Most of us want to get more done and be more functional and happy, yet we often use our time on activities that do not contribute to these goals. Why - what happens to us on the way to following our dreams and what can we do to change unwanted outcomes?

Many people have mental habits that occupy much time and lead away from rather than closer to achieving what they want. These behaviors distract and deflect us from our goals, undermining accomplishment and happiness. Mental behaviors are just like physical behaviors in that we can train ourselves to act differently. Mental retraining may take considerable effort, persistence, and commitment, but the payoff for successful efforts will be enormous. Which unproductive mental behaviors eat up our time and sap our energy?
  - Worry                        
  - Rumination  
  - Daydreaming            
  - Speculation
  - Focusing on trivia     
  - Escapism
  - Anger and revenge fantasies

Let's look at these issues individually and identify a strategy for each.

Worry is essentially allowing fear to dominate your mind without requiring that it produce any specific benefit. Beyond alerting us to a potential problem, it is rare that worry leads to any productive or beneficial outcome. Instead, worry is often paralytic, eating up energy needed for solutions.
         The cure for worry is to remember this wonderful Shantideva quote “If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying? If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying?” Pointing out to yourself all the times that your worries have been unfounded may also help, as will insisting that all time spent worrying lead to preventive action against the subject of the worry. Studying Overcoming Worry, A self-help guide using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques by Kevin Meares and Mark Freeston can help even more.

Rumination (also known as spinning) is going over the same negative thoughts or beliefs, without changing, adapting, or finding solutions. Often a form of self-punishment, rumination can become an obsessive pre-occupation that blocks out time for more productive actions or healthier thoughts.
An article on my website may be helpful for struggles with rumination: http://optimalorganizations.com/ARTICLES/Emotional_First_Aid.html

Although a little daydreaming can be useful for identifying our dreams, formulating goals, and even, on occasion, taking a break from reality, too much daydreaming interferes with making our dreams come true and achieving our goals.
         To reduce time spent daydreaming, give yourself a specific time for daydreaming while restricting it at other times. Analyze your daydreams to learn what they tell you about your dreams and aspirations. What do you need to DO to turn these dreams into reality?

Speculation is one of the most useless mental habits. It is one thing to identify the range of possible outcomes of a situation and see which ones require some preventive action or potential remediation. But speculation alone without an action component uses up time and energy that could be better directed elsewhere. The least productive form of speculation is on issues that do not pertain to our lives or needs, such as celebrity gossip or most political punditry.
         Use the impulse to speculate to identify alternative scenarios for responses to various events and sensible preparations for the most likely outcomes.

Focusing on Trivia
Although some trivia can be fun and even helpful, most is not. Most trivia deflects us from our goals, using up time and energy needed for more important matters. What is trivia? Minor information and actions that distract us from activities that are more likely to improve our lives. Included in this category would be news that is irrelevant to us and those near and dear to us (such as most scandals, anybody else's sex life, and generally, anything that is not going to change any action, such as how you vote).
         The most useful forms of trivia are those that help keep your brain sharp, such as puzzles and some games. Taking regular time for trivia and games can  provide breaks from more strenuous mental activity while keeping your brain cells firing.

Escapism is excessive play, Internet use, or any other avoidance activity that keeps us from doing what we know we need to do. Although a little escapism is an occasional necessity when life gets rough (humor websites are helpful for these times), but too much and the cure becomes the disease. When doing major projects, a useful form of escapism might be doing some essential but mindless task, such as filing or organizing a drawer, creating an opportunity for mental downtime while still getting something useful accomplished.
         Choose your escapism well and dose it out just like any other medicine.

Anger and revenge fantasies
Angry stewing is perhaps the most energy-draining of all mental/emotional habits. Anger is a slow poison that harms the angry person more than the person it is directed towards. Anger doesn't just waste your time and energy – it undermines physical and mental health as well.
         To stop anger from dominating your mind, reflect on any errors you may have made that contributed to the situation that triggered your anger. Imagine yourself acting the way you wish you had if such a situation arose again. Recognize that the other person's flaws most likely do not mean that s/he is without redeeming virtues, and list those virtues in your mind. Accepting that all of us are far from perfect and that others must put up with a lot to tolerate us helps also. A book called 30-minute therapy for ANGER, everything you need to know in the least amount of time by Ronald T. Potter-Efron and Patricia S. Potter-Efron may help de-throne the anger demon.

Beyond the particular approaches for these time wasters, there are some common solutions that apply to all these mental habits:

1) Identify the central issue that leads to your time waster. The real issue is often not what it appears to be. Sometimes we project our difficulties onto other people, blaming them for situations for which we are responsible. Sometimes we focus blame on events in the past rather than on what we can do now to improve our lives and carry out our dreams. What matters is: what is the core issue that you have the power to act on now?

2) Identify the elements of your issue over which you do or could have power and those which you do not. Usually, we have far more power than we realize.

3) Identify your most desired outcome. Is it new behavior, different relationships or interactions, a concrete goal or social change? If the goal is something that is within your power, can you marshal the internal resources to make it happen? If it is not directly in your power, can you do groundwork to influence the outcome?

4) Identify the steps and procedures needed to achieve the outcome you desire.

5) Let your desired outcome take over your mind, focusing your efforts to the greatest degree possible on what you could do at any given moment to make it happen. The time wasters will be crowded out by your focus on constructive, positive activity.

Our time is too short, precious, and important to spend on activities that do not matter, get us upset, or waste our time. Focus on your best interests (whatever most serves physical, mental, emotional, relational and financial health) and you will become happier and better able to manage your own mind and time.

© Gloria Valoris, 2013

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