Why Focusing on the Little Things Blocks Out the Big Picture
My return flight to New York City was set to leave from Akron-Canton Airport at 5:00 PM. It was 2:30 and I had just realized that I forgot my contact lenses, glasses case, toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, and vitamins at my girlfriend’s apartment in Cleveland, 45 minutes away from my parents’ house, which was another half hour away from the airport. What I should have been doing was enjoying the last couple of hours in Ohio with my family. What I was doing instead was imagining spending the next couple of months blindly fumbling around New York City with God-awful breath, an unkempt beard, and a weak immune system. There was frantic pacing, unnecessary cursing, and, “Oh God, I’m going to miss my flight! Is my girlfriend going to break up with me over this!?” I had my keys in my hand and was on my way to my car, ready to make the hour and a half trek to and back from Cleveland when my dad suggested I slow down and think everything through. I needed that. Because I let these unchecked thoughts have a field day in my brain, I completely forgot that I had six pairs of extra contacts at my New York apartment and could buy everything else at literally any pharmacy. Crisis averted.
It didn’t have to be a crisis though. Now, any time I’m confronted with a minor obstacle, I’ve learned to slow down and ask myself a couple of questions. “Is this fantasized prediction of the future guaranteed to come true? Is this worth the stress I’m putting myself through?” The answer to both questions is always no. When we’re immersed in a seemingly stressful situation, it’s not always easy to stop for a few seconds and realize there are better options than the worst-case scenario that we project inside of our heads. Any time something goes wrong, it doesn’t mean everyone we know is going to hate us, it means we have an opportunity to grow by weighing out worst-case scenario, probable scenario, and best-case scenario, and then choosing our next move accordingly. Personally, I prefer best-case. Looking back, we’ve all made it through every stressful situation intact, so we shouldn’t allow these “panic-inducing” situations to loom so large in front of us. They’re never as serious as we make them seem.
Stressing out actually reduces the number of options of actions we consider taking because we’re so focused on the potential ramifications of the problem (which are all imagined), we filter out many possible (and logical) solutions. In fact, according to a study done at the University of Toronto, our line of vision is actually worse when we’re in a negative state of mind!^1 I was producing a sketch comedy show at Carolines on Broadway, and two nights before the show, my computer crashed. If anything was a panic-inducing situation for me, this had the potential to be the Titanic (no offense to those on board the Titanic – I’m not minimalizing your situation, I’m just being dramatic). I needed to use my laptop for music cues and sound effects, and with the super-important dress rehearsal just hours away, my initial reaction was pounding my fists on the desk and shouting, “No, no, no, no, nonononono, not now!” I felt my brain start running away with stinkin’ thinkin.’ “The show is ruined! We’re going to have to cancel! All of this hard work for nothing!” But I remembered the famous forgotten contact debacle, asked myself, “Is this fantasized prediction of the future guaranteed to come true? Is this worth the stress I’m putting myself through?” Just like that, I stopped my panicking brain from deciding on anything rash and took a much-needed moment to really weigh my options. Worst-case: I throw my computer against the wall and do the show without music or sound effects, ruining everything! Probable: someone else downloads the sound effects and music and we use their computer to run the show. Best-case: I take my computer to the Genius Bar and get it back in time for the show. I chose the latter and my computer was repaired and ready to go literally minutes before the pivotal final dress rehearsal.
We’re faced with problems and obstacles, big and small, every day. If we spend our time thinking about how bad the problem is, no matter how small, it takes over our lives and has a dramatic impact on what happens next. Basing our choices on imagined future worst-case scenarios that aren’t even guaranteed to happen causes us to forget to focus on right now. As a result, the actual solution becomes ever-evasive and we create a self-fulfilling prophecy based on decisions made in a stressed-out state of mind. Take a breather, ask yourself the questions, and imagine a future where the result is the best-case scenario. I guarantee the next action you take will help guide you there if you let it.
1: Elias, C., & Luke, K. (2009, June 2). People Who Wear Rose-Coloured Glasses See More. Retrieved September 4, 2014.