Do any of your habits tend to hold all the other ones together and more or less keep you stuck in one place? Absolutely. So, which ones really count the most? Your mental habits. It's all in the way you tend to keep thinking the same thoughts and feeling the same feelings that helps keep you doing the same things day in and day out. Let's take a look at how it works and what you can do about it.
How We Convert the Present into the Past
Let's start by remembering that what we think makes a difference in what tends to happen to us. It's not just the actual thoughts themselves. It's the loop that gets created around them. That loop is made up of a very strong set of interlocking and mostly unconscious habits. You almost always restart the loop every morning.
You wake up. Maybe you slept well and maybe you didn't. A memory pops up. Perhaps it's about what you expect to happen today, an issue you have with somebody or something else you're not done with. The way you tend to evaluate things comes online and your day starts off. Is the way you think about those things that first came to mind positive, happy or joyful? Probably not. We tend to focus on what's not right, what we don't like, what we're worried about, what needs to be fixed or what we're unhappy with. The loop gets started. Even if our first thoughts are positive, sooner rather than later something will get us back on our regular path.
What happens once we get going? The thoughts and feeling may play ping pong volleying back and forth for awhile and then we make choices and do things that are colored by the mood created by the interplay of those thoughts and feelings. The same thoughts and feelings tend to trigger the same actions and the outcomes of the actions tend to recreate the sort of feelings that then come back around to create the same thoughts and feelings we started with again. The loop closes and starts over.
What else happens? When we start our daily routine, we tend to do the same stuff the same way day after day. We finally stop pushing the snooze button. We get out of bed. We go to the bathroom. We wander into the kitchen and get some coffee. We check all the most important apps on our phones. Maybe we eat something. We take a shower and get dressed. We head out the door and drive to work. We hang out with the same people. We do all the usual stuff, eat lunch, do more stuff and finally go home. We eat dinner, do something meaningless for a few hours and go to bed. Rinse and repeat.
All those everyday activities keep funneling us back into our usual patterns of thinking, feeling and doing. Occasionally something different happens, but soon enough, life has us back into our usual groove. All this routine is really a series of well entrenched habits.
How to Get Out of the Rut
We can't directly change our feelings. You can't just decide to stop feeling negatively and just be happy. What you can do is pay attention to what you're thinking about and choose to think about or focus on other things or think about them in other ways. You can actually work on noticing and "watching" what you're thinking and feeling and choose to not act on it right now.
That last part, not acting, isn't easy. You will feel uncomfortable. You will feel that you need to do something, and that will seriously tap into your willpower or "want to" reserves if you aren't really clear about what you want. So, what do you want? What do you value? You're going to have to keep reminding yourself. For a while "there will be a quiz." The quizzes will happen regularly, because your body and mind will be talking to you. Be prepared. Know your answers.
What are some good answers? I want to be happier. I want to have or be ready for a good relationship. I want better things for myself and the people I care about. I want to be a better person. I want to be what I was really meant to be. You get the idea. Start thinking about your answers. What are a few things that matter more to you than being uncomfortable and feeling driven by habits and personal patterns?
What else can you do? Part of what makes changing these deeper life habits hard is the uncomfortableness of the new experience and having to make new choices in the moment all the time. How can you make this easier? Start imagining yourself doing the things that go along with your values in as much detail as you can. You waste all kinds of time now imagining future conversations and events already.
In your mind, you replay a bad conversation with someone and think about what you could have or should have said. You imagine a future conversation where you say all the perfect things or really tell someone off. You imagine and "simulate" these things in a way that keeps you tied to the past. You could just as well do it with your better future self. What would the new you be doing? What would the new you be experiencing? What would you be thinking and feeling?
This "practice" experience helps you get familiar with the future. It's something elite athletes have been doing for years. They rehearse what they want to do in their minds, and it has almost the same effect as doing it in real life. The beauty of it is you can do it almost anywhere anytime. In this way, you can start being the new you a little at a time and feel more comfortable and confident while you're doing it.
Questions to Keep in Mind
As you start paying attention to your mental habits, there are two questions worth thinking about from time to time. First, "Am I caring about the right things?" It's very easy to get sidetracked into things that don't matter. If you're a bit perfectionistic or idealistic, it might be relatively unimportant details or how others keep messing things up, won't get with the program and aren't helping or supporting you, how badly you've been doing or how messed up or defective you are. You have to prioritize the bigger stuff and not chase all the little stuff "squirrels."
Second, "What am I responsible for, and what do I need to handle responsibly?" There are the things we actually did and really are at fault for and then there is the stuff that gets dumped on us by life or other people. You might not have "done it," but to get anywhere, you have to do something with it or about it. You can blame, find fault endlessly or keep going on about something not being fair, but your life isn't going to change until you take action and act responsibly for where your life is going. Getting stuck here really does keep you stuck in the past. Focus, prioritize your values and imagine you only better. Your happier future starts there.
Questions to Journal
- What do you tend to think about the most?
- What are the most important reasons for you to change? Who do you want to be more like? In what ways would you like to be like them?
- What moods do you find yourself in the most? Sad? Mad? Anxious? Depressed? Angry?
- What do you keep telling yourself about why it’s hard for you to change or why you can’t change?
- What is something small that you could and would be willing to do this week to change and become at least 1% better and happier?
Simple Mindfulness Meditation
Learning mindfulness often starts with simply paying attention to yourself breathe. You'll quickly find out that that's not as easy as it sounds, but you will also find it worthwhile with practice. Let's get started.
When you have at least a few minutes to be quiet, find a comfortable place to sit. An office chair or even a good kitchen chair will do. A little padding on the seat can help. You'll want to be able to sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor, so you can breathe freely. I like to let my hands rest open in my lap. If you wear glasses, you may want to take them off and set them aside.
Once you're seated, take a few moments to relax your muscles. Pay particular attention to your face, neck and shoulders. We tend to collect stress there.
Take a moment to check for tension around your eyes. Let them relax. Let your eyes close because you're letting them close, not forcing them closed. Take your time.
Take another moment and check for tension in your cheeks and jaw. Let them relax. Move on to your neck. Gently move your head slightly up and down and side to side a few times.
Scan the rest of your body and let any other tense muscles relax. When you feel balanced, you're ready to start.
As you breathe in, notice the sensation of the air flowing into your nose and say to yourself "In." As you breathe out, notice the sensation of the air flowing out though your nose and say to yourself "Out." Just let yourself breathe naturally.
There's no need to speed up, slow down or do anything to change how you're breathing. Just let it happen as it does while noticing the sensation of the air flowing through your nose. Continue to say to yourself "in" and "out" each time your chest rises and falls.
When you recognize other thoughts happening or anything distracting you, refocus on your breathing. There's no need to waste time analyzing why you got off track or wondering about how bad you are at doing this. Those are just more distractions. (One of your goals is to repeatedly practice returning your attention to your breath with little or no fuss.) It takes time and consistency for your mind to quiet down. If you notice more tension anywhere in your body, let it relax and refocus on your breathing.
Shoot for about two to five minutes a session once or twice a day for the first week or two and let it increase from there. It's very important to keep in mind that this isn't a relaxation method, even if you often feel more relaxed after you practice. It's the beginning of developing your ability to pay "quality attention" to yourself.
Manifest Yourself, This Is Why Positive Thoughts Aren't Working!
Judson Brewer, Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind (2021)
Stephen Guise, How to Be an Imperfectionist: The New Way to Self-Acceptance, Fearless Living, and Freedom from Perfectionism (2015)
James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (2018)
Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2014)
Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (2013)
Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2012)
Verses for the Week
Don't conform yourself to this world, but be transformed by renewing your mind, so that by testing you can know the will of God, what's good and acceptable and perfect.
Finally, friends, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
1 Thessalonians 5:21
[T]est everything. Hold on to what is good.
2 Peter 1:5-8
[M]ake every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with friendly affection, and friendly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective…
Prayer for the Week
Help me to notice the way I'm thinking and feeling this week. I want to start noticing how I keep doing the same old stuff every day. I want to start thinking about who and how I want to be in the future and stop rehashing the past. Help me break out of my loop, so I can become more of who I was meant to be for myself and those I care about. Amen.