It never ceases to amaze me when I’m faced with the reality of how easily I lose sight of the truth – I catch myself stressing out over something silly, even though I know better. And I know I’m not alone in my forgetfulness. So much happens in our lives – so much chaos and distraction – that we often forget the important things we learned long ago. Busy days and demanding obligations have a tendency to put our minds on autopilot, making us more reactive and less mindful every step of the way.
Therefore, some of life’s most important lessons need to be reviewed to be remembered.
Keep this short list handy and give it a read any time you catch yourself in one of those inevitable, forgetful moments of stress and frustration…
1. You can’t lift a thousand pounds all at once. Yet you can easily lift one pound a thousand times. Tiny, repeated efforts will get you there.
Have you ever felt incredibly overwhelmed?
Well then, it’s time for a quick story about life…
Once upon a time there was a woman who had been lost in the desert for three whole days without water. Just as she was about to collapse, she saw what appeared to be a lake just a few hundred yards in front of her. “Could it be? Or is it just a mirage?” she thought to herself.
With the last bit of strength she could muster, she staggered toward the lake and quickly learned that her prayers had been answered: it was no mirage – it was indeed a large, spring-fed lake full of fresh water – more fresh water than she could ever drink in her lifetime. Yet while she was literally dying of thirst, she couldn’t bring herself to drink the water. She simply stood by the water’s edge and stared down at it.
There was a passerby riding on a camel from a nearby desert town who was watching the woman’s bizarre behavior. He got off his camel, walked up to the thirsty woman and asked, “Why don’t you have a drink, ma’am?”
She looked up at the man with an exhausted, distraught expression across her face and tears welling up in her eyes. “I am dying of thirst,” she said, “But there is way too much water here in this lake to drink. No matter what I do, I can’t possibly finish it all.”
The passerby smiled, bent down, scooped some water up with his hands, lifted it to the woman’s mouth and said, “Ma’am, your opportunity right now, and as you move forward throughout the rest of your life, is to understand that you don’t have to drink the whole lake to quench your thirst. You can simply take one sip. Just one small sip… and then another if you choose. Focus only on the mouthful in front of you, and all your anxiety, fear and overwhelm about the rest will gradually fade.”
Take this story to heart. Let it sink in…
And then challenge yourself throughout the day to focus solely on the sip (task, step, etc.) you’re actually taking.
Honestly, that’s all life is – small, positive actions that you take moment by moment, and then one day when you look back it all adds up to something worthwhile – something that’s often far better, and different, than what you had imagined when you started.
2. When things aren’t adding up in your life, begin subtracting. Life gets a lot simpler when you clear the clutter that makes it complicated.
The most common form of clutter in our lives?
And busyness is an illness.
Think about your own life and the lives of those close to you. Most of us have a tendency to do as much as we possibly can – cramming every waking minute with events, extravagances, tasks and obligations.
We think doing more will get us more satisfaction, success, etc. When oftentimes the exact opposite is true.
Less can be far more rewarding in the long run. But we’re so set in our ways that we can’t see this.
- When we work, we shift from one task to the next quickly and continuously, or we multi-task – juggling five things at once until the end of the day… and yet we still feel like we haven’t done enough of the right stuff.
- When we finally break away for some healthy exercise, we tend to push ourselves as hard as we possibly can… until we’re exhausted and sore, and less likely to want to exercise tomorrow.
- When we go to a nice restaurant, we want to try all the appetizers, drinks and entrees, indulging in as much deliciousness as we possibly can… and we leave feeling bloated, sometimes uncomfortably so, and then our waistlines stretch.
- When we travel to a new city, we want to see it all – every landmark and every photo op – so we do as much as physically possible… and we return home from our trip utterly exhausted.
How can we tame our urge to do too much?
Simply focus more on doing less every step of the way.
Be mindful of the urge to over-do it.
It’s taken me awhile to get the hang of it, but I’m getting there…
- When I’m working, I do just one thing at a time with full focus. And when I catch myself multi-tasking or feeling overwhelmed, I’ll clear everything off my plate and make a list of just one to three key tasks I absolutely need to complete by the end of the day. And yes, sometimes this list is just one thing long, because it helps me focus on what’s truly important and not feel overwhelmed.
- When I went to the gym two days ago, I had the urge to push myself to my max. I noticed this and instead decided to let that urge go. I did a solid 45-minute workout, but left some fuel in my tank. Yesterday, I went back to the gym and I put in another 45 minutes at a similar pace. This morning, I would have been happy to do the same, but I decided to take a light jog instead. My exercise regimen is sustainable, and that’s why I rarely injure myself or miss a day.
- When I sit down at a nice restaurant, I don’t try to taste and eat as much as possible. Instead, I leave the table satisfied, but not bloated. I eat less than I used to. This is something I still struggle with at times, because it isn’t easy. It takes practice. The result, however, is that I feel significantly better after each meal and my waistline thanks me.
- When I travel to a new city, I don’t try to do it all. I choose a few things to do, and I take my time. I then leave the city knowing that there’s plenty to see on my next visit – I leave myself wanting more of a wonderful thing.
I hope you will join me on this journey.
Let’s do a little less… and make the less we do count for even more.
3. The most powerful weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another. Train your mind to see the good in everything.
Being positive and seeing the good does not mean ignoring the negative. Being positive and seeing the good means overcoming the negative. There is a big difference between the two.
Of course, that’s easy to say. But how do you actually change your perspective from negative to positive when life gets the best of you?
Here’s a simple strategy to start with…
Next time you catch a thought stressing you out, ask yourself these four questions that we’ve adapted from philosophical research by Alan Watts and Byron Katie:
- Is this thought true? – This question can change your life. Be still and ask yourself if the thought you’re dealing with is true.
- Can I be absolutely, 100% certain that it’s true? – This is another opportunity to open your mind and to go deeper into the unknown, to find the answers that live beneath what you think you know. Think about some contrasting possibilities beyond the narrow viewpoint of this one stressful thought.
- How do I feel when I think this thought? – With this question, you begin to notice internal cause and effect. You can see that when you believe the thought, there is a disturbance that can range from mild discomfort to outright panic and fear. What do you feel? How do you treat the situation (or person) you’re thinking about, how do you treat yourself, when you believe that thought? Be specific.
- Who would I be, and what would I do differently, if I were not thinking this thought? – Imagine yourself in your situation (or in the presence of that person), without believing the thought. How would your life be different if you didn’t have the ability to even think this stressful thought? How would you feel? What else would you see? Which do you prefer – life with or without the thought? Which feels more peaceful and productive?
Just remember that behind every stressful feeling is an untrue thought. Before the thought you weren’t suffering, but after the thought you began to suffer. When you recognize that the thought isn’t true, once again there is no suffering. When you change your thoughts, you gradually change your life.
The four questions above are just a starting point for revisiting and reframing the troubling or confusing situations that arise in your daily life. From there you can challenge the stories you’re subconsciously telling yourself and reality-check them with a more objective mindset, which ultimately allows you to make better decisions about everything.
So challenge yourself to use this tool… to think differently.
Detach yourself from the negative thoughts you’re telling yourself. Go deeper into reality. Don’t just look at the surface. Investigate. Observe without jumping to conclusions.
Who knows what you’ll see when you stop looking through a lens drastically narrowed by half-truths, and you start seeing things with a clearer mind. Maybe you’ll start seeing things you never saw before. Maybe you’ll start experiencing things you never experienced before. Maybe you’ll learn lots of new lessons you needed to learn. And maybe you’ll gradually become the person you always knew you could be. (Angel and I discuss this whole process in detail in the “Letting Go of Painful Emotions” lesson of Getting Back to Happy.)
4. Happiness is letting go of what you assume your life is supposed to be like right now and sincerely embracing it for everything that it is.
Holding on can be painful. Holding on can directly contribute to stress, health complications, unhappiness, depressive thoughts, relationship problems, and so on.
Yet, as human beings, we cling desperately to almost everything.
We don’t like change, so we resist it.
We want life to be the way we think it “should” be.
We get attached to our fantasies…. even when they hurt us.
Over the past decade, as Angel and I have gradually worked with hundreds of our course students, coaching clients, and live event attendees, we’ve come to understand that the root cause of most human stress is simply our stubborn propensity to hold on to things. In a nutshell, we hold on tight to the hope that things will go exactly as we imagine, and then we complicate our lives to no end when our imagination doesn’t represent reality.
So how can we stop holding on?
By realizing that there’s nothing to hold on to in the first place.
Most of the things we desperately try to hold on to, as if they’re real, solid, everlasting fixtures in our lives, aren’t really there. Or if they are there in some form, they’re changing, fluid, impermanent, or simply imagined in our minds.
Life gets a lot easier to deal with when we understand this.
Imagine you’re blindfolded and treading water in the center of a large swimming pool, and you’re struggling desperately to grab the edge of the pool that you think is nearby, but really it’s not – it’s far away. Trying to grab that imaginary edge is stressing you out, and tiring you out, as you splash around aimlessly trying to holding on to something that isn’t there.
Now imagine you pause, take a deep breath, and realize that there’s nothing nearby to hold on to. Just water around you. You can continue to struggle with grabbing at something that doesn’t exist… or you can accept that there’s only water around you, and relax, and float.
Today, I challenge you to ask yourself:
- What are you desperately trying to hold on to in your life?
- How is it affecting you?
Then imagine the thing you’re trying to hold on to doesn’t really exist. Envision yourself letting go… and just floating.
How would that change your situation?
Bottom line: We cause 99% our own problems by holding on too tightly, to everything.
But we can get out of our own way, and find harmony, by letting go.
5. If the grass looks greener on the other side, it might just be life reminding you to water the grass you’re standing on.
Rather than focusing on what you don’t have and begrudging those who are “better off” than you, perhaps you should acknowledge that you have lots to be grateful for.
Most of us have amazing family members, friends, and other loved ones who love us back. Learn to appreciate what a gift that is. Most of us have good health, which is another gift. Most of us have eyes, with which to enjoy the amazing gifts of sunsets and nature and beauty all around us. Most of us have ears, with which to enjoy music – one of the greatest gifts of them all.
You may not have all these things, because you can’t have everything, but you certainly have enough. You have plenty of good things in your life that you can focus on and build upon today. If you’re still struggling to find something right now, start here:
- You are alive.
- You didn’t go to sleep hungry last night.
- You didn’t go to sleep outside.
- You had a choice of what clothes to wear this morning.
- You haven’t spent a minute in fear for your life today.
- You know someone who loves you.
- You have access to clean drinking water.
- You have access to medical care.
- You have access to the Internet.
- You can read.
Be honest: when was the last time you were appreciative for simply being alive, or going to sleep with a full belly? More specifically, think of all the little things you experience — the smell of a home-cooked meal, hearing your favorite song when it randomly comes on the radio, seeing a marvelous sunset, etc.
Look around you today, and water the grass you’re standing on!
6. When people are rude and judgmental to you, smile and choose not to react. Travel the high road. Keep your peace. Do so, and you take all their power away.
You will end up extremely disappointed if you expect people will always do for you as you do for them. Not everyone has the same heart as you.
Truth be told, being emotionally strong and committed to a cause doesn’t mean you have to stay and fight all the battles and petty arguments that come your way. It means just the opposite – you don’t have to stay and respond to other people’s rude remarks and unnecessary hostility. When you encounter someone with a bad attitude, don’t respond by throwing insults back at them. Keep your dignity and don’t lower yourself to their level. True strength is being bold enough to walk away from the nonsense with your head held high.
You need to remember that life is not about justifying yourself – it’s about creating yourself. Your life is yours alone. Others can judge you and try to persuade you to their point of view, but they can’t decide anything for you. They can walk with you if they choose, but not in your shoes. So make sure the path you decide to walk aligns with your own intuition and best judgment, and don’t be scared to walk alone and pave your own path when doing so feels right under your feet.
Make this your lifelong motto: “I respectfully do not care.” Say it to anyone who passes unfriendly judgment on something you strongly believe in or something that makes you who you are. People will inevitably judge you at some point anyway, and that’s OK. You affected their life; don’t let them affect yours. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Self-Love” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
7. You cannot control exactly what happens in life, but you can control how you respond to it all. In your response is your greatest power.
If there’s one thing all six of the previous points have in common, it’s the importance of responding to life’s surprises and challenges more effectively. When you can let go of needless ideals, judgments, and self-pity parties, you give yourself the space required to respond to life’s difficult situations more effectively… and that changes everything.
And this applies to everyday difficulties too, not just life’s larger scale catastrophes. For example, when my 2-year-old son, Mac, dumped his dinner plate on the floor last night, I could have gotten upset (“He knows better and he shouldn’t do that!”) and scream (not effective at all), or I could have done exactly what I did and simply let go of that ideal – that judgment – and the resulting tension, and then calmly explain the situation to Mac while helping him clean it up (and yes he actually helped too). My response was indeed the more effective option.
Regardless of the situation at hand, when we respond in emotional haste and angst, we only compound our problems. Taking a deep breath, or ten, and responding calmly means we’re going to be able to better handle any difficult situation, whether it’s an emergency or the unexpected loss of a loved one or a 2-year-old’s belligerent misconducts.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. So if you’re struggling to change your response to an unexpected life situation right now, start by evaluating the tension in your body and posture. I bet you can find some kind of tightness. For me, it’s often in my neck, but sometimes it’s in my back and shoulders.
Where does this tension we feel come from? We’re resisting life – perhaps we’re annoyed by someone, frustrated at our circumstances, overwhelmed by all our obligations, or just flat out bored. And our mental resistance creates a tension in our bodies and unhappiness in our lives. Therefore, Angel and I often recommend this simple strategy to our course students who are struggling to relieve themselves of their resistance and tension:
- Locate the tension in your body right now.
- Notice what you’re resisting and tensing up against – it might be a situation or person you’re dealing with or avoiding.
- Relax the tense area of your body – deep breath and a quick stretch often helps.
- Face the same situation or person, but with a relaxed body and mind.
Repeat this practice as often as needed. Face the day with less tension and more presence. Change your mode of response from one of struggle and resistance to one of peace and acceptance. And see how doing so changes your life.