Being content is not a state of mind that you would typically associate with the way I used to live life. In fact, I’d say I was quite the opposite. It’s because I suffered from what many of us suffer from, the expectation gap.
The expectation gap is the distance between where you are right now, and where you’d like to be. Let me paint a picture for you.
You’re overweight, you’re underpaid, and you hate what you do for a living. You believe you have the potential to live an incredible life. You know you can earn $200k a year, be toned and athletic, and find the perfect spouse.
This scenario doesn’t mean that the person above is unrealistic. But it does put a lot of pressure on you to achieve all of those goals.
I know it’s particularly difficult for high achievers. If you’re in this boat, you’re probably confident in your abilities. Therefore you want to do everything you can to reach your potential.
You rush through life doing as many things as possible, so you don’t waste any opportunity. You have goals you want to reach before you turn 30, 40, 50, and 100 yrs old.
If it’s in your life, it must be important, as you’ve chosen to include it in your limited time on this planet.
We’re told to put big hairy audacious goals out in the universe and pursue them relentlessly until it’s achieved.
There’s nothing wrong with ambition. But having such high expectations and failing to meet them, often leaves you feeling stressed, anxious, alienated and discontent.
Even if you’re not an avid goal setter, you still probably have expectations for yourself.
So the real challenge is, how do you reduce your expectation gap, and find a way to be content right now? How do you learn to enjoy the journey instead of focusing on the outcome? Not an easy task.
What does being content mean?
Contentment is a sustained state of satisfaction and fulfilment in how you feel. There’s an energy of appreciation and groundedness that comes with being content.
Happiness, on the other hand, is a temporary feeling of joy. Happiness disappears as quickly as it appears. Ideally, you want to experience both contentment and happiness in your life as much as possible.
If you’re reading this, I assume you already understand the benefits of contentment but are more interested in seeking ways to experience it.
But it seems wherever you turn, you see inspirational quotes and advice telling you to “be in the moment” and to “be thankful”.
While these statements make sense in theory, I’ve personally found it challenging to implement them. I wanted to create a resource for you (and me) with strategies actionable enough to at least try.
So in this post, we’re going to look at 13 practical approaches to help you reduce your expectation gap and be content with where you are—like right now!
Please keep in mind that I’m not even close to mastering these strategies. I naturally have very high expectations of myself, and I realise that this is not healthy. So I’ll be implementing these strategies right along with you 🙂
Note: if you’re interested, we recorded a podcast episode about this very topic.
1) Remember the value of breathing
Breathing is the process of taking air into and expelling it from the lungs. But you knew that already, right?
The way I think we should all see it is that breathing and the act of breathing is a damn miracle.
When you come into this world, out of your mother’s womb, everyone is waiting around to see what? That you’re breathing. At that moment, breath is the ONLY thing that matters.
Conversely, when your internal organs are failing, and you’re fighting to live, it’s your breathing or lack of breath that symbolises death.
Your breath is an everyday measure that you’re alive. And that folks, that is everything!
Did you know that the average person takes 23,040 breaths a day? That’s 23,040 tangible daily reminders that we’re alive.
Yet, we go about our day, not pausing to appreciate the gift of each breath.
I watched my father take his last breaths on his death bed at the young age of 60. It was at that moment, I realised the incredible miracle of breathing and living.
If I cared about breathing as much as I cared about when my battery is going to die on my iPhone today, I would be content all of the time.
The challenge is, breathing is perhaps the most subconscious thing we do. No-one teaches you how to breathe. You just do it.
So how do we bring consciousness to something as natural as breathing? Here are some ideas:
- Fire up YouTube, a free app, or whatever resource and follow a guided meditation.
- Many of us are good at scheduling and setting alarms. Maybe set a reminder before you go to sleep and when you wake up to take 10 deep conscious breaths.
- It sounds cheesy, but I’ve gotten into the habit to pause randomly throughout the day to take one big breath of appreciation.
- Play around with your breathing technique. When you inhale, compare sucking your belly in versus pushing your stomach out. Breath solely through your nose or through your mouth. When you inhale and exhale count, e.g. “Breathe in 1, 2, 3. Breathe out 1, 2, 3.
- See how long you can hold your breath underwater.
- Watch and appreciate the breathing of those you love. I get contentment watching Maša and Chewy (our dog) sleep and breathe peacefully.
- Recognise the quality of the air in nature to breath in. Notice the difference in the air by the water versus on top of a mountain. And now compare that with the crappy air in a shopping mall, or in your office. Where do you want to take your 23,040 breaths each day?
Being content starts with bringing consciousness to your breath. Stop reading this post now and take in one deep breath of appreciation.Being content starts with bringing consciousness to your breath Click To Tweet
2) Use a reverse to-do list
Having to-dos is a prime example of an expectation gap, as you’re continually comparing where you are now with what you need to be doing in the future.
This continuous chase for what’s next is a recipe for discontentment. There’s always going to be more to do. Always!
Luckily, there’s another approach we could be taking to being content when it comes to tasks.
That’s where the reverse to-do list comes into play.
Instead of focusing on what you need to do, a reverse to-do list is a process of recording what you’ve completed.
It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed with how little progress you’re making.
You get to the end of the day and think, “where did that day go?” or “what the heck did I even do today?”
Focusing on what you’ve done helps you to celebrate the progress you have made.
So give it a go. At the end of your day, write down every task you completed. And it doesn’t have to be things on your to-do list.
Our lives are fluid and unexpected events happen to us all the time. But we rarely give ourselves credit for doing things that weren’t part of our initial plan. At least this is true for me.
Here’s an example of my reverse to-do list from yesterday:
- Wrote an outline for this post
- Made the bed before Maša had to follow me up
- Vacuumed the living areas of the house
- Watched a blogging seminar
- Assisted Maša with our latest recipe
- Reviewed the recipe post
- Walked our dog Chewy
- Had lunch with my mum and gave her an important update
What I like about this reverse to-do list is the data you gather on what you prioritise only a daily basis. You start to see patterns in what you choose to do.
3) Tell someone what you’re grateful for
In your journey to being content, no doubt, you’ve heard the importance of gratitude. We are always told that we need to be thankful and for a good reason. We should be!
A practice of gratitude helps us to appreciate our existence and our situation, no matter how difficult it may be.
But sometimes it’s helpful to be social to practice gratitude. Some of us need to be held accountable for being grateful.
That’s why it helps to tell someone all the reasons why you’re grateful.
It will likely feel uncomfortable at first, but it’s a valuable exercise.
I’ve found it most useful to be specific about what you appreciate. I used to tell Maša that I’m grateful to be alive. It was positive and it certainly helped me to start feeling contentment.
However, it was natural and authentic, when I would bring attention to specific situations I was grateful for. For example, “I’m grateful for being able to run a project like The Minimalist Vegan.” Or “I’m grateful to be able to play with my dog Chewy every day.”
Another tip is to look for moments of personal growth in your day to be grateful for. For example, “I’m grateful for having the opportunity to practice a tough conversation with a colleague.”
So find a gratitude partner, or do it with your family, and start verbalising what you’re grateful for each day.
Quick, interesting note – we usually verbalise gratitude when we’ve been fortunate, or avoided a painful situation.
I remember when we were travelling in the countryside of Italy a few years ago. It was a Sunday, and we were travelling by train between two small towns.
There was a 60-second changeover between one train to the next. So the pressure was on. Furthermore, when we went to switch trains, we didn’t know if we were getting on the right train, and we didn’t know Italian to communicate with the service people. It was super stressful.
Luckily it all worked out, and we’ve told dozens of people since how grateful we were to make that train connection in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country.
Humans do this all the time. “I’m grateful that I didn’t have to pay for that parking fine.” “I’m so grateful that we got upgraded to business class tickets”.
The problem with this type of gratitude is that it’s usually externally focused, and has little impact on being content. Sure, it will make you happy. But not sustainably content.
4) Practice minimalism
It’s hard not to include minimalism when it comes to being content.
So much of our discontentment comes from placing value on things; whether it’s cash, property, vehicles, fashion amongst many others.
Not only that but when we start mindlessly acquiring everything in sight, we build mountains of physical clutter in our environment.
- We start to forget where we placed items in our homes.
- Surfaces are covered with things we don’t need.
- We spend more time deciding whether to use something because we’re overwhelmed with choice.
Then the clutter cascades into other areas of our lives, whether it’s an insurmountable amount of debt, saying yes to too many opportunities and commitments and burning yourself out, or your digital organisation is messy and has been placed in the “too hard basket”.
Removing excess clutter will bring you clarity and challenge you to think about what is essential in your life.
I like to think of minimalism as a tool to reset your life. Much like how you may need to wipe your phone or computer because you have too many things on it. And bit by bit, you add the programmes you absolutely need.
In terms of the practical approach to minimalism, there’s too much to cover for this post. I suggest you check out Minimalist Living: The What, Why & The How.
5) Write down your thoughts (including 5 writing prompts to get started)
I’m in the fortunate position of blogging for a living. Yes, it’s part of my job to write content that helps people. But simultaneously, by writing for others, I write for myself.
Take this post, for example. I recognised that I had been non-committal to the practices that will help me be more content, so I decided to write about it.
Writing about an area of life, I want to improve more often than not will result in action. I now have more clarity about contentment than I did before.
I’m walking around the house telling anyone that cares to listen that we have 23,040 breaths each day—so what type of air will they be taking in?
Writing about eating One Meal a Day, motivated me to do it for months at a time.
I could go on and on.
Writing or recording your thoughts through audio is one of the most powerful things you can do to be content with life.
Writing gives you clarity, introspection, ideas, creativity, self-counselling, accountability, and contentment.
You can write in public, or you can write for yourself. You can write on a computer, or write in a notebook. The tool doesn’t matter, and the approach doesn’t matter. What matters is that you write.
If you’re struggling to get started with a writing practice, here are some prompts:
- The moment you have an idea, write it down. It doesn’t matter if it’s an idea for how you’re going to re-do your garden or how you’re going to start your next business, get it down on paper. Also, don’t judge yourself. Write down your bad ideas, as well. You never know when it might come in handy.
- You have a delicate interaction with someone coming up, write down your approach. This could be an interview, breaking the bad news to a relative, giving feedback to a colleague, quitting your soccer team, telling your child that the tooth fairy isn’t real if that’s still a thing?
- You could write a recap of what happened in your day. This ties back in with the reverse to-do list I mentioned earlier. But beyond just a list of the things you completed, you can reflect on other random things that happened in your day that you’re proud of, or you would do differently next time.
- Use your writing time to craft a thoughtful message to someone you care about. This practice in itself will get you to feel more content with the relationships in your life.
- Write down everything you love about your partner. And continue to do it. New things will come to mind. Admittedly, I haven’t done this for a while but Maša will edit this post, so I’ll start doing this again. See how powerful writing is? 🙂
6) Do something so engaging that you have to be present
I was speaking to a good friend of mine a couple of weeks ago. He mentioned that he started doing Brazilian Jujitsu, and he loves it.
He hasn’t done competitive physical training for many years, cause you know, life.
But what he was saying is that when he’s on the mat sparring, it’s such an immersive experience that it’s one of the rare situations in life where he’s not focused on the past or the future. Just the present.
It’s those situations on the mat not only makes him feel content at that moment but also outside of his training—as he continues to seek immersive experiences.
And I could totally relate to that feeling. In fact, that phone call with my friend was another example of an immersive experience, as we were so engaged in our conversation.
For you, it might be playing a fun board game with your family or going for a challenging hike in a forest.
Ideally, it would be great if we could all be present in everything that we do. And maybe some of you are already in that place, well done!
For the majority, though, we need a lot of practice, and seeking those immersive experiences is a good starting place.
So what’s your next step? Write down a list of experiences you absolutely love. The experiences where you’re completely engaged. Hang on, this sounds like anther writing prompt!
Once you have your list, it’s just a matter of participation. Enjoy.
7) Connect or reconnect with nature
Everything you could possibly be content with exists in nature. Also, to be clear, you are part of nature. We are walking balls of energy and matter.
So what do I mean by reconnecting with nature?
Take a tree, for example. They do so much for our environment, it’s kinda crazy how useful they are. Here’s a list the 22 top benefits of trees.
So next time you see a tree, take a moment to appreciate its service. The oxygen it provides for you, the architecture and homes it creates for animals. It’s remarkable.
Another example is the bees. Next time you see a bee, thank its lifetime commitment to pollinating natures plants and keeping our ecosystem together.
Go outside this evening and look up at the stars. When you’re not feeling so great about life, stars will remind you just how small you are, and not take yourself so seriously. You exist in a magical universe, and stars demonstrate that every time you look at them.
Nature just works. Every living organism was created to work in harmony together. In all of the hustle and bustle, it’s very easy to forget that. Get back to the fundamentals and reconnect with nature. If you do this with gratitude, contentment is around the corner.
8) Be in service of others
Call it fulfilment, satisfaction, contentment, nothing quite feels as special as being of service to others.
It’s interesting, though, because I hear people say that you need to take care of yourself first and get your mind right before you can help others. While I understand the intent behind such a claim, as you don’t want to be helping others if you’re in a bad mood or situation, I also see the reverse working.
If you’re feeling down and discontent with your situation, selflessly helping and serving beyond your own needs could be the catalyst to feeling better.
Being of service doesn’t mean solving the world’s problems tomorrow. Serving others exists in many ways. Here are some examples:
- Offer to help a friend move house
- Volunteer to plant trees
- Use your skills to teach people for free online or in-person
- Take the initiative to support your colleagues at work
I’m just scraping the surface here. But if you’re stuck, ask yourself the question, who can I help today? Then when you reflect, ask yourself, who did I help today?
My only caution would be to know your limits when it comes to being of service. While helping others is a surefire way to being content, you can also get addicted to the positive feedback of helping, pushing you to do more and more.
Being so selfless might mean that people come to expect you to help them all the time, thus taking advantage of your generosity. So make sure you strike a balance of helping and nourishing yourself (more on that later).
Also, if you’re too busy to help and give back, check out this post.
9) Set goals while simultaneously enjoying the process
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with goals over the years.
On one side of the spectrum, setting goals is the number one thing you can do to increase your expectation gap and feel crappy about yourself if you don’t meet your objectives.
On the other hand, goals give you a sense of purpose and focus and quite often push you out of your comfort zone to grow and develop.
Furthermore, achieving goals gives you a sense of accomplishment and contentment. Well, that’s if you take the time to appreciate your journey.
If you think of any good story, the main character has some type of goal. And what makes a compelling story, is relating to the adversity that character faces pursuing that goal. It’s the middle part that matters, not the destination.
I know that sounds cliche, but it’s true.
Take successful tech entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuck. His goal is to one day buy the American football team, New York Jets—which would cost him billions of dollars.
Depending on who you are, that goal may sound ridiculous, or overwhelming.
And on the surface, you may believe that Gary’s motive of acquiring the New York Jets is purely for money and status. There’s no denying that is part of Gary’s motivation.
But when you listen to him in interviews and watch his actions, it becomes clear that he’s set himself a huge goal just so he could see if he could do it.
It’s the journey and the daily decisions that drive him. His contentment lies in the middle, not at the end.
In fact, he’s stated multiple times that he would be a little disappointed if he reached his goal of buying a football team. Because then the game is over.
I can relate to Gary to some extent. Right now, my goal is to make a living online and move to Slovenia. At times I’ve been frustrated with how slowly things are moving towards this goal.
But then I remember that I’m in the middle, and it’s the middle that’s the best part of any goal. The challenge is having the ability to simultaneously tackle a goal while appreciating the problem solving, the commitment, the effort, and the growth of the journey.
That’s where all of the other things discussed on this list will help you appreciate the middle part.
10) Let go of things you can’t control
People who are discontent tend to focus on things they can’t control. News coverage, politicians, other peoples opinions, for example.
Focusing on the uncontrollable’s, if you’re not careful, creates a nasty habit of complaining and blaming.
“My boss won’t give me that promotion I deserve.”
“The government should ban all single-use plastic.”
“The umpire keeps making the wrong calls!”
No doubt you’ve had these moments or know people who are continually whinging. Not only is it negative, but it’s also unproductive to blame others.
Being content starts with the practice of diverting your attention to things you can make an impact on.
“How can I better help my team to achieve our goals at work?”
“I’m going to stop using single-use plastic, and start publishing online content to share my experiences with whoever wants to listen.”
“All I can do is focus on the next play.”
A neat trick I learned from this Ted Talk is to rephrase how you ask questions.
Someone who is focused on external factors usually starts a question with “why”. Why won’t my boss? Why did my teacher? And why won’t my husband?
Swap out why for “what”. What can I do better? What can I say to communicate better?
See the difference?
Just be warned that being ultra-focused on the controllable’s can come with enormous expectations for yourself, and potentially discontentment. I know this to be true in my journey.
Whether it was eating one meal a day, or working out daily, or making 100 calls a week, I pushed myself to do do do—because I could. But the moment I failed to meet my standards of output, I would beat myself up.
I’m learning to let go and remove that pressure.
Overall, being content starts with recognising what you can control and what you can’t control. From there, it’s up to you what you want to do with that awareness.
11) Nourish your body
Much of our discontentment stems from neglecting our health.
While possible, it’s harder to be content when you’re sleep-deprived, overweight, low-energy, weak, or unwell.
Conversely, when you feel healthy and active, naturally, you’re more content. You feel confident in your body, and you have more capacity to experience life to the fullest.
However, our desire for good health comes with its own set of goals—thus increasing your expectation gap.
There are a lot of “should’s” when it comes to health. And when you know, you should be doing something positive for your health, and you’re not fulfilling that promise to yourself, guess what? You got it, discontentment.
So this point ties back in with a few approaches I’ve mentioned already. When nourishing your body, appreciate the process of optimising your health.
Express gratitude with every healthy decision you make; whether it’s going to sleep earlier, adding a massive salad to your lunch, or going for a light run after work.
Something I’ve done on and off over the years is to log a daily health journal. It’s just a summary of all of the things you’ve done in a day that affect your physical health. You reflect on each meal and beverage, any exercise you recorded, as well as your sleep and energy patterns.
Even if you do this for a couple of days, it will give you data about your healthy habits, so you can make adjustments.
Move the focus from the scales, to how you feel. How you physically feel is always the best indicator of good health. So make sure you document this in your journal.
Hey, I think I’ve just inspired myself to recommit to a health journal!
12) Double down on your strengths
Quick exercise, can you tell me what you’re three top strengths are in 30 seconds?
I’m assuming here. But I’m guessing that was a harder activity than you thought.
That’s because through schooling, our parents, friends, employers, we’ve been told time and time again to improve upon our weaknesses.
So we’ve become so comfortable talking about what we can do better, that we struggle to celebrate what unique talents we bring to the world.
Constantly thinking you need to be better at things you’re naturally not good at is a recipe for discontent. Or more accurately, not doubling down on your strengths is a missed opportunity for being content.
Think about the top performers in any field. They recognised their talent then decided to apply effort to build upon their ability.
Michael Jackson could sing, dance and write music, so that’s what he did all day every day—and that was his contribution to the world.
It’s time to stop playing down or neglecting your gifts. Any peaceful society will recognise the talents of the people and have them specialise in that.
So what are your gifts? Don’t need to think you have to be the best in the world at something. Just think about the things you naturally find comfortable.
Are you energetic, a fast reader, caring, funny, composed?
If you’re still struggling to identify your strengths, here are some things you can do:
- Do a personality test. I like 16 personalities, but there are many others.
- Get feedback from people you trust. Ask them what they think your strengths are. But don’t put them on the spot. They want to add value to you, so give them time to think about a response.
- Reflect back on what teachers, coaches, parents, friends, strangers have told you over the years. It might not be super obvious, but within their comments may lie clues to your strengths. Your partner might not like the fact that you see all of the mess in the house or you always need to know everything. That might mean you’re super detail-oriented. That’s a strength!
I’ve been told for as long as I can remember that I’m passionate about things that interest me. So I used that feedback to pursue things I’m excited about, and that decision has given me great contentment.
I’ve been told that I’m a good conversationalist, so I look to hone my craft in interactions, again giving me contentment.
Being self-aware of your strengths and doubling down on them makes you feel like you have superpowers. It gives you confidence and a path to being content.
13) Practice acceptance of yourself and others
Leading on from self-awareness and identifying your strengths, is self-acceptance.
When you’re unhappy with who you are, you have no chance of being content. Doing the previous exercises of personality tests, reflection and seeking feedback will hopefully give you data on yourself.
From there, it’s about accepting your flaws as well as your talents.
However, the practice of acceptance goes far beyond yourself. Accepting others for who they are, turns out to be much more complicated than it should be.
We’re quick to judge each other and build resentment. We make assumptions about people based on how they look.
Earlier in this post, I mentioned gratitude journaling for your loved ones. This is the process of writing down everything you love about your spouse, mother, son, best friend. This exercise will get you thinking positively about those you love—and thus help you to accept them.
But what about people you don’t know? How can you accept them quickly and refrain from judging them?
One mind trick I like to use when I meet new people is to assume they have something to teach me. No matter who you are, what you smell like, how you look, what language you speak, whether you have accessibility needs, or whether you’re rude, it doesn’t matter. I still believe you have something to teach me, and I want to know what it is.
With that mindset, you can start asking questions from a place of genuine curiosity. Or even if you don’t interact with them, from observation, you’re looking for positive queues.
Searching for learnings from one another is a surefire way to acceptance and contentment.
What are your tips and experiences for being content?
I’m curious, what approach resonated with you the most? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Also, what did I miss? What has worked for you in your journey to content?
Thanks for reading.