Sometimes I find myself doing things I know aren’t good for me and that I don’t even want to be doing, from spending too much time in front of a screen to eating poorly, staying up too late, keeping myself overly busy and not saying “no” when I’d like to.
Why is it so difficult to change these habits? Why can’t I just do the things I know would be good for me and that I’d rather be doing?
For years, I thought change was a matter of willpower and telling myself that I should be different. I would become self-critical when I found myself engaged in old habits. But once I looked deeper, I found solid reasons for why these unhealthy behaviors still lurked under the surface.
So instead of beating myself up about my bad habits, I began observe them with mindfulness and kindness. And by paying attention to and accepting myself as I am, it has become easier to simultaneously change these habits and improve my relationship with myself.
Let’s look at my unproductive screen time. Part of me thinks I’m being productive just by sitting at the computer, but when I see what I’ve accomplished, I know I’ve been fooling myself. When I realize this, my old habit kicks in and I remind myself that life is short, I feel bad about how I’ve spent my time and I return to the screen to avoid the shame I felt.
How does my excessive screen time almost pass as productive? (The following process works with anything you find yourself doing against your better judgment.) I start my search for the reasons behind my unhealthy screen time by looking deeply and asking myself what needs using my phone or computer in this way meets. Perhaps I notice:
I’m trying to give myself a well-deserved break or mini-vacation
I’m avoiding the anxiety that comes with other tasks on my list
I’m looking for connection with others
These underlying needs are all perfectly healthy impulses. It’s just that the strategies I’ve chosen to meet those needs are indirect and ineffective. Believe me, I’ve tried them!
By paying attention to my needs in the moment, I can use a more effective and satisfying method to meet those needs. For example, if I’m on the computer in order to take a mini-vacation, I’ll probably feel more rewarded if I do something nourishing like:
Take a few minutes to sit in my garden with a cup of my favorite tea
Soak my feet in warm water and give myself a foot massage
Acknowledge my hard work and remember specific details of accomplishments that I’m proud of
Write in my journal or create an art project that celebrates my accomplishments
All of these are more effective than screen time in giving me the break that I deserve.
If on the other hand, I notice I’m spending time on my phone in order to avoid some other task that needs to be done, proactive strategies will more effectively reduce my anxiety. I’ll try:
Breaking up the task into small steps and doing one part each day
Acknowledging my fears to myself and providing empathy and understanding
I might say to myself, “I notice that I just spent an hour looking at the news instead of writing this article. Part of me doesn’t want to write it because I’m worried that it won’t get published and people won’t read it. However, I know that many people find writing to be stressful, and my feelings are completely normal. I also know that I have a lot to offer and that no matter what happens with this particular article, I’m a good person. I’ll continue to support myself during the ups and downs of this writing process.”
Directly acknowledging my feelings reduces fear and avoidance’s grip over me and gives me more ways to respond to life’s difficult tasks.
Lastly, I might find that I’m seeking screen time in the hopes of connecting with others. I know that in general my need for connection and belonging is unlikely to be met by spending time online. Abundant research shows that we feel most connected with others when we’re physically present with each other, sharing eye contact and reading each others’ body language. But these facts don’t stop some part of me from continuing to search for connection online.
In the past when I’ve wanted to meet my desire for connection, it has helped to:
Prioritize my time in order to spend time with friends and family in person
Phone friends and family who live far away, or perhaps write them old-fashioned letters or create something meaningful for them like a photo collage of meaningful times we’ve spent together
(Re)create feelings of connection by remembering good times with others and feeling grateful for the people in my life
Make new real-life friends by talking to strangers, volunteering, joining a group or taking a class in something that interests me.
The fact that we all have habits we’re not proud of doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us. It just means we’re human and have needs that we’re trying to get met. However, the strategies we’ve developed over time to meet these needs are often ineffective. With mindfulness, we can look for the underlying needs and address them with kindness so that we feel nourished and satisfied.
Author: April Pojman
Editor: Evan Yerburgh