Every day above ground is a good day. — Um . . . Mel Bernstein in Scarface, apparently. Huh. Still a great quote!

You’re interested in personal development (making a conscious effort to get better at life), which means you’re at least a little bit concerned with your own happiness. You want reality to match your expectations in the areas of life that you care about, right? Me too!

So how do we make this happen?

Method #1: Try to control everything

This is what most of us do most of the time (though we’re not usually aware we’re doing it):

  1. Decide something matters to you.
  2. Decide what needs to be true about that thing in order for you to be happy.
  3. Attempt to make reality match your conditions.

For instance, a person might go through the following thought process:

  1. “Being a healthy weight matters to me.”
  2. “For my frame, 180 pounds is a healthy weight. I currently weigh 205 pounds.”
  3. “I will eat smaller portions and fewer refined carbs until I reach 180 pounds.”

This is what hard-charging, goal-oriented people gravitate toward, right? “I will bring the important things under my control.” Not a bad strategy, if I do say so myself!

But we take it too far. Soon, our philosophy becomes “I will bring everything under my control, bending the universe to my will. My health, my income, my career, my social standing, my kids, my parents, my friends, my car, my house: I WILL MAKE EVERYTHING PERFECT. I SHALL CONTROL IT ALL!!!

There’s a problem with this approach, and you’ve probably guessed it. As human beings, we have finite resources. Time, our most valuable resource, is particularly finite. When we try to control everything (as I’ve done in the past), we eventually reach a limit. We end up with zero free time, high stress levels, and a feeling of being stretched thin, “like butter scraped over too much bread.” (What a great image, right? It’s from The Fellowship of the Ring).

There’s another way to manage your happiness, and it’s far more sustainable.

Method #2: Be very picky about what you try to control

If you feel like butter scraped over too much bread, try this approach instead:

  1. Make a list of what matters to you (in your head is fine, but paper is better).
  2. Decide what needs to be true about each thing in order for you to be happy.
  3. Evaluate the resources required to keep each thing meeting your conditions. How much time, energy, and money does it take to keep you happy in this department?
  4. Ask yourself “What would happen if I decided this thing didn’t matter as much to me anymore?”
  5. [If you decide to keep caring about the thing] Attempt to make reality match your conditions. [If you decide not to keep caring about the thing] Invest those resources into something you care more deeply about.

Here’s an example of conscious evaluation using the above method:

  1. “Dressing fashionably matters to me.”
  2. “For me, ‘fashionably’ means wearing clothes no older than two calendar years.”
  3. “Wow. After doing some math, it turns out I spend about $4,000 a year and 500 hours a year on fashion-related activities (shopping online, browsing Reddit’s Male Fashion Advice subreddit, etc.).”
  4. “If I decided to care less about this, I guess I’d have a lot of time and money to spend elsewhere. But dressing well is a part of who I am! Maybe there’s a middle ground. Hmm, I could focus instead on acquiring a small wardrobe full of basic, high-quality clothes that don’t go out of style, then wear them out. I’d still look good, but I’d have more time to practice my Japanese and more money to save for my trip to Japan next summer."

This process yields serious results: less stress, for one, and more time and money to invest in the truly important.

This is really just a form of being intentional with our resources. I engage in this kind of thinking regularly, and it does wonders for my stress levels. It’s especially helpful when taking on a new commitment (like, say, having a child), because it encourages you to “make room” in your life instead of jamming in one more thing.

And couldn’t we all use a little more room in our lives?