God willing, you’ll be gifted another 40 years of life experience.
But even if you aren’t, the core principle of this article remains relevant:
As you age, you’ll learn to value your time, genuine relationships, meaningful work, and peace of mind, much more. Little else will matter.
Deep down you know this already, right?
Yet today, just like the majority of us, you are distracted by everything else.
You give too much of your time to meaningless time-wasters.
You take your important relationships for granted.
You get to work, skeptically, with inner resistance.
And you let needless stress get the best of you.
Because you’re human, and human beings are imperfect creatures that make misjudgments constantly. We get caught up in our own heads, and literally don’t know our lives to be any better than the few things that aren’t going our way. And as our minds subconsciously dwell on these things, we try to distract ourselves to numb the tension we feel. But by doing so, we also distract ourselves from what matters most.
We scrutinize and dramatize the insignificant annoyances in our lives until we’re blue in the face, and then we sit back and scratch our heads in bewilderment of how unfulfilling and empty life feels.
But the older we grow, the quieter we tend to become, and the less pointless drama, distraction, and busyness we tend to engage in. Life humbles us gradually as we age. We begin to realize just how much nonsense we’ve wasted time on. And we begin to refocus our attention on what truly matters.
Truth be told, the afternoon and evening always understand what the morning never even suspected.
But—and this is a big “but”—the morning can plan better for the afternoon and evening.
So with that in mind, challenge yourself to plan better today.
Challenge yourself to focus more on what truly matters in the long run…
1. Treating your very limited time each day with care.
As time passes, you naturally have more of it behind you and less of it in front of you. The distant future, then, gradually has less value to you personally. But that doesn’t really matter, because the good life always begins right now, when you stop waiting for a better one. Some people wait all day for 5pm, all week for Friday, all year for the holidays, all their lives for happiness. But you don’t have to be one of them. Don’t wait until your life is almost over to realize how good it has been.
Over the past decade, Angel and I have gradually learned to pay more attention to the beauty and practicality of living a simpler life. A life uncluttered by most of the meaningless drama, distraction, and busyness people fill their lives with, leaving us with space for what’s truly meaningful. A life that isn’t constant rushing, worrying and stress, but instead contemplation, creation, and connection with the people and projects that matter most to us.
By redefining our priorities, and building healthy rituals to back them up, we’ve literally been able to change our lives. And this is now a healthy practice we coach our course students though every single day as well.
If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed and stressed out a lot lately, I highly recommend you rethink how you’re spending your time, and replace the meaningless with the meaningful.
Start by being honest about the drama, distraction, and busyness in your life…
- How often do you engage in the exchange of valueless gossip?
- How often are you thinking about other things when someone is talking to you?
- Do you check social media apps on your phone when you’re working, or when you’re spending time with loved ones?
- Do you send the occasional text message while driving?
The biggest cost of filling your life with drama, distraction, and busyness (assuming you don’t crash from the texting and driving), is a gradual, long-term decline of your effectiveness and happiness. When you get in the habit of persistently dividing your attention, you’re partially engaged in every activity, but rarely focused on any one. And this dizzying lack of focus eventually trips you up and brings you down to your knees.
The solution? Better focus of course—getting rid of the excess. The efficiency of your time relies heavily on the elimination of non-essentials, so you can focus exclusively on the one thing—and only one thing—that actually matters in each moment. And while plenty of full-length books have been written on this topic, let me give you the very basics of what Angel and I have been practicing:
- Identify what’s most important to you, and eliminate as much as you possibly can of everything else. In other words, be ruthless about putting first things first. Say “no” to unnecessary commitments that do not support your priorities.
- When you start an important activity, turn to it with your full attention and set a conscious intention to be fully present with the act—to do nothing but this one activity for a set time. You might think, “Just write” or “Just run” or “Just be here with this amazing child of mine.”
- When you notice your mind drifting and thinking about something else, or if something happens and your attention momentarily gets pulled elsewhere… just notice. Then take a deep breath and return to being fully present with the activity.
- Do your best to empty your mind of any preconceived notions about the activity—like judging the moment against some ideal —and just be curious about how the activity is truly unfolding right now. Allow yourself to be moved and surprised by it.
- Treat each moment with reverence, as if you are one with what’s happening.
- See the brilliance of the activity you’re focused on—the brilliance of the present moment—that underlies everything else happening in your life.
The bottom line here is that too often our minds are set on getting somewhere else. Too often another beautiful day comes to an end with hundreds of unnoticed moments behind us—we didn’t notice them because they were insignificant to us. And over time our entire lives become a massive pile of unnoticed and insignificant moments on our way to more important things. Then the important things get rushed through too… to get to the next one, and the next, until our time is up and we’re left questioning where it all went.
But it doesn’t have to be this way anymore.
This moment is your life, and you can make the best of it. The underlying key is to realize that you are not on your way somewhere else. Right now is not just a stepping-stone to another place—it is the ultimate destination, and you are already here.
2. Genuine relationships.
It’s nice to have acquaintances. It’s important to be friendly. But don’t get carried away and spread yourself too thin. Leave plenty of time for those who matter most to you. Your time is extremely limited, and sooner or later you just want to be around the few people who make you smile for all the right reasons.
Truly, we all long for genuine relationships, but these relationships can be hard to find and nurture, even in our overly connected lives. We meet people in person and socialize online, but these connections often lack a necessary dose of intimacy. We work alongside others in crowded office buildings, but our communication with them is usually work-oriented and not relationship-oriented. We may be lucky enough to have close friends and family in our lives, but when we are distracted by social media and busy with work, those relationships take a major hit.
So what can be done?
A whole lot. But let’s quickly hit on the fundamentals…
The healthiest and most genuine relationships are comprised of two people who are intimately familiar with each other’s evolving stories. These people make plenty of emotional room for their relationship, which means they sincerely listen to each other, they remember the major events each other have been through, and they keep up-to-date as the facts and feelings of each other’s reality evolves and changes.
The key thing to remember is that nothing you can give is more appreciated than your sincere, focused attention—your full presence. Truly being with someone, and listening without a clock and without anticipation of the next event, is the ultimate compliment. It is indeed the most valued gesture you can make to them, and it arms you with the information you need to truly know them and support them in the long run.
It’s also important to note that if two people care about each other and want to maintain a healthy relationship, they absolutely need to be “allowed” to openly communicate ALL of their feelings to each other—their true feelings—not just the agreeable and positive ones. If this is not “allowed” or supported by one or both people involved in the relationship—if one or both people fear punishment for their honesty—lies and deceit will gradually replace love and trust, which ultimately leads to a complete emotional disconnection.
With all the aforementioned said, one of the easiest ways to find more meaningful moments of presence with the people who matter to you, is to work together on something. If you have someone in mind whom you’d like to strengthen your relationship with, find a way to work hand in hand on a project that intrigues both of you. You could plant a communal garden together, or meet once a week to jointly work on an ongoing passion project—such as painting a mural, stitching quilts, or maybe even running a side business. Also, attending a life-enhancing conference together (live or virtual), and then mindfully examining and discussing it, is another related opportunity for working hand in hand on something meaningful.
3. Engaging passionately in whatever you choose to do.
Passion is powerful! It rests deep within you and passively drives your feelings, choices, and courses of actions. It can’t be ignored, and it shouldn’t be ignored.
Your passion will likely become the sole source of your greatest achievements and your finest moments. The fevering excitement of love. The joy of work that moves you. The clarity of your purpose. The ecstasy of letting go and being one with the present moment. In a nutshell, this is what passion gradually does for you. Without it there is little peace of mind in the end—just a hollow existence of unfulfilled dreams—a lifetime left mostly unlived.
That might sound a bit melodramatic, but it’s the truth.
If your life is going to mean anything to you 40 years down the road (or even 10 years down the road), you have to actively and passionately live it every day until then. You have to deeply engage yourself in activities that move you. But the key thing to realize is that almost any activity can move you if you let it. You don’t need some massive, life-engulfing passion to suddenly appear in your life. Because real passion comes from within, and the source of passion in your life may be as simple as having a job to do—a job that feeds your family, for example—and feeling good about doing it right.
So my challenge to you is this: Live your life not as a bystander. Live in this world, on this day, and every day hereafter as an active, passionate participant.
Many of us are still hopelessly trying to “find our passion”—something we believe will ultimately lead us closer to happiness, success, or the life situation we ultimately want. And I say “hopelessly” primarily because passion can’t really be found. When we say we’re trying to find our passion, it implies that our passion is somehow hiding behind a tree or under a rock somewhere. But that’s far from the truth. The truth is, our passion comes from doing things right. If you’re waiting to somehow “find your passion” somewhere outside yourself, so you finally have a reason to put your whole heart and soul into your life and the things you’re working on, you’ll likely be waiting around for an eternity.
On the other hand, if you’re tired of waiting, and you’d rather live more passionately starting today, and experience more meaning in your life in the long run, it’s time to proactively inject passion into the very next thing you work on. Think about it:
- When was the last time you sat down to work on something, with zero distractions and 100% focus?
- When was the last time you exercised, and literally put every bit of effort you could muster into it?
- When was the last time you truly tried—TRULY tried—to do your very best?
Like most of us, you’re likely putting a half-hearted and half-minded effort into most of the things you do on a daily basis. Because you’re still waiting. You’re still waiting to “find” something to be passionate about—some magical reason to step into the life you want to create for yourself. But what you need to do is the exact opposite!
When I was a kid, my grandmother used to tell me, “Stop waiting for better opportunities. The one you have in front of you is the best opportunity.” She also said, “Too often we spend too much time making it perfect in our heads before we ever even do it. Stop waiting for perfection and just do your best with what you have today, and then improve upon it tomorrow.”
Believe it or not, recent psychological research indirectly reinforces my grandmother’s sentiments. For many years, psychologists believed our minds could directly affect our physical state of being, but never the other way around. Nowadays, however, it is widely documented that our bodies—for example, our momentary facial expressions and body posture—can directly affect our mental state of being too. So while it’s true that we change from the inside out, we also change from the outside in. And you can make this reality work for you.
If you want more passion in your life right now, act accordingly right now.
Put your whole heart and soul into something!
Not into tomorrow’s opportunities, but the opportunity right in front of you.
Not into tomorrow’s tasks, but today’s tasks.
Not into tomorrow’s run, but today’s run.
Not into tomorrow’s conversations, but today’s conversations.
I’m absolutely certain you have plenty in your life right now that’s worth your time, energy, and passionate focus. You have people and circumstances in your life that need you as much as you need them. You have a massive reservoir of passionate potential within you, just waiting. So stop waiting! There is no next time. Put your heart and soul into what you’ve got right in front of you!
Do so, and your long-lost passion will show up to greet you.
And everything you do will start to be more meaningful and more memorable.
(Note: Angel and I discuss all of this in more detail in the “Passion” chapter of our “1,000 Little Things” book.)
4. A mindset that brings you peace.
Life is a series of continuous changes. Don’t resist them; doing so only creates unnecessary stress. Let the reality of these changes take place. Let them flow. Or as Henry Wadsworth once said, “For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain.”
As we age, we gradually learn the power of this kind of acceptance…
Acceptance is letting go and allowing things to be the way they truly are. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about improving the reality of your life; it’s just realizing that the only thing you really have control over is yourself and your thoughts about everything else. This simple understanding is the foundation of acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be peace of mind and growth.
It’s important to realize that, somewhere within us all, there does exist a supreme self who is eternally accepting and at peace. Because inner peace does not depend on external conditions; it’s what remains when you’ve surrendered your ego and worries. Peace can be found within you at any place and at any time. It’s always there, patiently waiting for you to turn your attention toward it. Peace of mind arrives the moment you come to peace with what’s on your mind. It happens when you let go of the need to be anywhere but where you are, physically and emotionally.
Remember, the same part of you that longs for peace of mind is the part of you that experiences peace of mind. It’s not complicated to achieve and it’s as close as your next thought.
But how? How do you change your thoughts?
There are many methods, but let’s start with some distance and breathing…
Everything seems simpler from a distance. Sometimes you simply need to distance yourself to see things more clearly.
You are more than whatever is troubling you. A very real part of you exists beyond your worries, beyond your doubts, independent from the troubles and frustrations of the present moment. Step back and observe yourself as you experience each moment. Be present. Watch yourself as you think, as you take action, as you experience emotions. Your body may experience pain, and yet that pain is not you. Your mind may encounter troubles, and yet you are not those troubles.
Think of the most difficult challenge you face right now. Imagine that it’s not you, but a close friend who is facing this challenge. What advice would you give her? If you could step back and, instead of being the subject, look at your situation as an objective observer, would you look at it any differently? Think of the advice you would give your friend if she were in your shoes. Are you following your own best advice right now?
Don’t allow your current troubles to cloud your thinking. Take a few steps back and give yourself the benefit of this distance, and then give yourself some great advice.
Perhaps this advice is to simply breathe…
As you read these words, you are breathing. Stop for a moment and notice this breath.
You can control this breath, and make it faster or slower, or make it behave as you like. Or you can simply let yourself inhale and exhale naturally.
There is peace in just letting your lungs breathe, without having to control the situation or do anything about it.
Now imagine letting other parts of your body breathe—like your tense shoulders. Just let them be, without having to tense them or control them. Just let them breathe.
Now look around the room you’re in, and notice the objects around you. Pick one, and let it breathe.
There are likely people in the room with you too, or in the same house or building, or in nearby houses or buildings. Visualize them in your mind, and let them breathe.
When you let everything and everyone breathe, you just let them be, exactly as they are. You don’t need to control them, worry about them, or change them. You just let them breathe, in peace, and you accept them as they are.
Practice this. Make it a daily ritual.
And see how doing so gradually changes your life.
(Note: Angel and I build healthy, life-changing daily rituals like this with our students in the “Goals and Growth” module of the Getting Back to Happy Course.)
Afterthoughts… On Following Through in Tough Times
The most common arguments against all the aforementioned advice in this article typically stem from the difficulty of following through in tough times. In other words, when tragedy strikes, it’s hard to think straight and act right.
“There’s a saying in Tibetan philosophy, “Tragedy should be used as a source of strength.” My grandmother always repeated this line to me when I was growing up. Every time I dealt with some kind of adversity, she would graciously remind me that my current struggles were helping me grow stronger.
Sometimes, however, in the midst of chaotic stress and hardship, it’s incredibly difficult to maintain such a positive perspective. But you can push yourself to do so, and you must.
There are moments when I wish I could roll back the clock and take all the sadness away. But I also know that if I somehow could roll it back, all the joy I’ve experienced would be gone as well. And the reality is, I can’t change what I can’t change. No one can. And accepting that reality is part of growing from it. You don’t get to choose everything in life. You only get to choose what you do about it.
No doubt, some of the greatest and toughest moments in your life won’t necessarily be the things you do—they’ll be the things that unexpectedly happen to you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take action to affect the outcome of your life. You have to take action, and you will. Just don’t forget that, on any given day, your life can change in an instant, for better or worse. To an extent, the universe has a plan that’s always in motion. A new butterfly flaps its wings for the first time and it starts pouring rain—it’s a scary thought, but it’s reality. Another butterfly will almost surely flap its wings for the first time immediately following the storm. In any case, all these little parts of the big machine are constantly working—sometimes forcing you to struggle, and sometimes making sure you end up exactly in the right place at the right time.
So take life day by day and be grateful for the little things.
Don’t get caught up in what you can’t control.
Just accept it and make the very best of it…
That’s something you can always do!
If you’re feeling up to it, we would love to hear from YOU.
Which point mentioned above resonates with you the most today, and why?
What matters more to you now than it did when you were younger?
Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
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Photo by: Cristian Newman