When you sit down to enjoy a cuppa, do you remember putting the water in the kettle, switching it on, getting a tea bag from the tea caddy and putting it in your mug? Waiting for the kettle to boil, filling the mug with hot water, taking out the teabag at just the right moment and adding the perfect amount of milk? Do you even remember whether you had to wash your mug first, or did you grab a clean one?
Chances are, if you’re like most of us, you don’t recall doing every minute action to make that cup of tea, you did them automatically. But perfectly safely.
And yet there would have been a time when you had to consciously think about every manoeuvre. You would have taken extra care because of handling boiling water and you would have concentrated hard on keeping the mug level while you carried it to the table without spilling any.
So, how did you reach a point when you’re so unaware of the process that it’s almost as if the tea appeared from nowhere.
The answer is repetition. You’ve made tea tens of thousands of times, so the pathways in your brain that represent ‘tea making’ are nicely embedded. The connections between the nerve cells are so strong, they fire automatically once you initiate the sequence.
And it’s the same with any task that you do over and over again, driving, brushing your teeth, using the phone, drying your hair. You’ve done these things so many times you don’t have to apply any conscious effort. They have become subconscious habits.
There’s a very good reason for this. If we had to apply our conscious attention to every waking action, we would have no capacity for learning something new. So, once something’s been repeated often enough, we can do it automatically.
And that frees our conscious mind up for learning new skills.
The same principle applies to how we respond to situations. If we have developed a habit of caving in when someone is being unreasonable, or getting angry when the traffic makes us late, or feeling anxious in social settings, then these responses are as automatic as making a cup of tea or brushing our teeth.
So they feel ‘natural’. They feel as if they are the right thing to do in those circumstances.
That’s fine, if your responses work well for you. If you have peace of mind and feel like you’re leading an enjoyable, fulfilled life. If you get to the end of the day feeling nicely satisfied and looking forward to the future with optimism and enthusiasm.
But if you’re stressed, anxious, angry, feeling down or lonely, maybe your automatic responses are not serving you well.
So, what’s to be done?
Well, changing your automatic thoughts is just like learning any new skill. At first you have to apply some conscious effort, just like you would do if you were learning to play a musical instrument.
But if you apply yourself and repeat the new behaviour regularly and consistently it will become an automatic, subconscious response.
And when your default reaction to situations is one of ‘I got this’, life becomes so much more enjoyable.
As a therapist I see many clients who want to make big changes in their lives.
It may be that they want to overcome lifelong anxiety, become more confident in social settings or instil order in a chaotic, overwhelming lifestyle. And they often feel helpless, as if their issues are insurmountable. They are disheartened at the thought of the huge task ahead.
And that’s because they are looking at the task as a whole, rather than as a series of small, do-able steps.
And as we say in the Solution Focused world: ‘Small steps can lead to big changes’.
In our work together I encourage the client to picture the first small step towards their goal. And I mean, small step. Typical answers might be:
- Open the living room curtains – the first step in decluttering hoarded items that have been a source of stress
- Wash their hair – the first step in feeling more confident when they leave the house
- Buy some bin bags so they can empty the shredder – the first step in getting on top of a mound of household paperwork
Taking action, no matter how small, makes them feel good. It provides motivation to do the next step, and the next. And before they know it, they’re well on the way to achieving their preferred future.
So, if there’s something you want to achieve that seems daunting and you don’t know where to start, here are a few top tips:
- Just start – anywhere, it doesn’t matter. Just make a start and that will give you the spark needed to build momentum
- Break the task into small, do-able steps. If the step is too big or complex, you’ll run out of steam before you complete it
- Focus on the next step only. If you keep thinking about the whole staircase, it will be overwhelming and demotivating
- Commit to spending a set time each day / week towards your goal. That might be half an hour a day, or half a day a week
- Congratulate yourself on each small achievement along the way Reward yourself in some way, maybe having a cuppa or listening to your favourite music
- Keep reminding yourself of how good you’re going to feel when the whole task is complete
- Track your progress, either draw a grid and colour in a square for each achievement, or create a Pie Chart. If you’re really techie, use a project tracking tool like Trello
And remember: Small steps can lead to big changes.
Two of the underpinning principles of Solution Focused work are:
If it works, do more of it
If it’s not working, do something different
Sounds simple, right? Blindingly obvious? Maybe.
But you’d be surprised how often we fall into a habit of continuing to do things, even though they’re not working for us. It can be small things, like having to move six things out of the way to get to the kitchen appliance you use regularly. Spending 10 minutes reorganising the cupboard could make that so much simpler. Or it could be big things like continuing with a volunteering commitment that once inspired you, but now fills you with dread. Taking time out to re-evaluate your priorities and deciding to step away could release so much mental energy.
I often quote the saying, ‘If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got’. So if you want a different outcome, do something different.
The flip side of the coin is when we fail to notice when things are working well and tell ourselves a story that ‘there’s nothing good in my life’.
When I’m explaining this to clients, I use the example of being at work and having a pretty productive day. But before you finish up, you take a call from the client-from-hell. They’re really angry about something and vent all their frustrations on you. Nothing you can say will placate them and they hang up before you can resolve the issue. You get home, and your partner says, ‘How was work?’. Chances are you say, something like ‘It was awful. I had this really horrible call from a client who was really aggressive’. You’ve forgotten that most of your day was absolutely fine.
And it can be like that in life. One of the features of being anxious or depressed is that our brains can play tricks on us. We can become convinced that we’ve never been happy, or we’ve never had a moment when we’ve been free from anxiety, or we’ve never stood up for ourselves. Our memories become distorted. But it feels real.
Part of my job as a therapist is to help people identify what’s working, even when life seems hopeless. And it comes as a pleasant surprise when clients start to identify times when things weren’t quite as bad. When they were able to have a relaxed conversation without second guessing themselves, when they popped to the shop without taking Imodium or when they immersed themselves in the pages of a good novel.
These are small wins but are hugely significant in recognising that there are things that are going well. And as we say, if it works, do more of it.
The aim of therapy is to help clients gain a clearer perspective on what works and what doesn’t. Once they have that clarity, they can make better choices about how to use their valuable time and mental energy.
Thinking back to our primitive ancestors, sitting around doing nothing was not good for the species. Life was really hard and you had to pull your weight for the good of the tribe.
So, nature gave us a reward when we did things that benefitted the species. We got a reward if we hunted and gathered, collected fuel for the fire, made tools, turned animal hides into clothes, and all the other things needed to keep things ticking along. And that reward made us feel good, it motivated us to do more. We wanted to get the reward, so we did whatever we had to, to get the buzz.
These days, life is obviously a whole lot easier, but we are still hard-wired to get a buzz when we get things done. Taking positive action to tick things off our to-do list gives us that buzz. It’s the reason we feel good when we complete a task or a project.
Now, for some people, they’ve packed their lives with so many commitments that they are forever getting things done. In fact they ‘do’ from morning to night without a break. And that’s not good for us. Even our primitive ancestors would have had downtime, sitting around the fire in the evening, sharing stories and resting. Being on the go all day long is not healthy.
So, if you’re the kind of person who never stops, for you ‘taking action’ will mean taking time out for you. Taking action to recharge your batteries even if that ‘action’ means resting. Know that it’s OK to take time out for you. In fact, it’s essential that you do. It’s so easy to fill our lives with obligations and things we feel we have to do.
But doing things you enjoy is a great, natural way to relieve stress. If you’re feeling a bit down, just do something that gives you pleasure, like going for a walk, catching up with a friend or reading a good book.
Start paying attention to the things you like and the things you want to do. And make a commitment to do them. You’ll get a real boost of feelgood chemicals.
I’ve lost count of the times clients say something like ‘I know I should be thinking positively, but I can’t seem to be able to do it’.
And sometimes that’s because they have developed a habit of focusing on what’s wrong, without even realising it. They’ll say ‘I am a really positive person, I keep telling myself not to get stressed.’
Now, the issue here is that brain processes the word ‘not’ in a really weird way. Because in order to ‘not’ think about something, you have to think of the very thing you’re trying not to think about.
Don’t think of pink elephants.
See what I mean?
It’s like Googling ‘not hotels in London’. Google will come up with millions of hits for ‘hotels in London’.
So, the first thing we need to do is focus on what we do want. So instead of saying ‘I don’t want to get stressed’, we could phrase it as ‘I want to stay nicely calm’.
I talked in my blog last September about exercising our positivity muscle. We can do that with a simple exercise of finding five nice or positive things that have happened to us today.
But, like any new skill that we want to learn, we have to repeat it often. The more we repeat it, the sooner it will become a habit.
And here’s a really important point. We have to do the exercise consistently. Day in, day out.
Sometimes clients only use the exercise when they’re feeling low, hoping it will lift their spirits. But it’s harder when we’re feeling low. That’s like only painting the window frames when they’re about to fall apart. It’s better to keep the windows regularly maintained, so it’s not such a big job when they do need painting.
In other words, we have to make hay while the sun shines. We have to do the positive thinking exercise when we’re feeling upbeat, too. And the reason we need to do this is to strengthen the neural circuits in our brains associated with positivity (our positivity ‘muscle’).
That way, if we do have a down day, it will be much easier to tap into the positivity circuits.