Most people’s minds are loud, chaotic, and full of self-judgments and negativity.
Assaulted with a near-constant stream of worries and anxieties, many of us have learned to be afraid of our own thoughts. So we fill our time and attention with distractions and busyness to avoid getting caught with even a few spare moments of mental downtime.
Needless to say, this strategy of avoidance never really works…
Like a dirty and disorganized room, the longer you avoid the clutter and chaos of your own mind, the worse it becomes.
Unfortunately, there’s an even more tragic consequence that comes from constant distraction: When you spend all your energy running away from what you don’t want, you have no energy left to pursue what you do want—your goals, dreams, and highest aspirations.
In my work as a psychologist, I help my clients learn how to quiet negative thoughts and declutter their chaotic minds. And as a result, they’re able to spend their time pursuing their passions instead of avoiding their fears.
So if you want to cultivate a more peaceful mind, commit to building better habits of mind. What follows are five mental habits that will lead to a calmer and less anxious mind.
1. Limit Mental Time Travel
One of our greatest strengths as human beings is the ability to travel through time—remembering the past and imagining the future.
Over the course of human history, we’ve used this capacity for mental time travel to imagine, plan, and build incredible achievements. From eradicating smallpox to landing on the moon, our ability to live in the past and the future has tremendous benefits for the present.
But there are costs to spending too much time outside the present moment…
For one thing, it’s often stressful and taxing. Imagining hypothetical problems and how we might solve them is useful in small doses. But when it becomes our default way of thinking—the water we swim in—it can lead to chronic stress and anxiety.
Getting stuck in the past and future can also mean missing out on the present. Many of life’s most enjoyable and meaningful moments happen in the present. But if your mind is stuck worrying about the future or dwelling about the past, you’re likely to miss those precious moments in the here and now.
Visit the past and the future, but never allow yourself to live there.
Remember, we can’t control what happens to us, but we can control our attention. Practice keeping your attention in the present moment and peace of mind is sure to follow.
“Nothing is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.” – Seneca
2. Keep Your Expectations in Check
Expectations have small upsides and big downsides.
Here’s an example:
After a “really good” talk with your manager at work about your preferred method of communication (in-person chats) vs their preferred method (texts and emails), you expect that going forward they will keep the emails to a minimum and communicate mostly in-person.
Unfortunately, day after day, week after week, you continue to get emails from him, including at odd hours on nights and weekends.
In addition to the irritation of being bombarded by too many useless emails, every email produces an emotional reaction of shock and disbelief—but we had such a good talk!
This means you’re experiencing not one but two difficult emotions each time your expectation is violated. This is significant because painful emotions tend to be multiplicative, not additive. In other words, if irritation was worth four units of emotional distress on its own, when you combine it with four units of surprise, your overall emotional distress is closer to 16 than eight.
The problem with expectations is that they get violated all the time.
And these violations have emotional consequences that lead to frequent or constant frustration, disappointment, and anxiety—none of which are very conducive to a peaceful mind.
Still, perhaps all this mental stress of high expectations is worth it if the benefits are high enough?
Perhaps. But let’s do some thought experiments…
Does expecting your adult son to finally get a job actually lead to him getting a job?
Does expecting your spouse to be infinitely patient and supportive anytime you vent about a stressful day at work actually lead them to be that way?
Does expecting other people to be kind, courteous, fair, and rational actually produce that kind of behavior?
The world and everyone in it is surprisingly indifferent to our expectations.
If you want a calmer, more peaceful mind, you need to drastically reduce the number of active expectations in your life.
Here’s a good place to start:
- List the five most important people in your life.
- List five expectations you have for each of them.
- Drop three of those expectations for each person.
I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that not only does the world not come to an end, but your peace of mind will improve substantially.
“Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely they were to crack.” ― Brandon Sanderson
3. Practice Self-Compassion
It’s a strange irony of human nature that we tend to be compassionate with other people’s mistakes and judgmental with our own.
If a friend called you, upset and worried after making a big mistake at work, you’d most likely respond with compassion and understanding:
Oh I’m sorry. I can see why you’d be pretty worried. On the other hand, it sounds like most of the presentation went really well and it was just the first part that was rough.
On the other hand, if you were to make a mistake at work, your own self-talk would likely be far less understanding and compassionate:
Ah, I’m such an idiot! How could I have flubbed the most important part of the presentation?! My boss probably thinks I’m an idiot.
What is going on here?!
Why are we harsh and critical of ourselves after mistakes, but gentle and compassionate with others?
How come we can help a friend look at mistakes from different perspectives, but fixate on the worst possible outcome with ourselves?
Why is it we can easily remind a good friend that they are more than their mistakes—much more—but we let our mistakes define us?
Why do we beat ourselves up exactly at the time when we need support and compassion most of all?
Why do we allow our attention to get locked into cycles of worry and rumination long after a mistake is over and done with?
Why do we sabotage our own peace of mind with negative self-talk and self-judgment after mistakes?
On second thought, don’t even bother looking for answers. There are probably dozens, if not hundreds, of contributing factors here.
Instead, consider this:
What if you could treat yourself after mistakes like you treat a good friend?
Yes, over the years you’ve developed a habit of beating yourself up with self-judgments and negative self-talk. But at the end of the day, no matter what its origin, this is a habit. And habits can be changed.
What if you started to replace your habit of being hard on yourself with being gentle?
What if you replaced your habit of being critical of yourself with being understanding?
What if you replaced your habit of being judgmental with yourself with self-compassion?
The next time you’re struggling and your mind is wracked with negative self-talk and worry, try talking to yourself like a good friend who was struggling with something similar.
And remember: a peaceful mind is a compassionate mind.
“Self-compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others.” — Christopher Germer
4. Cultivate a Values Orientation to Life
People who lack peace of mind find themselves caught in near-endless cycles of worry, rumination, and other forms of stressful and unproductive thinking.
Because they’ve struggled for so long and so hard to rid themselves of their anxieties, they base everything in life around escaping anxiety:
They avoid certain types of people and activities for fear of getting too anxious.
They avoid certain memories or triggers for fear that they’ll be sucked back into a dark time.
They avoid being alone with their own minds altogether, keeping themselves constantly busy and occupied.
The problem is, when you base your whole life around avoiding scary and uncomfortable things, running away becomes all you know how to do.
But here’s the thing…
It’s a lot easier to stop worrying about the future when you have something meaningful to do in the present.
This is why it’s so important to cultivate a values orientation to life.
Cultivating a values orientation to life means that you strive to make decisions based on your values—your highest goals, aspirations, and principles—especially when your feelings are pulling you in a different direction.
Think about it:
It’s easier to let go of a coworker’s nasty comment when you’re passionately invested in the mission of the company and can’t wait to get back to work.
It’s easier to stop dwelling on an old painful memory when you have an exciting project in your life you can’t wait to get back to.
It’s easier to stop worrying about your kids’ lives when you have interesting things to do in your own life.
If you want a more peaceful mind, give it a real purpose.
“It’s difficult to follow your dream. It’s a tragedy not to.” — Ralph Marston
5. Memento Mori
There’s an ancient practice from stoic philosophy to keep a human skull on your desk or place of work. This practice is called memento mori, which is Latin for remember that you must die.
Now, this whole thing probably sounds a little strange, if not downright creepy. But it actually makes a ton of sense, especially if you want to foster a calmer, more peaceful mind.
Here’s why: Death is what gives life meaning. Because we have a finite time here on Earth, we’re naturally compelled to maximize it.
As Mary Oliver once said:
What will you do with this one wild and precious life?
Death is a powerful reminder that we only get one shot at this thing called life, so we better make the most of it.
Unfortunately, death is an uncomfortable idea—terrifying even. And it tends to be an especially scary idea if you know deep down that you haven’t made very good use of your time so far.
As a result, many people distract themselves from death and their own mortality. They keep themselves constantly occupied—both mentally and physically—so they don’t have a single leftover second with which to ponder their own inevitable demise and wasted life.
Unfortunately, you pay a high tax on such a frequent distraction technique: constant anxiety and stress.
You will never have true peace of mind if you’re afraid to be alone with your mind.
In order to slow your life down enough to relieve that constant stress and anxiety, you must be willing to face up to your own mortality and your responsibility to do something meaningful with your life.
Now, I get that that sounds kind of intimidating. So best to start small.
Do one small thing every day that reminds you ever so slightly that life is short. Maybe copy out that Mary Oliver quote onto a sticky note and put it on your bathroom mirror.
If you do, you’ll begin to build up a tolerance to the anxiety of death and the shame of squandering your time.
Because it’s only when you can tolerate your fears and anxieties—rather than constantly distracting yourself from them—that peace of mind will find you.
“He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a man who is alive.” — Seneca
All You Need to Know
If you want to cultivate a more peaceful mind, you must build better habits of mind.
- Limit mental time travel.
- Keep your expectations in check.
- Practice self-compassion.
- Cultivate a values orientation.
- Memento mori.
Nick Wignall is a clinical psychologist and writer interested in practical psychology for meaningful personal growth. You can find more of his writing at NickWignall.com.
Image courtesy of Aki Tolentino.