Freedom—they liberate, being noble. Not what he wishes and prays for does a man get, but what he justly earns.
How I would put it: Not only is there no force or God outside ourselves that regulates our fate, but there’s no biased world out there that wishes us ill or well, or has any particular plans for us. Our fate will be dictated by the laws of nature, probability, gravity, and so on. There’s nothing unknown or magical to it, and therefore we can choose to take actions that produce the results we prefer. If we don’t, we get poor results.
Men are anxious to improve their circumstances, but are unwilling to improve themselves; they therefore remain bound.
How I would put it: Everyone wants a ‘better’ life. Whether it’s to lose 10 lbs, be more organized, be ‘happier’ (whatever that means), drive a nicer car, or find more time to do what we love to do. We all make resolutions to ourselves, if not publicly. But, there’s a huge difference between wanting your life to be better and actually doing the things it takes to make it better.
Man is buffeted by circumstances so long as he believes himself to be the creature of outside conditions, but when he realizes that he is a creative power, and that he may command the hidden soil and seeds of his being out of which circumstances grow, he then becomes the rightful master of himself.
How I would put it: When you blame others, you’ll never change what needs to change to realize different results – yourself. And the powerful flipside is also true – that once you do change yourself, you are no longer bound by circumstances, and can dictate the story of your own life, page by page.
The world is your kaleidoscope, and the varying combinations of colors, which at every succeeding moment it presents to you are the exquisitely adjusted pictures of your ever-moving thoughts. You will be what you WILL to be.
How I would put it: Hard to say this better than he did. I might say your thoughts control your actions, and your actions dictate your life experience. So if you learn to think well, you’ll live well.
In a funny way, this book is a little bit useless, because we already know these things to be true. It’s a bit like a book on gravity – pretty much something we’re already all familiar with. The difference is whether we’re embracing it and using it to our advantage, or not.
We all have room for improvement – a gap – in any number of areas in our lives – health, finances, job, relationships, personal achievement, spiritually, and so on. The gap is the perceptible ‘distance’ between where we are and where we should be, or at least where we think we should be.
Sometimes the gap is a number – cholesterol or a dollar amount – and other times it’s harder to measure, such as happiness or a level of personal success.
These gaps are actually doubly damaging:
1. The deficiencies themselves can cause serious problems – poor health, poverty, bad relationships, etc.
2. Knowing that the situation ‘should’ be different, and yet is within our power to remedy, causes mental anguish on a daily basis.
So how do we fix gaps?
We have to be able to own it 100%
Every personal change starts with total ownership, removal of all excuses. This is where change actually takes place. It’s an odd mix of total surrender and total control at the same time. It’s difficult to do, so it’s rarely done. It’s easier to use excuses and rationalization, find a distraction, downplay the importance of the gap, and so on.
Gaps are created by lies we tell ourselves and others. After all, when we say “I truly want X to happen”, then why hasn’t it already happened?…quick, insert an excuse.
Most people spend a tremendous amount of mental energy on crafting excuses and continually revising their personal story to explain why things are exactly the way they are (and not even a tick better). So it’s no wonder that trying to shift away from this thinking is very foreign and very difficult…at first.
Strangely, we do have the ability to look at others’ situations very critically and without tolerance for excuses. So, for that reason the more we can look at our own gaps objectively – as if it were someone else’s life – the more clearly we can see the weakness of our own arguments and storyline.
NOTE: Admission of a gap is not ownership. It’s an excuse in disguise. It’s a way for us to remove responsibility for causing the situation and for taking action to resolve it. It does nothing to commit us to change the situation, so it simply serves to distract, deflect, and reinforce a current condition as permanent and likely just too darn tough to do anything about. Be careful not to fall into this common trap.
We have to learn to keep promises
The ability to get what you want out of life starts with the very simple ability to make and keep a promise to yourself. Once you have some skill there, you can extend it to others. And be sure, if you’re saying that you already keep your promises, trust me that you’re not.
The entire conflict, the whole nature of a gap, is that there’s a span between what you SAY and what you DO. Closing that gap is about keeping promises.
Start with easy things, and build this ‘muscle’, and you’ll quickly see it translate into many areas of your life. Start with small things, and once you have some mastery of it you can extend it to others. You’ll be amazed how the world turns for you when you become truly reliable and honest about what you say you’ll do. People respect that. People pay well for that. And most importantly, you’ll feel like you can make and keep any promise you make – to yourself or others. Make promises carefully, and keep every promise you make…no matter what.
We have to become action-oriented
Now, this is not the same as being task-oriented, which is simply ‘staying busy’. Action orientation has three parts:
Goal SETTING frightens people, me included. Goal STATING is easy. Simply write out or say what you want. State your big goals, ignore smaller ones or interim steps. These goals should then dictate what you spend your time on. They should direct your behavior and your planning. If they don’t, find better goals that inspire you, push you, or suit your life more honestly and accurately.
The idea is to continuously be working on the most important things on your list. Do the most important of those things, and then move on to the next one. Note that this is very different from doing the most urgent, satisfying or easy item on your list to ‘get it out of the way’. Working on the most important things one at a time until they’re done will bring exponential results almost immediately.
Procrastination is actually fear (a topic for another day), so it cannot be removed, only overcome. Yes, it’s very hard to do, but it can be un-learned as a habit. It starts with the most simple things – leaving dishes in the sink, not taking something into the house with you until later, putting off a phone call, and so on. These simple, continuous decisions reinforce procrastination and make it a monster. With some effort, and a lot of constant correction mentally, it can flip for you. Once your default setting is ‘do it now’, there’s little left that can stop you.
Feeling there’s a gap in one or more areas of your life is universal.
Making excuses about it, admitting it (but not really working on it), and making temporary progress on it just for appearances is (*yawn*) commonplace, ineffective, and stressful.
But learning the mechanics of how to improve your life, and actually making your own life and the lives of others better…well…is there anything more worthwhile?
“Being your best” is really about controlling what you can control, today.
It boils down to the simple disciplines and difficult choices. Did you get up today and do the most important task (usually hardest or most dreaded) on the list? Why not? What are you putting off right now that you know you should be doing? What choices could you make today to get you closer to your goals – which by the way don’t have to be giant things like ‘circumnavigate the globe in a kayak’ but instead could be ‘strengthen my marriage’.
Your best doesn’t require Zen or God. It doesn’t matter where you came from, who or what you’ve lost along the way, where you’re going, or frankly even who you are. That’s the beauty of it, it’s universal and timeless. “Your best” is a gear that can be engaged by anyone, at any time.
We spend our lives searching for answers or fulfillment, and yet the answer is right there: “Be your best, today”.
This following list is borrowed from Lori Deschene – 50 Things You Can Control Right Now:
Here are 50 things you can control right now:
1. How many times you smile today.
2. How much effort you exert at work.
3. Your level of honesty.
4. How well you prepare.
5. How you act on your feelings.
6. How often you say “thank you.”
7. When you pull out your wallet for luxuries.
8. Whether or not you give someone the benefit of the doubt.
9. How you interpret situations.
10. Whether or not you compete with people around you.
11. How often you notice and appreciate small acts of kindness.
12. Whether you listen or wait to talk.
13. When you walk away from a conversation.
14. How nice you are to yourself in your head.
15. Whether you think positive or negative thoughts.
16. Whether or not you form expectations of people.
17. The type of food you eat.
18. When you answer someone’s question – or email or call.
19. How much time you spend worrying.
20. How many new things you try.
21. How much exercise you get.
22. How many times you swear in traffic.
23. Whether or not you plan for the weather.
24. How much time you spend trying to convince people you’re right.
25. How often you think about your past.
26. How many negative articles you read.
27. The attention you give to your loved ones when you see them.
28. How much you enjoy the things you have right now.
29. Whether or not you communicate something that’s on your mind.
30. How clean or uncluttered you keep your space.
31. What books you read.
32. How well you network at social events.
33. How deeply you breathe when you experience stress.
34. How many times you admit you don’t know something, and learn something new.
35. How often you use your influence to help people.
36. When you ask for help.
37. Which commitments you keep and cancel.
38. How many risks you take.
39. How creative/innovative you are in your thinking.
40. How clear you are when you explain your thoughts.
41. Whether you formulate a new plan or act on your existing one.
42. How much information you get before you make a decision.
43. How much information you share with people.
44. Whether you smoke or drink.
45. Whether or not you judge other people.
46. Whether you smell good or bad.
47. How much of what other people say you believe.
48. How quickly you try again after you fail.
49. How many times you say “I love you.”
50. How much rest you get at night.
Once you’ve mastered this list, feel free to move on to the list of things we typically tell ourselves are keeping us from living a better life – time, money, age, our past, other people, the government, taxes, weather, life in general, etc.
I’m guessing that they won’t seem like the right places to focus anymore.
Life isn’t magic, but you probably think it is.
We all fall for the tricks to some degree.
Being able to see through the smoke and mirrors (ones that we put in front of ourselves) helps you make better decisions, and get better results. Now that’s magic!
Here are the illusions we have trouble with:
- Making assumptions
- Jumping to conclusions
- Making false correlations
- Not seeing what is missing from the picture
- Ignoring or overlooking important details
- Telling ourselves stories or inventing explanations
- Assuming causes or conclusions based on a single data point
- Believing superstitions, propaganda, stories, marketing, advertising
What happens when I fall for these illusions?
Poor thinking leads to poor decision-making, which leads to poor results. You’ll be left baffled at how something didn’t work out or where it went wrong. Missed goals, broken promises to yourself and others, hit-n-miss performance at work, stress, frustration, poor health, bad mood, unhappiness. You’ll see life as unpredictable at best, and a nightmare at worst. So, you’ll run. You’ll try to escape from it with ‘well-deserved vacations’, booze, pills, television, games, anything to ‘unwind’. Sound familiar?
Of course, you’re the one doing the winding up in the first place. You’ve caused it by putting a layer of unreality over reality. Like trying to drive blindfolded. Frustrating, with poor results guaranteed. And even if you could get good at it…why make it so hard on yourself!
Okay, so how can I fix it?
Learn to live in reality. Question your assumptions, ask why again and again, don’t pretend things happen by some magical force in the world – see the reality of cause and effect in life. Once you start to look critically at your assumptions and self-illusions, you’ll start seeing more of reality. You’ll see the ace peeking out of the magician’s sleeve. So it starts by trying to be conscious of the shortcomings of your own brain. Slowly you’ll pull back the veil of illusion on your world.
What can I expect if I do fix it?
Nothing short of a better life. Better health, less stress, better relationships, and most importantly a new-found kind of wonder that comes from realizing how life works, and that you ultimately can choose your experience of it. You start to see others as they are, and judge them less. You’re more patient. You’re more kind and compassionate. But mostly, life gets a lot easier. You start to do things with less effort. You work smarter, you’re better at everything you do, you get results you never realized you could, and you appreciate it every moment. You’re able to appreciate the amazing way life works, and come to the realization that you have the power to create it any way you wish.