Do my thoughts dictate my habits, or is it the other way around?
I think this on the days when I struggle to leave the comfort of my bed and touch my feet to the cold floor. I think this on the days I run myself ragged, flitting from task to task without a moment’s reflection. And more than ever, I think this when I sit to write, especially when the words don’t come.
My thoughts are powerful. I know that reshaping my thoughts can change my mood, that my inner monologue can lift me up or cast a dark cloud over my day. I’m sure on some level my thoughts even dictate my circumstances. If I think about big things I’m bound to do big things, and if I think about small things I will only solve my most trivial issues, and my life will stagnate.
But my actions are powerful as well. If I begin setting boundaries, doing things that replenish my Energy rather than draining it, I can become happier. Sometimes it’s as easy as putting on a fake smile when I’m anxious that, as the muscles of my face relax, can become real.
So which do I change, my thoughts or my actions? Or both? And how can I even start? Which brings me to the following popular maxim:
“How you do anything is how you do everything.”
While on its surface it sounds like a slick-sounding platitude, aimed at teaching us to simply become mindful of our actions, it means so much more on a practical level. The more I turn the phrase over in my mind, the more applications to my own life I tease out of it.
It means my sloppy laundry-folding is to blame for my sloppy proposal-writing. It means that if I’m distracted when I brush my teeth, I’ll also be distracted while trying to meditate or listening to a lecture. It means if I approach board games tentatively, I won’t be confident in real-life negotiations.
On a higher level, it also means that I cannot achieve tranquility in my outer life if chaos reigns inside my head, and vice versa. Each facet of my being will strive to achieve consistency, a kind of homeostasis where my thoughts, words, energy, habits and accomplishments are all reflections of each other.
So then what do I do? Do I change my thoughts, actions, or environment? Or perhaps all three?
After much thought, I identified five major ways that my habits tend to get out of whack, and what I’ve done to fix it. I’ve found the following practices to be helpful, which are a combination of shaping my mindset, working on my habits, and putting myself in new situations.
1. Slowing down.
I’m terrible about rushing, even when I don’t need to be in a rush. I pride myself so much on my efficiency, the “getting things done” mentality, that my entire life becomes a checklist. The more things I check off, the less I can say that I’m wasting my life, even if my life is not enjoyable.
I tend to fill up my schedule, squeezing appointments against each other, always underestimating how long each task or meeting takes (because my time estimates are established when I’m rushing). But I can’t give myself any slack, because getting somewhere early means I am left alone with my thoughts, and we all know how uncomfortable that can be.
Not to mention, I get more satisfaction out of saying that I’ve completed something than I do in doing that particular thing well. This applies especially to the mundane things in my life, like folding laundry, but as the maxim above suggests, this unchecked mindset will soon infect every other task as well.
For example, while I enjoy reading, I tend to fly through books without absorbing, much less applying, their teachings. It should be the one activity I savor, but there are too many books both in the world and on my reading list. The sooner I finish one, the faster I can get to the next, amassing information that may or may not be useful.
In fact, when I step out of my completion mentality, I realize that I’m not coming out ahead at all. I may seem more productive than those around me because I look more productive, but what have I really accomplished over the next guy? I may just be more exhausted without achieving anything of real value, an exhaustion that is more likely to lead to eventual burnout than eventual success.
As it turns out, slowing myself down in my mind by focusing on this task rather than rushing to the next task doesn’t slow me down much in real life. When I time myself, I find that the “rushing mentality” doesn’t help me do anything more than a few seconds or minutes faster, and only makes my actions more frantic.
Slowing down has kept me healthier (by taking time to eat mindfully), curbed my bad habits (by preventing me from grabbing “quick” snacks or indulging after self-exhaustion), and helped me enjoy what I’m doing more, even if that thing is otherwise a chore. This one is a mindset change, but can be aided by reminders posted in my calendar or by my desk, and I know it can only be improved little by little.
2. Changing direction.
It’s all too easy for me to get stuck — stuck in a days-long funk, stuck in unproductive thoughts, or stuck in a situation that doesn’t serve me. Only recently have I begun to notice the actions that perpetuate my moods.
When I’m melancholy, I tend to wrap myself in comfort and distraction, turning on the TV rather than facing my thoughts. I don’t feel I have the energy for exercise or writing, even though these are the things that will bring me out of the rut, feeling that the effort required is just too much.
For me, a change of scenery, really any change, is beneficial for resetting my thoughts and emotions and developing a new perspective, a new way to tackle what I’m facing. When I’m wrestling with a problem, I often have to stop what I’m doing and go somewhere else before the answer arises.
New and unfamiliar activities have a way of knocking me out of the deep grooves I’ve carved in my mind. And when I’m lucky enough, traveling to another city or country is a huge benefit to my perspective.
But even on a normal day, breaking out of my patterns of doing the usual things and going to the usual places, ordering the usual food and wearing the same five things in my closet opens my mind and gives me energy.
The problem can be getting started. Especially if I have long been in a funk, the built-up inertia can seem like it’s too difficult to change. But even though it takes a little bit more mental energy to change a habit for one day and do something different, the novelty of that experience will end up giving me more energy than it takes to plan. Once the split-second mental barrier has been surmounted, this change is all on the level of action, making it one of the faster ways to alter my inner state.
3. Not reaching for comfort.
The pull of distraction is overwhelming, and often I over-schedule my days to stamp out any possibility of it. I know that the second I have nothing to do, I will be pulled to my phone, or my email, or YouTube, or perhaps worse.
I reach for these things because they are comfortable, they distract me from difficult tasks that involve struggle, from emotions too strong for me to turn my full attention to them, and to the void, the open state when my hands are still and my mind is empty, which can be the scariest and most unfamiliar situation of all.
Multi-tasking is another way of giving into distraction, and can seem as benign as eating while watching TV, or listening to podcasts while sweeping the floor. But it makes me miss valuable opportunities for my mind to shut off, to subconsciously process my thoughts and emotions, or possibly receive a valuable insight.
Distractions are most insidious when they prevent me from processing negative emotions. When I’m feeling down, I reach for a salve rather than a stimulant, comforting myself by indulging in something mindless or unhealthy rather than something I know will give me energy.
Then, after I’ve had that hour or two of Netflix and that bowl of ice cream, the problem is still there, but now there is an extra layer of guilt added to the negativity that I must get rid of as well. This, of course, only begets more Netflix and ice cream, leaving the stored up negativity to pervade my other thoughts and actions.
On the other hand, allowing myself to experience negative emotions, sitting with them while I question their origins, is better than trying to distract myself from them. Writing them down is the best way to get them out of my head and realize that they really shouldn’t have gotten there in the first place, that they’re either ill-founded or unimportant or both. In fact, writing seems to be the solution to most of my problems, though maybe that’s a personal bias.
This change involves both thought and action, and is one of the hardest to implement because it means willfully choosing discomfort or sustained effort over the much easier alternative.
Of course, there are dozens of little habits that can help enforce my focus, such as setting aside times to check emails and text messages, turning off my internet connection and putting my phone in airplane mode, or leaving my apartment to write. But without a healthy dose of self-awareness, I won’t get anywhere.
4. Auditing my energy.
There are some people who seem to have boundless energy. They put their entire selves into everything they do, never tire in a struggle, and have unwavering optimism no matter the odds.
I admire these people, and love having them as friends, because just being in their presence makes me feel lighter. But I have never been able to cultivate the same ethos myself. I drown myself in constant worry, become a breeding ground for negativity, and exhaust myself by focusing on the wrong things.
I never feel I have enough energy, but know that the solution is not more sleep (trust me). Instead, it is rooted in excluding thoughts and habits that drain my energy and promoting those that boost it.
When I feel run down, I find that I expend way too much mental and emotional energy on things that don’t deserve it. My cumulative amounts of anxiety are the largest for some of the smallest things, because these are of course the first things that come up when I’m otherwise engaged.
For example, I’m not going to ponder the direction of my life when I’m washing the dishes, because it would arrest me enough to stop washing and start diagramming, so I think about the results I have to deliver the next week, sending me into a nervous downward spiral.
Although I worry and fret enough on my own, sometimes it is the people around me that drain my energy. When I have friends or coworkers that constantly complain, it’s all I can do not to fall into the same cycle of complaint.
Negativity is contagious, it can creep in from anywhere and infect me for days or weeks. I remove myself from such situations when i can, but when this isn’t possible, I try my best to be the one to break the cycle, injecting positivity into my conversations or Changing the subject altogether.
And when it comes to my habits, I realize that more active indulgence, such as sketching, yoga, or hunting down new restaurants to visit, does more for my energy levels than passive or consumption-based pastimes such as browsing the internet or watching TV. It may at first seem like doing something active takes energy, but the right actions can boost it.
Conducting an energy audit always starts as a mental exercise that evolves into physical habit changes, and requires the constant vigilance of monitoring everything I do. Not to mention, it can be hard to tell where the energy drain occurs, which is why I combine this practice with changing direction (above) to see what restores my energy, which is easier to identify.
5. Celebrating small wins.
Each time I stop and change direction in a moment of weakness, when I know I’m about to indulge in distraction, rush through a task, or start a cycle of complaining, I take a few seconds to mentally congratulate myself. For while these decisions are made in a fraction of a second and may seem insignificant, they take me one step further down the path to maximizing the output of my energy and living a tranquil, fulfilling life.
When I try too hard to optimize everything in my life at once, berating myself for each mistake, it feels forced and doesn’t last long, with me thinking I’m a failure and reaching for Netflix and ice cream.
But if I pause when I wake up, reminding myself why I should exercise, eat slowly, and avoid multitasking, if I paused before each time I started an activity and then checked to make sure I felt good about the decision, it doesn’t feel as forced.
I can’t give myself a directive like “I’m going to do everything mindfully from now on,” but I can give myself various reminders to be more mindful on my screensaver and on my calendar and in my journal. If these reminders work even once in a day, I should celebrate that win (by writing it down, of course).
If the reminders work twice the next day, that’s still 100% day-over-day progress, and progress builds on itself. Each small win helps me live my life mindfully and enjoy my time more, and hopefully over time, making the right choices won’t require stopping and thinking, becoming as natural as rushing and distraction once were.
The bottom line.
A lot of books and programs are focused on changing my actions, following a set of tried-and-true habits down the road to personal success. Such programs can have valuable insights and provide a beneficial structured plan for self-improvement, but don’t always address the problems caused by background thoughts and emotions, and may be difficult to maintain when implemented with the wrong mindset.
On the other hand, just trying to change one’s mindset, as other self-improvement theories aim to do, can seem impossible to implement. The philosophies are solid and make sense when I read them, but slip through my fingers when in heat of frustration or under the pull of distraction. Brainstorming a set of concrete tasks to enforce the right mindset can give the theories more weight, a way to practice them in my life.
By contrast, I’ve found that to make a lasting change to my life, I have to work on multiple fronts, with reminders, rewards, self-enforcement, and naturally, a lot of writing.
The task is massive, but the rewards are even greater. Approaching life mindfully has helped me get in shape, improve my relationships, and kickstart my career. Changing everyday habits provides fertile ground for bigger changes, and is likely more effective than trying to make big changes without a foundation of making each action mindful, focused, slow, and deliberate.
I’ve also become more realistic about what I will and won’t do. When I approach my life with the right mindset, it becomes clear what actions I regularly take that are neither useful nor enjoyable, or otherwise steal my energy. This makes it easier for me to say “no,” to stop halfheartedly pursuing multiple goals, and to delegate.
My life is too short to spend it worried, rushed, and distracted. By changing not only what I do but how I do it, I’m ensuring not only a more successful future for myself, but a more enjoyable present, by not only accomplishing my life but living it.
To live your best life, change how you do everything was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.