A Moment of Challenge, a Moment of Calm

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

– Reinhold Niebuhr

We are currently living in an unprecedented moment. I’ve certainly never seen anything like it, and unless you’re quite old, you’ve likely never seen anything like it, either.

It’s a frightening moment. We’re worried about our own health, the health of those we love and care about and the health of our fellow human beings. Many of us are worried about our jobs, about how we’ll even pay for the health care we might need. Many of us are worried about the state of our finances, with incredible instability in investment markets. Many of us are stuck at home — it’s the right move, but it can certainly instill a sense of cabin fever and stir-craziness — and feel utterly powerless to do anything about … anything.

I feel the same way. It’s scary. It’s frustrating. It doesn’t help that our options for interaction with others are really restricted.

Here are some thoughts that may help during this time of immense personal, financial and professional uncertainty.

Do not stress yourself out about the things you cannot control.

What will happen tomorrow? (For that matter, what will the rest of today bring?) What will things look like in a week? In a month? Will I still be healthy? What about the people in my life? Will I still have work? Will I still have much retirement savings?

I don’t have the answers to any of those questions. Neither do you. Neither does anyone.

Furthermore, there isn’t really very much you or I can do to impact the answers to those questions. We can worry all day long about what tomorrow might bring, but a lot of what that looks like is out of our hands.

Accept that. Accept that there are a lot of things that you and I simply cannot control.

There are a lot of things in this world you cannot change. You cannot change whether an illness exists in the world (unless you’re perhaps one of a handful of very gifted medical researchers). You cannot change the ups and downs of the stock market. You cannot change the decision your boss might make about the business you work for.

Rather, your aim should be to understand them well enough so that you can understand what you can do to make your own life better. Accept the things you can’t change, but have the courage to change the things you can change.

Rather, focus on what you can control.

So, what can you control?

You can control your thoughts and emotions. You can control what ideas go through your head. If you catch your thoughts dwelling on hypotheticals and negative ideas, nip that in the bud right away. If you catch your thoughts dwelling on feeling sorry for yourself, nip that in the bud, too.

Instead, nudge your thoughts toward more positive things. Open the window and let some sunshine into your home. Feel some of that warmth on your cheek. Think about the good people in your life. Think about the things that excite and interest you. Nudge your thoughts toward those things when you find your mind is drifting toward negative thoughts and uncertainty about things outside of your control.

If you find that you’re struggling with negative emotions, find a good outlet for them. Whenever I’m riled up, I start cleaning like a madman. In fact, it’s such a known thing in our family that it’s a joke — if I’ve done a bunch of extra cleaning, I’m inevitably asked what I’m worried about. I also like to direct that emotion into really vigorous exercise — I’ll do push-ups or taekwondo kicks in the air to vent emotions.

Make sure that you keep your cool with your family and loved ones. It can be difficult, particularly during uncertain times when you’re spending a lot of time together, but draw upon yourself for patience and kindness.

You can control what you do with your time. You can control whether you do something worthwhile and helpful and useful, or whether you do something useless and destructive. That choice is always in your hands.

One way I’ve found to channel this recently is to come up with some daily plans and schedules for myself and my family. By simply stepping back and thinking a bit about what we all need out of each day, we’ve been able to come up with some routines that really work well for us.

This has been something we’ve done a bit in the past during periods like summer break, where most of our household is home without a whole lot of structure, and it’s been very useful now. By simply having some sense of what you’re doing in a given day, and understanding that some of those things are purposeful, it provides not only something to keep us all busy but a pretty powerful sense of calmness and routine.

You can’t control decisions made by your employer, but you can control whether you take steps to improve your career options. Rather than worrying about what your employer may or may not do, ask yourself this question: what can I be doing, right now, in the situation I’m in, to make myself more employable in the future? That’s a question you should always be asking yourself, in moments of crisis or otherwise.

Set aside some time in these days when you’re already spending more time at home to look into whatever you can do to improve your career options. The specific advice varies widely from career to career and from business to business, but there is an abundance of online tools you can use to bump up your skills and build new ones.

You can control whether you do things needed to keep your body and mind healthy. You can choose to eat healthier, to drink more water and less of other beverages, to get good nights of sleep. You can choose whether to move around and do some cardio or bodyweight fitness. Consider starting this 30-day yoga challenge. Those are choices that are available to almost all of us right now, at no cost.

You can control whether you devote energy to keeping in touch with people in your life and whether you do what you can to keep their spirits up. There’s no better time than right now to text and call people, just to make sure they’re okay and to share a little bit of human contact and compassion. If you have a friend that you’ve fallen out of touch with or a family member that you’d love to clear the air with, there’s no better time than right now to sit down and write them, expressing those thoughts and getting them out of your system and, hopefully, taking the first step toward the repair.

My kids are calling my parents daily with laughter, jokes and optimism, and it’s good for all of them.

If you can’t identify something clearly positive that will help, hold off and keep learning.

When a lot of worrisome things are outside of our own control, there is a strong temptation to do something to make it better. We want to feel like we’re in control of the situation, even when we’re not, and that can so often lead us to make huge mistakes.

It’s important to remember in these situations that holding the course is often the most powerful action you can do. Rather than answering “Nothing” to the question of “What are you doing about this?” you can simply answer “Staying the course and learning more.”

That’s my advice to almost everyone with investments who have been watching those investments crater in value, perhaps along with some of their visions for the future. Stay put with your investments, because you don’t know what will happen to the value of what you have, nor what you would change into, either. There’s almost no value in selling off investments in an emotionally charged panic. Even if you happen to sell off in the middle of a slide, you’re either hoping to guess right on the rebound or you believe it’s all going to zero, in which case the dollars you’re getting aren’t worth anything either.

Sit still. Wait. Focus instead on the practical things you can be doing in your daily life, many of which I listed above.

Look for positive things.

Even in these challenging moments, there are a lot of wonderful things in life.

One of my favorite things that I do every day is to simply stop for a moment and actually write down a list of five things I’m grateful for. They’re almost always small things – I’m grateful for some joke that my child told, or for how the sunlight felt on my skin when I was sitting on the deck last night, or a squeeze and a kiss from my wife, or the sound of some birds chirping that made me feel better. The thing is, thinking about five of those things from the past day almost always makes me feel better right then, and it lasts.

Another thing to consider is that this is a powerful opportunity for a financial reset — and reset in a lot of other areas of your life, too. Many people are in a situation where pretty much all of their routines — their spending routines, work routines, and other life routines — are seriously disrupted, and that disruption is an opportunity.

This is an opportunity to step back and look at all of the disrupted routines in your life and think deeply about which ones were really bringing you value.

Perhaps you had fallen into a routine of mostly eating takeout, and now you have a chance to lean back into making your own foods and discovering how wonderful (and financially sensible) that can be.

Perhaps you had been hooked on a constant cycle of caffeinated beverages and energy drinks, and this is a chance to break free of them, not just because of their health impact, but because of their financial impact, too.

Perhaps you had started to take your job completely for granted, and this is an opportunity to discover a new direction and passion in life and to dig into some new things you might explore as things return to some normalcy — a new career, perhaps, or a new angle on what you were doing before.

Perhaps you had become accustomed to spending a lot of money on something out of routine or habit and had lost touch with why you were doing it. Maybe you were buying supplies for a hobby that you were struggling to find time for, or one that you had drifted away from in some way. This is an opportunity to reconnect, or perhaps just to recognize that you’ve changed, too.

Perhaps, for whatever reason, you’d begun to take some of your deepest relationships for granted, and this moment gives you a chance to rebuild some of those relationships. While I think that I have a great relationship with my wife and kids, the truth is that the coming months are going to give me an enormous amount of time with them, something that’s both an opportunity and a challenge.

Perhaps you had been on a constant routine of five hours of sleep a night that had left you deeply, deeply exhausted, and this current moment in time allows you a chance to rest and refresh yourself and rebuild yourself a little.

The breaking of a lot of routines can call all kinds of things into question, and that calling into question is a real opportunity. It’s a chance to realize the things that don’t work and discard them, and it’s a chance to start building new routines that work better.

Don’t view an uncertain and frightening moment as being nothing but bad news. Often, the most frightening and challenging moments bring an appreciation for all that you do have even when the chips are down, as well as a perfect opportunity for rebirth.

It’s also an opportunity for clarity. There aren’t very many moments we have in life where something happens that is just completely beyond our control and outside of our scope. Sure, those things exist in the world, but they fade into the background of our lives. When something jumps up outside of our control and changes everything, it is a chance to really see what the difference is between the things we can control and the things we cannot, and the things that matter and the things that do not.

Calm isn’t easy, but it’s essential.

If you find yourself really worried right now, you find yourself constantly looking at the news and at other sources of information, perhaps you’re even directly concerned about your own health or that of a loved one, that stressful emotion isn’t going to help.

Spend less time on social media. Spend less time watching the news – check for updates on what’s going on in your area and what the latest situation is in terms of what you can do, but don’t dwell on it.

Instead, spend more time doing meaningful things, like the things described throughout this article.

Turn off your cell phone for a while, or at least put it in do not disturb mode. Put it on a shelf in another room and just don’t look at it.

Go sit out on your balcony or your front step with a cup of your favorite beverage in your hand and let the sunshine hit your skin and listen to the birds chirp for a little while.

Make your absolute favorite meal for supper, or your family’s favorite meal, and aim to make it as close to perfection as you can, and then just sit down and enjoy every bite of it.

Settle in to watch one of your favorite movies, one that has always made you laugh.

Curl up with a good book, one that can draw you into another world.

There are a lot of unknowns and uncertainties in the world right now, financial and otherwise, but those things have no right to your calm or to the joy of the things you have in your life.

Know that when you’re doing those things, I’ll be doing something similar, as will my family. You’re not alone in any of this.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.