What follows is a summary of David Reynolds’ great book Constructive Living which should be of interest to anyone trying to make positive changes to their life.
Most of us would like to change. Whether that entails becoming a more confident individual, replacing bad habits with good ones, or spending more time working toward the achievement of longer-term goals, there is no limit to the ways we can improve. With that said, as we get older, changing ourselves for the better becomes increasingly difficult. Why is this?
While each person’s situation is unique, David Reynolds in his fantastic book Constructive Living argues that very often what holds people back is the belief that before they can begin taking the actions which will effectuate positive change, they must deal with their negative emotions. In other words, many people believe that “getting their mind right” is the first and most crucial step to improving their lives. According to Reynolds, however, this approach has it backwards as getting one’s mind right is usually a by-product of a change in behaviour, not something which can precede it. As Reynolds explains:
“Haven’t you found that the feeling of confidence came after you were successful at a task or a job and not before? Then why are so many current approaches to life and therapy aiming to produce confidence first so that the clients can succeed at something? They have it backwards. . . Aim for a constantly happy, anxiety-free life and you won’t get it. Focus your attention on your feelings a lot and you end up miserable. Think of the people you know with the most satisfying, enviable lives. Do they ruminate about their emotions all day long? My guess is that they don’t. Now consider the people you know who appear to be most miserable. Do they spend long periods of time dwelling on their feelings? I’ll bet they do.” (David Reynolds, Constructive Living)
Instead of focusing on fixing our negative emotions Reynolds offers the following advice:
“…give up the ephemeral task of working on yourself and realign your life toward getting done what . . .needs doing. In other words we advise you to focus more on purposeful behavior. Let the feelings take care of themselves. What I think you will find is that when you get good at doing what needs doing in your life, the feelings stop giving you such trouble. And even if your feelings become troublesome, when you are involved in constructive activity, they remain in perspective. Feelings cease to be the whole show.” (David Reynolds, Constructive Living)
This is wise advice as very often our emotional problems stem from our actions, or more commonly our inaction. Far too many people waste their lives on trivial pursuits and procrastinate on the tasks which would substantially improve their lives. Very often we can rid ourselves of our incessant worries, stresses, and anxieties by simply taking action on things that need doing, regardless of our emotional state.
In many cases we avoid certain actions for so long that we develop phobias and fears of them which act as internal obstacles. However, the approach advocated by Reynolds is especially helpful in these cases as modern psychological research has firmly established that the most effective way to treat a phobia is through exposure, which simply entails doing what you fear. You cannot think your way out of a fear, nor will your fears go away on their own if you ignore them. Instead, the more you avoid something the more intensely you will fear it. So again, the solution to our fears is not so much “getting our mind right”, as it is taking action. Ralph Waldo Emerson was ahead of his time in realizing this:
“Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
In the end it comes down to this – you can live your life waiting for the stars to align and your emotional problems to magically dissolve before you begin taking actions which will change your life. Or you can realize that life is short, you will soon be dead, so you might as well take a risk and see what happens if you act even when you are fearful, anxious, or not confident in your abilities. The next time you find yourself ruminating on worries, or feeling anxious or stressed, simply ask yourself “what needs doing” and then immediately take the appropriate action. If one is able to cultivate this habit as a reaction to their troubled emotions they will soon find that their emotional problems are much less impactful.
Those who are interested in learning more about this approach to effectuating positive change will find David Reynolds’ book Constructive Living of great value.