If you want a more peaceful mind, you need better habits of mind.
Too often our minds are a storm of worry, regrets, self-judgment, and sheer information overload.
And so, desperate for some inner calm, we resort to quick fixes: We pop a Xanax, try some deep breathing, light some incense and take a bath, or veg out in front of Netflix for a couple hours, hoping desperately to calm the storm inside our minds— if only for a while.
But there are no quick fixes when it comes to peace of mind. It’s not something that can be bought or willed into existence in a moment. It must be cultivated, slowly and surely.
If you want peace of mind, you must build better habits of mind.
In my job as a psychologist, I work with people every day who struggle with chronic stress, major anxiety, and incessant worry. And inevitably, those who are successful in creating a calmer, more peaceful mind arrive there slowly—by way of small consistent changes, especially to their habits of thought.
What follows are 5 mental habits for a more peaceful mind.
1. Practice mindfulness.
No, no, no! I don’t mean sitting on a pillow, repeating mantras, and focusing on your breath.
Mindfulness meditation is fine and good and will probably help you achieve a calmer, more peaceful mind. But what I’m talking about is a much simpler, more ordinary form of mindfulness.
In its simplest form, mindfulness just means keeping your attention in the present rather than the past or the future.
Your mind is most chaotic and turbulent when it’s bouncing around between past mistakes and regrets and future worries and fears. And unfortunately, this tendency to get stuck in mental time travel can become a habit, addiction even.
In fact, many people are addicted to one or both forms of unhealthy mental time travel:
- Rumination. Rumination means compulsively brooding over past mistakes, failures, and missed opportunities. And while it can briefly make us feel good by giving us the illusion of control over things that are fundamentally outside our control (literally anything in the past!), it comes at a steep price: Excessive guilt and shame, chronically low mood, apathy, and even full blown depression if left unchecked.
- Worry. Worry is compulsive, unhealthy thinking about imagined future dangers. Just like rumination, worry gives us the illusion of control, and so briefly makes us feel good. But the price is costly: Chronic stress and anxiety, hypervigilance and fatigue, even panic attacks when worry really gets out of control.
The point is, allowing your mind to drift off into the past and future is a set up for a stressful, noisy, and chaotic mind, even if it doesn’t lead to major mental health issues.
On the other hand, with practice, you can learn to take control of your attention and keep it focused on the present moment. This is mindfulness.
Here’s an example:
When you’re in line at the grocery store and the old lady in front of you is taking forever, your mind naturally drifts to worries about being late to your next appointment. Catch yourself in this mental time travel and refocus your attention on the here and now. Maybe you express gratitude that you’re still relatively young and healthy. Maybe you make casual small talk with the shopper behind you. In any case, you must practice refocusing your attention in the present.
The more you practice this kind of ordinary mindfulness, the easier it will be to resist unhelpful worries and rumination, keeping your focus on the here and now.
And that is a powerful recipe for a calmer, more peaceful mind.
Be happy in the moment, that’s enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.
― Mother Teresa
2. Raise your hopes and lower your expectations.
I think it’s helpful to distinguish hopes from expectations. Because while both are normal, one tends to wreak havoc on your peace of mind while the other helps it.
On the surface, hope and expectation seem like the same thing - both involve what you want in the future:
- I hope I get into a good college.
- I’m expecting a big bonus this year at work.
- I hope I don’t get the flu this year.
- Your mother and I expect you to get As and Bs in your schoolwork.
But there’s a subtle psychological difference between the two:
Expectations contain the illusion of control, hopes do not.
Let me explain: When you expect that something will happen, you’re counting on it. You believe with some certainty that it will and should come to pass. But the vast majority of the time, this degree of certainty about the future is unwarranted.
We pretend to understand what’s going to happen because it lessens our anxiety about the future.
The habit of expecting certain things to happen is the natural result of that desire for order and predictability in our lives —and the anxiety relief that goes with it.
Trouble is, it’s just not true. Which is why if you have a steady stream of expectations, many of them are inevitably going to get violated, and the result… You feel frustrated, angry, disappointed, confused, etc. All of which lead to a mind unsettled.
Hope, on the other hand, implies from the outset that you don’t have control or much certainty about the outcome. It’s simply an expression of desire without any illusions of control or certainty. As a result, when the things we hope for don’t happen, our emotional reaction is far less severe.
If you want to cultivate a more peaceful mind, stop putting expectations on other people and the world.
Recognize that this is simply a defense mechanism against the inherent anxiety of living an uncertain world.
So go ahead and hope for the best. Just don’t expect it. The outcome won’t change, but your mind will thank you.
I find my life is a lot easier the lower I keep my expectations.
― Bill Watterson
3. Make time to worry on purpose.
This one’s weird, but hear me out…
In years of working as a psychologist who specializes in helping people work through chronic worry and anxiety, this is probably the single most effective technique I know. It’s incredibly powerful if you commit to doing it consistently. It’s called Scheduled Worry.
Here’s the basic rationale: One of the reasons we worry is that it’s actually our mind’s most primitive but effective memory strategy.
To illustrate this, imagine the following scenario:
You’re in the car driving alone when you see a phone number on a billboard you really want to remember. Unfortunately, but you have no way of writing it down or putting it into your phone since you’re driving. So, how do you remember the number?
Most likely, you’ll simply say it to yourself over and over again in your head until you arrive at your destination and can jot it down.
But continuous mental reversal is not a great memory strategy because it takes up so much mental bandwidth. You can’t have a conversation or do math problems while trying to keep a random 7-digit number in your head.
But in a pinch, it works.
Going over and over something in your head is the mind’s most primitive memory strategy. And when you have important things on your mind but your mind doesn’t trust you to remember them, it’s going to throw them at you in the form of worry.
If you want your mind to stop throwing worries at you, you need a consistent, reliable plan for keeping track of them.
Enter, Scheduled Worry.
Scheduled worry means you create a consistent time each day to worry on purpose and on paper. And what’s more, you worry hard!
Of course, I get that this seems counterintuitive: I’m already stressed pour and anxious and you want me to worry more, on purpose?!
Yes, and here’s why: By purposefully acknowledging your worries and writing them down, it signals to your brain that you’re aware of the most concerning and important issues in your life, and that you have a reliable system for staying on top of them.
And if your mind can trust that you’ll remember and take care of these big issues, over time it will stop throwing them at you and encouraging you to cycle over and over them in your mind.
So here’s what you do:
- Pick a time each day for your Scheduled Worry habit. Most people find early evening is best. Not too soon before bed, but after the major business and stress of the day is over.
- Sit down in a quiet space with a notepad and pen.
- Set a timer on your phone for 10 minutes.
- Start jotting down every worry, concern, or fear you can think of. Importantly, this should be rough and messy. You’re not writing essays, just quick notes. Each worry shouldn’t be more than a sentence. Definitely don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, etc. Also, don’t worry about solutions - just put down the worries.
- Once your time is up, put down your pen and get on with your evening. If there are still worries on your mind, just tell yourself that you’ll get to them tomorrow.
PRO TIP: This habit pairs well with keeping a self-compassion diary as described in #4 below.
Once your mind knows that there’s a dedicated time and place where you acknowledge and keep track of the thing’s you’re concerned about, it will stop pestering you will as many worries throughout the day.
And that means a quieter, calmer, and more peaceful mind.
I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them have never happened.
― Mark Twain
4. Keep a self-compassion diary.
You can’t expect to have a peaceful mind if you’re always a jerk to yourself.
From a young age, most of us are trained to believe that in order to be successful, productive members of society, we have to be hard on ourselves.
I call this The Drill-Sergeant Theory of Motivation: If you’re not tough on yourself, you’ll end up as an unsuccessful, unpopular, and uneducated loser.
And the way most of us internalize this theory of motivation is through our self-talk. Specifically, the way we talk to ourselves in our head is shockingly harsh, judgmental, and even mean:
- God, why can’t I just be cool instead of sticking my foot in my mouth every time I’m in an important conversation.
- I’m sure they think I’m an idiot.
- What’s wrong with me?! How could I think something like that? I’m awful.
What many people don’t realize is that they talk to themselves like this constantly! There’s a running commentary of negative self-talk chronically berating them and putting them down.
And even if you are aware of all this negative self-talk, chances are you’re struggling with it - arguing back, trying to distract yourself, attempting to force it our of your consciousness. And yet, like a Chinese finger trap, the harder you try, the worse it gets.
The result is a mind completely lacking in peace or calm.
You can’t have a peaceful mind if your mind is always attacking you and you’re always attacking it back.
The solution to all this inner conflict is gentleness.
You need to unlearn your old programming that being tough and harsh is the only way to be with yourself and learn a different approach. You need to cultivate gentle self-talk. Firm at times, realistic for sure, but overarchingly gentle in approach.
Let me head off the objections right away: Self-compassion might sound like hippie-dippy, new-age nonsense. But let me assure you, it’s nothing like that.
There’s nothing mystical or delusional or woo-woo about self-compassion. It simply means treating yourself like you would treat a good friend: Realistically, of course, but with empathy and understanding.
And the best way I’ve found to do this is with a self-compassion diary.
Here’s how it goes:
- At some point in the evening, schedule five or ten minutes to sit down some place quiet with a pen and paper (if you’re doing Scheduled Worry, writing in your self-compassion diary immediately after works really well!).
- Spend a few minutes jotting down the things in your day that didn’t go so well. They could be incredibly small (forgot to drink enough water) to something much bigger (lost my cool and berated a co-worker for being incompetent).
- For each item, imagine a friend told it to you, then think about how you would respond and write that down underneath. For example, if the thing that didn’t go so well was that you showed up late to work for the second time in a row, you might write something like: Yeah, it makes sense that you’d feel a little ashamed. But I believe you’ll work on it and try to be better in the future.
For more on cultivating self-compassion, this book is excellent.
You’re already stuck with yourself for a lifetime. Why not improve this relationship?
― Vironika Tugaleva
5. Ask for what you want, damnit!
A major source of mental stress and tension comes from the gap between what we want and what we do.
On a basic level, many of us have a lot of fears and insecurities that prevent us from asking for or going after what we really want - in small ways and big:
- You don’t really want that small table in the middle of the restaurant and would much prefer that open corner booth. But you’re afraid that your server might think you’re pushy, so you find yourself at the cramped little table.
- You don’t really want to have sex tonight, but you’re afraid that if you say no, your husband is going to resent you for it. So you go along with it.
- You want to pursue your passion in film making, but dad was a doctor, and so was grandpa, and everyone would be disappointed if you didn’t become a doctor so… med school it is.
Look, we can’t always go after what we want or say no to the things we don’t want. Flexibility is important. And to a degree, self-sacrifice is important - putting other people’s needs before our own.
But it’s very easy to get caught in the habit of consistently denying what’s really important to you out of fear. And that’s not good for anyone, yourself included.
When we habitually give up on the things that matter most, we feel it-deep in our bones and in the tenor of our minds.
It’s a kind of constant gnawing unease — that we’re living someone else’s life and not our own. That we don’t have the courage to live up to our own values and ideals. And it makes our minds tense and chaotic, the opposite of peaceful.
All of which means:
One of the best ways to cultivate a more peaceful mind is to close the gap between what you want and what you’re actually doing.
Stand up for yourself and your values. Have the courage to go after what you want: Whether it’s asking for a better table or quitting your safe if boring job to start the company you’ve always dreamed of, you won’t feel peace of mind until your actions align with your values.
It’s your life. And it’s far too short to spend running away from fears instead of running toward what you really want.
Lean into your fear.
And most importantly…
Ask for what you want, damnit!
All you need to know
If you want a more peaceful mind, you must build better habits of mind:
Cultivate ordinary mindfulness.
Raise your hopes and lower your expectations.
Make time to worry on purpose.
Keep a self-compassion diary.
Ask for what you want, damnit!