THE BLOG
09/28/2015 12:03 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2016

The In-Betweens

What are you doing with your in-betweens?

I'm not talking about the cream in between the wafers of an Oreo. And I'm not talking about the commercials in between television shows. I'm not even talking about the curious ball of lint you find in between your toes.

I'm talking about those moments in life that only seem to be filling the time in between more important experiences.

You may be familiar with the poem called "The Dash" by Linda Ellis. If not, check it out. The essence of this beautifully written piece is that our lives are represented on a tombstone by a birth date, a death date and a dash in between. The poem makes us wonder what we are doing with the dash since that is the essence of our lives. I suspect that when we get to the end of our lives, it will make perfect sense. Yet, right now is when we should be considering our dashes.

If we take that concept one step further, we will notice that much of our time is spent in seemingly insignificant moments I call in-betweens. When we're driving home from work, the in-between happens from the point we leave the office until we get home. When we go to the doctor, the in-between occurs in the waiting room. When we buy a lottery ticket, the in-between lasts from the minute we pay until we lose. And every in-between, just like our overall dash, is important.

As a kid, one of the hardest in-between for me was from dinnertime on Christmas Eve until 7 a.m. on Christmas Day which was my parents' absolute earliest approved wake-up time. During that in-between, I was a mess. I'd fall asleep dreaming of luxurious gifts I would never receive only to wake up 20 minutes later and realize that I still had hours to go until morning. The misery came from lying in my bed where the only thing I could do was lie in the bed and think about the fact that the only thing I could do was lie in the bed and think.

One summer, I worked as a flagman on a road construction crew. I stood on secluded back roads for ten hours at a time. Some days, I would only see one or two cars pass all day. The in-between on those days felt like an eternity as I stared at the road, threw rocks at the fence, and had extended conversations with turkeys in the woods. In case you're wondering, I do a spot-on turkey impression. Just saying.

In life, our in-betweens often feel boring but sometimes they're painful. Several years ago, my wife was experiencing some abdominal discomfort. After a series of tests, the doctor diagnosed several possible causes, including cancer. The only way to figure out the cause was to perform surgery. Unfortunately, the surgery could not be scheduled for six weeks. This in-between was excruciating for my wife. All she could think about was the possibility of cancer. Luckily, the surgery revealed endometriosis instead of cancer. And while she still had a few challenges to overcome, the absence of cancer was certainly a relief.

We encounter many in-betweens in life. In fact, they probably take up more time than the events on either side. And what we do with those in-betweens determines the depth and richness we experience. To prevent missing these opportunities and to truly make the most of them, we must examine the in-betweens along the way rather than simply seeing them in our rear view mirrors.

I suggest there are two ways to make the most of our in-betweens. The first is through attention and the second is through action.

Attention is where our focus lies. For instance, if I'm sitting on the beach engaged in a conversation with my wife and an attractive woman in a skimpy bikini walks by, my attention better be on the conversation with my wife. Yet, it's easy for us to become distracted by, well, the many distractions in our lives. We're distracted from our families by work demands. We're distracted from intellectual enrichment by reality television. And we're distracted from wellness by unhealthy habits. Distractions are everywhere and it's usually easier to see them after we've been distracted.

The key to attention is to maintain our presence in every moment -- to be aware of where our focus is. Unfortunately, we tend to function through habits and routines. For instance, when I go to the dentist, I usually grab whatever magazine is available. And by "whatever," I mean People. There are very few intellectual, psychological or social benefits to this magazine. As an alternative, I could strike up a meaningful conversation with one of the other dental cases waiting with me. Or, I could bring reading material of my own. Or I could use my laptop to finish the blog that was due last week. Attention means being aware of the opportunities rather than just functioning on habit or mindlessness.

Action, on the other hand, means using our attention to do something. For instance, if we're worried about upcoming test results or about a meeting for which we don't feel prepared, it's easy to let our worrisome thoughts fill our day rather than taking advantage of the time we have to do something worthwhile and productive. The thoughts distract us from more positive thinking and lead us to a less productive experience.

I recently attended a presentation where the speaker suggested that we have five seconds to take action on an idea or thought. If we delay and don't take the right action, then we risk avoiding the more beneficial outcomes such as getting some exercise or eating a carrot instead of a Snickers bar.

If we embrace the idea that we have control over our thoughts and our actions, we then have the ability to change our experiences. And that's pretty darn cool. But, we must practice this to be effective. It's tough to train our minds to do things differently. Meditation, therapy, and self-help books are tools that can help us. As Nike says, we have to "just do it."

The in-betweens in life often appear as momentary windows of time and if we're not careful, we'll see them as insignificant experiences. However, these experiences add up to an important part of our lives and can ultimately define our existence. So, with a little focus and an investment in every experience, the in-betweens become more significant and make our lives richer.

So, I suggest that instead of running around our in-betweens, we make a dash to embrace them.