Improving Your Life, One Habit at a Time
A new book reveals how to break free from self-sabotage.
Posted Oct 12, 2018
Everyone wants to enjoy life as much as possible, and yet we often get in our own way. So says Dr. Alice Boyes, my fellow Psychology Today blogger. Many of you no doubt know from reading her posts that Alice has a gift for coming up with practical strategies to make your life better.
I recently read Alice's new book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, which presents countless strategies for crafting a more enjoyable life for yourself. It covers the major domains we care about—relationships, work, self-care, finances, leisure—and common ways we rob ourselves of greater happiness.
Alice's work underscores a fundamental principle of happiness—that it comes down to the little decisions we make and whether those choices make our lives more or less rewarding. She reveals how we can unwittingly make our lives more difficult through a lack of awareness—or in her words, "all the things we do that create roadblocks on our path to success." On the bright side, The Healthy Mind Toolkit offers simple and highly effective strategies for improving our lives.
I recently spoke with Alice on the Think Act Be podcast and asked her about several of the strategies she recommends. Here's some of what stood out to me from our discussion:
Perfectionism Works—Except When It Doesn't
Alice noted that much of what makes perfectionism hard to overcome is that at times it pays off, "which keeps us hooked into the behavior. But there are a lot of times when it can backfire, as well. And it can be really tricky to figure out when to apply your perfectionism to a problem and when not to."
Seth J. Gillihan: "And I imagine there are times not only when it pays off, but times when we resist our perfectionistic tendencies and end up paying for it, and say, 'See? From now on, always triple check!'"
Alice Boyes: "Exactly, but if you're always going that extra mile, if you're always doing everything one hundred percent, then that's clearly going to have costs for you and for your relationships. Maybe you're going to some island in Thailand that's got fifteen hotels on it, and you decide to research every single one of those fifteen hotels to find the perfect hotel. That's going to be taking a lot of time and energy away from a lot of other things. And you can end up delaying decisions, or focusing on the wrong things. You can end up excessively ruminating about things that don't go right. And you can also really drive other people nuts by applying your perfectionism."
SJG: "Are there strategies you recommend for how we can prevent that tendency from getting in our way?"
AB: "One of the things I like to think about is the 80/20 rule. That's the ballpark idea that you can often get 80% of the benefit from something with 20% of the effort—to stop thinking in terms of a hundred percent and always be looking for those scenarios where you can put in a minor amount of effort and still get most of the benefit. So really embracing that, and having fun and getting a sense of achievement from actually finding those cases where you can do that, rather than always shooting for a hundred percent."
For example, if we're shopping for an item on Amazon, we might get 80% of the benefit from doing 20% of the research we could do. In practical terms that might mean we compare products for 9 minutes before making our purchase rather than for 45 minutes—leaving us with over half an hour to do anything else.
Our Beliefs Often Drive Self-Sabotage Behaviors
We might not realize it but we often have underlying beliefs that drive our ineffective behaviors.
SJG: "In my own clinical work and writings I often focus on behaviors, like spending a certain amount of money or researching products in a certain way, and leave it at the level of behavior. But you'll describe these behaviors really in cognitive terms, because there's a belief or a thought that drives those behaviors. What's the utility in getting at the underlying thoughts?"
AB: "I think you can often figure out what you're trying to avoid—like, 'I don't like waste'—and when you identify the thinking process you can see when that's happening, and when you're overvaluing avoiding certain emotions. So, for example, the thought might be, 'I don't like waste,' and I would experience a lot of regret and guilt if I needed to throw out a yogurt that expired that I didn't eat. In this case, I might be undervaluing my time in terms of all these trips to the supermarket, and I'm overvaluing avoiding regret about having to throw out an item."
There can be great benefit in starting to recognize how our minds work, because our thinking processes often show up in multiple areas of our lives, as Alice explained:
AB: "Even the tiniest little examples can really illuminate your thinking process, like trying to avoid the guilt over wasting something. That same pattern of wanting to avoid guilt is going to play out in your life in so many other, bigger ways. Like maybe you need to let someone down by telling them you can't do a favor they asked you to do, or you realize you need to ask for an extension on a deadline. When you learn about your thinking processes from these little examples, you learn that you can go against the instinct that you have to never waste things. And once you've gotten some real experience of doing that, you're teaching yourself that in much bigger situations you can apply the same principle. So you don't have to just go with what your impulse is, and you can balance different considerations."
We Can Maximize Well-Being by Looking at the Big Picture
One of the most common self-sabotage patterns is taking too narrow a view and focusing on a single dimension while losing sight of our broader goals, as illustrated by the example earlier of throwing out old yogurts. By focusing exclusively on never having to throw out expired food, we would be incurring many other costs we might not recognize, like wear-and-tear on our car and the inefficiency of all those runs to the store. Or we might focus so narrowly on saving money that we waste a lot of our time—and our happiness.
AB: "In a way it's about reframing perfectionism, and getting life as perfect as it can be overall. It's a bit like parking tickets—the more perfect scenario is paying less for parking, whether that's in feeding the meter or getting a ticket. It's not just about never getting a ticket. So we can reframe what's more perfect—it's about empowering yourself to make a decision based on what makes the most sense for you, with your personality and circumstances."
So what can we do if we're prone to perfectionism and tend to be overly focused on one dimension?
AB: "If you've got those strong perfectionistic tendencies, you can still see this as trying to optimize. But you can see it as trying to optimize overall, rather than at the micro level."
And keep in mind that true perfection is an unattainable goal:
AB: "This book is not a recipe for becoming a perfect person. If it were that, I would be a perfect person, and I'm not. So I can guarantee that it does not work like that, but it is really helpful if you just cherry pick what's relevant and interesting to you, and what fits with your lifestyle and personality and all of those things. You might pick some easy strategies to get started with, getting your confidence up and getting on a roll with things."
Thoughtful Planning Pays Big Dividends
In The Healthy Mind Toolkit, Alice writes, "Many of us go through daily life feeling exhausted and always playing catch-up. We repeatedly waste time (and other resources) because we don't have the mental energy up front to create streamlined processes for completing recurring tasks in an efficient way." Alice and I discussed this idea, which comes from my favorite chapter in the book, "Hidden Drains on Your Time and Energy."
AB: "What happens is we get busy, and we end being either a hamster on a wheel or an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff—especially professional people who spend all day planning and decision making. When it comes to your own life, you're just completely tapped out of all cognitive energy. So you end up with these really inefficient systems in your personal life or in your organization related to work. It might be something you keep repeatedly losing, or just the way you do things is really inefficient—like going to the grocery store every day just to buy one or two meals. And if you do a lot of that, you end up in this cycle of always feeling like you've got too much to do, and having no mental energy to spare."
Maybe you can relate to some of what Alice describes. It might not be grocery shopping, but perhaps it's some other domestic task, or the way you handle email, or something else at work. Without deliberately planning a more efficient approach, we're likely to continue these ineffective habits. So what's the solution?
AB: "You can look at the systems of your life and see how you can avoid repeatedly solving the same problem, or how you can create some efficiencies. Like one really simple system I've found is having a sheet of paper next to my printer that says, 'Printer Prints on Side Facing Down'—because I always forget that. And I think I'm going to remember, and then I don't. So it might be creating instructions, so I don't have to keep reinventing the wheel. And when you start correcting some of those processes, it just frees you up, time-wise and cognitive energy-wise, so that you can really get yourself organized and take a bird's eye perspective on your life. And then you can get to some of the more important decisions in your life, like where you're investing your retirement savings or planning a will. When you clean up all of those poor systems and inefficiencies, you have so much more energy left over to deal with the other stuff."
Learn more about breaking self-sabotage patterns and listen to the full interview with Alice here.
Boyes, Alice. (2018). The Healthy mind toolkit: Simple strategies to get out of your own way and enjoy your life. New York: TarcherPerigee.