I’ve created more positive changes in the last 11 years than I can count: from health and fitness to mindfulness and happiness; from productivity and finance to clutter and relationships.
There are lots of factors that are incredibly important in creating any positive change: starting small, taking small steps all along the way, finding motivation and accountability, finding the support of people around you (or finding it online), learning to mindfully notice your urges to quit.
These are all super important. But there’s another factor that most people overlook: how you feel about the change.
This is what I’ve learned in the decade-plus since I’ve been doing this, for myself and helping other people:
So putting all that together, let’s talk about some actions you can take to get better at this overlooked skill.
How to Be Awesome at Feeling AwesomeIt’s not possible to always feel positive and upbeat. I don’t even recommend it — lots of us try to block out or avoid any negative feelings whatsoever, and this means we’re rejecting a whole range of feelings. I used to buy into this idea, but now I let myself feel down. I let myself feel discouraged, sad, frustrated, irritated — and accept these parts of myself instead of rejecting them.
That said, you can take actions to put yourself in the mood for positive changes. It’s helpful to be mindful of your mood and what effect it has on you.
Here are some actions you can take:
We all procrastinate. The question is how (or even whether) we overcome the tendency to procrastinate, and if we can find focus.
This matters — our lives are brief and limited, and while we don’t need to be productivity robots, running in fear of difficult tasks to distractions and comfort is not the best way to spend our lives.
We can face these fears. We can learn to deal with them mindfully. And in doing so, we can develop an ability to return with courage to the work that matters the most to us, to create something important, something that helps the world at least in a small way.
Distraction and running aren’t useful habits. Let’s learn to overcome them and find focus to create.
The Procrastination FearsWhy do we run from hard tasks? Because of fears:
We all have fears, but our habit is to run from them. Avoid even thinking about them. Our minds are very good at this.
We get distracted and then forget completely about what we were supposed to be doing. Our minds are good at forgetting and getting lost.
We try to focus, but then immediately we have an urge to switch to something else, because staying is uncomfortable. Our minds love comfort, hate discomfort, and will run to comfort every time, if we let them.
So that’s why we procrastinate … but how do we overcome this?
Overcoming ProcrastinationOur minds are very good at running from discomfort, and most of the time we don’t even realize it’s happening. We just have an urge to switch, and follow the urge immediately.
The trick then, is to catch ourselves when we’re about to switch. When the urge comes up to switch, we have to notice.
Then we have to pause, and deal mindfully instead of mindlessly with the urge.
Finding FocusFocusing on one thing is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Whether you want to focus on writing a report or a book chapter, focus on drawing or practicing music, focus on reading or meditating on your breath … your mind is in the habit of switching to something else.
Focusing, then, is a matter of practicing staying.
In the Unprocrastination Sessions I described above, we talked about how to practice staying. In addition, I’d like to offer a few more practical tips:
In the end, all the practice will be worth it, because you’ll learn to focus on things that truly matter. And that is a life worth living, in my experience.
It’s strange, but I’ve discovered I have a better sense of direction than many people — when I travel, it doesn’t take that long for me to figure out the lay of the land, and soon I’m walking around almost like a local.
But I’ve also found out that many other people don’t have this good sense of direction, and it can make things difficult for them when they travel to a new place.
I used to think maybe it was something you were born with or not, but I’m now convinced that it’s a set of skills you can learn. For me, it always seemed instinctive, until a friend asked me what i do when I get to a new place. I’ve done a lot of analyzing of what I do since then, and I’ve broken the skill into a series of steps.
I hope this helps those who feel lost.
Here’s what I recommend, whenever you get to a new city or area you’re not totally familiar with:
I find that people can develop this with practice, and it’s also something to teach your kids as you travel. Let them navigate even if it takes a bit longer — it’s a great skill for them to learn. If you have a spouse, take turns navigating so one person doesn’t have an underdeveloped sense of direction.
In my experience, this is a key skill for traveling, and it makes every trip so much more fun when you can really figure out a city and start to understand it like a local does. Happy wandering, my friends.
There is a famous stone water basin (or “tsukubai”) outside of the even more famous Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto, with four characters that read: “ware tada shiru taru.”
This is a Zen saying that can be translated in a number of ways, all to do with contentment. But my favorite translation is:
“All you need, you already have.”
I think it’s such a lovely way of looking at life.
As you sit here reading this article, pause and take an assessment of your life right now. Chances are, you have enough food, clothing, shelter, and other basic necessities in your life. You might also have loved ones, people who care about you. You are (mostly) comfortable, without any desperate needs. All you need, you already have.
And yet we don’t see life this way … we are dissatisfied, looking for more comfort, more love, more knowledge, more certainty, more possessions, more food, more entertainment, more validation. I do this too — I’m not criticizing anyone. We don’t often embody the idea that we already have enough.
If we remember to do so, we can give thanks for what we have. We can appreciate the beauty, the preciousness, of every moment, of being alive. It is a miracle, and we don’t have to take it for granted.
So to me the question is: how can we learn to embody this idea?
“All you need, you already have.”
Learning to Embody Enough-ness
It’s nice to say that we have all we need, but what does this mean in practice? What actions can we take to help us remember this?
I find it helpful to try to remember a few principles in my daily life:
So how do we learn to embody these principles? Through habits and rituals.
Rituals to Embody Enough-ness
It’s hard to remember to be present and grateful and filled with enough-ness throughout the day, with all that we have going on, with all of our distractions and internal stories.
So I recommend forming little rituals that help us remember.
Here’s a list of ideas for rituals, but I don’t recommend trying to form all of these rituals, and especially not all at once — try one at a time and see what helps you:
You might also ask yourself, before you buy something … whether you really need more or if you have enough. Ask yourself, before you go to an app on your phone or a website on your computer … whether you are doing it to help others or to fulfill a “need” that you don’t need fulfilled. Ask yourself, as you interact with someone else, whether you’re showing them deep respect and appreciation, whether you’re focused on helping them or protecting yourself.
Ask yourself, regularly throughout your day, whether you have all you need. I think you’ll find that you do, and by appreciating that fact more often, you can see what a profound miracle that is.
Throughout the day, we get frustrated, irritated, angry.
We are frustrated in traffic, when a loved one doesn’t behave the way we like, when someone tells us we’re wrong, when technology doesn’t work the way we want, when dinner is ruined, among many other daily stresses.
These frustrations can build up into unhappiness, relationship problems, work problems, built up stress, blowing your top at someone when you lose your cool. Not always helpful stuff!
I’m going to suggest a mindful shift in focus to deal with frustrations.
It’s a mindfulness practice, and I highly recommend it. We’ll start by talking about where frustration comes from, then how to mindfully shift.
Mindfulness of Frustration
The next time you experience frustration, just notice it. Just be mindful that you’re unhappy with something or someone, that you’re feeling frustration in your body somehow.
Pay attention to your breathing, to tightness in your chest or shoulders, to how it feels in your body. Stay with the feeling for just a couple moments, if you have the courage to do so. Normally, we run like hell from paying attention to this feeling, and try to resolve it by fixing the situation, making people behave differently, distracting ourselves, etc. But stay with it if you can.
Now notice what it is in this moment that you wish were different. What is missing from this moment that is frustrating you? Frustration stems from what you don’t have.
What do I mean by this? There’s something you don’t have right now, that you wish you had, and that lack of what you want is frustrating you. A few examples:
To start with, just be mindful that you’re frustrated, try to experience the feeling in your body, and then notice what it is you’re missing that’s frustrating you.
Mindfulness of Your Story
When we’re missing something we want, and we’re frustrated, irritated, angry … we often spin the story around in our heads for awhile. “It’s so irritating when he acts this way,” or “Why can’t she just be more …”
We get caught up in this story, stuck on it, attached to it. We wish things were different, wish other people would behave differently, wish people could see that we’re right.
It’s easy to get caught up. It’s not so easy to notice that we’re caught up, when it happens. But if you can notice it, just notice that you’re telling yourself a story about this situation. It’s a story about how you wish things were different, how things aren’t how you want them to be.
Sit and watch yourself get caught up in this story. Sit and stay with the feelings it produces.
Then see if you can notice that the story isn’t so solid. It’s not so real. It’s more of a dream that you’re in. Can things lighten up if you notice the dreamlike nature of this story?
Mindfulness of What Is Already Here
If we’re focusing on what we don’t have, and it’s frustrating us … then the opposite just might help us.
The antidote to frustration is appreciating what’s already here, in this moment.
That might not seem true when frustration arises, because the truth is, we just want things to be our way. We just want other people to act the way we think they should act, or want life to go the way we want it to go.
Unfortunately, that is usually not going to be the case. Sometimes we can force people to act the way we want, if we have power over them, but that will create a bad relationship with them, and in the end, neither person will be happy.
What I’ve found to work is focusing on what I can appreciate about this moment. Let’s take the examples from above:
Frustration in the Midst of Injustice
I should note that none of this means we should accept abuse or injustice as “OK.” I know that there are incredibly frustrating things about the world today, and that violence, protests, anger, and strife are all around us.
This mindful shift I’m suggesting isn’t a solution to all of that. It isn’t a suggestion that you should just be happy with your lot, or accept the world as it is without wanting change.
No, I think if there is abuse or injustice, we should compassionately try to correct these tragedies. But learning to deal with our frustrations, in the midst of all this, can actually help the situation. If we can’t deal with our frustrations, then we’re increasingly likely to act in anger and violence, and that isn’t useful.
There’s another way: recognize the injustice, be mindful of your frustrations, appreciate life in the present moment to calm your frustrations … then compassionately engage with everyone else to work on righting the injustice. Have a love-driven dialogue with everyone else, rather than fear-based or anger-driven interactions. Stand up to abuse, but that doesn’t mean throw a brick in anger.
I don’t have the answers, and my heart goes out to all who are grieving, afraid, hurt, feeling helpless, fed up, frustrated or angry. My only hope is that in the middle of all this sorrow, we can appreciate the gift of life that we’ve been given, and find love for our fellow human beings despite all their flaws and messiness.
When we go about our day, we tell ourselves a story about what’s happening … and at the center of that narrative is a single person.
When I talk to myself about how so-and-so is inconsiderate or treated me badly, when I tell myself that it’s OK to procrastinate because I’m tired and not in the mood … I’m at the center of this movie. It’s an ongoing story about my life and everything around me, with me at the center.
I’m sure you can relate — you’re at the center of your movie as well. It’s natural, and there’s nothing wrong with doing this.
But some difficulties can arise from this self-centered view of the world:
So what can we do?
First, become aware of the stories we tell ourselves.
Next, see that we are putting ourselves at the center.
Then see if we can remove ourselves from the center of the story.
What would the story be without us in it? For me, that story becomes something like:
Of course, I’m not really removed from the story. I’m still there, but just not necessarily at the center of it. Instead, I focus more on my interconnectedness with everyone else, everything else, and see that they have supported me in becoming the person I am, and that I can support them as well.
1. Un-ignorable Consequences. Set a deadline for the task(s) you want to complete, and a consequence you won’t be able to ignore. It’s best to share this deadline and consequence with an accountability partner or publicly. Example: I post on Facebook I’m going to write 1,000 words in my book every day this week, or I can’t watch TV for a week. (That only works if you really care about the consequence.)
2. Completion Compulsion. Many people, myself included, have a strong desire to complete a list. For example, if you’ve watched 15 out of 20 episodes of a show, you might really want to finish watching the show. This is “completion compulsion,” and I think everyone experiences it sometime — especially if finishing the list seems doable. So the method is this: make a list of 10 small actions (10 minutes or less to complete) that you want to finish this week on a certain project, or 5 small actions you want to finish each day, and make it your goal to finish the list. You could combine this with the un-ignorable consequences method (if I don’t finish my list each day, I can’t have wine).
3. A Powerful “Why”. Understand the deeper reasons you want to complete this goal or accomplish this task. It should be a reason that really resonates with you, that you deeply want to achieve. Now write your “Why” in a phrase (like, “compassion for myself” or “to help others in pain”), and post it somewhere visible, so you won’t forget it.
4. Get Excited Daily. It’s easy to be excited about a project or goal when you first start, but that dies out. So renew it! Each day, start by setting a goal for the day that you can accomplish and that you care about. Find inspiration, visualize your accomplishment, find some music that motivates you, find an inspirational quote or video … anything to get you excited to accomplish your goal for the day!
5. Focus on Being True to Your Word. One of the most important things in life is to be trusted, to have people believe that when you say you’re going to do something, you’ll do it. If people don’t trust in that, you won’t have good relationships, romantically, with friends, or at work. Imagine hiring someone and not knowing if they’re going to show up, or do the work if they do show up. So you should make it one of your priorities in life to live the motto, “Be True to Your Word.” That starts with small things: tell someone you’re going to do a small task that will only take 10-30 minutes. Then do it. Repeat this several times a day, building other people’s trust in you and your own trust in yourself. Post the motto somewhere you won’t forget it.
6. Find a Group. Humans are social animals, and you can use that to your advantage. Create an accountability group of friends or colleagues who want to achieve a goal or finish a project. Agree to set daily or weekly targets, and check in with each other daily or weekly (form a Facebook group or subreddit, perhaps). Set rewards and/or embarrassing consequences for hitting or missing the targets. Have weekly “winners” for those who did the best at their targets. Encourage each other and help each other when someone is faltering.
7. Focus on a Sense of Achievement. With every task you complete, pause at the end of it to savor your feeling of accomplishment. This is a great feeling! Share your victory with others. Savor the feeling of building trust in yourself. As you start a task, think about how good you’ll feel when you accomplish it.
8. Small Starts, Quick Rewards. Create a system where you have to do short tasks (just 10 minutes) and you get a small reward at the end of it. For example, I just need to write for 10 minutes, then I get to have my first coffee of the day. Or I clear my email inbox for 10 minutes, and then I get to check my favorite sites for 5 minutes. Don’t let yourself have the reward unless you do the task! The smaller the task, the better, so you won’t delay starting.
Stress is a killer. It contributes to health problems, unhappiness, depression, relationship problems, and more.
We’re always going to have some stress in our lives, but how can we manage it?
By finding the cause, and working with that cause.
In my mindfulness experiments, I’ve found that the root cause of stress is clinging to things. We cling to the hope that things will go as we expected or planned, and then get stressed trying to make that happen, or frustrated when it doesn’t.
Clinging to things causes our stress and frustrations.
So how can we stop clinging?
By realizing that there’s nothing to cling to.
The things we want to cling to, as if they’re real, solid, permanent fixtures, aren’t there. If anything, they’re fluid, changing, impermanent, or just imagined.
Nothing to cling to.
Imagine you’re swimming in water, struggling to hold on to a solid structure you think is near you. Trying to grab hold of it is stressing you out.
Now imagine that there’s no structure there. Just water. You can continue to try to grab onto something … or you can accept that there’s only water, and relax. Float.
The kicker: we’re just a drop of water too, in the middle of an ocean.
Here’s your challenge for today:
How does that change things?
Helping a fellow human being, while it can be inconvenient, has a few humble advantages:
So take just a few minutes today, and do a kindness for another person. It can be something small, or the start of something big. Ask them to pay it forward. Put a smile on someone’s face.