Woman gazing at a sunset

How to Reduce Anxiety and Live With Purpose: Horizon Gazing vs. Headlight Functioning

Summary: When times are hard, our ability to stay focused and optimistic depends on striking a key balance. In this blog, I discuss the difference between “horizon gazing” and “headlight functioning”, and how you can balance the two skills to reduce anxiety and move forward with hope and purpose.

How to Reduce Anxiety and Live With Purpose: Horizon Gazing vs. Headlight Functioning

We have an interesting challenge before us.

On the one hand, taking care of ourselves and others requires us to scan the horizon so we can be aware of potential dangers. On the other hand, looking ahead too much can keep us stuck in a heightened state of anxiety and fear. 

Living well right now means careful management of our behaviors and thoughts lest we accidentally spend the upcoming months in a state of numb paralysis or dithering panic. To reduce anxiety and stay focused on what matters, we need to balance “horizon gazing” and “headlight functioning”.

What is “horizon gazing”?

Headlights coming at you through fog

Horizon gazing is a big-picture way of thinking. It means looking ahead and sussing out potential dangers or pitfalls so we can prepare to avoid or manage them. Horizon gazing also helps us identify future opportunities that we might otherwise miss. 

The problem with horizon gazing is that it can keep us mired in anxiety and fear. It can also distract us from focusing on the small and important steps that help us accomplish important things that keep us moving forward when times are tough.

To counter this, we need to balance horizon gazing with “headlight functioning”. 

What is “headlight functioning”?

“Headlight functioning” is focusing on the tasks right in front of you. It’s marked by small, manageable, specific steps that reflect your goals and priorities. Because it’s limited in scope, headlight functioning can reduce anxiety and overwhelm.

While horizon gazing is focused on the big picture, headlight functioning is specific and limited. Both horizon gazing and headlight functioning are necessary. They work together to help you evaluate your environment and make reasonable plans and then follow through. For example: 

Horizon GazingHeadlight Functioning
Keeps you tuned in to your work environment so you can recognize when your job might be in jeopardy.Helps you take that concern and devise actionable steps to address it, such as increasing your financial cushion or updating your LinkedIn profile.
Tells you that you’ll be juggling work and oversight of your kid’s online schooling for a while.Prompts you to discuss a shared work/parenting schedule with your spouse and re-arrange your home space so it’s more functional for everyone.
Tells you it’s an economically great time to sell your home despite the pandemic.Helps you find a real estate agent, clean out the junk in your garage, and hire a house painter so you can make the home sale a reality.

To effectively balance horizon gazing and headlight functioning, it helps to keep certain things in mind. 

How can you “horizon gaze” effectively?

Telescope lens clarifies picture of a dirt road

First, recognize it’s limits. When we feel particularly threatened, it’s tempting to constantly scan the horizon for danger. It’s important to accept that no amount of horizon gazing will unearth every threat or opportunity, and constantly searching will drive you crazy. To avoid this…

Second, set horizon gazing limits. Horizon gazing can paralyze you with fear or overwhelm; to reduce anxiety set limits. These limits will be different for everyone, but when you notice that this activity is making you feel worse and is negatively affecting your ability to function, you need to cut yourself off and practice headlight functioning instead. Whether it’s less social media/news “doom-scrolling” or finding some alone time, setting limits is crucial.

Third, be strategic. When you’re horizon gazing – especially in chaotic times – it’s better to only seek information that’s useful. You only need enough information to make reasonable choices about how to focus your time and energy for a few months. 

How can you “headlight function” effectively?

Effective headlight functioning is basically about honing your ability to focus. Just like using the headlights on your car, “headlight functioning” involves focusing only on what’s in front of you for the next several feet. Don’t worry about what’s half a mile down the road; you’ll turn your attention to that when you get there. 

Especially in a society that values multi-tasking, focusing is difficult for many of us. According to a Microsoft study, “The average human has an eight-second attention span–less than that of a goldfish. . .” The good news is that focus is a skill that can improve over time.

Here are some thing that can help:

First, improve your environment. Arrange your environment for success. This might mean finding a space where you can work that offers total silence or soothing background music. If you focus better at a standing desk than when sitting at a computer, configure your environment accordingly. Perhaps you’re best able to concentrate when you’re walking, doodling, thinking out loud, or staring out your window. Figure out what works for you and make sure your work environment supports this. 

Woman sips tea to reduce anxiety while working on a laptop

Second, tempt yourself into focusing. Not surprisingly, humans are more likely to do something when it’s pleasant. If you’re having trouble focusing on something important you wish to accomplish, pair this with a desirable activity that can help reduce the anxiety or drudgery. Habit expert James Clear calls this “temptation bundling.”

Here are some examples:

  • Drink your favorite tea only when paying your bills
  • Listen to a favorite podcast only while you clean (this works for me!)
  • Treat yourself to a pedicure when you need to clean out your email inbox or write your grocery list

Third, break everything down into small, specific steps. Many goals take a long period of time before they come to fruition. Raising good kids. Building a successful business. Surviving a year (or more) of a pandemic. When larger steps seem overwhelming, small, specific steps are tangible and easier to accomplish. Focus on creating a string of small, meaningful steps that lead you forward through overwhelm and towards what you value most.

Headlight functioning without regular horizon gazing can lead to a long to-do list of aimless tasks that don’t add up to anything you value. On the other hand, too much horizon gazing can make you feel overwhelmed or paralyzed. It’s important to find an effective way to balance both. 

How will you balance “horizon gazing” and “headlight functioning” to reduce anxiety and live with hope and purpose in the months to come?

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