“What was I thinking?” “What a stupid idea.” “What if this is how my trip will be like?” A never-ending stream of thoughts and questions raced through my head as I laid down on the first night of my first solo trip. (For context, I have done several trips in the past, and have spent multiple days alone, but this was the first time where I started and returned on my own.) Frankly, I did not think this would be too difficult (at least not yet). I arrive, make some friends, explore the city and call it a night – simple right? Long story short, I had a zero social interaction that first night….which was fine, I was tired from a day of airports and flights anyway (at least that is what I told myself). But right before falling asleep, the crippling thoughts and questions flooded in and I was left pondering for hours on ‘what ifs’ – the idea that THIS may be how I spend the next few weeks horrified me.
First lesson: truck forward when you don’t ‘feel’ like it. Whether it is travelling, business, or relationships, I can assure you the ‘what ifs’ will never stop. Our brains are wired to place greater emphasis on negativity, loss, fear and threats, triggering our emotional center to fire off before we can logically think things over. (Search ‘amygdala hijack’ and negative bias to learn more) So what did I do? The same thing I do everyday – get up, figure out what to do, and start doing. Despite knowing the past does not equal the future, and how the prior night was my emotional center taking over, I cannot deny that the aching feeling that was still there. Ultimately I had to decide that I couldn’t let this ruin my day. A decision to take action goes a long way. Coincidentally, I made a new friend an hour later who remains a great friend to this day. (Shout out to Ally!)
“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” — Paulo Coelho
As days went on, something occurred to me – deciding every detail of my day is exhausting. From the more substantial decisions like my day’s itinerary or how to get from A to B, to the micro-decisions like when/where I do laundry or how to best pack my bag – every decision consumed cognitive resources. And just when I get into a rhythm, I move cities and the cycle begins again. And I began to wonder … “Why don’t I have this issue at home?”
Second lesson: understand the decisions — however large or small — you make everyday and determine which you need to automate versus control. We act on auto-pilot for most decisions in our life — for instance, brushing your teeth, your route to work, how you make your coffee. And to be clear, there is NOTHING wrong with systems and routines. As I mentioned, deciding every detail of your day is exhausting and you have a finite amount of cognitive resources to deploy. If you will inevitably go on auto-pilot, why not make a conscious and deliberate effort to identify the tasks suited for automation and the tasks you want to control? Focusing on the things that matter will generate much larger returns in your day-to-day decisions and behaviours. Steve Jobs famously wore the same outfit everyday to have one less decision. Every decision counts — use it wisely.
“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary, so that the necessary may speak.” — Hans Hofman
One of the most memorable events of this trip (and arguably my life) was when I was at the top of Mount Fuji, and no , it was not because of the view. I had just parted ways from my group when a massive storm hit. I was drenched from the rain the entire way up, it was difficult to breathe due to the altitude, and my energy was nearly depleted. What I had thought was going to be a quick rainfall turned into hail, fog, lightening, and ice. I found a small covering and watched the storm get worse and worse by the second. With a few hours to the ground, my body in an exhausted state, and horrible weather conditions, I literally froze. Do I stay put and wait for this to pass, or do I trek through? Fear got to me and I initially decided to stay. However, I quickly found myself approaching hypothermia and I knew I had to move. Now or never. Long story short, I left my safe zone and never turned back. Every step, every rock, and every turn required focus, vigilance, and strength that I didn’t know was still available in my beaten up state.
Third lesson: use fear and stress to your advantage. Many of you may have heard the term fight-or-flight, a multi-faceted response wired in our brains to help us survive. While this was a unique case, we experience this response everyday in our lives and more often than not, the fear and threat is NOT going to kill us ; for example, before a presentation. By understanding this response and what our brain/body can and cannot do, we can harness this programming to our advantage. If you are someone that performs better under pressure, you are already doing this. (Search fight-or-flight, sympathetic nervous system or stress response to learn more).
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