I have a bad habit of trying to fix things. (Not—let’s be clear—with a hammer, though I am a disaster waiting to happen with a hammer, too.)
No, what I mean is, when something feels “off” in my life, my first impulse is always to leap in with a good Fixing Strategy. Fixing sounds good, right? It sounds better than leaving things broken, at least.
The problem is, when you charge in to fix things, you tend to start fixing the wrong thing, at the wrong level.
Stuff all over my desk? I must need an organizing system! (But wait, why do I even have stuff all over my desk?)
Always so busy that there’s no time to make dinner? I must need a better meal planning strategy, or something from the deli. (Except… why are we so busy in the first place?)
That unsettled feeling in my chest? Maybe I’ll just scroll through Instagram for a second… (But what was that feeling all about, anyway?)
I’ve learned that if it’s not an emergency, the first thing to do is to go into Observer Mode.
Observer Mode is when you notice a problem, but instead of changing things right away, you… don’t. You observe. You don’t try to fix anything. (You don’t try to make anything worse, either.) You just pay attention to what’s happening. You watch and see what’s going on.
And yes, okay, this might just be a fancy name for “curiosity,” but I’m cool with that. A fancy name helps me remember that this is part of the process. It’s not time to march in and fix things. I’m in Observer Mode. This is the first step.
In Observer Mode, you don’t judge yourself or your situation. You don’t look for someone to blame. You take a deep breath, you take a neutral posture, and you take a good look at the thing that bothers you.
This is not stalling. It’s not denying, and it’s not ignoring. It’s not passive. Observer Mode is an active kind of watching. It’s about getting to the heart of things, not just moving things around.
It starts with asking questions.
- What’s going on here?
- When does this happen?
- What triggers it?
- What makes it worse?
- What’s supposed to be happening (but isn’t)?
- What’s not supposed to happen (but does)?
- Why does this bother me?
- What expectations do I have that aren’t being met?
Anne Lamott writes that “paying attention is about the biggest redemption there is,” and I think she’s on to something there.
But the truth is, it’s easier to jump in and fix stuff than to observe it. If you have a fixing plan, at least you can tell yourself: I know, I know, it’s a problem, but I’m working on it!
Observer Mode says only: I see this. This is real. I wonder what it’s all about.
That’s not easy to handle when you live in a culture that loves quick fixes. It’s easier to distract yourself, to keep yourself so busy that you don’t have time to notice—much less deal with!—the things that feel not-quite-right in your life.
But when you give yourself permission to turn over all the rocks and look at what’s happening under the surface, you get a better idea of what’s going on, and why, and where to go next.
And then you have options.
You can choose to accept things (yourself, your reality, the people around you) or you can choose to change things (your expectations, your reality, which people you’re around). At that point, you’re not changing things just to be doing something. You’re making choices because you know what needs to be done.
Try it. Next time you’re hit with frustration or irritation or overwhelm, hear that as a signal to stop and pay attention. Those feelings are your call to get curious.
Welcome to Observer Mode.
There aren’t any quick-fix band-aids here, and I don’t know where it will take you. But if you let yourself get curious, I bet you’ll start to figure that out.