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When it comes to self-improvement and that ever elusive sense of self-love, many rush to think of all the things they should start doing for a better, healthier routine—but rarely think about tendencies they can stop for their immediate wellbeing.
It’s true that change can be difficult, especially when it comes to habits and personal quirks, as these behaviors tend to live outside our consciousness, explains Wendy Wood, Ph.D., author of Good Habits, Bad Habits. Finding enough drive to actually break a sweat daily, sticking to a new budget to chip away at debt, or engaging with your loved ones are among the first actionable habits people want to make. But identifying more subtle personal tendencies isn’t as cut and dry, even for someone exploring therapy options.
The best approach to truly powering through one, some, or all of your personal growth goals is to tackle the sneakiest idiosyncrasies that ensnare you in a negative mindset. Helping yourself avoid the urge to compare yourself to others, dwell on negative setbacks, and hold onto toxic anger is often the key to unlocking your full potential later on down the road. To help you get started, Prevention consulted a panel of mental health care providers to identify a handful of habits that any and all would benefit from quitting (stat!).
Old habit: Comparing yourself with people around you
New plan: Think about what makes you special
Lots of us have a friend who posts perfect craft projects (“Nailed it!”) or know a fellow parent who never misses a kid’s game, but dwelling on where you fall short isn’t helpful. “By learning to focus on ourselves instead of others, we can decrease our stress and anxiety, increase our happiness and self-esteem, and live a more purposeful and authentic life,” says Renee Exelbert, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and an adjunct professor at New York University. She suggests celebrating strengths and victories (even tiny ones!) and doing things that bring you happiness without external validation.
Old habit: Shouldering responsibility for everything
New plan: Delegate—even if it doesn’t seem worth it
Whether you’re handling a big project at work or planning a family reunion, it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing most of the work to be sure the end result is perfect. “We go through life as if we’re responsible for every outcome we experience,” says Amy Johnson, Ph.D., author of The Little Book of Big Change. “We fail to recognize just how much happens effortlessly.” Letting other people pick up the slack will lower your stress, and you may be pleasantly surprised with the outcome.
Old habit: Tracking who disappoints you
New plan: Notice who comes through
It’s hard to forget friends who didn’t visit when you were laid up or failed to attend an event you hosted. “This ‘injustice collecting’ causes us to see the glass as half empty versus half full,” Exelbert says. “Embrace gratitude for those who do show up. It increases our happiness, improves social relationships and self-esteem, and increases our longevity.” Try starting a gratitude journal: Every day, write a few sentences about something you’re thankful for. In addition to loved ones, maybe you’re grateful for a robust subway system that shuttles you to work or a barista who knows what your “usual” is and gives it to you with a smile.
Old habit: Constantly checking your phone
New plan: Take intentional breaks
Leave your phone out of the picture when you’re with friends and family, even if you’re just digging into takeout food on the couch. “We simply can’t focus after so much online time; this practice shortens our attention span,” says Lori Whatley, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the author of Connected & Engaged. Plus, she adds, “too much social media use has been connected to depression and anxiety.” One thing that will help: practicing mindfulness. If you’re new to the idea, try a meditation guide or an app like Headspace. Staying in the present moment should boost your emotional well-being, and it will likely make your companions happier as well.
Old habit: Shopping for happiness
New plan: Revel in nonmaterial joys and experiences
“So much of our energy is spent chasing [physical] things we think will make us happy,” says Johnson. “The next vacation, losing a few pounds—they never lead to lasting happiness.” She says humans evolved to “recalibrate” quickly after events, so the happiness boost triggered by things outside of ourselves fades fast. Teaching a niece how to read, having adventures with friends—intangibles like these give us real warm fuzzies.
Old habit: Overthinking
New plan: Focus on what you can control
Thousands of years ago, the practice of turning stuff over in our minds kept us from repeating dangerous mistakes, says psychiatrist Mimi Winsberg, M.D. These days, overthinking can lead us to agonize over mundane things like the wording of an email or events beyond our control. To prevent spiraling, decide whether you’re obsessing about something you can actually change. If so, allot a certain amount of time to taking action, then distract yourself with an activity like a movie or exercise.
Old habit: Holding on to a grievance
New plan: Loosen your grip and let it go
Even if you know that your coworker purposely leaves you off happy hour invites or that a neighbor spoke ill of you, revisiting these complaints hurts only you. “Holding on to anger and repressing angry feelings may increase blood pressure and the risk of coronary heart disease,” Exelbert says. “Forgiveness can lead to healthier relationships and improved mental health.” Consider where the other person was coming from (maybe your coworker feels insecure about their work performance or your neighbor has been stressed by caregiving duties). Even if you can’t forgive them, you can decide it’s their problem, not yours, and commit to a fresh start.
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