If this was easy…what would it look like?

Updated to Business on January 23, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 the company was in trouble. David, in the world of computer Goliath’s, had swollen to hundreds of products, a shrinking bottom line and disenfranchised fans. Apple was bleeding cash and within months of insolvency.

In short order, Jobs needed to turn the ship around or lose it all.

One day, during his purge of top-heavy management and redundant staff, Jobs stumbled across a designer working alone on an unusual new product. It was a tear-drop shaped monitor.

His name was Johnathan Ive.

Jobs was immediately attracted to the free-thinking Ive and the beautiful simplicity of his product designs. Within weeks, the two banded together to work on a new product.

In a world of “grey boxes” – competitors like IBM and Compaq already had desktop computers – their design would prove to be revolutionary. What Jobs and Ive envisioned would be sleek, attractive, intuitive and delivered without a 200 page user manual.

It was the iMac.

What the iMac proved – and all the iconic Ive-designed products that followed – is that simple can outsell complicated. The iMac also marked the rebirth of Apple and its meteoric growth to become one of the biggest companies in the world.

Which leads me to the question:

Is your life too complicated?

You can be on a conference call, scan a text on your phone, think about your sick child at home, and compose an email to a supplier – all at the same time.

Bouncing from task to task, handling interruptions and flipping from one focus to another is a neat trick. It’s also draining.

In one study, people who chronically multitask were taking up to 25 minutes to fully return to what they were originally working on. Yikes!

Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.

Maybe you can un-complicate your life – like how Jobs and Ive uncomplicated the computer – and actually be more effective.

But, first let’s understand…

Why we complicate things

Allow the complexity of life and business run rampant or chase after simplicity instead.It’s easy to complicate things.

When the only technology I had in business was an IBM Selectric typewriter, a fax and a Telex machine, life was simpler—we didn’t have a choice.

Now you have a choice. Allow the complexity of life and business run rampant or chase after simplicity instead.

Somehow complicated appears attractive—sort of like a badge of courage. We design complicated processes, procrastinate on decisions and then involve lots of people: “Look at me! I’m busy!”

Just look at how you pay your bills, manage paperwork, move forward on critical projects – even manage your Inbox. Simple or complicated?

Writing this blog is a good example. I can have three people on my team involved: one to proofread, find an image and publish, one to set up and schedule an email to announce the post and one more to do the social media promotion.

Or, with a little bit of design and maybe a half hour of instruction, just one person. Same outcome, but with one person I have one-third the communication, less time wasted and fewer headaches.
Every week I speak with people who are complicating their lives.

Online marketing, affiliate launches, risky Facebook advertising, overseas contractors and a crazy number of plugins, apps and software all designed (apparently) to make our lives easier.

So, here’s the question:

“If this was easy, what would it look like?”

Easy is when you make decisions today instead of wallowing in self-doubt for weeks and repeatedly moving “Call client back” from Tuesday to Wednesday to Thursday. Damn the torpedoes – call them today.

Easy is when you reply to an email with “Thank you, but I am not interested at this time.” or “Thank you for your inquiry, but I am fully committed to a project at this time.

Easy is when you know you said something stupid and stop, apologize and just move on.

And easy is when you take joy (spark joy?) in the uncomplicated.

What are you working on right now that could be simpler? Start by asking yourself,  “If this was easy, what would it look like?”

You might be surprised by the answer.