How “Two Buckets” Can Help You Thrive in Chaotic (and Normal) Times

In these challenging times, all of us at LifeSmart are concerned for your well-being and are working overtime to find ways we can support you, your families, and your schools with encouragement, wisdom, perspective, and helpful strategies. Given the soaring levels of anxiety we are witnessing, this message is important. I have no doubt that there are people in your life who can benefit. Our desire is that it makes you, and the children you guide, more peaceful, hopeful, healthy, and productive, regardless of the current circumstances. 

Through observation and conversation, we are struck by how differently people are affected by these times. Much of this is to be expected because each of us is challenged in unique ways and to varying degrees:

  • Financial: some businesses are booming (Zoom, Amazon) while others are suffering greatly (restaurants, cruise lines, gyms), which is affecting careers and family economics
  • Health: some of us been personally impacted by COVID-19 (self/family/friends) while others have gone largely unscathed
  • Education: some schooling remains all-virtual while others are in-person; this is affecting students, families, and teachers in disparate ways
  • Personal Freedom: depending on how governors and mayors are attempting to manage the pandemic, citizens are experiencing freedom or severe restraints
  • Relationships: our ability to see family members, friends, teachers, and co-workers in person has been significantly impacted; and careers are being put on hold for many parents while their children are learning remotely

It is no wonder that anxiety levels are up and vary so widely! 

However, it is also the case that people respond differently to similar circumstances—especially when confronted with factors outside of their control. Some are better able to take things in stride, while others suffer mightily and are consumed with fear. We’ve all seen this. 

So, the question I’ll tackle today is how we can constructively handle all of life’s circumstances, regardless of whether our waters are stormy or calm. At LifeSmart, we’d like to share an approach that we believe can help. We call it, the Two Bucket Strategy. I know it sounds a little odd, but please hear me out. 


In life, we face two types of circumstances: those we can control and those we cannot. In some cases, we’re the final decision-maker, while in others, we rely on other people, organizations, or rules. Someone once told me that life consists of two things—time and choices—so I’d better get them right! But, let’s be honest, many of our “choices” are driven by the decisions and rules made by others.  

What are some examples of things we can control? For the most part, these include areas like our careers, attitudes, how we spend our money, how we manage our time, what entertainment, media, and information we consume, the food we eat, which activities we participate in, our personal faith, the values we hold, and the friends we choose. While there may be outside influences, with these decisions, the buck generally stops with us. Figuratively speaking, let’s place this collection of decisions into a bucket—the Controllable Bucket—or what I call my “Me Bucket.” People like this bucket most because we’re in charge! 

But, what about that often frustrating bucket of life’s influences, circumstances, and decisions that are outside of our control? Here, examples include: the family we were born into/genetics, the weather, landing a certain job or college acceptance, the management skills of our boss, whether our schooling is in-person or virtual, the feelings and actions of others, government policy/leaders, our economic environment, the health of our population, whether our flight will arrive on time, how politicians govern in a pandemic, and whether the person we ask on a date or to marry says, “Yes.” In some of these cases, we may be able to influence the outcome/decision, but for the most part, we are beholden to the authority and final call of others. We might call this collection the Uncontrollable Bucket

There is another key aspect in play—the size of the buckets—because they ebb and flow. Usually, the size of our Controllable Bucket remains relatively constant over time. However, the Uncontrollable Bucket can undergo significant change from year to year, especially in chaotic times when it expands enormously, like now! Compare this bucket’s size today with eighteen months ago, and you’ll see what I mean. Simply put, we’re all dealing with more concerning and impactful variables today that are outside of our control. It’s a surefire recipe for fear and anxiety if we don’t manage this well. 

The Predicament

As we juggle all of life’s balls, the question is how we approach these respective categories—the controllable and uncontrollable. Do we think of them as two different decision realms or do we lump them all together into one giant hodge-podge in our daily living? How do we allocate our time/energy among what we can control and what we cannot? These answers have a profound impact on our wellness and productivity and are the crux of matter for many today. 

In life, and especially during chaotic times like now, we can clearly see the pitfalls of lumping these buckets together as we manage our affairs. Anxiety soars. Decision-making suffers. Relationships take a toll. Hopelessness rises. Mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health plunges. Although unintentional, when we allow the “uncontrollables” to take over, our lives can become consumed with chaos. We are seeing these effects all around us when people:

  • Spend most of their waking moments agonizing and focusing on uncontrollable circumstances. They devote endless hours consuming media (which, by design, alarms, provokes, and is often biased). They allow it to dominate their conversations with family and friends, which increases anxiety, especially when they pile those concerns onto their own. They fixate and worry about decisions that are in the process of being made by others (especially political), wondering how they will turn out. 
  • Spend less time on making quality decisions, investing in their relationships, fostering personal health and growth, and focusing on things they can actually do something about.
  • Assume current conditions will persist forever (the “new normal”) without recognizing their resilience, resourcefulness, and adaptability. This breeds a sense of hopelessness. 
  • Allow their worries to crowd out what brings them joy.

Implementing the Two Bucket Strategy

So, how do we actually put the Two Bucket Strategy into practice? The first step is having a clear understanding of what is controllable or not. As new circumstances unfold or new information is available, consider whether and how they may impact your decisions and actions. If a situation arises and a decision is yours to make, place it in your Controllable Bucket and focus on making a well-considered decision (or action) with the best information you have available. All you can do is your best, so be sure to extend yourself some grace. Because you are in control of these decisions, you’ll want to spend the vast majority of your time on these areas of your life. The end result is more productivity and general well-being. 

What about those “uncontrollables” that can be sources of great concern, especially in times like now? First,you place them in the Uncontrollable Bucket, accepting that these decisions/circumstances are outside of your ability to control. We may not like the circumstances or the people/institutions with decision-making authority, but we come to accept that reality. There may be a grieving component to this (i.e., processing emotions that you wish things were different), which is healthy and normal, but we have to come to terms with our inability to control these circumstances and outcomes. 

That said, there may be opportunities to directly or indirectly influence eventual outcomes through our initiative. If we don’t like the direction or policy positions of those in control of decisions, we can choose to lend our voice to the conversation or issue through our own involvement. It may not affect immediate decisions, but it may make a difference in time. Thus, while we can reach a place of acceptance of others’ control over certain decisions (as difficult as it may be), it does not imply passivity. However, if we choose to involve ourselves, the question becomes how much of our time we allocate to these matters.

Second, remember our objective is to make the most of life regardless of our circumstances. As my Therapist daughter describes it, you control what you can (well) within the context of what you can’t. Remember, you have a choice in how you deal with matters beyond your control. So, live consistent with your values, invest in your relationships, and make the most out of your life no matter what. Simply put, it is freeing when we can reach this place. 

Third, devote some time to gaining valuable, unbiased factual information to help you better understand the circumstances and adapt accordingly. In these days of alarmist and often biased media, it is essential to diversify your information sources to gain perspectives from multiple points of view. Also, be sure to up your “discernment meter” to differentiate between fact and opinion with your information and sources. This will help you make more objective and wise decisions within the context of the uncontrollable circumstances you’re dealing with.

Fourth, pay close attention to your stressors and set appropriate boundaries toward the people and information sources that are not constructive influences. For most, this will involve consuming less media and being more selective when choosing the people with whom you associate or are connected to on social media. This takes self-awareness of your anxiety levels and lots of discernment, self-discipline, and self-respect. Surround yourself with positive influences and factual information. Limit the alternative.   

Fifth, pay close attention to your time allocation between the two buckets and give substantial priority to your controllables. With media at our fingertips, it’s so easy to get sucked into all of the issues we can’t control (hello politics!). This includes the amount of time we spend and the frequency with which we are checking the news and such. People get more anxious the more frequently they focus on the uncontrollables. If your anxiety levels are increasing, it may be a sign that you need to reallocate your time between these buckets and stay away from media/tech for longer intervals. 

Sixth, consider this an opportunity to grow your spiritual life. People of faith (myself included) have additional ways to release their worries and their Uncontrollable Bucket. Through prayer, meditation, and reflection, as well as through a faith community, they can share concerns and desires, seek wisdom and guidance, and give thanks. It offers peace, comfort, hope, and direction in unique ways in good times and bad. I realize our readers hold different faith views but feel it’s important to share.

Seventh, pay extra attention to what brings you joy and fulfillment, and seek opportunities to serve others. It’s a win-win for sure. 

Finally, remember that everyone is fighting a unique battle in these difficult times, so be extra compassionate and empathetic and extend more grace to the people around you. 

We hope these ideas are helpful to you in navigating these times and encourage you to share this with the people in your life. Yes, two buckets are indeed better than one.

20 Ways to a Happier New Year

With the dawn of a new (hopefully much better) year, we’re inundated with lists of the 10 best this or the five best that. I don’t know about you, but the problem I have with many of their ideas is they’re often vague or difficult to sustain over the course of the year. Despite our best intentions, we try them, and then eventually peter out.

Nonetheless, we’d like to share our recipe for a happier new year, 2021 style, with some creative ideas that might just stick. After reflecting on what makes people happy and unhappy, here is our eclectic list of suggestions that you might try on for size. No, we can’t guarantee a happy year–or even one without surprising and bewildering challenges–but I’ll bet money they’ll at least make you happier!

1. Forgive someone: We thought we’d get the toughest one out of the way first! Sure, it may be difficult and emotionally draining, but one of the surest ways to better emotional health (and spirits) is to forgive. There is freedom in “letting go of” someone or something that has been a proverbial thorn in your side. It takes courage and strength, but it is oh so powerful. Try it.

2. Renew an old acquaintance: One of my greatest joys in the past few years has been reconnecting with long-lost friends, some I hadn’t seen in over 40 years. It has been an absolute blast to the point where we’re “regulars” once again. Who might be on your list? 

3. Reread your favorite book: Here’s a sure thing. Think of an all-time favorite book you read years ago and reread it. With the passage of time, you’ll gain new perspectives and probably discover some things you missed the first time around. It’ll feel like you’re wearing that favorite old sweater once again.

4. Seek balance and time to reflect: Can I just say it? We’re all too busy juggling life’s this and that. And, some of us pour our entire lives into one thing (usually careers). Be sure you maintain a healthy balance and a varied life—one that also reserves quality time to reflect, pray, meditate, and breathe. Quiet time is a must, and yet it’s usually the first to go. Sleep is a close second.

5. Watch/listen to/read less news: We are being manipulated by our news media. And, I’m not just talking about the political spin that permeates almost every article or segment. It’s the deliberate effort to cause alarm, agitation, and fear by focusing on negative news stories and sensationalizing them. This is based on a belief that people are more interested in negative, than positive, news. Don’t fall for it. Consider how news is affecting you.  

6. Unfriend obnoxious people: We all “pilot test” some of our “friends” on social media to some degree. The challenge is we don’t know ahead of time what they’ll post and can even feel guilty “unfriending” them. Many of our “friends” choose to post things that either bring us down or incite controversy and angst by sharing their always-learned opinions. It’s irritating, it stays with us, and it’s a lousy way to spend our time. Just do it.

7. Mind what’s on your mind: At the risk of stating the obvious, when we’re not doing things, we’re usually thinking things. Some of what we think of most brings happiness while others bring us down or cause endless worry. Where does your mind usually travel? Is it to positive/constructive places or otherwise? Be attentive to what brings you joy and consciously increase those kind of thoughts.

8. Count your blessings: Arguably, the most powerful ingredient to happiness and joy is gratitude. And, not just the Thanksgiving Day kind. The every day kind. One great idea is creating a gratitude jar of notes you/your family have written about something you’re thankful for and then reading them later on. Whatever works best for you, having an attitude of gratitude is a sure bet.

9. Enjoy more music, nature, art, and humor: When life is extremely busy, we can become so task oriented that we “squeeze out” the creative/simpler things that bring joy, curiosity, and wonder. Whether you’re an observer or a “doer,” be sure you make room for these pleasures. They’re sure to brighten your day.

10. Prefer in-person to tech: Research is showing that, notwithstanding all of our social media “friends,” we’re becoming lonelier. Our screen time is often me time, and when we use tech as our primary means of communicating, we lose much. The solution is easy—more face-to-face time. Sure, it’s not as quick, but who cares! We all need this, and that includes you.

11. Fix a regret: One of our greatest burdens is carrying a regret, whether from something we did or didn’t do. Depending on the nature and impact, it can consume us and sap us of our happiness. Do you have regrets? Are there steps you can take (conversations, apologizing, seeking forgiveness, doing) that would free you of this burden? Consider it a gift to yourself.

12. Make someone’s day: Do you want to feel really great about yourself? Then, do something that will make someone say to you, “You just made my day!” or “You were an answer to prayer.” Seek out those opportunities where you can help, and be the solution to a problem. They’re everywhere waiting for you. (And, while you’re at it, consider mentoring a kid. They need you.)

13. Seek out good news/stories: Good news is everywhere and so are great stories of human kindness. Sometimes we have to look a little harder to find them, but they’re there all right. Proactively explore sites, books, and articles that will uplift and inspire you and surround yourself with positivity. I even subscribed to an age-old magazine to do just that. It works!

14. Remember, it’s okay to say, ‘No”: Some of us chronically overcommit to the point where we sacrificially run our tank on empty. We want to be helpful and please, but when we’re already consumed with busyness, we need to be more selective in what we agree to do. So, please don’t be afraid to say, “No” or “Not now.” Always save room for the people and things that matter most.

15. Raise your irritation threshold: I used to let small things bother me until I realized that it was my choice. No more! In life, we’re constantly exposed to things or people that are irritating, but it doesn’t mean we have to let it drag us down. My mother always told me not to sweat the small stuff, and eventually, I took her words to heart. I should have sooner!

16. Take more walks: One thing that reduces our happiness quotient is when we’re overly busy and our pace is frenetic. Not surprisingly, we also resort to fast-paced workouts (often indoors) in order to maximize results in a short time frame. To keep balance, stay active, and have some quality time to unwind and enjoy our surroundings, be sure to make room for walks, too. They’re a nice change of pace.

17. Do something creative: So much of our time is task focused that we only use part of our brain. One way to counter this (and bring fun and joy into the equation) is to tap into your creative side. Whether that’s music, art, building, or otherwise, you’ll find it enjoyable and therapeutic. Also, be sure to check out the courses at your local community college if you’d like a little instruction. Is there a latent talent lurking inside?

18. Initiate good cheer: Go out of your way to cheerfully greet the people you come across. It’s amazing how people will respond to you and how much it will lift your own spirits! Give it a try and you’ll see. Good cheer is a two-way street.

19. Worry less: This is pretty self-explanatory. Worry robs us of joy and, frankly, does little good. Turn your worries into an action plan instead, and see how it builds hope and positive momentum. Tap into your support system, too.

20. Start a Gourmet Club: “Huh?” you say. Here’s how it works. Find four people (or couples) and agree to meet quarterly on a rotational basis. The host is responsible for the setting, cuisine, and main entrée. The others bring dessert, beverages, side dishes, and appetizers in agreement with the cuisine. First, we mingle, then we eat, and then we follow with a game night and lots of fun conversation. We did this years ago with friends and are starting anew with our adult children. It’s a blast and it builds our cooking prowess, too!

So, there you have it. Let us know how it goes and which ones resonate most. Here’s to a Happier New Year to you and your family!