This is a post for those who are struggling. Maybe it’s the loss of a job, loved one, or a health crisis. For whatever reason, you’re feeling overwhelmed, like you’ve lost your footing. Here’s a way to get some traction and regain some semblance of sanity. A means for moving forward when all you can think about is retreat. It may even help you decide that things are going to be ok after all. Eventually.
I know how it feels when you’re on the ropes, when life has gone sideways, and it’s hard to stay on track. Perhaps it seems there is no track. When you’re in new, ominous territory.
Meanwhile, your days are still a flurry of hither and thither. You get to the end of it, and wonder what happened. What got done? You wonder whose day it was really, and for what?
My Trouble Trail
I remember being in the bunker a few years back. I had come to a place where life kept dropping bombs. I was hunkered down, dazed by the explosions. Wondering, what now? It seemed everything was in a state of going, or having gone bad.
Alone, alienated, and full of anxiety about the future, I woke up one morning and decided I needed a walk. “Probably better to do calisthenics or something more rigorous” I told myself, but for whatever reason, I shut up the “should” in me and started walking.
It was cold, I didn’t know my way around the neighborhood. I’d been living in a friends trailer, and had now graduated to another friend’s empty house that was on the market for sale. He’d offered to let me stay there until he could find a buyer.
My thoughts that morning were a mish mash that bounced from concerns about my children to the lawyers, to the funny noise my car was making, but I walked. A couple of miles later, I finished and headed for work, and another worrisome day of problems, some new, some old. I knew it would be a while before the madness would subside, but at the end of that day I could tell myself, “at least I took a walk.”
The next day I walked again.
The next week I began to jog instead of walk.
Eventually, I had a full fledged morning exercise routine that I’ve now maintained for years.
Pay attention to what you’re paying attention to
Problems are attention hogs.
The force of habit and the pull of events is always in play, but there is a part of us that looks on. The onlooker that longs for things to be better. It’s apart from and above the part that sees life making a beeline for the gutter. The part that notices what you are noticing and attending to. What I’m proposing here is a way of connecting with the onlooker.
We all know the benefit of focusing our attention, but when the heat is on, we feel like we have no attention to spare. When you’re in trouble, your attention is used up in torrents, not trickles. You can waste away hours of your day grazing in a pasture of worries and hazards. Wondering what will blow up next.
However, even small expenditures of narrowed focus can be very powerful, and can expand exponentially.
Of course, you can’t help but hurt, but how to keep it from being such a glutton of your attention? My experience has been that a daily practice, even if it’s just going for a walk, is a way of fencing off a piece of your attention, and can serve as a guard against it dissipating completely on the frets.
I’m in a better place now, but there is still the daily battle of noticing what I’m noticing. Here’s what works for me now, and would have worked back there in the bunker.
I do 30 day walks
I know that sprints are all the rage these days, and they can be helpful at times, but this is a different approach. I’m not in a hurry. Consistency, not urgency, is the key. We’re all pulled in many directions every day; this is a way of pulling myself back to what matters. Over time it becomes gratifying as I begin to see I can rely on myself to do it daily. It’s a sense that I’m pecking away, methodically, at something important.
At the beginning of the month, I pick no more than 3 areas I want to give attention. Every day for 30 days, preferably mornings before “the pull begins” I take each item on the list and ask, “Did I address this yesterday? How might I address it today?”
By “address,” I don’t mean taking a concrete action that’s checked off on a list, but more a consistent practice of looking at the items and giving them attention each day. The method here is to ask, “What is my intention here? I’ve told myself these things matter, am I treating them as such?”
What I’m after is to develop the habit of aligning my attention with my intention. For me, journaling is a great way to accomodate this practice. Whether it be writing down ideas, or thinking of others who might be able to help. Starting small can be surprisingly helpful. For example, you could decide to simply check the balance every day on your checking account. Start your journal entry with that dollar figure and riff away!
If you fail to move an item forward, just note that and call it a win. You noticed it. In the past perhaps you didn’t. The purpose is to establish a string of successful days
Pick things you normally wouldn’t be consistent about. For example, it doesn’t include brushing teeth. That habit is automatic and ingrained.
These are the larger, less specific things. “Money” is a good example. It can seem like a vague problem. Start by asking, what is my intention? More control? Less spending? Supplementing my income?
Once the intention is clear, it’s time to begin tracking the attention devoted to the money situation. Time spent “just thinking” about it can be very helpful; even better if it’s done on paper. Again, journaling — especially daily — is a natural fit for this work.
The efficacy of this practice was reinforced for me recently when I was part of a mastermind. It was suggested that I create 10 tweet-like thoughts a day related to a project I was working on, and text them to the group. Here’s what happened:
- 30 days later, I had 300 new ideas. Not all of them great, but I only needed 30 for the purposes of the project
- The ideas got better over the 30 days
- The concept of the project these ideas were related to, expanded in unexpected wonderful ways
- Eventually, I began thinking about ideas for the next days, throughout the day. My radar was tuned!
Notice my intention wasn’t to come up with 10 good ideas. Bad ideas count too! Just 10 ideas, no matter how good or bad. Every day.
Over those 30 days, my thinking evolved. I gained clarity about the project and my writing about it over time as I paid attention.
We’re all aware of the knowing/doing gap, but for me it’s not so simple. “Just do it” sounds good, but too often I just do it for a short while because I haven’t grounded the habit. I see this method as a way of laying the groundwork for the doing.
All of the important action we take begins with intention. We don’t just wake up one day and say “I’m going to start the exercise program now.” Or, if we do, the effort is likely to be short-lived.
We begin to stew about something, sometimes for years, before we actually begin. As we stew, we get clearer on what the doing will look like and what will be required. This is a way of slowly speeding up the stewing process.
Again, the pattern here is to begin with intention, then begin paying attention to it. We are all paying lots of attention to lots of things. Trouble is, our attention is distributed too widely, especially when we’re in the midst of trouble.
Are you feeling under the gun? On the hamster wheel of “What next?” or “Now what?” Feeling haunted by the implications of your troubled state? My advice is simple:
Take a walk!
Just pick 3.
Notice how they’re interrelated. Let’s say you’ve decided on family, financial and faith (substitute hope for faith if you like, but it doesnt start with an f) as your focus areas.
Take the money example. Maybe you need more, or need to spend less. Maybe you need both. Don’t you need to have a conversation with those who are helping you spend it (family)? Wouldn’t it help to spend some time thinking about why you want more and what for? And whether or not that’s really what you want? Often there’s something beneath or behind that wanting more bit. That could be where faith (or hope) comes in.
The point here is to think about these things a lot. Think about them every day. Capture ideas, question your motives, look for opportunities.
What will happen over time is that you’ll get tired of thinking about them. If you feel like you’re ready to act, go ahead, act! Then write about it the next day. Keep going, don’t stop. Do it for 30 days, and at the end of that time you will see things differently.
What we’re up to here is sneakily exploiting that magnificent, giant brain of yours. Instead of using it to meditate on your troubled state, or sift tweets and FB posts to numb that thought, we’re steering it toward creating a better state. It’s like a counterbalance that you can count on for forward motion.
Ready? Set? Walk!