Don’t Sweat the Big Stuff (continuously)

The best-selling book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (Carlson, 1997) offered advice for living life with less stress by letting go of less important things. That remains excellent advice. But I find I need different guidance now, to help me navigate current realities, which involve disturbing, consequential “very big stuff” far beyond my control. I’m talking about mountains and boulders… in addition to the usual stones and pebbles that I navigate along my life’s path.

I’ve spent too many hours sweating the big stuff — worrying about the next wave of damage by enormous boulders, namely society’s cross-cutting racial injustice and our public health crisis. That worrying usually leaves me with a sense of helplessness. [Note: Getting educated about societal problems is important, but this article is not about that.]

In order to stay productive on a task that is personally or professionally important to me, I now need to do some “hyper-focusing”.  I need to resolutely pivot 180 degrees away from the “big stuff” as if I am wearing mental and emotional blinders. This can be extremely hard to do! For example, this week, we all learned that the heroic “conscience of congress” and civil liberties champion Rep. John Lewis died. This is extremely consequential, sad news for our nation.  And… I have time-sensitive client work to do.

Much research points to the value of being mindful and staying present in the moment — being truly present, while keeping at bay the frustrations of the past and the worries of the future. Mindful presence, we have learned, is key to accessing our best cognitive selves, sustaining our best physiologically and psychologically grounded selves, and finding our most empathetic selves. This is life-long work that we restart everyday that has gotten harder lately.

So, I’m trying to complement that work by doubling down on task focus. Specifically, I am defining each important task extra narrowly, with extra self-compassion, and with thick boundaries around it.

Here are the tactics I am trying:

  • break a task down into smaller tasks, so that I can declare small victories more often and with less elapsed time (before some of my attention inevitably drifts back to the big boulders)
  • get into the physical “doing” (such as writing) even when my high quality “thinking” is less accessible, so that I create some tangible momentum for myself – even if it necessitates rework
  • intermingle different types of tasks more organically, depending upon the mental energy it will take to block out the looming big stuff and get the task done – e.g., if I cannot draft a document, I’ll prep dinner (and do unstructured thinking while chopping)
  • add and prioritize small personal tasks that would otherwise be on the back burner, if they can yield a psychological boost to my sense of purpose and impact. I may check on a sick friend or do a favor for family before I draft that memo. (I can still personally move rocks in valuable ways, even though I cannot move boulders alone!)
  • lastly, to complement this intensified, narrow focus for my own work and personal life, I separately carve out substantial time – again with intention and focus — to expand my understanding and my own role around the societal boulders that greatly need collective action

How about you? Even as you know there are very problematic mountains and boulders around that will continue to distract you, could you fuel your best, empowered self if you set up smaller, discrete goals that generate numerous “wins” to celebrate each day?