The unfamiliar Taco Bell was out of Diet Pepsi, ice, and several varieties of Border Sauce. I placed my crippled order and handed over my Citi DoubleCash card.
“Our machine’s broken.”
After fishing a five-dollar bill out of my wallet, I paid 19th century style and begrudgingly dumped a handful of coins into my pocket while waiting for my order to come out wrong.
When it finally did, I thought about letting this experience ruin my day.
It was within my power to angrily demand a refund, take my business elsewhere, and then write a letter to the store’s general manager, informing them of everything that happened. There’s a tiny chance that might have somehow had a positive impact on the world, but it more likely would’ve wasted a lot of my time.
Ultimately, I just wanted my burritos the way I ordered them. So, I let go of my impassioned desire to fundamentally change this eating establishment’s business practices and politely said, “I think you forgot to grill these.”
The issue was resolved in under sixty seconds, and I went about the rest of my afternoon with a smile on my face — because I chose to.
Ignore The Things You Don’t Intend To Change
Ancient stoic philosophers tell us to concern ourselves only with things we can personally affect. Even if a giant Antarctic glacier might drown us all next week, we shouldn’t allow that fact to affect our happiness. Worrying about it won’t do any good*.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”— Trip Of A Lifestyle (@TOALifestyle) July 23, 2022
This is great advice, but I would take it one step further: Even if something is within your sphere of influence, you still don’t need to concern yourself with it unless you really plan to take action to change it.
When faced with something that bothers you, ask yourself: “What am I actually willing to do to solve this problem?”
If the honest, rational, best answer is “nothing,” then you should promptly forget about it and calmly accept the consequences of that decision.
“Ignore your problems” may seem like weird advice, but it’s better than letting things upset you when you have absolutely no intention of changing them. You might as well save yourself the time and grief.
Let’s look at some familiar examples from Main Street, USA…
Don’t Let Politics Waste Your Life
Regardless of who’s in office, approximately zero Americans seem to say they’re satisfied with the performance of the government. I’m willing to bet this is true in about 194 other countries, too.
Our political landscape has gotten pretty hostile and polarized in recent years. Americans are spending a lot of time watching news that aligns with their pre-existing beliefs, fruitlessly regurgitating talking points on social media, and participating in good old-fashioned name-calling.
All this complaining requires a huge expenditure of time and emotional energy, so political issues present a perfect opportunity to apply one of my favorite questions:
“What am I actually willing to do to solve the problems I perceive?”
In the United States, we’re lucky to have a voice in our government. We can vote, petition, protest, lobby, and even run for office to make policy changes ourselves.
If you’ve dedicated your life to public service, or your name will appear on an upcoming ballot, that’s great. I genuinely applaud your effort. And in fairness, you should probably spend a bit more time than the average person fixated on politics.
On the other hand, if your immediate response to the above was, “well…I vote,” then I have great news for you: You can reclaim thousands of hours of your life and stress less by just ignoring politics 90% of the time.
When you find yourself engaging with something political, just think, “Could this actually change the way I or someone else votes (or acts) for the better? And is the likelihood of that happening commensurate with the time I’m spending on it?”
If the answer is yes, then go ahead — watch that presidential primary debate, have a frank discussion with your parents about world affairs, or read that Wikipedia article. Genuine communication and education can be a good thing.
If the answer is “hell yes,” then you might even think about increasing your level of involvement. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But if, when you’re honest with yourself, the answer is actually “no,” you should go ahead and give yourself permission to skip out on passively watching seven hours of news per week, littering your property with yard signs, or eviscerating an old high school acquaintance with a perfectly-crafted, 14-paragraph Facebook comment**.
The world won’t be any different without your participation in these things, except that you can enjoy all that extra time, money, and emotional energy doing something truly productive — or even just fun.
Taking Risks Shouldn’t Stress You Out
Whoops. I might have gotten you so heated up about that political stuff that you’ve forgotten what this blog post is really about: making your life better. Let’s try a slightly less controversial example…
Over the years, I’ve watched a lot of people lose sleep over safety and security concerns. And in fairness, they’re worth thinking about, because there’s usually something you can do to control them (to some extent).
You can install an alarm system in your house and pay for a 24/7 monitoring service to ward off burglars. You can drive a big, brand new car to protect you in the event of an accident and reduce your chances of a breakdown. You can buy insurance to offset the possibility of dropping your smartphone on a concrete floor.
Unfortunately, none of these “solutions” actually improve your odds much. Your alarm system isn’t likely to deter criminals because of the simple fact that home invasion isn’t very common in the first place. While new cars are slightly more reliable than older models, it’s pretty easy to maintain a safe and dependable used car, too. And as nice as it feels to carry insurance on your possessions, it’s also mathematically rigged against you.
There’s an obvious downside to all of those risk interventions: They’re expensive, and expensive things have a tendency to keep you trapped at work forever.
So, after considering the pros and cons, you might boldly decide to ignore the barrage of fear-mongering advertisements and go without some of these security blankets. And once you’ve made that choice calmly and rationally, it’s time to forget about those risks forever***, because you’ve accepted them with good reason.
If you constantly quake in fear of the calculated risks you’ve taken, you’re robbing yourself of the benefits of taking those risks in the first place.
The same thing applies to the risks of investing. You can control the potential downside that your financial portfolio is exposed to by adjusting its asset allocation, but once you’ve made that important decision, there’s no benefit in thinking about your investments any more. Refreshing your brokerage account balance six times a day won’t stop the next recession from striking, so just relax, stick to your plan, and enjoy your life.
Be Confident; Be You
Perhaps more wasteful than any of the above examples are concerns about other people’s choices and opinions.
If a family member decides to marry someone you don’t approve of, you can have a concerned conversation about it. But when their decision sticks, you need to accept the things you can’t change and avoid letting someone else’s decision affect your day-to-day happiness.
Conversely, you’re probably gonna make a lot of choices that other people don’t approve of (especially if you’re following some of the unorthodox advice on this blog 😉). We’ve been razzed plenty of times for our spending habits and our tendency to work a lot less than American culture says we’re supposed to.
It can be tough to have confidence in your own decisions when everyone else is doing the opposite, but if you can start trusting yourself and forgetting about what other people think, you’ll unlock a whole new level of freedom in life.
One final word of caution though: As you develop this mental muscle of selective ignorance, make sure you don’t use it as an excuse to be rude, inconsiderate, lazy, or irresponsible. The goal isn’t to blissfully eschew every problem in your life (some are very worth solving!) — it’s to unburden you from the self-imposed idea that you have to solve them all.
* You might argue that there really IS something you can do about the Doomsday Glacier, because global climate change is significantly anthropogenic. If this motivates you to take positive actions for the environment in your life, that’s wonderful. You should. And then you should STILL stop letting it bother you. Earth’s climate doesn’t respond to negative emotions.
** I’m not innocent. Regretfully, I’ve wasted many hours on Facebook political debates. If you’re like me, and you enjoy friendly disagreements a little too much, here’s a tip: These conversations are much more productive one-on-one. When you have no audience to “win” in front of, you’ll be more likely to hear what the other person is saying (and vice-versa). I’ve made some great friends this way — and maybe even changed a mind or two.
*** To be clear, this is not an argument against valuing safety and security. When I ride my bike, I wear a helmet. Before I go to bed, I lock my door. But I try to selectively choose actions with a low cost-to-benefit ratio. For high-cost interventions, I also ask myself, “How does the importance of this risk compare with others I’m willing to accept?”