Anger: Great warning system, lousy fuel

Anger gets a bad rap these days.

We’re told that we can’t be angry, that it doesn’t have a place in a peaceful, productive life.

But anger is as much a part of the human experience as breathing, sleeping or salted popcorn and denying it misses the whole point of its utility. It’s only when we use anger for the wrong purpose that it becomes problematic.

It’s like a sharp kitchen knife – great for cutting vegetables, but unhelpful for other household chores, like bathing children.

Anger is an amazing warning system. It tells us when something we care about is under threat. When used in this way, it allows us to take faster action to protect what’s important to us.

And since it’s not just physical items or people which make us angry – we can also use anger as a tool to understand what we’re sensitive about. We see this when we become angry at something surprising – and we become aware how attached we’ve become to something, only when we experience the prospect of losing it.

Making full use of anger involves recognising and acknowledging it, but then letting it go before taking any action. And letting it go is the key step.

We quickly get into hot water when we act without first letting go of our anger, as it becomes the fuel for our action.

When anger compel us, it limits our options. Possibilities which are open when we’re calm are off the table when anger is the fuel we’re burning.

Anger makes us more likely to deal with a situation, but strips us of the tools we need to make it a success.

The trick, is to spot as soon as it arrives, and then let it go before we do or say anything we’ll regret later. When we let anger fuel our actions, we’re essentially stomping around the house, waving a sharp knife and wondering why things aren’t going so well.

Learn to spot change

The only constant, is change.

Feelings, situations and people all evolve as we respond to the fluid and shifting circumstances around us.

We change as we learn, as we grow, as we alter our brain chemistry with our morning coffee.

But we’re not very good at identifying this change. We tend to only focus on a single point of information, tied to the present moment.

I am happy now.

The apple is ripe, at the moment.

Today, weather is cold.

When things start to change we often don’t spot the transition until it’s too late.

We don’t notice getting angry until we’re consumed by it.

We don’t notice speeding up until the roadside speed camera fires its flash at us.

We don’t notice someone becoming dissatisfied until they leave.

But learning to spot this change comes with two huge benefits:

Firstly, noticing this change allows us to more effectively influence situations and create better outcomes.

If we learn to notice ourselves becoming angry, we can make the effort to pause before we say or do something we will regret.

Secondly, awareness of change helps to prevent attachment or aversion to the present moment.

If we learn to notice how fleeting both the good and bad are – we won’t spend so long taking the positive for granted and running away from the negative. Both will be over shortly, so we should spend our time responding to them appropriately.

Accepting change is the first step, embracing it is the second. But it’s learning to spot change, as (or before) it happens which is the key skill. It’s that which enables us to both be happier with the world as it is, and to influence it for the better.

We’re 100% responsible for our experience

Win or lose, we choose the value of our days, weeks and months. We ascribe value to these pieces of our lives, and too often we value them poorly.

We forget that today is a piece of our actual life and treat it like something cheap and disposable.

But it’s not.

It’s a discreet, unique, non-refundable and non-negotiable slice of existence which is ticking away and never coming back.

And if it seems hectic, boring, wet, sore, painful, expensive, rude or otherwise shit – that’s on us.

Because we’re 100% responsible for our experience.

Relax into what you’re doing

One of the core principles of mindfulness meditation is to participate without additional effort. The aim is to relax into awareness. When you get distracted, you don’t force your attention back, you invite it.

It’s designed like this so we don’t load effort and stress back into the system. When we lose our way, we don’t beat yourself up about it – because that doesn’t help. We just acknowledge the distraction and come back to the focus.

But this approach doesn’t have to be limited to meditation – it’s applicable to almost everything we do. There aren’t too many activities where we couldn’t benefit from a state of relaxed, flow and focus. And just as with meditation we don’t achieve that state by loading our stress and effort back into the system.

Whether we’re writing an essay or washing up, we’re bound to get distracted or bored or frustrated. What matters is not that we got distracted, but what we do next – how we respond.

If we can return to focus by gentle invitation and not loaded with frustration, stress and disappointment then we have a much better chance of a successful outcome.

Improve decision making with a supermarket

We’re assaulted with a multitude of decisions, demanding action almost every minute of the day.

But each decision takes willpower, effort and time – three of our most precious resources. Not only are they key to decision making, they’re also fundamental to getting shit done.

Making decisions not directly relevant to the task at hand wears down our ability to focus on what’s important and achieve results. Those decisions kill our momentum and velocity.

But we’ve solved this issue elsewhere.

Doing all our shopping at the supermarket, once and then getting a single, itemised receipt lets us batch the task and makes it clear what the cost was. Buying 80 items individually, as we need them, and then trying to manage the receipts, that’s something else.

If we let tiny decisions arrive and challenge us on their own terms, we deplete our resources in dribs and drabs. It’s hard to gauge how much of our time, effort or willpower was spent.

But we can compress the demand on our thinking into more manageable chunks by capturing decisisons as they arise, holding them until we have a few and then tackling them in batches.

Taking the supermarket approach to decision making lessens the cognitive load, allows us to focus on making good decisions and – most importantly – leaves us free to act later.