“Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter.” — Izaak Walton
It was 2016 when I first decided to take on the challenge of being accountable to myself. I later wrote this blog to take responsibility for my actions in an open, transparent way, do what I said I was going to do, and “practice what I preach.”
For me, as a Psychologist, becoming deliberately better is all about evidence-based living. It is about engaging as much as possible in thinking patterns and behaviours that research has shown to lead to a happier, more satisfying, higher quality of life.
The following were five key areas that I planned to focus on for 2016, with the idea of it having positive flow-on effects for my long-term psychological well-being in 2017 and beyond.
The best part is that just by stating these objectives where they can be seen publicly, my desire to be consistent and faithful to my word did seem to help me to stay more committed to achieving these goals:
1. Tuning in rather than tuning out
Too often in Western Culture, we spend all of our day “doing”, rushing around and completing tasks. We do not spend enough time “being”, simply living in the moment with whatever we are experiencing.
People tune out of their experiences by distracting themselves with watching too much TV, spending too much time on social media, or surfing the internet. They could also smoke cigarettes or use drugs, drink too much caffeine or alcohol, eat junk food, and keep busy with too much work. Some of these strategies are successful in blocking out what we feel in the short term. However, suppose you never listen to the signals that your body sends you. In that case, they will only amplify in intensity over time until, eventually, we will have no choice but to notice the message given.
Formal mindfulness practice is the best way to get the most benefits from tuning in and just being. Mindfulness practice consists of maintaining our attention on whatever is occurring at the moment in an open, curious, accepting, patient, non-judging, and non-striving way. I recommend learning guided meditations first and then practising on your own if you’d prefer once you have figured out the various forms of meditation and how they help you. I would recommend a few free apps if you are interested in learning these skills: Smiling Mind, Calm, and Headspace.
Once you have learned the basics of mindfulness, it becomes a lot easier to also engage in informal mindfulness practice, where you apply these same mindfulness principles in whatever task you do throughout the day. By tuning in through Mindfulness, the benefits include reduced stress, pain and anxiety, improved sleep and mood. There is also a higher capacity to soothe yourself when distressed and a reduced risk of a future depressive episode.
2. Turning towards my values rather than away from fear
I regularly bring up values with my clients. It is for a good reason. The way I see it, there are two primary motivators in life. We can either be motivated to move towards what is important to us (our values) or move away from the things we fear.
As first pointed out to me in Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, most people are predisposed towards being risk-averse or more motivated by what they may lose rather than what they could gain. As a result, most people play it safe, stay in their comfort zone, try not to change things too much, and don’t take any chances, even if the potential gains outweigh the potential losses.
Most people need at least a 2:1 ratio of things being likely to turn out well before taking a risk, and some people will never take a chance unless a positive outcome can be 100% guaranteed (which isn’t a risk at all). For example, the risk of dying in a plane crash or being eaten by a shark are minuscule. However, I’ve met several people who choose not to fly or swim in the ocean because of these fears. My question to these individuals is, “What do you lose by not taking this risk?” The chance for fun? Excitement? Adventure? Considering that these values are all important to me, I’d allow myself to feel the fear, sit with it, and take the risk so that I can live a more vibrant, enjoyable and meaningful life.
All of the most successful treatments for anxiety involve exposure to the feared stimuli as an essential part of the treatment. By facing our fears, stress can be reduced and no longer cause significant distress or functional impairment. It is uncomfortable but worth it in the pursuit of a goal that is consistent with your values. By living in line with your values and not those of others, you are more likely to feel energised, motivated and satisfied with where you are at and where you are headed.
3. Maintaining an ideal work/life balance
One of the biggest traps that I see with my clients is putting off enjoyment today until some designated time in the future (e.g. once I finish uni, once I get a job, once I pay off the house, once I’ve saved a certain amount). What tends to happen in the meantime is that they dedicate most of their life to study and work and saving, and postpone looking after themselves or having fun, exercising, engaging in hobbies, being creative, learning a new skill, travelling, and socialising with others.
The Grant Study, which began in 1938 with 268 Harvard undergraduate men, is still running and collecting data over 77 years later. Across all of this data, they found that one thing was the most significant predictor of health and happiness later in life: relationship warmth. Individuals in loving relationships with close families and good friends outside of their partner were the most satisfied with life. But, of course, it wasn’t just about the number of friends or family either. It was about having those quality relationships where you knew you could depend on the other person when you needed them the most.
Making more money did correlate with overall happiness and health outcomes, but individuals with higher relationship warmth also tended to make more money. Therefore, it is crucial to spend time with others and put energy into cultivating positive relationships. Given this data, socialising with those we care about should never be seen as a waste of time.
4. Writing things down rather than keeping things in
Planning and reviewing are essential for minimising stress and ensuring that we stay on track with our goals. In the excellent book ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen, he recommends both a daily review and a weekly review. In these, you can go through everything and process it into an all-encompassing management system. By having everything where it is supposed to be, and either filed away or waiting to be done at a particular time and place, it is meant to ensure that our head is as straightforward as possible. In addition, it can enable us to focus on whatever is most important to us at the moment (e.g. the task that we are doing).
I recommend that my clients quickly jot down whatever is incomplete or still to be done at the end of the workday. It is crucial to follow this with a quick plan on when you can address this task and the first step that you would take. It shouldn’t take any longer than 5 minutes a day and can help make sure that you can switch off from work once you are at home. For individuals who don’t sleep well due to a racing mind, doing this same process with anything on their mind two hours before they go to bed will also reduce their likelihood of being up all night thinking.
The crucial step is to write down when you will do it (and what the first action is), rather than just making a to-do list. The Zeigarnik effect shows that our brains will continue to remind us of something incomplete until we have done it or have a plan to do it. But, surprisingly, once we have a plan in a place that we won’t forget, our brains treat the task as already being done, and the result is a less busy mind, less stress and more energy. So even if you want to finish painting the house but won’t have time until your annual leave in 3 months, write it down. Or create a someday/maybe file, and put it in there.
5. Developing a growth rather than a fixed mindset
In her book ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’ Carol Dweck has identified a more crucial concept towards academic and occupational success than intelligence.
Individuals with a fixed mindset believe most of their traits, including intelligence and personality, are fixed or unchangeable. Because of this, they tend to view successes as evidence that they are amazing and mistakes as evidence that they are horrible or not good enough. Unfortunately, this means that whether they win or lose carries massive consequences because their identity is on the line with everything they do in many ways. If they experience a setback, they won’t try to learn from it or improve because what’s the point? They aren’t good enough, so why bother trying. They’ll also give up more quickly when things become challenging and demanding.
Conversely, the individuals with a growth mindset will view their performance on a task as just that — their performance, and not an indication of how smart or capable they are. Instead, they see setbacks as chances to learn and grow and improve their skills in the future. Because of this, they are happier to challenge themselves and persevere through difficulties. They are also much more compassionate and understanding when they make a mistake, rather than self-critical like the individuals with a fixed mindset.
Fortunately, you can teach a growth mindset. By praising behaviour and effort (“You tried so hard”) rather than characteristics (“You are so smart”) and viewing mistakes as an essential part of the learning process, growth mindset training increases motivation, resiliency and achievement. So even if you don’t naturally look at things in this way, it’s never too late to learn and grow.
Dr Damon Ashworth