I’m sitting on my front porch writing this, with light rain falling outside. When my kids asked me why I was sitting outside writing in the rain, my answer was simple, “Because I can.”

As I said that, it hit me… for the last month, a lot of my focus has been on the things I can’t do, not what I can.

When I launched Depth Not Width and started writing these blogs, my purpose was clear. I wanted to help others create depth in their lives and see what they could accomplish through a new lens. I wanted to share positivity and help people realize their full potential with a simple message: Here’s everything you CAN do.

The last month, though, I’ve had to fight hard to keep writing that way. The news is full of things we can’t do. I can’t go to restaurants or movie theatres, to lacrosse games or theatre performances. I have small business owner friends and family who can’t work. My kids can’t go to school. My family can’t go to church. I’m done with COVID-19 and all that we can’t do. It’s taken aim at my optimism and made sitting down to write a challenge. There are days when I can’t find the right words…

The things I can’t do have attacked my motivation, and I’ve had to fight hard to maintain a positive mindset. What I’ve battled, like many of us today, is called negative bias. Humans are hardwired to focus on our threats – it’s something we picked up from our ancestors. It’s what protected us from falling prey to saber-toothed tigers. Today, our natural tendency is still tilted toward recalling negative experiences more clearly than positive ones. We remember our losses more vividly than our gains, and when bad things happen, they overshadow anything good. 

In a COVID-19 world, filled with things we can’t do, that negative bias finds fuel.

The can’ts can easily hijack our attention.

So what do we do to shut down that negative bias and refocus on what we CAN do? Here are three simple ways to make the shift…

  1. Name the Negatives – Awareness is critical. I’m well aware of the things I can’t do right now. I can’t eat at a restaurant. I can’t go into the office. I can’t watch my kids play lacrosse or act on stage. I can’t spend time with my mom as I want to. The simple act of being aware of these things is the first step in battling that negative bias. Because I already know and understand the negatives I’m facing, I’m no longer surprised when they attack me emotionally, and I’m aware when they come at me.
  2. Call Out Your Cans – Even in the midst of the can’ts, there are so many things I CAN do today. Being aware of those is equally important. I can spend a Sunday afternoon on my porch in the rain. I can enjoy lunch with my kids as they’re experiencing school from home. I can have family bonfires in the backyard. I can Facetime with my mom, Skype with my team, and Zoom with my clients. I can take long walks with my beautiful wife. My family can stream church from our living room. Life’s different now, but the cans are still pretty good. 
  3. Challenge Your Self Talk – I’ve invested the time to recognize and name my current can’ts and cans. On that list, one of the things I can’t do today is to change many of my current circumstances. As a good friend of mine used to say, “It is what it is.” He was right. What I can do right now is to change is how I react when the can’ts come. I’m training myself to change my negative self-talk and refocus on my cans quickly. “I can’t do this, but I can…” That prompt mental shift has helped me stay positive and optimistic instead of getting pulled into the stuck and restless rut. It’s not always easy to make this shift, and sometimes I catch myself wanted to wallow in the negativity. I’ve come to realize, though, that the negative sludge is like quicksand. I need to escape it as fast as I can. 

The Takeaway

We’re all experiencing things we can’t do today, and it may be that way for a while. As we endure this time and move into whatever version of a new-normal we’re going to live, it’s essential that we stay focused on all of the things we CAN do. Research shows that negative experiences offset the positive at a 3:1 ratio. If that’s the case, we need to get intentional about filling that positive bucket even more than ever, and our thoughts are the perfect place to start. “I can…”

Optimism begin with what we’re feeding ourselves. If you’re looking to offset the dark noise with something positive, subscribe here for weekly emails from Depth Not Width. Together, we’ll focus on everything we can do today to create more depth in our lives!

– John