In the game of life, being a player can be very satisfying. We get to feel the excitement of the highs and lows, we can sometimes change the outcomes by applying more effort and focus, we can grow and improve, we feel pride and passion, and we certainly enjoy the victories. It’s not surprising that being a player is how most people choose to live.
Being a coach feels less fun – more work and less excitement. But to become a coach we don’t give up being a player. We simply add coaching as a new layer.
What we’re talking about is simply adding perspective – instead of simply living life in the fray, adding the viewpoint of a strategist.
Just playing better is not enough
Most people do improve their lives over time. They work very hard, and they do become better, and thus realize better outcomes. But it’s less common for people to shift perspective to become their own coach, and that means no matter how well they play, they will always be playing the game the same way.
Life as a player can also be stressful, frustrating, limiting, and frankly has a tendency to consist of marching along day after day without much purpose. Of course some players are better at this than others. Some hone their skills, some get lucky bounces or a weak schedule to play against, while others face tough opponents every day, or make things tough on themselves by failing to improve their skills. But the fact remains – all a player can do is play better, they can’t change their strategy. They can’t see their weaknesses clearly. They don’t play the long-term game. They can’t see how the pieces fit into the bigger picture. In short, they can’t really change the game.
Coaching changes the game
When we become our own coach, we play the game quite differently. First off, our goals shift – they become long-term. Second, we look at the bigger picture, often beyond ourselves, especially how to best work with others and how to effectively defend against opponents/obstacles. Third, we can objectively see our own weaknesses, and can go about making improvements with precision. Fourth, we gain distance from emotion, which provides clarity for better decision-making. And lastly, we focus on practicing the fundamentals, knowing that when we do the little things right every day, it pays off big when it matters most.
Let’s unpack these in a little more detail.
A focus on long-term goals
As a coach we play for championships, not just wins. Of course wins are important, but often the decisions that go into becoming a champion are very different than the choices made to eek out an individual win on a particular day. Resources are managed differently, effort is balanced, setbacks are looked at as ways to improve long-term, and errors or injuries – physical or otherwise – are dealt with in a methodical, more comprehensive way. It’s always about balancing the desire for short term wins with achieving long term victories.
A real world example: Our spending choices are good examples. The smartest spending choices are both investments for the future and short-term comfort and pleasure. They include a well-maintained car, health and fitness gear, books, good quality tools, appliances and electronics, etc. These can be things that bring enjoyment (wins) today, but also allow us to get better for the future by allowing us to travel, commute, learn, create value, help others, and so on. On the other hand, spending money on nick-nacks and wine and jet-skis and coffee and pizza are not good choices. Those are short term wins, and long-term losses.
The same goes for buying low-quality items, or not buying certain things in bulk. These choices ‘save money’ short-term but cost more in the long run. This is where small decisions can easily add up to thousands a year, and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime. This is actually how decisions about something as mundane as paper towels end up being very impactful. It’s simply a matter of looking at it with a longer-term view. But it won’t happen if you’re just a player. Players are too busy playing. Coaches on the other hand are always looking for small edges like this – simple decisions that bring long-term success.
Seeing the bigger picture
As a coach we’re able to see the bigger picture, not just our own play. We can see more clearly how our behavior affects those around us, and vice versa. We are able to help others much more effectively, and magnify our own benefits and results by leveraging the power of things like gaps, niches, common ground, opponents’ weaknesses, and the interplay of a wide range of factors including key things like money, relationships, energy, and time.
A real world example: Negotiation is a learnable skill that most people do not bother to learn, primarily because it takes looking at multiple sides of a situation – an outside point of view. Learning to negotiate even small things in life pays tremendous dividends, not just in saving money, although that’s a very real and significant gain. More broadly, negotiation skills are useful in building stronger relationships and partnerships, avoiding difficulties of all kinds, uncovering hidden opportunities, and helping ourselves and others find creative solutions to problems.
Picking up a book or two and learning some basic negotiation skills is well beyond most players’ scope. Typically it’s only done when necessary – to help resolve a short-term conflict/negotiation legally or at work. It’s a skill rarely developed by anyone as a life skill. A coach recognizes that a skill like negotiation is invaluable as part of playing the game with acumen.
Pinpointing and improving weaknesses
As a coach we’re able to honestly assess our own performance, particularly pointing out our own weaknesses. This is a vital skill for improvement, and is nearly impossible for a player to do at a high level. Of course a player can detect their own shortcomings and work on them, but at a very limited level, and typically only in the short-term. Players rarely have the ability to accurately see the full range of their own shortcomings and blind spots. Only the purely objective coach’s view enables that kind of analysis. It’s one of the most important functions of the coach.
A real world example: Most people avoid the doctor if at all possible. And this goes beyond an annual visit – as most people generally avoid looking at a comprehensive picture of their own health. However, they’ll happily dabble in a wide range of diets and exercise programs, and love to cite articles about cutting back on coffee or red meat. But typically the effort stops there.
Dabbling is not a big deal when we’re talking about learning chess or how to use an iPad. But it’s a pretty giant mistake to dabble in a matter as serious as our own physical health. Most people simply don’t take it seriously until it gets serious. Coaches see it clearly, and that’s why they take it very seriously – emphasizing comprehensive nutrition, conditioning, performance and maintenance, and pursuing it with the vigor it deserves.
Gaining distance from emotions
As a coach we can step back from the emotional roller coaster of the ups and downs of each game or play. Granted we all have in our minds the image of the fiery coach on the sidelines, but that’s not what we’re after here. Picture more of a tennis or sprinter’s coach, watching and instructing, taking notes and examining performance. That’s the kind of coach we’re talking about. And while there’s certainly nothing wrong with feeling emotions and passion (we do plenty of that in player mode), as a coach there needs to be calm. A certain separation and removal from emotion is what allows clearer thinking and decision-making. Coaching is the outside view that allows us to step back – creating critical space between emotion, thought and action.
A real world example: Throughout a given day we experience a wide range of emotions and emotional amplitudes, all of which can wreak havoc on clear thinking. Decisions are made throughout the day, on the fly, in all kinds of states of mind – angry, frustrated, tired, overjoyed, optimistic, anxious, you name it. Without the ability to step back even a little from those emotions, clarity is unavailable. So most of the time we make less than ideal decisions.
The coach’s viewpoint provides the space, and clarity rushes in to fill it. In that state of mind we make much better decisions about things like how we reply to inputs from others, how we make money decisions, how thoroughly we think through problems, how much attention we pay to detail, and so on. These things are absolutely critical in determining our outcomes and results, and without clarity to make the best choices we get roughly the same poor results. Coaches take time out to make better decisions.
Nailing down the fundamentals
As a coach we can see how important the fundamentals are. As a player they seem tedious and easy to skip, but a coach knows that the fundamentals are the key to great performance. Players don’t like to spend time on fundamentals and often see them as too simple to matter, and not enjoyable to practice. A coach understands that skills are built from the ground up, like any lasting structure with a strong foundation. A huge number of more advanced skills can be built on top of a strong, wide foundation. Without mastery of the fundamentals our results are inconsistent, hard to predict, and often disappointing.
A real world example: One of the most important fundamental skills is discipline. Without it, it’s hard to build any other lasting skill, because it’s hard to form habits without the discipline to establish them in the first place. And without discipline, it’s no wonder people fail at all kinds of attempts at habit-forming or change. Diets fail, people can’t quit their vices, and New Year’s Resolutions become a running joke. There’s no surprise here – without the fundamental discipline people are destined to fail at these (admirable) attempts to change or transform themselves.
Diet books sell by the billons, books on learning discipline not so much. And while there are certainly are a wide range of reasons for this, it underscores the way we tend to overlook the importance of focusing on the hard, tedious, boring, and absolutely critical things called fundamentals.
Finally, it’s important to note that when we add the coach mindset, we don’t surrender the benefits of being a player – we simply add another layer to our life. We still experience the full range of emotions, challenges, pride, passion, and victories of a player. But when we also act as our own coach, we introduce a hugely beneficial a layer of objectivity, analysis, and calm into our lives, and it completely changes the game – and our results.
Difficult situations always offer lessons, but the most valuable ones lie a bit deeper.
When a hurdle arises, we tend to talk about the easy-to-see surface lessons – patience, compassion, perseverance, and so on. And while those certainly have importance, they can mask more important lessons – powerful and actionable changes in approach that can produce dramatic differences in outcomes.
Lesson 1 – Probability
Accidents happen, and that’s just a fact of life. Right?
Actually, no, not right. Accidents are wholly preventable – just ask the companies who spend millions reducing accidents in the workplace. There is an entire industry of professionals whose job is to do exactly that – foresee and prevent accidents. It’s a science and a methodology, not chance or luck.
Just because we’re not controlling our own behaviors doesn’t mean life is inherently a random crapshoot. Walking through a forest with a blindfold on, and then declaring “bumping into trees is just part of walking through the woods” is foolish and incorrect – and completely preventable.
The vast majority of difficult situations we encounter in life are preventable. Prevention is really a matter of the basics – awareness, diligence, maintenance, and planning. A lot of it is in the user manuals most people don’t bother to read, or in basic How-To books. Ignoring those things, not taking proper steps, is like putting on the blindfold and then walking into the forest.
Of course there’s always a chance of an accident despite our best efforts. What we’re talking about here is Probability. Most people only do the bare minimum to avoid accidents or trouble, and then when an accident does happen they chock it up to the inherent risk of living.
The reality is that two people can use a chainsaw side by side and depending on what approach they have taken, one may have a 22% chance of an accident while the other has a 2% chance. Yes they both technically have a ‘chance’ of getting hurt using a chainsaw, and either one could have an accident (or walk away unharmed) on any particular day, but their probabilities are dramatically different. And these differences aren’t always visible, like one wearing safety gear and the other not. Instead it could simply be that one has a first aid kit and cellphone nearby in the unlikely event of an accident.
Often with just a little foresight and a few simple actions, we can dramatically change our probability of accidents occurring, and their impact. Doing the bare minimum (or less), and falling back on the stance that ‘accidents happen’ is an active blindness to the reality of how accidents work. Accidents are mechanical in nature, and therefore prevention and probability (and reduction of severity), are all well within our control.
That said, there are things – commonly called ‘Acts of God’ – that are not foreseeable or preventable. These are things like the drunk driver crossing the median, a falling object, genetic cancers and diseases, and so on. We all understand they are just part of the deal. But even in these situations there are still ways to avoid them or reduce their impact – wearing seatbelts, building a healthy immune system, early testing/detection, avoidance of certain behaviors, etc that can help us overcome even these seemingly random happenings. This is true in some cases but not all.
Regardless, all we can ever do is focus on what is avoidable, preventable, or reducible in impact. Including these ‘Acts of God’ into the overall picture of risk, as ‘proof’ of the tenuous control over our fate, is a common way to self-deceive and shirk responsibility for what we actually can control.
Think through an activity, don’t just rush into it. Imagine a few ‘sideways’ possibilities and plan for them. Read (or at least skim) the manual. Keep your property, equipment, and body well maintained. Don’t ignore the warning signs. But mostly, take responsibility for your own outcomes – assume it will go perfectly, but be sure to plan as if it will not.
Lesson 2 – Adaptation
Reacting to an unfortunate event is natural. Bees work to plug the hole in a nest, white blood cells rush to the site of an injury, the troops rally. That’s natural. But it’s also not a great way to deal with a crisis, mentally. Wanting to ‘return to normal’ to put things back to the way they were, sets up an immediate conflict in the brain. Conflict creates pain and frustration. As a result, we can end up tapping a lot of our resources in simply wrestling with the problem internally/mentally, versus actually resolving it. Worry, frustration, impatience, fear, mental anguish, etc are exhausting, and especially in a crisis they use up vast amounts of energy that are better served in focusing on (positive) steps and solutions.
The most successful people adapt. They immediately accept the problem as fact, decide that this new situation is now the new reality, and then work from that place of strength and calm to work toward a desired outcome.
The biggest benefits of this switch in mindset are in keeping both panic and despondency at bay. Accepting a new situation, even something as shocking as falling into icy water, can make the difference between life and death. It’s the inability to adapt to this new situation that has the body rush to fight against it – to panic. The quicker we can accept it, the quicker we can use our full resources to get busy working on our new goal – getting out of there.
Over the longer-term, despondency and depression can take hold if we are unable to adapt to a new (difficult) situation. Adaptation becomes critical in allowing the brain to move on from its own pity party and starting to work on solutions and even coping mechanisms for dealing with the new reality. A shift from negative to positive is critical in long-term endurance of a difficult circumstance, and that process begins with acceptance and adaptation.
Staying in reactive mode keeps the brain hoping day after day that the external reality will change. That’s not a realistic plan or successful strategy. The change has to come from within, and the external circumstances that we cannot change are allowed to be. Then from there we can use a positive attitude to affect change and move toward our desired outcomes.
Lesson 3 – Positivity
Lastly, and this is often overstated or made to sound pollyanna, but having a positive attitude and approach is critical. It becomes even more critical when the chips are down.
Our problems are often intertwined in dealing with other people, and being positive in those interactions pays massive dividends toward reaching your goals. A smile and a polite request is orders of magnitude more effective than a scowl and a demand. And even strong negotiation is best conducted with a calm demeanor and with the others’ point of view foremost in mind.
Sure, it’s not easy to keep smiling when things are not the way you want them to be, but that changes when you widen your perspective. We tend to get negative only when we focus on a small field of view, a momentary disappointment or difficult person/situation, right now. But when we take a moment to step back from it and put it in perspective a few things happen:
a. We remember how lucky we are to be alive
b. We remember how things could always be worse
c. We remember how this is just one small or temporary chapter in our lives
And it’s interesting how well the word ‘remember’ fits here, because we say it like we’ve forgotten. It’s often that simple, we’ve forgotten or lost sight of the bigger picture. In all except the most extreme circumstances, life is better than death, so that alone is a pretty important thing to remember. If we’re alive, we’re way ahead on the ‘good-bad’ scale, and that’s critical to keep in mind.
The same goes for severity of an occurrence. There are always worse scenarios than the ones we are typically faced with. The vast majority of the time the issues we are dealing with – even serious ones – are blown way out of proportion. They are often small and we’re making them big. It’s always good to keep in mind that everyone faces difficulty, and it’s very likely that others have overcome much greater odds. That should serve as both solace and inspiration.
And that brings us to the final point, that usually the difficulties we’re facing are short-lived and small. That’s not always true, but even in those more extreme circumstances we have all the ability in the world to make them feel small and short-lived. After all, life itself is short and fleeting, and we can always decide to be bigger than our problems.
Even in extreme situations facing the most dire conditions, the most successful people are those who use positivity to bolster internal strength and affect external change. All of our most heralded heroes and historical leaders are the embodiment of exactly that lesson. Surely we can learn how to use it in the daily struggles and difficulties in our own lives.
These are many lessons that come from facing difficult circumstances, but they’re clearly different than what tends to be the lasting impression in our minds.
Typically what lasts is just the dramatic story, often with an emphasis on the negative highlights, and an overall feeling of simply having ‘gotten through it’, perhaps with a tip of the cap to our own efforts or internal fortitude. We file it away for later telling over a glass of wine, adding it to our hero’s life story, having triumphantly overcome another one of life’s difficulties.
But the real value is in how the event can make us better, and in actually implementing the real lessons it has to offer.
When we think of shock absorbers, we picture a car on bumpy road, but shock absorbers are all around us.
Our own body comes with many versions – from the cushions in our joints to the layers of skin that buffer and protect us from the environment.
Everything employs some kind of buffer in response to its environment. Animals have fur, feathers, and scales. Pupils tighten in direct sunlight, skyscrapers are built to flex with the wind (so are trees), and every material on the planet absorbs heat and cools down gradually, so as not to destroy its own structure as external temperature changes.
Shock absorbers are critical to a successful life.
Life Without Shock Absorbers
Being in direct contact with the ups and downs of an external stimulus or environment can be very painful and upsetting. Think a wagon with wooden wheels on a rocky road – bone-jarring. Life is a rocky road for us human beings, presenting us with a continuous stream of big and small challenges, emotions, decisions, and pressures. And while many of these are self-created, they still have to be dealt with. And there are plenty of life events that are beyond our control or hard to see coming. And if we’re not prepared for them, they can cause serious pain and disruption in our lives. When we don’t have enough shock absorbers in place, life can be extremely hard to deal with, unpredictable, and a very bumpy road.
Often our reaction to the bumpy road of life is to look for a smoother road. And no doubt there are smoother roads available. Taking fewer risks is a smoother road. Not putting the effort into ‘steering’ in life is a smoother road (at least it seems…). Avoiding discomfort and running from emotions is a smoother road.
The problem is that the smoother road is never better. It’s always just delaying pain or transferring it elsewhere. Not dealing with emotions is smoother, yes, but it eventually crushes relationships, keeps businesses struggling, or our health poor. These roads are smoother, but they do not get us to where we want to go. That’s the tradeoff. The road to success – the road we all want to be on at our most core level – is bumpy. All other roads are smoother, but they never get us there. So it’ll be a smoother ride for a while, until we realize we never got where we really wanted to go. That’s a big bump at the end.
Life With Shock Absorbers
The good news is that we can stay on the right road, we don’t have to change roads at all. Instead, we can simply build shock absorbers. Just as nature shows us, we can become flexible, we can respond better to our environment, and we can do this in so many ways:
- We can train our minds to react with more flexibility to emotions and impulses
- We can become fit to better fight the effects of aging
- We can build healthy eating habits to fight disease
- We can build good financial habits to build wealth, which can buffer a huge range of life’s small ups and downs
- We can strengthen relationships to weather stresses and challenges with grace
- We can maintain and organize our physical world to be ready for action
- We can visualize and prepare for potential challenges with planning
- We can learn to think positively to make better decisions
- We can continuously learn so that we’re prepared for life as it evolves
And the list goes on and on. In fact, any list of ‘habits of successful people’ is basically this list – a list of how they build shock absorbers.
Money is an Effective Shock Absorber
The most simple example of shock absorbers in life is money. We even use term ‘cushion’ to describe how money can buffer us from life’s bumps. Having a cushion makes a huge difference, and that’s the reason why money is so tightly woven with the term ‘success’. It’s not because the pursuit of money itself indicates success, but instead it’s the recognition that money is a very effective shock absorber. Money is not necessary to live a successful life, but shock absorbers are. Of course other shock absorbers are just as important to success – mental flexibility, positivity, solid physical health, living mindfully, having purpose, self-mastery, and the list goes on. But money tends to be a whole lot easier to obtain than those skills, although you wouldn’t know it from most bank accounts.
A Little Goes a Long Way
With a small bank account, as with having low reserves in those other important shock absorbing areas, we take life’s direct impact, feeling every minor bump, upsetting our journey. It’s no wonder so many people feel so bumped and bruised by life – they have no shock absorbers to soften the blow. And in looking for relief they move to a smoother road.
With some shock absorbers in place we still experience life’s ups-n-downs, but instead of jarring and disruptive they can actually be smooth and fun. We can even enjoy the downturns – the dips – seeing them as just another part of this sometimes unpredictable road we’re lucky to get to travel.
A little more patience, a little more discipline, a little better money management, a little better health, a little more mindfulness, a little more effort, a little more planning…just a little goes a long way in smoothing out life’s bumps.
As a wise man once said…’don’t wish it were easier, wish you were better’.
We’re not in control of something until we write it down.
Shopping lists, written budgets, goals for the year, maintenance checklists, resumes, journals, accounting, systems, blogs…they’re all a form of either expressing or gaining control over our behavior and our lives.
Writing things down is really our greatest superpower. It’s uniquely human, because it’s a way of showing separation from our actions and even our own thoughts. It’s the ability to hover over ourselves and watch and change what we do. It allows us to reflect, govern, control, predict, and create our own outcomes. It allows us to transcend time, recording the past and predicting the future. It’s quite god-like in fact.
Paying Attention Pays Off
The big gain from writing things down is giving it our attention. When we put our attention on something, we make it better. That’s just how it works. Our brains are thunderously powerful problem-solving organic computers, so once we point it in a direction, it will get busy trying to create connections, looking for ways to solve conflicts, and turning things toward our desired outcomes. So by starting to track something – outside of our brain – we will automatically begin to improve it.
If you want to improve at something, write it down. Count calories, track exercise, keep a stress journal, record accomplishments at a job, document how things work in a business, capture bills and spending.
Even ‘soft’ things in life improve with a little documenting. Keep track of important dates in loved ones and friends lives, surprise them with a note reminding them of it, and watch how that improves relationships small ways. Plan special weekends, budget for and track exciting upcoming events/vacations, take a (written) note when a loved one says they ‘love’ something, and put it on a shopping list and surprise them with it.
It Becomes an Object
Writing things down introduces objectivity. We can all see things better when we’re looking at them from a distance. That’s why we have mirrors in dressing rooms.
The root word object is the key. It’s about stepping away from something, an object, that we can then observe and analyze separately. In fact, when the word is used in a different way “Your honor I OBJECT!” we may think it’s a different definition, but it’s not. I OBJECT or ‘throw this away’ or ‘stand apart from this’. When we write something down it becomes an object, something we stand apart from. That’s why it brings clarity.
Analysis Takes Courage
Often we’re surprised when we finally write something down and look at it. We didn’t realize how far off our predictions were, or how big or small it turns out to be, or how often or infrequently we do something.
Analysis shows us the mistakes we’re making and often how far off our personal storytelling is from reality. It can be eye-opening, and humbling, but invaluable. It takes courage to look reality in the face, which is why most people avoid it at all costs. Usually the excuse is that it takes too much time (it doesn’t, it saves tremendous amounts of time by allowing us insight into how to focus our time and energy), or that it’s too tedious (it can take discipline and patience, but very little – and less the more we do it). But those are just excuses to avoid looking at our lives and seeing our own shortcomings, and being confronted with having to make changes to improve ourselves. Scary stuff, no doubt. Truth is daunting.
The great power built into writing things down and looking at the information is that it allows us to imagine changes without having to learn from multiple mistakes over a long period of time. By reorganizing a shopping list or a budget, or thinking through how to reach a goal faster, we can make these changes on paper (or digitally of course). We can propose changes to our behavior without actually having to change our behavior, and then see how that affects things. What if I buy everything in bulk? What if I exercise for 10 minutes more per day? What if I save 15% instead of 10%? What if I helped this person?
This is perhaps the most important and amazing part of writing things down. We can play with it like a model, a blueprint that we can mark up and erase and re-draw, imagining how the result might look. And only then do we take action, with a purpose and a reason. We don’t waste time and energy just going about things randomly, taking guesses as to the effects of actions, unsure exactly how things are related or how things may dramatically change if we made small change in the right area(s).
Almost without fail, when we write something down and analyze it, we realize we’ve been making poor assumptions, going about things in completely the wrong way, or at the very least wasting our time. There’s no sense fumbling and guessing through life that way, when a little written information can help us see reality and make more clear decisions with much better results. Don’t let fear do that to you.
Make It Happen
Often the sentiment is that writing things down in life or business is too regimented. “I don’t work that way” people say. No, only the successful work that way. When we do things in a more “carefree” , non-regimented way, we get poor/average results – often random and difficult to deal with, which means we spend a good portion of our life managing our little problems, decreeing “that’s life” and not finding a moment (actually the courage) to analyze our life and make better decisions.
Regimented is an interesting word. The root is Latin ‘reg’, to organize, which means ‘to construct’, or ‘make’. Make has its root in the word ‘fit’, as in to ‘fit life’. So it actually means becoming more in sync, more harmonious with how the world actually works.
So that’s what writing things down is all about – looking at our own behaviors, thoughts, and actions, and looking at them from a little distance to see how they really stack up to reality, with the aim of better aligning them to get desired results. And given how easy it is to take a few moments to jot down a journal entry, document a change to a maintenance checklist, or update a budget, the rewards are exponential in return.
That’s the power of simply writing things down – the power of looking at reality and making decisions that move us effectively and efficiently toward where we’d like to go and the life we want to live. The alternative, the default, is to stumble through a fog of personal stories, poor assumptions, and one-liner decrees about life (“I’m doing my best”) which are not at all true, and ultimately keep us pinned down by life’s challenges. Which sounds like the more free way to live?
Watch what happens
But don’t take my word for it, try it. Pick anything that you’re having trouble with or dealing with, and start writing it down. Start tracking it, looking at it separately, and see what happens. Watch it improve. Watch your insight grow, and the solution start to emerge, whether directly or through another agent that you never imagined was related. Everything gets better when you simply start writing it down.
We already know WHAT to do.
We know what we need to do in order to get in shape and generally take good care of our bodies.
We know what we should do to keep our mental and emotional health in good order.
We know what we should do in terms of treating others and approaching life to have healthy relationships and be happy.
We know what we should do with money, and with our car, and our homes, and our computers, our appliances, and our furnishings to keep them all in good working order.
We know it all. And if we don’t know, it’s easy to find out.
The ‘what’ is not a problem. And, the ‘doing’ is not the problem either. People do these things all the time – they exercise, they manage relationships, money, work. People don’t neglect their finances because the raw physical activity of typing numbers, or filing receipts, is too challenging.
The challenging part is learning HOW to do it. How often, how hard, how soft, how efficiently, how precise, how…when you don’t feel like it, how…when the going gets tough, how….when you can’t envision the reward.
The how is the key. And the how is simply learning and practicing these skills:
Discipline is the master skill. It is required in getting started, staying on track, and keeping the right (positive) attitude and perspective. We call it discipline, but it’s a bunch of micro-skills working together…self-control, will, motivation, perspective, happiness, toughness, self-compassion, vision, and probably a dozen other mental micro-skills and traits that make it up. It’s essential, so it’s the most important skill to learn and practice.
Focus is key in channeling energy in the right amounts. Again, it’s a skill to learn, not something that comes naturally – at least not without a big rush of adrenaline in an emergency situation for example. Focusing on maintaining your refrigerator is not something we are genetically coded with. And focus is limited, so learning focus is about learning how to precisely apply and govern our attention and energy. What gets our attention, how much of it, with what energy level, and when.
Effectiveness goes hand in hand with focus, and acts as the command and control of focus. Effectiveness is about balancing planning with doing. Effectiveness is the tree you climb along the trail to make sure you’re taking the smartest, easiest, most logical and direct path. Effectiveness is the skill of balancing energy with direction, knowing when to apply the brakes, when to stop, and when to pour it on. Without it, focus and discipline are wastes of time and energy. Summoning all of your discipline and focus to keep sailing onward day after day is wonderful…unless you’re sailing in the wrong direction.
Habits, or habit-forming, is a simple skill, but is practiced only by the advanced. Habits are extremely powerful, allowing us to rapidly outsource difficult physical and mental tasks to our automatic systems. There they become nearly effortless force multipliers. They are the whole driving power behind significant, lasting change and progress. Habit-forming is self-programming, turning simple daily actions into powerful long-term results.
The beauty of these skills is that they are universal. The how skills apply to everything, from optimizing health, to growing wealth, to getting an extra 50,000 miles out of your car, to growing better tomatoes in your garden. Whatever the valuable end goal may be, it can be done by learning and practicing these simple skills.
The how skills allow you to transform your desires into accomplishments.
As human beings we’re too emotional, and that causes nearly all of our problems.
That goes for all problems big and small – everything from war to weight gain is linked to emotion. It’s our over-emotion that drives us to run to comfort, to lash out, or avoid things we know we should be doing.
But first, let’s acknowledge that emotion is also incredible and important. Our feelings – joy in watching a child at play, a sunset on a summer evening, pride in a job well done, the excitement of a big sporting event, or the quiet of a snowy day, these are all things that we long for. So we welcome positive emotions, and we look for them all the time, often attaching them to events like these. And they do feel good – arguably the best moments of our lives – and there is certainly no need to tamp them down or purposely feel them ‘less’ in an effort to get emotion under control.
On the other hand, there’s no need to build up these moments as if they’re so overly special either. It’s absolutely possible to feel the peace of a sunset on a dreary, rainy day in a city. It’s also possible to feel excitement and overjoyed just walking down an empty road. Having control over your emotions, even positive emotions, only brings more joy and happiness, not less. You live MORE not less.
In fact, lots of people chase the constant rush of an emotional high (drug or adrenaline) their entire lives, and they do arguably experience the absolute highest of highs, and yet their lives are often less well-lived than most.
So, of course positive emotions need not be tempered. However, a healthier view can be adopted that sees all emotion as an internal creation, and not something that comes fleetingly and beyond our control. Learning to master positive emotion means that we can feel joy and peace any time we choose, doing anything we’re doing, at any moment. But that takes practice, and learning control.
Like the best race driver, it’s not just pure unchecked speed, but control of that speed which gets them the best results. Control over that energy and power – allowing it to flow, but with the bigger picture in mind – always looking for ways to find more while keeping it in perspective – is an important part of living better.
The bigger issue is that most of our thinking is negative. Simple brain mechanics. Our genetics are those of prey animals, and therefore we are always on guard for danger. And these days the most common, everyday ‘threats’ are to our peace of mind, our ego, and our feelings. So we’re always very sharply tuned for slights from others, disappointment, annoyance, and difficulty. We’re constantly trying to avoid ‘problems’, all day long. And while all the books say “see problems as opportunities”, that’s difficult to do. Regardless of your level of maturity it takes serious practice to genuinely see a flat tire as an ‘opportunity’. Very very few ever get there, and most never try.
But one thing that can be done, without any practice and very little effort, is to simply remove some emotion from your day. Just observe your thoughts as you go about your day, hear yourself talking about what this or that means, especially trigger words like “should, shouldn’t, need, can’t, won’t”, etc. You’ll be surprised just how much emotion you bring to every little thing you do, and everything people say to you.
If you step back just a bit you might see yourself adding that layer of storytelling to your life, and you’ll see that’s where you’ve inserted unhappiness, disappointment, worry, or stress where none actually exists.
Start with one thing that bugs you tomorrow, and catch yourself in that moment. Think through how that ‘problem’ could be solved if you simply went about it as if your feelings weren’t important or even part of it at all.
If something breaks, just fix it, or call someone to fix it, or borrow another one, or go without it. Why would we become personally unhappy simply because we broke a belt on a vacuum, for example? Seems pretty silly to add an emotional story or personal component to something like that, especially given our limited time in this life.
Here we are spinning around on an enormous rock in the vastness of space, in a universe that we don’t even understand…maybe the smartest thing to do is simply order a new belt, and keep on smiling as if we were watching a beautiful sunset.
Most people understand ‘time is valuable’ in theory, but they not to apply it in their daily lives.
However, the few who embrace it wholeheartedly make their lives extraordinary.
Time really applies to our lives in two ways:
- Longer-term planning.
- Effective use of daily time.
These two pieces go hand in hand. Without planning or top-level decisions about time and priorities, we never know what the best use of our time is on a daily basis.
And without attention to how we use our time every day, we can never realize our plans or make progress toward our goals.
What a life without longer-term planning looks like…
Most people drift along in life without a plan, often sprinkling in some short-term goals like paying off a debt or changing a job. There isn’t any progress or growth beyond sporadic, small milestones to define one year from the next. “Last year we took a trip”, “this year we bought a car”, “next year we’ll paint the house”. In this way our lives are essentially like waves lapping the shore, repeating over and over. The years may look or feel a little different each time, bigger or smaller, crashing louder or softer, but they are basically waves on a beach when we have this mindset.
Without longer-term planning or goals, procrastination reigns, as there’s no urgency tied to life’s real deadline – our expiration date. The days just continue to loop over and over, so really what’s the difference between doing it today or in a few days…they’re all pretty much the same day anyway (with a different name).
Without a roadmap, life comes at us, often in unforeseen and tragic ways. And it’s not just the big stuff – small problems happen more often when we have no longer-term view. Things are neglected, and simple problems that could have been avoided are not.
Life without a longer-term plan or decision-making often sounds like a list of temporary updates by frightened people. “The weather is okay today”. “I feel okay today”. “Things are good right now”. Until a disturbance comes along…and then it’s all about trying to get back to ‘normal’ again…waves crash and recede….
What a life WITH longer term planning looks like…
The purpose of top-level, longer-term planning or decision-making is to define how we want to live our lives. And when we actually define our desired outcomes in life – specifically, not vaguely – it’s 1000% more likely that we will get the results we want.
Rather than a daily/weekly/yearly cycle, life becomes a straight-line continuous process, each day a further step along in a journey toward a defined destination. Obstacles are faced and overcome with a purpose, not a desire to revert back to some normal state.
And since long-term planning requires looking ahead, challenges are anticipated. Tools, resources, bodies, minds, relationships, ideas, are all vital in order to get where we’re going, and therefore they are well cared for – well-maintained rather than neglected. This results in fewer problems of any kind – big or small. And when obstacles do arise as expected, we’re prepared (and have a reason) to not only resolve them quickly – but learn from them so as not to repeat them. Problems themselves are seen with a longer-term view, and we get better and better at rising to challenges. This allows us to reach for bigger goals. In this way, problems themselves ENABLE progress, rather than hinder it.
What a life without effective use of our daily time looks like…
How we spend our days is really where the rubber meets the road in life. Goals and planning can seem lofty and hard to get our arms around, but everyone can answer the question “how was your day?”. And the answer to that question – even the asking of it – is rooted in the cyclical mindset. How was today different than yesterday? Certainly tasks were completed, chores done. Perhaps some progress was made on a short-term goal or two. But without a direct tie to a longer-term plan, we always end up spending time on things that do not matter. What’s worse, that’s time we have forever surrendered being able to spend on things that DO matter.
Keep in mind that this is not about spending time on things of value, like work, family or health. This is an important distinction. For example, a business-owner spending time working at their place of business is time spent with value, for sure. But it’s far from the smartest, most effective way to spend their time. They are much better off working ON the business itself, helping it grow and succeed longer-term.
Take personal finance. Clipping coupons is arguably a valuable way to spend time. However, tracking spending in a budget or planning investments is a vastly more effective way to spend time if your goal is to increase your bottom line.
So it’s not just about spending time on things that are of value to you. That’s important, but it’s not nearly as important as doing the ‘right’ things if you’re interested in getting where you want to go in life. The best use of time does both – focuses on important things, and does them smartly, even on a moment-to-moment basis, in order to get the results we want in life. And since our reality is that we have a fixed amount of time in which to live, it makes sense then that the best use of our time is an effective use of our time – directed at moving us closer toward the life we wish to live, not further from it. And those are the only two directions.
What a life WITH effective use of our daily time looks like…
An effective day is a thoughtful day, with activities in sync with our longer-term goals, and plenty of flexibility for exploring, ideas, and room for life to unfold.
This means looking at each new day as a chance to continue the next steps along our journey, with time to enjoy and take pictures along the way. It’s about plotting a course, taking the wheel, allowing for course corrections along the way, and keeping our eyes on the destination in the distance.
It certainly doesn’t mean that you have control over everything in your life. But it does mean that you take control of what you CAN control – which is actually an amazing number of things (here are just a quick 50).
Living right now
It’s all about connecting our daily actions with our longer-term goals. Without a goal or purpose, there is no growth, and life without growth is very hard to distinguish from simply running out the clock.
Of course life is not about living only for the future. Life is lived in the now. But, it’s also true that our ‘now’ is something that is continually being redefined by our actions. Spend all of our money ‘now’ and very soon our ‘now’ will be all about figuring out how to live with no money! And on the other end of the spectrum, time is just as foolishly spent solely in pursuit of long-term wealth and dying from exhaustion one day with a billion $ in the bank.
There is obviously a balance. But, the best balance is skewed more long-term. This is because life unfolds forward, and because we have a hard time seeing time in our lives. Time is just a concept, and an elusive one at best. “Time flies”, “Would you look at the time?”, “Where did the time go?”. And the mechanisms that rule our lives are just as elusive and hidden – a year’s worth of choosing a donut instead of an apple, 10 years of ignoring that lump, 20 years of not getting around to reading a book to improve a skill. These things all catch up to us without much notice.
The great secret here is that while just a little neglect and short-term thinking can have a (negative) impact, it also takes very little in the way of improving focus, planning, and effective daily life to realize exponential jumps in results, in a very short period of time.
In fact, a real winning strategy would be learn to align your daily choices with what brings you both long-term results and short-term happiness. Love exercising. Love eating healthy foods. Love spending time growing with family/friends. Love your work. Love learning. Love doing the laundry. Love paying taxes. Love everything you do, every day. And if you can do that, you have truly learned to live every moment of your life.
Man is made or unmade by himself.
In the armory of thoughts he forges the weapons by which he destroys himself. He also fashions the tools with which he builds for himself heavenly mansions of joy, and strength, and peace.
Man holds the key to every situation, and contains within himself that transforming and regenerative agency by which he may make himself what he wills.
There’s an invisible thread behind almost all stress and tepid results in life, and that is our nearly universal tendency to avoid decisions.
Allowing things to remain ‘open-ended’ and unresolved – both minor and major things – results in a life that is unpredictable, pockmarked with stress, and produces mediocre results across the board.
When we don’t make decisions about things in our life, some critical things happen:
It generates the bulk of our stress
Having things unresolved in our lives, especially having many things unresolved at once (very common), is the greatest source of stress in our lives. These are the things we worry about. They’re the things we imagine going wrong, that we over-inflate in importance, and that we internally struggle with. Money issues, health problems, unresolved conflicts, unorganized to-do lists, people problems, things in need of repair, etc, etc. That’s the whole gamut of things that eat away at happiness and peace.
It means things don’t happen
Usually when we fail to make decisions, things simply don’t get done. If you never get around to planning your retirement or going to the doctor or writing that letter or changing that habit, then guess what…it won’t happen. So you actually have made a decision – not to do it. But, in your mind you’re keeping the possibility open that it might happen. That’s just a recipe for self-disappointment. It’s no different than deciding not to walk forward but keeping the possibility open that you’ll somehow arrive 50 feet further ahead. The world doesn’t work that way. Steps are required, and first must come the decision to take those steps.
It causes other problems
When we don’t make decisions, we open ourselves up to all kind of unforeseen consequences. Failing to decide about a career, or a move, or a relationship keeps us clinging to a bad situation. Failing to make decisions about our health and wealth often ends up causing great pain and hardship later in life, not just for us but for our friends and family. We see it in others, and in society as a whole, so many things left unattended, undecided, and they almost never magically work out for the best. Why would that be different in our own lives?
It allows us to escape responsibility
Perhaps the most damaging effect of avoiding decisions is that it creates a very heavy wall of self-deception. Leaving something undecided – take for example our finances – actually means we have decided…to not take responsibility for our finances. The economy will continue to operate and affect us, so we haven’t opted-out of anything by opting-out of the decision to take control of what we can control. Think of it like taking our hands off the steering wheel. The accident that’s coming is our responsibility. We can’t say to the police officer “I wasn’t making any driving decisions, so it wasn’t my fault”. It IS our fault. It’s our responsibility. So by failing to make decisions we are actually just trying to avoid responsibility for the outcomes.
Why do we avoid big decisions?
Because we’re afraid. If we say we’re going to take control of our finances or our health, we’re ‘on the hook’ for the outcome. That means there’s a chance we’ll fail and feel bad or look bad. That’s all we’re trying to avoid, when it comes down to it. We all want good health, and money to have some comfort and freedom, and good relationships, happiness and inner peace, successful pursuits, freedom from bad habits, and so on. But yet we’re frightened of saying we’ve decided to do those things well. We’re so afraid of actually deciding to make those things happen that we often just don’t. And that’s a tough realization.
Why do we avoid small decisions?
What’s less apparent is how avoiding decisions on small things affects our lives. Our daily procrastinations – failing to carry out tasks that sit forever on a to-do list, avoiding a decision about selling an item, leaving bills for later, and so on…these things eat away at our lives. And it’s not just procrastination, it’s also simple choices we could make right now that we instead leave wide open. Often it’s under the guise of ‘being free’, but it actually ends up stealing our time and freedom, stealing our ability to pursue meaningful things.
So how do we change this?
Start with the little things…decide on what kind of coffee you like best and buy it from now on. Make grocery lists and then go buy just the items on the list – don’t waste time staring at endless rows of colorful boxes and cans. And while you’re at it, make a Christmas shopping list and just go buy the items on it. Choose what kind of shoes/jeans/toothpaste/seltzer you like, and buy only those. And then if you suddenly decide you like something else, completely change and buy the new brand! But make decisions. Choose and go forward. If they’re small decisions, the consequences of getting it wrong are just as small. And you can always change if you decide you want something different.
And then move on to the big things…decide to take great care of your health. Choose to remove all of your bad habits. Decide what you’d love to do in life, and then decide to do just that. Take time right now to determine what’s important to you in terms of health, wealth, and happiness, and then decide to do it. And just as importantly determine what’s NOT important and remove those from your choices and your to-do list. Then you’ll understand what real freedom feels like.
Our ability to make decisions in life about what we want – the ability to choose our own path – is our greatest gift. And when we’re bold enough to actually do it, we have decided to finally live.
Usually when we think of patience, we think of a person waiting quietly in a long line, or being very tolerant around a rambunctious child or puppy.
And it’s true those are examples of patience. It suggests that the person has a level of inner calm. But that’s an outward appearance, and doesn’t reveal how widely that person applies patience in other areas in their life. Further, it doesn’t tell you whether someone is actually upset at a deeper level, and is just good at burying it publicly – only to have to deal with it later in private. Many people practice patience in public only to have to ‘unwind’ later in private. Learning to get good at being frustrated is not patience.
What is patience?
Here’s the definition of patience: the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.
So, patience is not about learning how to hold our temper when we’re upset. It’s about actually gaining the ability accept things – say, life – without getting upset. Patience is a learnable skill, and it’s the foundation of most of the key elements in living life better.
Of course, outward patience is important. We’re human beings and it’s important to master an outward patience socially and with relationships. That’s a skill that’s primarily a product of negative feedback – we do it because we learn that losing our cool makes us look foolish, and can have a range of undesired consequences.
But really where patience has the biggest impact is not outward, but internally in our everyday lives. The capacity to accept discomfort in a variety of seemingly small ways – internally – is where patience makes the biggest difference.
10 key areas where patience makes a big difference
The patience of priority
The ability to do what’s most important first, versus just ‘getting stuff done’. Learning to endure the discomfort of not feeling productive, not getting small wins or immediate gratification.
The patience of resilience
Sticking to it, with faith in a long-term outcome, versus giving up when you don’t see quick results. Learning to endure the discomfort of continuing to move forward with slow progress or setbacks.
The patience of focus
Giving one thing at a time your full attention, versus being pulled in all directions. Learning to endure the discomfort of feeling you’re not doing enough, not getting everything done that you need to get done.
The patience of detail
Doing high quality work, versus taking shortcuts just to get it done. Learning to endure the discomfort of doing seemingly tedious or unnecessary work.
The patience of planning
Thinking things through, versus ignoring the future. Learning to endure the discomfort of having to think and forecast, instead of acting now and getting an immediate reward.
The patience of proof
Seeking out and sorting through information, versus making assumptions. Learning to endure the discomfort of allowing things to be unknown and unresolved until you have all the facts.
The patience of solutions
Pursuing strong, creative solutions to problems, versus plugging in simple fixes. Learning to endure the discomfort of thinking differently, delaying a solution, and even failures before long-term success.
The patience of commitments
Sticking to a promise to yourself or others, versus allowing yourself excuses. Learning to endure the discomfort of staying on course regardless of changes in situation or new obstacles.
The patience of learning
Continually improving, versus assuming you know enough. Learning to endure the discomfort of admitting you are ignorant, and spending time learning to be better.
The patience of openness
Changing, versus being fixed. Learning to endure the discomfort of abandoning some beliefs, and creating new habits and behaviors.
Isn’t it the same as willpower?
No, but it’s in the same family. Willpower is the ability to power through and achieve a desired result. With willpower, you push on even though you might be upset. In fact, those emotions often drive the outcome. Patience is softer. Patience exhibits the same control and strength as willpower, but without the furrowed brow. That is what makes it much more sustainable, and a positive force that builds on itself. Willpower pushes, patience pulls.
Patience is ‘willpower with a smile’, and developing it as core inner skill is critical to living a better life.