Do poor choices sabotage your best efforts?

Monkey hanging on a bannister looking fed up

Remember Bill? He used mindfulness to find out why he was struggling with his studies. Now he wants to improve his sleep and energy levels. See how mindfulness helps him discover how poor choices sabotage his best efforts to reach his goals.

The issues

1 Poor sleep habits

Because Bill goes to bed too late, he’s fuzzy-headed the next day. He’s behind in both work and study, and feels irritable and low in mood. But when he heard of a possible link between long-term poor sleep and dementia, he really wanted to solve his sleep problem quickly.

2 Low energy levels

Bill’s low energy levels are partly due to lack of sleep. But are there other causes as well?

Mindful observation

Rather than leaping in to fix things, Bill decides to collect information about his habits first. He uses mindful observation over several evenings. This lets him notice his thoughts, feelings and behaviours relating to his bedtime routine and sleep.

However he doesn’t judge himself. He’s simply gathering information to find out what needs to change. After he’s done this, he repeats the exercise for several days at work.

Then he looks at all the information to see how poor choices sabotage his best efforts. 

Here’s what he’s found.

1 Unrealistic beliefs

Bill notices he strongly he resists shutting down his video game when his wife Lisa goes to bed. He’s annoyed it’s time to stop, because he doesn’t want to miss out on his gaming. He thinks he deserves a reward for working and studying hard all day.

So he tells himself he’ll play just up to the next level. And when he says that to himself, he really believes it. But of course, he doesn’t stop then. Instead he keeps going out of curiosity to see what’s next. Another instance of how his poor choices sabotage his best efforts.

2 Ignoring what he knows

At that point, Bill’s brain sends him weak messages about going to bed. But he easily ignores these. The immediate reward of playing is much stronger than the distant needs of tomorrow. So he shuts down these reminders without even knowing he’s doing it.

3 Too revved up to sleep

Anyway, he’s too revved up to sleep. Gaming makes him feel as if he could run a marathon. And he’s had a lot of caffeine through the day. So his heart’s still pumping strong and fast. He realises he actually dreads going to bed – he’ll just toss and turn for hours, so what’s the point? So he delays even more. And sure enough, when he finally goes to bed at 1.00 am, he’s exhausted but wide awake! After a few hours of fitful dozing, he’s jolted out of a deeper sleep by the alarm.

4 Too tired to think straight

Bill’s brain feels like cotton wool in the morning, so he drinks several strong coffees. But that doesn’t seem to help, so he puts off tackling challenging tasks till late afternoon. By that stage, though, he’s not thinking clearly at all. So he resorts to yet another caffeine shot.

5 Too hungry to eat well

Because he often skips or delays meals through the day, he snacks on chocolate bars. That means he’s starving when he heads out for a late lunch. So he scoffs down a burger, chips and thick-shake instead of the salad sandwich he meant to buy. Now his brain and body don’t get the nutrients they need to work effectively.

6 Too worried to relax

Worrying about poor concentration causes a constant, low level of muscle tension. The amount of energy Bill he uses holding himself rigid is like carrying a small set of weights all day. That increases both his tiredness and the poor choices that sabotage his best efforts.

7 Too tired to exercise

By staying at his desk till mid-afternoon, Bill misses out on incidental exercise. Instead, he could be walking round to talk to colleagues, or to file reports. Three times a week, he also drives straight from work to night school without break. And he doesn’t have an exercise routine at all. So again, his brain doesn’t get enough oxygen or nutrients to kick-start his thinking. Not only that, exercise would help relax those tense muscles and improve sleep.

8 Too willing to help others

Bill finds it hard to refuse to help others at work when they’re having major problems. Even thinking about refusing increases his stress levels. He doesn’t want to get anyone offside, or make them disapprove of him.

9 Too reluctant to say anything

But he also resents the burden of these extra requests. Each one puts him further behind with his own work. So his stress increases, he gets more anxious, and reaches for the coffee and chocolate again. Then he really looks forward to forgetting his worries by gaming in the evening.

A vicious circle!

Bill can now see the vicious circle he’s trapped himself in. The strategies he uses to make up for not sleeping well one night almost guarantee he won’t sleep well the next.

And the less sleep he has, the less efficiently he works, and the more anxious and stressed he feels. The more tired he is, the more coffee and junk food he has.

Then because he’s so tired, he can’t be bothered with exercise. And all he wants to do at home is flop down and enjoy a video game. He relies on gaming to help him put his worries aside. But it’s causing more problems with sleep than he realises. And so the whole cycle starts again.

The real problem is that because he’s so tired, he can’t imagine changing. It’s all too hard. But what he’s doing is self-defeating. His poor choices sabotage his best efforts every step of the way.

So how can he start to make changes, no matter how small? Where does he start? See how he begins his journey to making better choices.

What about your life?

Can you relate to the vicious circle Bill‘s caught himself in?

If so, take a few days to notice without judging yourself what’s really going on. Write down what you notice – the more detail the better.

See if you can work out a chain of events following one from the other, to wreck your good intentions. It’s like a domino effect – once one bad habits starts up, it leads to more and more.

Even if it’s not 100% right, it doesn’t matter. It will give you some ideas about where to focus your efforts to change.

So list out how one poor choice leads to another, and another. Now work out if there’s one issue that is the lynch-pin. In other words, the one that would make the biggest difference if you could change it.

Get on top of the poor choices that sabotage your best efforts.

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