God willing, you will be gifted another decade or more of life experience.
But even if you aren’t, the core principle of this article remains relevant:
As you age, you will 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 though, right?
Yet today, just like the majority of us, you are distracted by almost 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 daily misjudgments. We get overwhelmed and caught up in our own heads, and sometimes we don’t know our lives to be any better than the few things that aren’t going our way. We literally 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 life feels. And as our (subconscious) minds continue to dwell on these things, we try to distract ourselves to numb the tension we feel. By doing so, though, we also distract ourselves from what matters most.
But the older we grow, the calmer and more focused we tend to become, and the less pointless drama, distraction, and senseless 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.
Philosophically speaking, the afternoon and evening always understand what the morning never even suspected. But — and this is a big “but” — the steps taken in the morning do have a significant effect on the afternoon and evening.
So with that philosophy in mind, challenge yourself to implement the right daily steps — the right daily rituals — starting today, and let the positive effects of doing so gradually compound in value until you reach your sunset years. Here are four such rituals Angel and I often recommend and implement with our course students and coaching clients:
1. Treat your limited time each day with extra presence and 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. And this is a key reality to keep in mind — the future matters less than the present. A good life always begins right now, when you stop waiting for a better one. Yet so many 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 again, 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 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 needless 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.
The solution? More presence and focus on what matters most — and 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. Invest daily in 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 office buildings or co-working spaces, 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 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 one of the most valued gestures 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 will gradually replace love, which ultimately leads to emotional disconnection.
So 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. Engage passionately in all the small things.
Passion is powerful! Your inner passion will likely become a key source of your greatest achievements and your finest moments. The fevering excitement of love. The joy of getting in flow. The clarity of a 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 promises — 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 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 small 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 with what’s in front of you?
Like most of us, you’re likely putting a half-hearted and half-minded effort into most of the small 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! Put your heart and soul into the small things 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 feel more meaningful and memorable.
(Note: Angel and I discuss all of this in more detail in the “Passion” chapter of our “1,000 Little Things” book.)
4. Keep stepping back to let things breathe.
Henry Wadsworth once said, “For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that line. And it’s all about 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, and only with this foundation can there be peace of mind and growth in the long run.
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. It arrives the moment you come to peace with what’s on your mind.
But how? How do you change your inner state?
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 this reality.
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 & Growth” module of the Getting Back to Happy Course, and we also establish a foundational ritual of consistency through daily journaling in our newest publication through Penguin Random House, “The Good Morning Journal: Powerful Prompts & Reflections to Start Every Day”.)
Afterthoughts on Goals vs. Daily Rituals
Goals are important as general guideposts in life. But goals don’t make positive changes happen, daily rituals do. Seriously, meditate on that for a moment. Because too often we obsess ourselves with a goal — an end result — but we’re completely unfocused when it comes to the ritual — the recurring steps — that ultimately make that goal happen.
In other words, too often we overestimate the significance of one big defining moment and underestimate the value of 1,000 tiny steps. Take this to heart. In life, you can’t lift 1,000 pounds all at once, yet you can easily lift one pound 1,000 times. Tiny, repeated efforts will get you there.
In fact, if you completely ignored one of your goals for the next few weeks and instead focused solely on the daily rituals that reinforce this goal, would you still get positive results?
For example, if you were trying to lose weight and you ignored your goal to lose 25 pounds, and instead focused only on eating healthy and exercising each day, would you still get results?
YES, you would! Gradually, you would get closer and closer to your goal without even thinking about it.
Now, it’s your turn…
Yes, it’s your turn to focus on the daily rituals that help you grow.
So give yourself some credit right now for how far you’ve come in recent times, and then take another tiny step forward today.
But before you go, please leave Angel and me a comment below and let us know what you think of this essay. Your feedback is important to us. 🙂
Also, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to sign-up for our free newsletter to receive new articles like this in your inbox each week.
Photo by: Cristian Newman
Fay D. says
I couldn’t agree more with #4 and your afterthoughts. In my 60 years of living, I can honestly say that letting go a little and allowing things to be the way they are has really opened up many doors for me. By not centering my attention on the uncontrollable aspects of my life, I’ve been able to improve in many areas that I was once blind to.
And although much of this article is incredibly important, I think your points about the importance of presence and nurturing and appreciation for the unpredictability of each day is what resonated most with me today. Because, again, if and when I embrace the present without conditions, I am my happiest, most at peace, and most productive self.
To quote your “1,000 Little Things” book, which my wife and I both reference before dinner each evening:
“No regrets and no anticipation, just this moment fresh and as is. Make your presence count. Focus on what matters & let go of what does not.”
Another well-crafted article I needed to read! Thanks, M&A!
Number 3 cuts to the very core of my ongoing propensity to delay, delay, delay, and thus procrastinate on many of the important things I need to work on. I’m aware now that I have this tendency to believe I need to hold off for something better (time, place, etc.), instead of simply making the best of what I have now. Your Getting Back to Happy course and coaching have guided me through this predicament over the past few weeks, however. And over these past few weeks I’ve successfully added a couple new, positive rituals into my routine that help counterbalance my tendencies. I am seeing bits of progress already…slow but steady. One day at a time, right?
Thanks again for this one, and for everything you two share.
Great essay, problems and solutions to realities of present. Very helpful. Thanks Marc and Angel.
Your emails are always worth reading!
Sometimes they give me a quick dose of inspiration, and sometimes they lead me to an in-depth blog post that completely changes my perspective about how I’ve been recently living. Today I received one of the latter, and for that I’m truly thankful.
I really needed to hear #1 today. I am often distracted when I should be present and focused. And the interesting thing about this is that the older I’ve grown, the more I’ve realized that my attentiveness makes a difference in everything I do. So basically, you just helped see a double standard between my thinking and my recent actions. Thank you for the awareness kick!
I do not believe I will be alive in 10 or more years as I am 81 now! But I do believe all that you say and have said in the past applies to any one at any age. Although my birth certificate says I am 81 I am told I appear to be in my late 60’s and although I do have physical and mobility issues, I am essentially the same person I was when in my 20’s (with more experience under my belt, of course). So I just want to say thank you to you guys for always offering up such wonderful advice. It is always welcome and very much appreciated!
Eva McRae says
I too feel that way. I really enjoy reading what Marc and Angel write but the response that others make due to what is stated. We do learn from each other and all who are in our lives and those who we do not meet in person but through lines written such as what is written in response to others such as in this site.
My love goes out to all at this moment and as Carol said, it is always welcome and appreciated.
-Jane Foust says
I’m also 81, but still need this helpful advice as life changes and we have to change with it. Sometimes (actually most of the time) it is hard for me to finish a project in the time I’ve allotted myself. Your advice has encouraged me to “keep at it” until it’s completed. Thanks!
So many times your emails have come to me in times of desperate need and this is no exception. I often struggle with my thoughts, ruminating over hurtful events and things people have said to me. I do the best I can to move forward and live and feel better. I have to remind myself that others have their journey too and that all the wishes, wants and frustrations are unable to change what’s happened.
Thank you for your constant inspiration and precious words of wisdom.
I recently suffered a severe physical illness from which I am now recovering well and while I am sometimes weighed down by worry about my healing or fear of reoccurrence, what I mostly experience is a difference in perspective regarding what’s important. I made a promise to myself to do more of the things I want to do regardless of what others might say.
Strange enough, I don’t miss the active social life I had in my twenties where I had a lot of friends and went out every weekend, and sometimes during the week as well. I’ve found that as time has passed, I feel more drawn to quieter activities such as reading etc. Admittedly, I probably forego it too often to surf social media but this is something I have to work on.
Nonetheless, I think one of things I’ve learned over the years is to be yourself and not to allow others to define your version of happiness and what might work for some may not work for others. Some enjoy an active social life while some enjoy being close to nature to take a breath, to meditate and to get in touch with their inner joy. Neither way is better than other though, and it is up to us to decide which one makes us happy. I personally enjoy an early morning meditation at the beach.
Anyway I’m recovering well, should be back out to work next week God willing.
Good read here, as usual too. Thanks.
Larry Sitz says
You continue to refine your understanding of the essence and at the same time honing your presentation. Stay the course, you are changing a widening swath of us.
Dear Marc and Angel,
I have been following you all for quite some time now. I really took some time this morning to really be present and take in your article. What I appreciate in every article is your honesty and authenticity about your own personal lives and experiences with the people around you.
I read all the comments and each one of them I can relate to on some level. What you have learned and share with us is truly a gift.
We don’t just “get there” one day and that is it. I know we all need help and guidance throughout our lives. As life is often so unpredictable. May we always be learning and sharing and growing and living our best lives passionately. Presence is everything.
Thank you for reminding us of that and thank you for what a beautiful gift you all bring to this world.
Debbie Downes says
I love this article. I’m inspired to stay present and mindful and enjoy precious moments without distractions or judgement. I smiled as I read this and I’m grateful for your wisdom. Thank you
Great articles! Thank you so much!
I read all comments. I save every email and read them often. I’m nurse and going often through a lot of stress so your emails and positive messages helped a lot!
Ferdinand Van Nieketk says
… thank you…
Thank you… again a great article with many impressive thoughts. One topic in relation to your thoughts that I would like to raise is “Positivity”. It seems to me that if somebody is “negative” in thinking, then your points will not be addressed as you point them out. For me Positivity comprises joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration and awe to my environment. In my opinion if I am clear about my attitudes in these topics (and so to speak “I am positive…”), then I can also address my mindfulness, my connections, my passion and my goals in a better way. The “Think positive!” statement is a daily ritual for me to achieve my goals… Thank you again for your thoughts.
As I get older, I realize it is harder to have genuine friendships. It is no one’s fault. People are so wrapped up in their work and family that there is little time left over to form more than an acquaintance relationship with others. As my close friends are starting to pass away, I miss the feeling of having someone who will always be there for me as I am for them. I am still trying to make new friends, and people seem to like me. It’s just that there isn’t time in their busy schedules left over.
Mutoni Jane says
I have been following you for quite some time. I appreciate the honesty and sincerity in all the articles that you have been publishing that relate to your personal lives and the people around you. I have been experiencing marital stress due to my failure to accept the situation at hand. Having read through this article about the rituals especially number 4, it has changed my mindset to the corner of acceptance that I can it control how people feel about me rather can control how I feel about myself.
Thank you so much for the profound message that adds positive energy to many of us out there going through daily life stressors.