Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Avoiding the Contingency Mindset

Growing up, my mother’s favourite phrase was just in case. As in Take a sweater/umbrella/extra socks with you just in case. Once, she even bought me a pocket tool kit in a vinyl case. Can you guess what three words were emblazoned on that case?

The problem was, I rarely (if ever) used the items that my mother urged me to take along. And the tool kit, by the way, was essentially useless. It got stuffed into the back of a drawer and eventually disappeared into that alternate reality into which neglected or unwanted or forgotten items fall.

Like many people, my mother got trapped in what I call the contingency mindset. It’s an urge that overtakes you. An urge that makes you think of everything that could happen when doing something, and to plan to mitigate the effects of what might happen. Even if the chances of something bad or negative happening are, at best, remote.

The contingency mindset is a lot like packing for a trip. Many people stuff everything that they’ll need — extra clothes, sunscreen, spare shoelaces, the toaster oven — into a bag. Why? Because they might need them. But as the trip progresses, they find that they aren’t using many, if any, of those extra items. Those items are just taking up space and increasing their load. Worse still, they can buy most of the things that they may wind up needing at their destination.

That’s what the contingency mindset does to you mentally and emotionally. All that planning, all that thinking, all that preparation takes up space and energy. Space and energy that you can use for other things.

The contingency mindset is also a source of stress. You’re always fretting about what might happen and constantly trying to stay on top of every situation and how to counter it. As I pointed out earlier, those scenarios rarely come to pass. But people still waste considerable mental and emotional resources trying to plan for every eventuality.

But you can avoid the contingency mindset. The first step is to relax. Don’t stress about every little thing. Don’t let yourself get carried away thinking of a couple of dozen scenarios that probably won’t be realized. Instead, take a calm, measured approach.

The second step is to ask yourself What’s the worst that can happen? Often, your choices aren’t life or death. Let’s say you’re travelling and leave your umbrella at home. The worst that can happen is that you’ll get wet if it rains. If need an umbrella, you can probably borrow one from the hotel where you’re staying or pick a cheap one up at a discount store.

The third step is to apply that thinking away from the contingency mindset to your wider life. I’m not saying that you should view everything through rose-coloured glasses, but you shouldn’t let worries about imaginary boogymen and gremlins dominate your life.

Stop trying to plan for every contingency, for every emergency, for every situation. You won’t be able to keep up. You won’t be able to stop. There’s too much that can go wrong, too much potential for the unexpected. And you shouldn’t waste your mental and emotional energy trying to plan for those contingencies. Instead, take a more relaxed and balanced view of your life and of the world. You’ll be happier and less stressed if you do.

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