In these challenging times, all of us at LifeSmart are concerned for your well-being and are working overtime to find ways we can support you, your families, and your schools with encouragement, wisdom, perspective, and helpful strategies. Given the soaring levels of anxiety we are witnessing, this message is important. I have no doubt that there are people in your life who can benefit. Our desire is that it makes you, and the children you guide, more peaceful, hopeful, healthy, and productive, regardless of the current circumstances.
Through observation and conversation, we are struck by how differently people are affected by these times. Much of this is to be expected because each of us is challenged in unique ways and to varying degrees:
- Financial: some businesses are booming (Zoom, Amazon) while others are suffering greatly (restaurants, cruise lines, gyms), which is affecting careers and family economics
- Health: some of us been personally impacted by COVID-19 (self/family/friends) while others have gone largely unscathed
- Education: some schooling remains all-virtual while others are in-person; this is affecting students, families, and teachers in disparate ways
- Personal Freedom: depending on how governors and mayors are attempting to manage the pandemic, citizens are experiencing freedom or severe restraints
- Relationships: our ability to see family members, friends, teachers, and co-workers in person has been significantly impacted; and careers are being put on hold for many parents while their children are learning remotely
It is no wonder that anxiety levels are up and vary so widely!
However, it is also the case that people respond differently to similar circumstances—especially when confronted with factors outside of their control. Some are better able to take things in stride, while others suffer mightily and are consumed with fear. We’ve all seen this.
So, the question I’ll tackle today is how we can constructively handle all of life’s circumstances, regardless of whether our waters are stormy or calm. At LifeSmart, we’d like to share an approach that we believe can help. We call it, the Two Bucket Strategy. I know it sounds a little odd, but please hear me out.
In life, we face two types of circumstances: those we can control and those we cannot. In some cases, we’re the final decision-maker, while in others, we rely on other people, organizations, or rules. Someone once told me that life consists of two things—time and choices—so I’d better get them right! But, let’s be honest, many of our “choices” are driven by the decisions and rules made by others.
What are some examples of things we can control? For the most part, these include areas like our careers, attitudes, how we spend our money, how we manage our time, what entertainment, media, and information we consume, the food we eat, which activities we participate in, our personal faith, the values we hold, and the friends we choose. While there may be outside influences, with these decisions, the buck generally stops with us. Figuratively speaking, let’s place this collection of decisions into a bucket—the Controllable Bucket—or what I call my “Me Bucket.” People like this bucket most because we’re in charge!
But, what about that often frustrating bucket of life’s influences, circumstances, and decisions that are outside of our control? Here, examples include: the family we were born into/genetics, the weather, landing a certain job or college acceptance, the management skills of our boss, whether our schooling is in-person or virtual, the feelings and actions of others, government policy/leaders, our economic environment, the health of our population, whether our flight will arrive on time, how politicians govern in a pandemic, and whether the person we ask on a date or to marry says, “Yes.” In some of these cases, we may be able to influence the outcome/decision, but for the most part, we are beholden to the authority and final call of others. We might call this collection the Uncontrollable Bucket.
There is another key aspect in play—the size of the buckets—because they ebb and flow. Usually, the size of our Controllable Bucket remains relatively constant over time. However, the Uncontrollable Bucket can undergo significant change from year to year, especially in chaotic times when it expands enormously, like now! Compare this bucket’s size today with eighteen months ago, and you’ll see what I mean. Simply put, we’re all dealing with more concerning and impactful variables today that are outside of our control. It’s a surefire recipe for fear and anxiety if we don’t manage this well.
As we juggle all of life’s balls, the question is how we approach these respective categories—the controllable and uncontrollable. Do we think of them as two different decision realms or do we lump them all together into one giant hodge-podge in our daily living? How do we allocate our time/energy among what we can control and what we cannot? These answers have a profound impact on our wellness and productivity and are the crux of matter for many today.
In life, and especially during chaotic times like now, we can clearly see the pitfalls of lumping these buckets together as we manage our affairs. Anxiety soars. Decision-making suffers. Relationships take a toll. Hopelessness rises. Mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health plunges. Although unintentional, when we allow the “uncontrollables” to take over, our lives can become consumed with chaos. We are seeing these effects all around us when people:
- Spend most of their waking moments agonizing and focusing on uncontrollable circumstances. They devote endless hours consuming media (which, by design, alarms, provokes, and is often biased). They allow it to dominate their conversations with family and friends, which increases anxiety, especially when they pile those concerns onto their own. They fixate and worry about decisions that are in the process of being made by others (especially political), wondering how they will turn out.
- Spend less time on making quality decisions, investing in their relationships, fostering personal health and growth, and focusing on things they can actually do something about.
- Assume current conditions will persist forever (the “new normal”) without recognizing their resilience, resourcefulness, and adaptability. This breeds a sense of hopelessness.
- Allow their worries to crowd out what brings them joy.
Implementing the Two Bucket Strategy
So, how do we actually put the Two Bucket Strategy into practice? The first step is having a clear understanding of what is controllable or not. As new circumstances unfold or new information is available, consider whether and how they may impact your decisions and actions. If a situation arises and a decision is yours to make, place it in your Controllable Bucket and focus on making a well-considered decision (or action) with the best information you have available. All you can do is your best, so be sure to extend yourself some grace. Because you are in control of these decisions, you’ll want to spend the vast majority of your time on these areas of your life. The end result is more productivity and general well-being.
What about those “uncontrollables” that can be sources of great concern, especially in times like now? First,you place them in the Uncontrollable Bucket, accepting that these decisions/circumstances are outside of your ability to control. We may not like the circumstances or the people/institutions with decision-making authority, but we come to accept that reality. There may be a grieving component to this (i.e., processing emotions that you wish things were different), which is healthy and normal, but we have to come to terms with our inability to control these circumstances and outcomes.
That said, there may be opportunities to directly or indirectly influence eventual outcomes through our initiative. If we don’t like the direction or policy positions of those in control of decisions, we can choose to lend our voice to the conversation or issue through our own involvement. It may not affect immediate decisions, but it may make a difference in time. Thus, while we can reach a place of acceptance of others’ control over certain decisions (as difficult as it may be), it does not imply passivity. However, if we choose to involve ourselves, the question becomes how much of our time we allocate to these matters.
Second, remember our objective is to make the most of life regardless of our circumstances. As my Therapist daughter describes it, you control what you can (well) within the context of what you can’t. Remember, you have a choice in how you deal with matters beyond your control. So, live consistent with your values, invest in your relationships, and make the most out of your life no matter what. Simply put, it is freeing when we can reach this place.
Third, devote some time to gaining valuable, unbiased factual information to help you better understand the circumstances and adapt accordingly. In these days of alarmist and often biased media, it is essential to diversify your information sources to gain perspectives from multiple points of view. Also, be sure to up your “discernment meter” to differentiate between fact and opinion with your information and sources. This will help you make more objective and wise decisions within the context of the uncontrollable circumstances you’re dealing with.
Fourth, pay close attention to your stressors and set appropriate boundaries toward the people and information sources that are not constructive influences. For most, this will involve consuming less media and being more selective when choosing the people with whom you associate or are connected to on social media. This takes self-awareness of your anxiety levels and lots of discernment, self-discipline, and self-respect. Surround yourself with positive influences and factual information. Limit the alternative.
Fifth, pay close attention to your time allocation between the two buckets and give substantial priority to your controllables. With media at our fingertips, it’s so easy to get sucked into all of the issues we can’t control (hello politics!). This includes the amount of time we spend and the frequency with which we are checking the news and such. People get more anxious the more frequently they focus on the uncontrollables. If your anxiety levels are increasing, it may be a sign that you need to reallocate your time between these buckets and stay away from media/tech for longer intervals.
Sixth, consider this an opportunity to grow your spiritual life. People of faith (myself included) have additional ways to release their worries and their Uncontrollable Bucket. Through prayer, meditation, and reflection, as well as through a faith community, they can share concerns and desires, seek wisdom and guidance, and give thanks. It offers peace, comfort, hope, and direction in unique ways in good times and bad. I realize our readers hold different faith views but feel it’s important to share.
Seventh, pay extra attention to what brings you joy and fulfillment, and seek opportunities to serve others. It’s a win-win for sure.
Finally, remember that everyone is fighting a unique battle in these difficult times, so be extra compassionate and empathetic and extend more grace to the people around you.
We hope these ideas are helpful to you in navigating these times and encourage you to share this with the people in your life. Yes, two buckets are indeed better than one.
Dennis Trittin is the author of What I Wish I Knew at 18: Life Lessons for the Road Ahead and Parenting for the Launch: Raising Teens to Succeed in the Real World. Through his books, blog, and nationwide speaking engagements, Dennis prepares students for life success and equips parents and educators in their vital training role. You can find him here on Facebook.