Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t. Look there, go there. Where focus goes, energy flows. Perhaps you’ve heard one or all of those phrases. Our thoughts and emotions generate our perspective and life experience. What we believe about ourselves, our day, the people around us, and the way the world works has an impact on the actions we take, how we show up in relationships, and how we move through life.
In mountain biking, look there, go there is quite literal. If you’ve ever found yourself fixated on a rock or root (or a tree), and then end up hitting it, it’s because that’s where you were looking. If you find yourself looking where you want to go and committing to it, you often can ride very technical terrain (and can sometimes get away with it if you lack certain skills. Note… sometimes).
In our lives, we are pre-wired to have a negativity bias. That is, we tend to weight negative experiences more than positive ones. Have you ever noticed how you might be fixated on one critical comment and negate all the positive ones? Have you noticed that when someone asks you how an event that you participated in went, most people respond with all the things they could have done better and don’t even mention what they did well?
Leading with the things going well in your life can help shift your focus if you are stuck in a negative rut. This is not toxic positivity where you pretend everything is awesome or stuff challenging emotions. It’s not ignoring painful and frustrating realities. It’s about holding space for both the things going well and acknowledging the things that aren’t going as well. We can get stuck in to dualistic thinking where it’s all-or-none or two competing emotions or circumstances have to be mutually exclusive. That’s not the case.
Training your mind to focus on what’s going well, on abundance, and where opportunities lie will help you notice them more easily. This is why gratitude practices are effective (where you write down things that you’re thankful for, because then you start scanning the world for it). Another example is car shopping- research a car and then you see it everywhere.
The things you focus on are what you notice. That sounds so obvious, but most people don’t pause and think about what they are focusing on or what they want.
An example in my own life is that things are challenging right now. I have a 2-month old and a 2-year-old. Our childcare situation that was already on shaky grounds has gotten unreliable. That means I’m behind at work, I’m stretched a little too thin, I’m working at night or in 5-minute spurts. It is hard and it is unsatisfying, but I know it’s temporary.
Here are some more examples
- Are you scanning the internet looking for ways that everyone is better than you and how you are lacking, or are you scanning looking for people that inspire you and make you feel like you can do it too?
- Are you staring in the mirror, fixated on the parts of your body you don’t like and ignoring the parts you do like?
- Are you focusing on all the things you wish your partner was doing around the house or isn’t measuring up, or are you appreciating the the little things they are doing that you might not be noticing (you can use AND here, you can do both)
And more broadly, are you moving the goal post of meaning, fulfillment, or happiness (complex as they don’t all mean the same thing and controversial)… focusing on the next thing and the next instead of appreciating how far you’ve come? See the importance of celebrating small wins.
How to Train Yourself to Notice the Positives
It starts with noticing. Deliberately listening to the things you think or say out loud, the first place your mind goes when something comes up, and how you interpret adversity is a good place to start.
- Some form of meditation or mindfulness practice can help you create space between feelings and thoughts. Even a short pause before you react can give you insight into where your mind is going. Once you pause, you can train yourself to respond, not react.
- Respond by acknowledging the facts and feelings, but also look for opportunities.
- Talk about what is happening with someone you trust and can help give you perspective if you’re struggling. You might need to initially digest what happened with an empathetic friend (when you’re not ready to hear at least you…). Listening empathetically is something I’ve been working on because I always want to share my perspective on how there is opportunity or perspective in a situation, but sometimes that is not helpful.
- Change your explanatory style:
- That’s how you tell yourself a story about something happened- how you perceive an incident. Choosing what you focus on includes choosing the way you perceive what’s happening around you. The way we explain our world and daily events that happen to us deeply affect whether we have an optimistic or pessimistic view of the world. It affects whether we feel empowered or helpless. Learned helplessness is what makes you give up because you think that you don’t have any control over something- it’s the belief that your actions really won’t change the outcome. Your explanatory style ultimately determines how you view misfortunes and whether or not you’ll give up easily.
Bottom line- knowing your thoughts and your self-talk is essential to focusing on what you can do, not what you can’t.
I had a perfect storm of an old wrist injury, extra strain from taking care of two kids, riding mountain bike a lot, and the still elevated levels of the Relaxin hormone in my system from breastfeeding cause a pretty bad injury. It got so bad that I hit a compression on the trail that jammed my wrist back in extension. I screamed in pain and it felt like I broke my wrist. I couldn’t put weight on my wrist. I had to walk the trail back down to the road and ride home with one hand. I also had to cancel my first race back in 3 years. Disappointing, painful, and frustrating? You bet. But what I did notice was where my mind went as I was walking down the trail. I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t fixated on how unfortunate the situation was, rumination on past or future, no beating myself up. My mind went to all the things I still COULD do while I got better and big picture thinking. I could hold space for frustration and disappointment but also focus on what I could do instead of what I couldn’t. Years of working with injuries and adversities have gotten me to this point. Resilience and optimism are skills I’ve had to practice over and over that now? It comes easily.
Frontload optimism, frontload working on your self-talk, frontload mindfulness by practicing it daily. That way, when something really big comes up, it’ll be a little bit easier to overcome the negativity bias, see the big picture, digest difficult feelings, and breathe a little easier.
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