I don’t look to jump over 7-foot bars: I look around for 1-foot bars that I can step over. – Warren Buffett
We’re all familiar with the concept of a downward spiral – they can begin with a stressful project at work that leads you to spend less time exercising and taking care of yourself. As a result, you come home tired and are short with your loved ones, which leads to a fight. The fight causes you to be distracted and feel more stress at work, and the cycle continues.
How do you break out of the downward spiral, stopping the inertia to hold your ground, and ideally, begin to turn it around to start a virtuous cycle of improvement? Can you reverse the course of a downward spiral and create an upward spiral personally and/or professionally?
Just like one negative experience can beget another, one positive experience can bring about other positive experiences and outcomes. For example, you get a good night’s sleep and you feel great the next day; you’re sharper at work, and your boss compliments you on your performance. Your confidence lifts, and you decide to take a shot at a stretch assignment that was previously daunting to you. You get very engaged in the new challenge and find it energizing, and after work you have enough energy to go for a walk that you previously would have skipped.
These series of positive and negative triggering events are real, so what can each of us do to intentionally initiate and sustain upward spirals?
It’s all about daily practices.
What we call little things are merely the causes of great things; they are the beginning, the embryo, and it is the point of departure which, generally speaking, decides the whole future of an existence. One single black speck may be the beginning of a gangrene, of a storm, of a revolution. – Henri Frederic Amiel
In academia these “little things” are more formally referred to as “positive interventions”. Positive Interventions are actions or practices aimed at cultivating positive feelings, positive behaviors, or positive cognitions.
So what do you do to implement a positive intervention and initiate an upward spiral? Take an inventory of the activities that make you happy, that make you feel successful, that add meaning to your life, or that move you in the direction of your goals. Whether it’s a physical activity like swimming or hiking, meditation, volunteering, keeping a gratitude journal, or just playing with your dog or cat, if the activities create positive emotions or outcomes in your life, you can use them to change your trajectory.
Of course, many factors affect your well-being, and they’re not all equally impactful. The question you have to ask yourself is: What are the practices that, after you’ve done them, give you a sense of joy and satisfaction? These are the practices that you should incorporate into your daily life. Make them the focus of your attention. Schedule them like you would a meeting or conference call. Give them at least the same importance that you would show less enjoyable, but necessary, tasks.
And, be practical. Skydiving can give you a visceral thrill that carries over for days, but it’s not the kind of thing most people do every weekend. Which practices are relatively easy to implement on a daily basis? For me, meditation is a daily practice that benefits my well-being immensely, and yet, I practiced inconsistently for years. When I finally got consistent, it initiated and sustained the strongest upward spiral I’ve ever experienced, both personally and professionally.
We often look at our lives and want to make big changes, but we don’t know how. Change is gradual, and to me the metaphor of the upward spiral captures the essence of positive change. Each of our decisions and behaviors moves us in a desired direction, an undesired direction, or keeps us where we are. If you know what lifts you, don’t wait until you feel like you need a lift to do it. Intentionally and consistently practice your highest-return positive interventions to create your own virtuous cycles.
But start small. Whatever it is you decide to focus on, make it something that you can easily work into your routine. I like to spend 3-5 minutes writing down things I’m grateful for, and this small practice has a big impact when I do it every day.
How can you start small to make big changes?
Image courtesy of Crystal/Flickr.
This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.