“Bumps in the road” are a given in life.
What’s not a given: How you respond to these setbacks. It’s a big indicator of your ability to invest your attention wisely.
Given the unpredictable nature of these potholes, it’s impossible to prepare for the exact scenario that will arise. But you can develop a reliable approach for understanding what’s worth your energy, and what isn’t.
There’s a single rule I rely on to decide when it’s worth it to invest my time and attention in something. It’s especially useful for those unexpected bumps in the road.
Invest Your Attention Where Your Priorities Meet Your Sphere of Influence
This framework follows a simple rule. It’s worth it to invest your time and energy on activities when they meet two criteria:
- You have control or influence on the scenario.
- It’s important to you.
The framework is simple and easy to understand. But in execution, it’s challenging due to two common traps that pull your attention in.
Stay Aware of Common Traps to Invest Your Attention Wisely
Trap 1: Low-priority activities
How it sucks you in: You’re drawn to do something because it’s in your control.
Why it’s unhelpful: These time-sucks often lead to regret in life…Wishing you would have spent time in a way that was closer-aligned to your priorities. (One look at the regrets of the dying will reaffirm the importance of living by your priorities.)
Example: Surfing social media and reading countless articles on your feed. Although there may be benefits in learning and exposure to ideas, chances are you are spending your time on the priority of others, simply because the opportunity is there.
Trap 2: Unproductive worrying
How it sucks you in: You’re drawn to think about something because it’s important to you.
Why it’s unhelpful: Since the outcome is out of your control, spending mental energy on it is fruitless worrying. This worrying is a great way to sabotage your own happiness and wellbeing. (Not to mention increase your cortisol levels.)
Example: Anxiously checking the weather forecast multiple times per day leading up to a flight. You care about having a smooth travel experience. But stressing about if the weather will delay you is entirely out of your control.
(I also see this frequently with others worrying about their loved ones. Many mothers claim it’s “their job to worry”. While I can’t relate to being a mother, I’d challenge anyone’s decision to worry about something that’s out of their control. Chronic stress is a silent killer!)
4 Steps to Practicing an Even-Keeled Mindset
These time-traps are a danger at all times. But they’re especially magnetic when you hit an unexpected bump in the road. Moments of disorientation make it difficult to stay mindful of your actions.
Try this approach to stay mindful next time you encounter anger, frustration, tension, or overwhelm in your life.
1. Cultivate awareness to see things as they are
The first step to making a clear decision is to see things as they are. Pause briefly to ground yourself with a few deep breaths, and take stock of the situation.
Notice what’s happening in your body. What feelings are you experiencing? What thoughts are surfacing in your mind?
For example: Let’s say you’ve just missed the bus that will get you to work on time. Your face is flushed, you’re feeling frustration and disbelief at your actions, and fear of the consequences of being late. Thoughts of self-criticism and unworthiness pop into your head.
2. Reflect to understand your influence
Ask yourself: Can I influence the reality of this scenario by taking action?
In the example, there are a number of things in your control. You could phone your manager to inform her of the situation, or hail a cab to get you to work instead.
3. Accept the things you cannot change
When the answer to the previous question is “No”, practice acceptance.
When we can no longer change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
~ Viktor Frankl
You can’t always control the entire scenario. But you can always control your actions and reactions.
Make a conscious choice not to worry/stress about this reality. Understand that it’s out of your hands. Know that you have limited time and energy, and investing it here isn’t a wise decision.
Continuing with the example: You may choose to wait for the next bus. After phoning your manager, it isn’t worth stressing about the fact that you’ll be late. You’ve done what you can do in the situation, so it’s time to accept the other elements for what they are.
4. Take action where your priorities meet your influence
If you do have influence in the scenario, ask: Is taking action here a priority for me?
When something is both important to you and in your sphere of influence, it’s worth taking action.
In the example: You may decide that arriving on time is enough of a priority that you’re willing to spend the extra money on a taxi to get to work on time. You take action on it when it’s a priority.
It’s worth noting that there is a give and take between what’s in your control and what isn’t.Once you get in the cab, your arrival time is out of your control. It isn’t worth worrying about how traffic will change their arrival time. Instead, choose to accept that you’ll arrive when they arrive. You’ve done your best given the scenario!
Invest Your Attention Wisely
Your time and attention are your most valuable resources.
Especially when life’s challenges threaten to consume your attention, use this framework to stay mindful.
Only invest your attention where your control and influence meet your priorities!
Accepting the things you cannot change, and focusing on your priorities are surefire strategies to increase wellbeing moving forward.