Stopping bad habits can be more powerful than starting good ones.
When we think of improving our lives, we tend to think of things we need to start doing — we should start exercising more, start meditating every day, start eating more healthily.
However, before we focus on starting anything, we should really think about what we need to stop. Most of us have bad habits that are preventing us from being as happy as we could be. We need to focus on changing these negative patterns before we think about beginning any positive ones. The effort of developing new habits will be wasted if we don’t first create a healthy foundation on which to build them.
Here are a few of the bad habits that might be stopping you from being as happy as you could be:
1. Talking instead of listening
When someone else is talking, are you guilty of any of the following (answer honestly…):
- Realising several minutes into the conversation that your mind has wandered and you haven’t actually been paying attention to what they were saying?
- Waiting impatiently for the other person to stop speaking so that you can jump in with your words of wisdom?
- Interrupting the other person in your haste to get your words out?
I’m the first to admit that I’m am guilty of all of the above and I’m willing to bet I’m not alone.
Most of us are terrible listeners. Not only can this get us in trouble, but it can be harmful to our relationships. When we fail to listen properly to someone, the message we are sending them is that we don’t care about what they’re saying or, worse, about them.
It has been shown time and again that close, personal relationships are one of the most important factors when it comes to happiness. People with a strong social network live longer, happier lives. One of the best ways to form these close relationships is by sharing our thoughts and feelings with other people, and allowing them to do the same.
This means shutting up when someone is speaking and really concentrating on what they’re saying. You don’t need to give advice — in fact, it’s better if you don’t. Just make it clear that you care about what they’re saying. This small effort will be hugely beneficial for your relationships and, in turn, your happiness.
2. Being reactive instead of proactive
Do you create the life you want or allow life to happen to you?
Too many of us live our lives on a default setting. We react to the environment around us, rather than making a conscious plan and then adjusting accordingly.
We “fall into” careers simply because we lack the impetus or confidence to look for something better suited to our skills. We become friends with people simply through coincidence, rather than purposefully seeking out people who share our same interests and inspire us. We spend our free time doing things other people want to do, because we haven’t taken the time to consider what it is we are really passionate about.
Living in this way means there will always be an underlying sense of unease that we are not fulfilling our potential or living in alignment with our passions and beliefs.
(Take a look at my article about saying no to everything except what is really important).
Try writing down what would constitute your ideal life — where you’d like to live, the career you’d like to have, how you’d like to spend your free time. Then compare your ideal life to your real life. Ask yourself how you can start incorporating the ideal into the real. If you want to relocate, or retrain, or learn a new hobby, ask yourself honestly why you aren’t already doing it. Is it really because you can’t, or just because you haven’t?
3. Losing perspective
Perspective can be a slippery rascal. We manage to grasp hold of it every now and again but, if we turn our attention for a moment, it wriggles free and is lost completely.
We all experience times when big, often traumatic, events take place in our lives and we see our daily frustrations and challenges in a different way. Dwarfed by the catastrophe we are facing, these annoyances seem small and insignificant. Our perspective of them has changed. However, we adapt remarkably quickly to the big problems — they start to shrink and so, by comparison, the small problems start to grow again.
Allowing ourselves to ride the wave of every small problem is not conducive to a happy life. Instead, we need to learn how to hold on to our perspective so that the waves wash over us. You can do this by practising gratitude. The simple act of writing down (or thinking about) what you’re grateful for will automatically alter the way you view your life. When you focus on the good parts, the bad parts start to shrink.
(For more ideas on cultivating gratitude, take a look at my article Why I’m An Ungrateful Toad (And So Are You))
4. Fighting not accepting
So much of our unhappiness comes from fighting against our current situation. Any time we are angry, sad or frustrated, we are rejecting the circumstances we find ourselves in and wishing things were different. It’s not the situation itself that causes our unhappiness — it’s our interpretation of that situation and our reaction to it. We are all quick to blame the outside world for all our problems and unhappiness, but a situation is only bad if we think it is bad. We can’t change the world, but we can change how we see things.
Learn how to stop the fight. I’m not saying it’s easy, because most of us have been fighting our whole lives. However, it is liberating to learn that you are not a slave to your emotions, you can always choose how to react to any circumstances. Next time something bad happens, try practising acceptance. Tell yourself that there’s nothing you can do about what has happened and reacting with negative emotions is causing yourself unnecessary harm. Just creating a pause between the situation and the reaction can be enough to diffuse your feelings and allow you to respond more calmly.
5. Too much screen time
We all spend way too much time on our phones. There are now apps that track our phone usage so that, in a twist of irony, we can spend time on our phones looking at the statistics that tell us we’re spending too much time on our phones!
The main problem with our phone addiction is distraction. We are not concentrating on our work or our families because we are constantly breaking our attention to check if we’ve had any whatsapp message in the last 3 minutes. It won’t come as a surprise that this is detrimental to our happiness.
I mentioned above the importance of listening to people as a way of forming close relationships. How many times have you checked your phone in the middle of a conversation? That act of turning your attention from the person you are speaking to sends a clear message to them that they are not as important as whatever might be happening on your phone. That message can be really damaging to a relationship.
At work, we are not allowing ourselves the opportunity to do “deep work” because we are forever interrupting our concentration by checking our phones. It has been shown that people get a great sense of happiness when they experience a state called “flow” — that is, a state where they are using their skills and they are totally absorbed by what they’re doing. By repeatedly interrupting our concentration to scroll through social media updates, we are depriving ourselves of the pleasure of experiencing the flow state.
The remedy for this cause of unhappiness is so simple, but so hard: stop using your phone so much! To make this a little easier, try turning off notifications and setting specific times throughout the day when you are allowed to check your phone. (For my tips on breaking your phone addiction, take a look at my article The Addiction You Didn’t Know You Had).
To sum up….
Before you focus on building new positive habits, think instead about the bad habits you need to break. Stopping can be much more powerful than starting.
- STOP talking instead of listening
- STOP being reactive instead of proactive
- STOP allowing perspective to slip away
- STOP fighting instead of accepting
- STOP looking at your phone!