What we truly need to do is often what we most feel like avoiding.
If we don’t go after what we want, we will never get it. If we don’t ask the right questions, we will always get the wrong answers. If we don’t take a step forward, we are always going to be standing in the same exact place. Life is a journey comprised of small steps. The key is to take these steps, every single day.
We know this already, right?
But how often are we stuck in a cycle of worry, fear, and other forms of overthinking? How often are we aimlessly distracted? And how often do we procrastinate?
After consistently working on my mindfulness and time management habits, I’ve become reasonably proficient at getting things done with minimal distraction and procrastination.
Today, for example, I wrote a 1000-word email newsletter, proof-read and cleaned up a chapter in a new book Angel and I are co-writing, coached one of our Getting Back to Happy students, responded to comments and emails from dozens of students and readers, worked on business planning and strategizing for a few active side-projects, spent a quality evening with my family, and of course now I’m writing this post.
It might seem like a lot, but it happens one step at a time, with presence and focus.
With that said, however, I’ll be the first to admit that I still struggle with some detrimental habits that sneak up on me and get in the way of my effectiveness. And these are super common habits among my friends, family, acquaintances, and students alike – these are the things we all do that end up wasting our lives, one precious moment at a time. The word “waste” may sound overly dramatic, but it’s really not. After spending the past decade coaching thousands of people, and working through my own personal issues, there’s little doubt that these are the most popular ways we all collectively waste our lives:
1. We waste our lives with meaningless distractions.
Distractions are both more damaging and more tempting than we realize. When we fill our lives with distractions, it’s often because we’re scared of what life might really be like without constant social media, video games, television, snacks, music, etc. Don’t numb yourself with relentless noise. Don’t let distractions hold you back. Control your distractions before your distractions control you.
As an internet entrepreneur, online distractions are a huge one for me. I can be in the middle of working on something important, get distracted by an email notification that leads to a new article from one of my favorite websites (which likely links out to some other website), and POOF… an hour of my time is gone!
To overcome this, I do my best to eliminate distractions, but sometimes they still pop up. So I have a ritual where I pause once every 30 minutes to take a deep breath and stretch for 10 seconds. By taking this break I’m able to catch myself when I’ve gotten lost again. Then I’ll clear the distraction, close any unnecessary computer windows (noise), and just have one small task in front of me… and try to stick with it until it’s finished.
2. We waste our lives in a state of overwhelm.
If you have a too many things on your plate, it can make you feel hopeless and helpless. “How can I possibly get it all done?” you think to yourself. You have no clue… so you don’t even try.
We’ve all been overwhelmed like this a time or two (or ten).
What has worked for me is this: Instead of thinking, “Oh my goodness, there’s too much on my plate!” … I ask, “What if I started over again with a clean plate?” I consciously think about what I would put back on my plate if I could wipe it clean right now.
I challenge you to do the same…
Think about it: What would you do if your schedule were empty? If your plate were completely clean, with limited space, what would you put on it today?
In my case, I often do just one thing at a time with full focus. So when I’m overwhelmed, I’ll clear everything off my plate, and make a list of just one to three key tasks I absolutely need to complete today. And yes, sometimes this list is just one thing long, because it helps me focus on what’s truly important and not feel overwhelmed.
3. We waste our lives with constant indecision.
What if you simply can’t figure out what to do next? Often, this kind of indecision leads to doing nothing. I remind myself that not deciding leads to stagnation, and while I don’t believe you need to move at a million miles an hour, I don’t like myself held stagnant either.
What I’ve learned is that indecision is often predicated by a fear of not knowing the perfect decision… because we can’t possibly know exactly what the future will hold. Is it better to take that new job or keep this one? Is it better to work on this project or that one? It’s impossible to know, because the future is uncertain.
So I try to just pick one based on the information I have available to me, combined with what my intuition is telling me. Then I take immediate action to see how it goes. The outcome is always the same: either I make progress or I make a mistake that teaches me what I need to know to make progress. Win-win. (Angel and I discuss this further in the “Goals and Success” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
4. We waste our lives fearing failure.
The fear of failure can really mess with our minds. When we don’t feel good enough to succeed, it’s confusing – it feels like we’ll almost certainly embarrass ourselves regardless of what we do. Of course, this isn’t true, but this feeling comes on strong – especially when we’re working outside our zones of comfort – and it can be debilitating. So what can be done?
Here’s what I do:
- I remind myself that if I am too afraid of failure, I can’t possibly do what needs to be done to be successful.
- I remind myself that failure is actually not the worst outcome – succeeding in life at the wrong things, or not even trying, are both far worse.
The truth is, the right thing to do and the easy thing to do are rarely the same thing. You have to push yourself. You have to be willing to fail forward. Because if you try something and fail, you’ve learned a lesson, you’ve got some priceless practice, and next time you’ll be one step ahead. But if you don’t even try, out of empty fear, you have learned nothing, and you’ll likely continue procrastinating because you’re stuck in the habit of running from fear. And this running is just as exhausting as actually pushing through and doing it anyway.
Remember, there’s a big difference between empty fatigue and gratifying exhaustion. Life is short. Invest in activities that move you forward. The value of doing is so much greater than the value of being safe and doing nothing for the rest of your life.
5. We waste our lives being busy (but not productive).
There’s a BIG difference between being busy and being productive. Don’t confuse motion with progress. For instance, a rocking horse keeps moving but never makes any forward progress.
Oftentimes we feel productive when we’re taking care of lots of menial tasks (errands, paperwork, emails, etc.), and while these tasks might need to get addressed at some point, they aren’t the truly important ones, and they should NOT fill our days. When they do, we’re very busy, but we’re not productive.
Admittedly, I still fall into this trap sometimes, so when I catch myself busily working on the wrong things, I stop and ask myself what my most important tasks are for the day – I go back to wiping my plate clean of everything but the essential. Sometimes there’s just one key task/project, and sometimes there are a few, but in any case I ask myself: “Am I working on it?” If the answer is no, I know it’s time to begin again on the right track.
6. We waste our lives with a lack of self-discipline.
Self-discipline is a skill. It is the ability to focus and overcome distractions. It involves acting according to what you know is right instead of how you feel in the moment (perhaps tired or lazy). It typically requires sacrificing immediate pleasure and excitement for what matters most in life.
A lack of self-discipline for most of us is often the result of a lack of focus (see the previous five points). In other words, we tell ourselves we are going to work on something, but then we don’t. When this happens to me, first and foremost, I forgive myself for messing up, and then I strive to be mindful about what’s really going on. Am I procrastinating for some reason? Am I distracted? Instead of telling myself that I’m “bad” or “undisciplined,” I try to productively uncover a more specific, solvable problem, and then address it.
What do you do if your life is in complete disarray, you have hardly any self-discipline or consistent routines, can’t stick to anything, procrastinate constantly, and feel completely out of control?
How do you get started with building a healthy ritual of self-discipline when you have so many changes to make?
You start small. Very small.
If you don’t know where to start, let me suggest that you start by simply washing your dishes. Yes, I mean literally washing your dishes. It’s just one small step forward: When you eat your oatmeal, wash your bowl and spoon. When you finish drinking your morning coffee, rinse the coffee pot and your mug. Don’t leave any dirty dishes in the sink or on the counter for later. Wash them immediately.
Form this ritual one dish at a time, one day at a time. Once you do this consistently for a couple weeks, you can start making sure the sink has been wiped clean too. Then the counter. Then put your clothes where they belong when you take them off. Then start doing a few sit-ups every morning. Eat a few vegetables for dinner. And so forth.
Do one of these at a time, and you’ll start to build a healthy ritual of self-discipline, and finally know yourself to be capable of doing what must be done… and finishing what you start.
But, again, for right now, just wash your dishes. Mindfully, with a smile. (Angel and I build tiny, life-changing rituals with our students in the “Goals and Growth” module of Getting Back to Happy.)
Which point above resonated with you the most? What other habits drain your energy and waste precious moments of your life? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts and insights with the community.
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Photo by: AndrewJAA
Very helpful points in this post! #6 especially struck a chord with me.
Two life-wasting habits I have been actively working on fixing recently:
1) Trying to control everything (including what has already happened in the past) – this only leads to disappointment and stress, because you have to accept that some things are simply beyond your control.
2) Your #4 – worrying about my failures … this one used to absolutely cripple me!
And this quote from your book has been one of my guideposts for giving these negative habits up:
“Give up worrying about past failures. Accept your past without regret, handle your presence with confidence, and face your future without fear. You are today where your thoughts and actions have brought you; you will be tomorrow where your thoughts and actions take you.”
I’m right there with you. Good quote.
Marc Chernoff says
It’s inspiring to know that quote resonates so deeply with you, Devon. Thanks for sharing.
I love the way you wrapped up #6! I really needed to hear that! I just went back into my kitchen and cleaned my dishes. Thank you.
Thank you for your emails. I read them all and purchased your book recently too – it’s great! 🙂
These are all really important habits to be aware of. They can do so much harm over time without us actually realizing it. If we want to be the person we are capable of being then we have to stop being our own worst enemy.
#3 took me the longest to learn! I was a worrier and used to be afraid to take action. I now know that nothing changes unless I take that first step. And when I do take that first step, everything changes! It’s like I’m on a different path… and as if the path leads me on…
Marc Chernoff says
Thank you for the extra kindness, Michelle. And thank you for supporting our work.
Toby Nwazor says
All the points here speak to me directly, because just like you I am an internet entrepreneur myself.
Starting from your first point, I battle with distractions a lot. Apart from the pop-ups from my email, there is the social media which always notifies me especially about facebook.
Sometimes, I switch off my internet to focus, especially when I need to write, and it works well.
I also have a problem with trying to do everything at the same time. As I type this, I have 9 tabs open on my browser. I have about 8 Microsoft Word documents open in the background. All are things I wish to work on, but I have a problem finishing one task before going to the next. I have always multi-tasked. I have read in a lot of places that it reduces productivity, but there are usually so many things to do at the same time that I usually find myself putting my hands in almost all of them.
I hope to change all that after reading this.
Thanks for writing
Marc Chernoff says
Small steps, Toby. You’ll get there.
Washing the dishes was the most relevant pointer – it’s small cumulative actions that reinforce larger ones – too often we are overwhelmed by the details to concentrate on the bigger deals…
Nancy R says
I liked all your points, but the one that really struck me this morning is the mental exercise of cleaning my plate and beginning afresh. I have a photo history project that is strewn all over my dining room, with sorts and stacks..I have been pecking away at it, squeezing it in between other things on my plate.
Your message reminded me that it is okay to have ONE thing on my plate, even if for just one day. Tomorrow I can decide which things to put on yet another clean plate. Very liberating for me. Thank you!
I’ve been a fan of your teachings/writings for a long while now – this is only the 2nd time I’ve left a comment but I read every single email you send out. They always seem to be speaking to me directly, which sometimes throws me for a loop, but in a good way. :). It’s amazing that you both for dedicate so much of yourselves to helping others to live their lives to the fullest. Your words touch lives and I thank you for that. ?
Marc Chernoff says
Thanks for leaving a comment to let us know our work makes a difference in your life, Teri. That means a lot to us.
I am really enjoying this series and especially #4, failures and the crippling affect it can have. Today I will prioritize the next right step, and get out and PR my newly started Private Practice.
Thanks for guidance, when I needed to hear it.
Self doubt can be a killer. Anything, ventured, becomes a lesson learned as to what works or not!
Michael A. Kush says
Great post as usual. Please keep up the great work. I try to share your post daily as inspiration to others. Peace & Blessings. Son of Kush
I’ve struggled for most of my life with the points you’ve mentioned above and I’ve somehow come out okay, but every day… every single day is a struggle and the selfish side of me just wants to quit. I’m fortunate enough to have an angel to live for.
I’ve been a long time reader of your site and I often dismiss my own issues as I was brought up like life was perfect, yet I’m sure my parents had their own battles. Mental illness wasn’t something ‘we’ believed in.
The work you do might just make my life that little bit better and I cannot thank you enough for it.
Thanks for another great post. I would like to add that We waste our lives with feeding into the negative or getting caught up in it by others around us. We should all strive to surround ourselves with only positive people and thoughts always. Negativity is exhausting and a complete waste of time.
This is a great post and one that really resonates. Thank you.
Marc, this is a wonderful piece of writing! It is matter of fact, to the point(s) but with much needed softness for those of us who tend to auto-flagellate themselves for not being good enough… as in “I don’t have enough self-discipline, I am bad, bad, bad” and then fall into desperation and apathy. One little step at a time: just do the dishes… take some sort of decision, but just DO IT!
Thank you for this precious reminder!
#6 is the most important point for me. I always have good intentions, but find I do parts of things and always wind up in a mess because I haven’t completed anything. So…..I am going to wash my dishes, but first I have to put away the ones I washed last night; then fold the laundry I started yesterday; then…….
Love ” wash your dishes”!!!
Thank you so much for putting it in such simple and inspiring way.
Saba Salman says
Wiping the plate clean is what hit the home run for me. I often waste my time on things that are not important or get overwhelmed with too much to do.
I’m going to not put so pressure on myself and learn to prioritize.
I appreciate the tips. They are very helpful. I’m definitely going to wash the dishes in the morning from now on.
David Rapp says
I am still working on a lot of these factors. However, for me, some of the “distractions” and “busy” work are actually the keys to success. For example, as a project manager, I am constantly tracking down people to get updates and documentation together. Its stunning how much of my job is done at this level with a Fortune 500 company.
So I would suggest that you handle paperwork, documentation and communication just like you described with doing the dishes: right away in the time you allotted. Yes, the same rules apply. Why? Because putting it off until you have done all the “important and urgent” work is just another form of procrastination. Get it done and you will actually CREATE more time for the urgent and important.
I NEVER have unread emails. I backup my hard drive. I have files in two locations on my computer. I always scan and retain a copy of any hard copy documentation. I use flash drives to backup pictures and personal documents. I keep my calendar up to date.
It only takes 2 hours a week if I do every one of these actions.
Marc Chernoff says
Great perspective, David!
This is an amazing article. Really incisive and insightful. Keep it coming guys! I’ve been following you both for about 5 years now and every time I feel stressed I come to read your blog and it hits home every time. Thank you so much
I would add to this list “other people” as a huge distraction and potential for impeding productive progress. Office mates, friends, family members, etc. can all suck time and energy. I’ve learned I need to have boundaries (not easy when my husband and I work in the same home office, LOL), but I must or else I am not productive/don’t reach my objects for the day.
Great words! Every day your emails are my strength.
I love the direction about washing the dishes…in the military, we have a similar axiom to which we commonly refer in instances of apparent overwhelm:
How do you eat an elephant?
One bite at a time.
Here are a couple of thoughts:
1. Worrying about what others will think of us/trying to keep up with the ‘Joneses.’
2. Worrying about physical traits over which we have little/no control (i.e., balding, natural curly hair, too big or small bust/hips/fill in!, etc).
Marc Chernoff says
Excellent additions, Diane!
I love the idea of wiping the slate clean and serving just what you can “eat”. Very resonant with my life at the moment. Thank you.
Ms. HK says
Thank you so much for this wonderful post… very motivational.
Trying to copy other people’s lives. An incredibly popular past-time but with few rewards.
It’s all very brilliant points. One step at a time helps me a lot. I hate being overwhelmed or getting stuck, so will practice taking a clean plate and then put on it what is important at the moment.
Thanks for making me a stronger person today. I’ve learnt a lot from you about life and happiness.
. . .”failure is actually not the worst outcome – succeeding in life at the wrong things, or not even trying, are both far worse.”
Great article. The above speaks to me. . .it is easy to get into the failure thinking trap. Succeeding at the wrong things is an undeniable failure. This is going onto my #SayIt board.
#3 Indecision due to fear…ouch. That one has cost me several times in the past. Glad today is a new day to make a new choice ?
Great read with a lot of usable information. #2 resonated with me the most as I am completely overwhelmed in my life. I’m a very visual person so the image of a plate with all my obligations on it that I can move on and off the plate as necessary is something that will stick with me.
This is Useful – Thank You!
Joe Aro says
A great article I’ve sent along to my subscribers. I’m a great procrastinator often struggling to stay on track doing what needs be done. Your advice is on point and valuable to people like me.
When managing a staff I’ve spoken about small steps. My example was asking them to think about how quickly we could take down the building we were in if everyone removed one brick when leaving work.
We build walls of inaction the same way.
Thanks for this and other articles that help those in need … especially myself.
Excellent tips, and the 1,000 Little Things book is a great read as well. Thank you.
Number 6 is the most important I think. Too often people think discipline will just come, that success will come without discipline. I think that you cannot have one without the other.
These all spoke to me and I am going to share them with my daughter. One additional comment I’d like to make is that it is also okay to have a day (occasionally) that is a “me” day….a day where it is okay to let your priorities be to “do nothing”….to let your to-do list be blank. I find that those days are sometimes exactly what I need to revitalize my soul. After a day like that, I find I can be even more productive on the subsequent days.