“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is a very common mantra for life, and it’s one we’re wholeheartedly in support of. It’s often dispensed along with advice not to worry about the myriad of minor problems thrown up by everyday life: the tiny mud flecks on your shoes that nobody will ever notice; the less-than-perfect email you send off to your boss at 5pm on a Friday rather than spending your weekend thinking about; or the dirty look you got from a stranger on the bus who was most likely thinking about something else.
But sometimes in life it is worth paying attention to the small stuff, as it can help us make hugely positive changes.
I remember a speech I watched a few years ago by a former US Navy SEAL who had written a book advising everyone to make their bed in the morning. “How simplistic!” I thought, not willing to believe that something as small as making your bed in the morning could have a meaningful effect on anybody’s life.
While I made my bed most days at that point, I can’t claim that it was every single day, and I didn’t always do it in the morning.
In his speech, to 8000 students graduating from the University of Texas, Admiral William McRaven said: “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another.”
The notion of a ‘sense of pride’ is important here. In no way should you begin to feel a lack of pride, or worse still a sense of failure, if you find yourself unable to take control of small things in your life. Some habits are easily formed, some take huge effort but render incredible reward. Some might be out of reach for the moment, and if that is the case then it important to recognise that.
Another small way to bring control back into your life could be through tidying. I’m not going to suggest that the way to a calmer life is through a tidy house, as this seems both obvious and unnecessary: who keeps their house messy out of choice? Of course you may have a pristine home already, and if so that’s all to the good! But personally I find that everything seems to get messy again just as soon as I’ve tidied it up, and I just don’t have the time to run around after other people, pets and guests to clear up their constant chaos. If this sounds familiar, it can feel overwhelming and dispiriting. One small way of regaining control is to claim one corner of the house as tidy, and take a couple of minutes every day to make it so. This could be one particular windowsill, cupboard or drawer - for me it’s the area where I keep my toothbrush.
An interesting study showed that prisoners who were given a plant which they were solely responsible for ended up feeling happier and more optimistic. The reason for this was the feeling of being in control of this one small aspect of their lives, as their actions (ie whether or not they watered the plant) had a tangible effect, causing the plant to either die or continue to thrive.
Life is full of things which are outside our control, some of them exciting and wonderful, some not so. While it’s easy to wish we could be in control of every area of life, this isn’t possible, and we need to find ways to manage and cope with that fact. If we can take control of a few small areas of life, it can make us feel more able to deal with the other things we are faced with.