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Several years ago, Teri Jackson was feeling overwhelmed. Nothing dramatic had happened in her life; she just felt tapped out. The former bank executive knew she spent too many hours behind a desk, which left her feeling out of shape. But she also felt that her daily life — and her daily interactions — had somehow become more draining than energizing.

So Jackson embarked on an ambitious and innovative cleanup mission. She set out to eliminate her “tolerations,” a term coined by the late Thomas Leonard, a founding father of the life-coaching industry and author of The Portable Coach: 28 Surefire Strategies for Business and Personal Success (Scribner, 1998).

Leonard characterized tolerations as those sources of irritation and distraction that we just “put up with,” often without realizing the extent to which they are depleting our energy and undermining our pursuit of our highest goals. When we identify and eliminate these tolerations, Leonard theorized, we can free up surprising amounts of time and energy, resources we can tap to help us become more deeply engaged in the pursuits that matter most to us.

So one by one, Jackson started saying goodbye to the things that bugged her. She decluttered her overcrowded closets and kitchen cupboards, and eliminated high-maintenance plants in her garden that didn’t thrive in the Arizona desert. She also set some boundaries on the kinds of conversations she was willing to have and even let go of some relationships that had ceased to feel rewarding.

Today, she credits her toleration-zapping efforts with helping her start and stick with a fitness routine, lose 40 pounds, and sustain a positive outlook on life. Plus, she has healthier relationships and more energy than she’s had in decades.

What Are You Tolerating?

It may seem strange to encourage people to be less tolerant. But Leonard wasn’t talking about dealing with cultural or political differences. The tolerations he was concerned about were those pesky aspects of our own lives — the things, as he described them in The Portable Coach, “that bug us, sap our energy and could be eliminated.”

To allow these tolerances to exist, wrote Leonard, is to settle for something less than a full life. “Tolerations make you block out a lot of life’s happiness, just because you’re trying not to be affected by what annoys you.”

A toleration might be as small and simple as a missing shirt button, explains Jason Kolber, a Phoenix, Ariz.–based life coach, or as complex as “going along in a relationship that isn’t as intimate as we would like, or being in a workplace that isn’t fulfilling.”

Our everyday surroundings are fertile ground for tolerations, notes Kolber. Just take a quick mental survey of your home and office right now. What bugs you? A burned-out light bulb, a dried-up pen, an overly chatty coworker? Some of these things may seem small or trifling, but size doesn’t matter. They can all grate on your nerves and deplete your energy.

Even the time constraints we experience every day are things many of us routinely tolerate. “So many people are putting up with the feeling that they don’t have space for themselves,” says Kolber. “Their lives feel very compressed and very rushed.”

Recurring annoyances — from a drawer that won’t close properly to a phone that rings constantly or a set of keys that disappears on a regular basis — can lead to perpetual irritation and depleted mood. Taken together, small irritations like these can also lead to chronic, low-level stress in the body. When the body experiences stress, the adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol, which in moderate levels helps our body function. But if cortisol levels stay too high for too long, it can lead to weight gain, a dampened immune-system function and even memory loss.

Leonard theorized that tolerations are essentially “a mirror of what’s going on inside us” and can reflect unconscious decisions we’ve made about what we deserve, and how we choose to live.

When we accept a lot of tolerations, explains Kolber, “we are choosing to live with depleted energy and vitality.” Tolerations hold us back, he says: “It’s like swimming in blue jeans. You can do it, but it’s a lot harder than it has to be.”

A Process of Elimination

The first step in eliminating tolerations is to recognize them, and to get clear about the toll they take on your energy level and happiness.

Some tolerations are obvious, but others might require some soul searching to identify. For example, tolerating an obnoxious or demanding friend may feel like the only way to maintain a valuable social connection, even when the relationship actually creates stress and anxiety.

“Becoming toleration-free means addressing the root cause of your tolerations, not just the symptoms,” says Kolber. “If your marriage isn’t rewarding, the answer may not be simply to get divorced. It may mean looking into why you have been willing to tolerate and co-create the situation in the first place.”

Such soul searching may require some help, Kolber notes. Shifting the dynamics of a personal relationship is challenging, and having support — from a coach, therapist or trusted friend — can be crucial to making lasting change.

It can also help to start with smaller-scale energy-drainers. To that end, Jackson maintains a list of the tolerations she’d like to tackle next. “I write down 50 of my tolerations as quickly as possible, without really thinking,” she says. This practice has helped her sharpen her skill at identifying tolerations and made it easier to banish new ones from her life. She’s also found that resolving smaller tolerations has given her the energy — and the expertise — to uncover and eliminate the larger ones.

“As you clear your life and your mind of tolerations, a sense of calm and clarity replaces them — and the ability to resolve even deeper tolerations increases,” she says. “I still have lots of issues to address, but eliminating tolerations is making it possible for me to keep improving my life on a daily basis.”

Get Started

Take a few moments to identify some of your own tolerations. Then, handling one toleration at a time, consider the following questions:

Can you act on it? Many of us have become so accustomed to our surroundings that we forget we can generally take steps to change them. A dingy wall dan be repainted; a sagging hem repaired; a chipped cup tossed out; a crowded room decluttered and rearranged.

Can you eliminate it? This may be as easy as swapping a dreaded chore for one you don’t mind, or as challenging as finally letting go of an heirloom object you never really liked. Determine which tolerations in your life you can simply eliminate and which require more discernment. If you decide that letting something go isn’t the right option, ask yourself…

Can you improve it? When you are faced with a toleration that you can’t immediately fix or eliminate, look for ways of approaching the toleration that will help improve your feelings toward it. Can you shift your attitude, reduce your exposure or get help with it?

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