There’s nothing like being stuck at home for months on end to muddy your outlook on life, especially if you’ve been working while also caring for other people. Even thinking about a friend doing something different is enough to send dark thoughts swirling, let alone catching a glimpse of them living their best life on social media while your own is limited to eat, sleep, repeat.
But with a few tweaks to how you approach your day, it’s possible to filter out the noise and distractions in your head so you can focus on what really matters, even when life is particularly challenging. Rose Aghdami, a chartered psychologist who specialises in helping people build up resilience at tricky times, says the first step is recognising negative thoughts or distractions and working out how to replace them with positive ones.
Trying to be your own best friend is a good place to start, she says. “Check you are being as kind to yourself as you would be to your best friend. Would you verbalise the negative thoughts you have towards yourself to him or her? Think about what you’d say to your best friend if they were in your situation. It may well be more encouraging and positive than you are towards yourself, then treat yourself with the same respect and kindness.”
Another useful filtering trick is to teach yourself to focus on moments of joy during the day, such as spotting lovely colours or shapes in nature, Aghdami adds. “Often this will be something to do with the senses. It can help to bring you to the present moment and stop you feeling sad about the past or being anxious about the future,” she says.
This lends itself to a useful, quick writing exercise, she suggests. Before bed, try jotting down what went well during the day. “There will be something!” she says. This helps to train your brain to spot the positives by getting you to notice your part in making the good things happen. “We need to remind ourselves that we shape our own experiences. So, just think: ‘If I hadn’t taken myself outside, for example, I wouldn’t have appreciated the view.’” Notice the positive impact that action had on you, and whether there was a ripple effect: perhaps you were in a good mood with your family.
Louise Goss, who has two young children, runs a magazine from her home in Northamptonshire. The trick, she says, is being very disciplined about when you do even the most basic tasks, such as checking email or social media.
“Messages can be very triggering so I set very specific times of day to look at them,” she says. “That way you receive them on your terms instead of being constantly bombarded.”
She physically filters out distractions by switching off notifications on her phone and shutting open tabs on her computer to stop herself disappearing down a distracting rabbit hole – what she calls “Shiny Object Syndrome”.
Even then, she adds, it’s important to filter your response. “Checking posts or emails is fine but be strict about what you want to get out of it. You need to have strict boundaries about what your objective is when you check social media.”
Agdhami agrees that limiting social media is important, although she stops short of suggesting we should avoid it altogether, which can trigger anxiety. Work out how much time you can afford to spend scrolling without negative repercussions, and then halve that, she says. And try and have one day a week that is free from social media.
Louise Graham, who runs her own business supporting social entrepreneurs from her home in Glasgow, filters distractions during the week by screen grabbing any articles she wants to read to devour in one big chunk on Sundays. “Little rituals like this stop me from getting sucked into social media.” She also uses an online project management database to jot down anything she’s read or learned that she might want to retrieve.
“I create little files and write up my key learnings,” she says. “I know if I ever want to remember something, I can search for it, which helps if I’m struggling with stress.”
For those times when it’s extra hard to clear your mind from dark thoughts, particularly about your own abilities, Goss suggests keeping a file of positive feedback or remarks. “If you’re running your own business and having a tough day, you can look at your positivity file to remind yourself that what you’re doing is really good, or benefiting certain people. I find it useful to reflect, whether weekly, or quarterly, on how far you have come personally.”
Ultimately, Aghdami says it can help to think about different areas of our life, like our physical health, mental health, work life, leisure time, finances, and spiritual life, and rate them out of 10. “Sometimes almost all score well, but it can become clear which areas aren’t as good as they could be. Filtering this way can help people see what they need to prioritise.”
Another habit to adopt, she says, is to think about a situation from a positive perspective. Think about it like looking at life through a particular pair of glasses. “Some people see through distorted glasses, which is like a negative filter. It is possible, through practise, to change that, so you see things through a realistically positive filter. It’s a bit like changing your glasses.”
If all else fails, and you’re still struggling to see things clearly, Goss says applying the ultimate filtering technique can help: “Jomo, that’s joy of missing out. There’s something very liberating about filtering your life by choosing to not do something.”
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