Life isn’t easy. But sometimes we make it a lot harder than it has to be. We engage in habits that unwittingly create problems in our lives—or exacerbate them. Sometimes, the complications we create are simple. That is, they’re straightforward, and have a clear-cut solution.
Other times we need to delve deeper, so we can resolve the issue at the root. Below you’ll find examples along with some fixes and solutions.
You’re making to-do lists that you know you won’t get done.
Every day your to-do list inevitably includes 10-too-many tasks, each of which may or may not have multiple steps. And every night inevitably you end up feeling awful that you didn’t complete any of it. Maybe you have unrealistic, sky-high expectations. Maybe you think you should be able to get all that stuff done.
According to Julia Colangelo, LCSW, a solution-focused therapist in New York City, one helpful fix is to divide your to-do list into “must-do” and “would-like-to-do.” Then actually incorporate the must-dos into your schedule, and think of them as meetings, she said.
Sometimes, we make endless to-do lists because we think (perhaps subconsciously) that we need to earn our worth, and we’re not good enough unless we’re performing—and performing a lot.
If you suspect that this might be the case, Colangelo suggested journaling regularly, either in a notebook or on the notes app on your phone. Reflect on your thoughts on work, accomplishments, and relaxation. Have you always felt the need to achieve and execute, maybe even since grade school? Has your self-worth been closely tied to your accomplishments? Do you believe that you deserve to rest only after you’ve done certain tasks?
Consider, too, if you’re running away from something by trying to keep yourself busy and occupied without any space to breathe and think. Reflect on what it would mean to say no, or to do nothing, Colangelo said. She mentioned Jon Kabat-Zinn’s wise quote: “The bravest thing we can do is to do nothing.” What happens when you do nothing? Where does your mind go? What feelings arise?
You’re overscheduling less important areas of your life, which encroach on the more important ones.
Another way we complicate our days is by jam-packing our schedules at the expense of more important areas of our lives (such as caring for our emotional wellness), Colangelo said.
As a solution, Willard suggested identifying what values and relationships are important to you, and then prioritizing your activities based on those values.
“Zen philosophy teaches two steps to simplifying your life,” she said. “Step one: Identify what’s most important to you; step two: Eliminate everything else.”
Author Laura Vanderkam has an excellent tip for not overbooking yourself and judging whether something is worth your time. Ask yourself: “Would I do this tomorrow?” Maybe you’re booked solid tomorrow, but if it’s something you’re interested in or excited about, you’d probably move things around and make the time. So if you’re not interested or excited about it right now, you likely won’t be in a month or two either (and it’s best to decline).
When it comes to caring for yourself, Michele Kerulis, a professor at [email protected], the Online Master of Arts in Counseling program from The Family Institute at Northwestern University, has an important reminder: “We know that we must show up for ourselves before we can show up for the world as our best selves.”
She suggested scheduling time “for self-care every day to help reduce physical and psychological stress and to help increase focus and attention.” Colangelo suggested making several windows of time each day to devote to self-care. This could be anything from practicing yoga for a few minutes to focusing on your breath to sitting on a park bench for lunch to listening to a favorite song.
You’re constantly comparing yourself to everyone.
These comparisons might be subtle. As Willard said, you find yourself scrolling through social media when you’re having a tough time, and “it feels like all of your friends are in a tropical paradise.”
You might compare yourself to everyone about everything, from houses to hair, from clothing to careers, from bodies to talents.
While we can’t completely eliminate comparison making, we can shift our perspective.
According to Willard, “Comparison is based on a scarcity mentality: the belief that there are limited resources and someone else’s success takes away from ours.” She recommended a tip from researcher Brené Brown: When we find ourselves starting to compare, practice gratitude. (These 50 prompts might help.)
Also, the comparisons we make may be clues into our dreams and desires. Ask yourself if you really want what you see. And whether you do or don’t, consider why? Try to pinpoint the need that underlies the comparison. For instance, do you really want to go on that same vacation, or are you yearning to have fun and reconnect with your family anywhere?
You don’t make a definitive plan for your days.
Planning adds ease to our days, Kerulis said. She commended taking at least 10 minutes every day to plan out the next day. This could include small things, like what you’re eating for breakfast and wearing to work, and big things like what projects you’re starting.
Vanderkam plans out her week on Friday afternoons. She makes a short priority list with three categories: work, relationships, self. Then she chooses two to three things she’d like to do in each category, and schedules them in her calendar.
It’s also important to have backup plans when things don’t go as you planned. For instance, Kerulis suggested taking the time to think about how you’ll navigate your commute in bad weather. As she said, “we can’t control mother nature but we can at least try to plan around her seasons.” You might create backup plans for days your child is sick and can’t attend daycare.
You’re complicating your days in another way.
Think about daily behaviors or habits that seem problematic. You’re staying up too late, and running late to work because your hand is permanently planted on the snooze button. You keep procrastinating on cleaning out the garage. You keep making small mistakes on your work projects.
Instead of looking at external fixes, go within, according to Panthea Saidipour, LCSW, a Manhattan psychotherapist who works with professionals in their 20s and 30s who want to gain a deeper understanding of themselves.
Take the first example: Staying up late is causing you to be late for work three days in a row. You think “It’s really dumb,” and all you want to do is get to sleep on time, she said.
If you simply focus on your sleep, you might miss a “deeper conversation about what’s going on for [you] internally.” In other words, Saidipour wants to know what’s happening during the day, internally and externally. She wants to know what you’re doing when you’re staying up late. For instance, if you’re scrolling Instagram mindlessly, what specific people are you looking at? Is there a theme to the content you’re choosing to pay attention to?
“Exploring all of this will give us clues about what the external behavior is doing for [you]. Is it an attempt to manage a difficult feeling, or a way to feel something [you’re] not getting enough of during the day? What’s going on in other parts of [your] life that this could be an attempt to cope with?”
Maybe your work has been especially grueling. As Saidipour noted, maybe staying up late has been your only way of feeling a sense of freedom over your own schedule. Maybe waking up late isn’t just a response to sleep deprivation—it’s “an unconscious protest against work.”
Having this deeper understanding of what’s going on might empower you to adjust your “work-life boundaries, to speak up and tell your boss that your workload isn’t working for you, or even to pursue other jobs that could be a better fit for you—all very useful, healthy protests!”
Saidipour stressed the importance of “developing a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the ‘problem.’” That’s because this is “where we find access to more of our own choices and deeper fulfillment.”