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Looking at the Little Things

Looking at the Little Things

Looking at the Little Things

    This year has turned out to be a year of tremendous challenge for me. I realized that the career I’d spent my adult life cultivating was not quite as fulfilling as I’d hoped, and at the same time my relationship started buckling under pressures both from within and without.

    Change, it seems, was in order.

    If you listen to popular wisdom, especially as expressed in movies and TV shows, profound change comes from profound events. The alcoholic hits rock bottom, losing his family, his job, and his dignity before he can start to address his addiction. The surgeon loses a patient on the operating table before she can grapple with her insecurities. The playboy millionaire discovers he has a teenage daughter before he can learn to take responsibility for his life.

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    And on and on.

    The reality, though, is somewhat different. While some people face life-changing events, most of what defines and redefines us as people is not the stuff of big-budget epic movies, but rather the boring, mundane stuff of everyday life. For me, it wasn’t infidelity — mine or hers – or drug abuse or the death of a parent that turned my relationship towards rocky waters, it was… dishes. And it wasn’t a psychotic student dissatisfied with his grade stalking me across the quad or the loss of three years of research data that led me to realize I was spinning my wheels as an academic, it was… grading papers.

    I kept forgetting to do the dishes when it was my turn, and I started facing my students’ ungraded essays with dread, procrastinating as long as I could.

    Those little things – a household complaint heard in millions of homes around the world, and an educational chore despised in faculty lounges throughout the universe – said a lot more about me, and about the choices I had made and was making in my life, than any sexual fling, drinking binge, or expensive hobby could have.

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    How can we grab hold of those little things that say so much about who we are – and use them to move us closer to who we want to be? To do so, we first have to identify them, to pick them out of the flow of daily life for closer examination. Then, we have to figure out what they mean, what those actions and practices say about us, and how well they jibe with who we want to be. Finally, we have to commit to a course of action that changes or eliminates behaviors that don’t reflect our better selves, replacing them with more positive ones. In short, we have to go through an ongoing process of:

    1. Discovery,
    2. Analysis, and
    3. Intention.

    Discovery

    The key to change in your life – and really, the key to satisfaction as well – is self-knowledge. In our go-go-go society, there’s often little time for self-reflection, which can blind us to most of the little things that go into making our big lives. Not to mention that the things that are most a part of us become practically invisible.

    Hence, discovery. Whether it’s part of your weekly routine or a nightly ritual, take some time to go over and record the moments that reflect problems you’re dealing with, as well as the moments that are typically “you”. You might start keeping a “discovery journal”, someplace to record the problems that arise over the course of each day – and the little successes, too. Though I’m focusing on change here, it’s never a bad idea to recognize and embrace the positive, too.

    While some things will jump out at you, the point of the discovery process isn’t to delve into the deeper meanings of anything, not just yet. Rather the idea is to see patterns emerge. These patterns will be the grist for your analytical mill in the next stage.

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    Analysis

    Once you’ve given yourself a good looking-into, it’s time to figure out what to do about it. I’ve already mentioned patterns – are there mistakes you make over and over? Arguments you get into again and again? Recurring moments when you do that “laying out your excuse in your head even through nobody asked you to explain yourself” thing?

    Try to distance yourself from your actions a little. Look at your inventory of “totally you” moments – what do they say about who you are? Imagine someone you dislike doing the same things; what would you think about those behaviors then? Who do your actions suggest that you are?

    Now, who do you want to be? What’s meaningful for you, what values do you want to realize in your daily life? In my case, I consider myself a sensitive and committed partner who does his part in the home – and as a gender studies professor, it’s also important to me that I not fall into gender-stereotyped roles. By repeatedly forgetting about the dishes, I was making more work for my partner – and worse, it was work that men typically shun as “women’s work”. More than that, though, I was failing to do my part in the running of our household, which implied that maybe it wasn’t my first priority. Since I wasn’t doing more important stuff instead of the dishes, I had to face a real disjoint between the person I wanted to be and the person I was showing myself to be.

    Intention

    At this point, it’s time to think about change: what do you intend to do about all this? The trick here is to be positive, not negative. Not only do negative resolutions lack emotional power, the power that keeps us motivated, but they’re really hard to keep a strong hold on. “Not doing” leaves less of a trace, less evidence, than “doing”.

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    If you really want to put a positive shine on your new commitments, you can phrase them as affirmations. Not just “I will do the dishes every night, even when it’s not my turn, because that’s one way I participate in my family” but something like “I celebrate my responsibilities through which I express my love for my family.” That’s not really my style, so the first version was closer to the commitment I made – and for the next several months, I became a dish-doing machine, and you know what? It wasn’t a chore at all, it was a pleasure, because it was one way I made the lives of the people I care most about run smoothly.

    It’s important the you find the motivation and intention within yourself if you’re to make real change that sticks. Doing things because you know others think they’re what you should do, or worse, to “show them”, might get a short-term shift out of you, but over the long term isn’t likely to be very satisfying – or self-sustaining. In the end, you can’t make others the gauge by which you measure yourself.

    Personal change is hard, and harder still because there’s so much little stuff going on in our lives that all push and pull us in different directions. Which is precisely why it’s so important to pay attention to the little things, no matter how trivial they might seem – those are the things that throw us for a loop, the things that slip by invisibly until suddenly we find we’re not very happy with our lives. I’ve been at it for months now, and to be honest, the end isn’t in sight ( I am, after all, changing careers as well as trying to patch back together a relationship). But in the end, it’s worth it, because I’ve taken charge of so many parts of my life that I was content, once upon a time, to let slide.

    More by this author

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    Last Updated on August 12, 2019

    How To Start a Conversation with Anyone

    How To Start a Conversation with Anyone

    The hardest part of socializing, for many people, is how to start a conversation. However, it is a big mistake to go about life not making the first move and waiting for someone else to do it [in conversation or anything].

    This isn’t to say you must always be the first in everything or initiate a conversation with everyone you see. What should be said, though, is once you get good at starting conversations, a lot of other things will progress in the way you want; such as networking and your love life.

    Benefits of Initiating a Conversation

    First thing is you should acknowledge why it is a good thing to be able to initiate conversations with strangers or people who you don’t know well:

    • You’re not a loner with nothing to do.
    • You look more approachable if you are comfortable approaching others.
    • Meeting new people means developing a network of friends or peers which leads to more knowledge and experiences.

    You can only learn so much alone, and I’m sure you’re aware of the benefits of learning from others. Being able to distinguish the ‘good from bad’ amongst a group of people will help in building a suitable network, or making a fun night.

    All people are good in their own way. Being able to have a good time with anybody is a worthy trait and something to discuss another time. However, if you have a specific purpose while in social situations, you may want to stick with people who are suitable.

    This means distinguishing between people who might suit you and your ‘purpose’ from those who probably won’t. This can require some people-judging, which I am generally very opposed to. However, this does make approaching people all the more easier.

    It helps to motivate the conversation if you really want to know this person. Also, you’ll find your circle of friends and peers grows to something you really like and enjoy.

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    The Rules

    I don’t have many rules in this life, for conversation or anything; but when it comes to approaching strangers, there are a few I’d like used.

    1. Be polite. Within context, don’t be a creepy, arrogant loudmouth or anything. Acknowledge that you are in the company of strangers and don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable. First impressions mean something.
    2. Keep it light. Don’t launch into a heartfelt rant or a story of tragedy. We’re out to have fun.
    3. Don’t be a prude. This just means relax. This isn’t a science and conversation isn’t a fine art. Talk to people like you’re already friends.
    4. Be honest. Be yourself. People can tell.

    Who To Talk To?

    I’m of the ilk that likes to talk to everyone and anyone. Everyone has a story and good personalities. Some are harder to get to than others, but if you’re on a people-finding excursion, like I usually am, then everyone is pretty much fair game.

    That said, if you’re out at a function and you want to build a network of people in your niche, you will want to distinguish those people from the others. Find the ‘leaders’ in a group of people or ask around for what you’re looking for.

    In a more general environment, like at a bar, you will want to do the same sort of thing. Acknowledge what you actually want and try to distinguish suitable people. Once you find someone, or a group of people, that you want to meet and talk to, hop to it.

    Think of a few things you might have in common. What did you notice about their dress sense?

    Building Confidence

    The most important part of initiating conversation is, arguably, having confidence. It should be obvious that without any amount of self-esteem you will struggle. Having confidence in yourself and who you are makes this job very easy.

    If you find yourself doubting your worth, or how interesting you are, make a few mental notes of why you are interesting and worth talking to. There is no question you are. You just have to realize that.

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    What do I do? What is interesting about it? What are my strong points and what are my weak ones? Confident people succeed because they play on their strengths.

    Across the Room Rapport

    This is rapport building without talking. It’s as simple as reciprocated eye contact and smiles etc. Acknowledging someone else’s presence before approaching them goes a long way to making introductions easier. You are instantly no longer just a random person.

    In my other article How Not To Suck At Socializing, there are things you can do to make yourself appear approachable. This doesn’t necessarily mean people are going to flock to you. You’ll still probably need to initiate conversations.

    People notice other people who are having a blast. If you’re that person, someone will acknowledge it and will make the ‘across the room rapport’ building a breeze. If you’re that person that is getting along great with their present company, others will want to talk to you. This will make your approach more comfortable for both parties.

    The Approach

    When it comes to being social, the less analytical and formulaic you are the better. Try not to map out your every move and plan too much. Although we are talking about how to initiate conversation, these are really only tips. When it comes to the approach, though, there are some things you should keep in mind.

    Different situations call for different approaches. Formal situations call for something more formal and relaxed ones should be relaxed.

    At a work function, for instance, be a little formal and introduce yourself. People will want to know who you are and what you do right away. This isn’t to say you should only talk about work, but an introduction and handshake is appropriate.

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    If you’re at a bar, then things are very different and you should be much more open to unstructured introductions. Personally, I don’t like the idea of walking directly to someone to talk to them. It’s too direct. I like the sense of randomness that comes with meeting new people.

    However, if there is rapport already established, go for it. If not, take a wander, buy a drink and be aware of where people are. If there is someone you would like to talk to, make yourself available and not sit all night etc.

    When someone is alone and looks bored, do them a favor and approach them. No matter how bad the conversation might get, they should at least appreciate the company and friendliness.

    Briefly, Approaching Groups

    When integrating with an established group conversation, there is really one thing to know. That is to establish the ‘leader’ and introduce yourself to them. I mentioned that before, but here is how and why.

    The why is the leader of a group conversation is probably the more social and outgoing. They will more readily accept your introduction and then introduce you to the rest of the group. This hierarchy in a group conversation is much more prevalent in formal situations where one person is leading the conversation.

    A group of friends out for the night is much more difficult to crack. This may even be another topic for discussion, but one thing I know that works is initiating conversation with a ‘stray’. It sounds predatorial, but it works.

    More often than not, this occurs without intention. But if you do really want to get into a group of friends, your best bet is approaching one of them while they are away from the group and being invited into the group.

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    It is possible, like everything, to approach a group outright and join them. However, this is almost an art and requires another specific post.

    Topics Of Conversation

    Other than confidence, the next thing people who have trouble initiating conversations lack is conversation! So here are a few tips to get the ball rolling:

    • Small talk sucks. It’s boring and a lot of people already begin to zone out when questions like, “What do you do?” or “What’s with this weather?” come up. Just skip it.
    • Everything is fair game. If you are in the company of someone and a thought strikes you, share it. “This drink is garbage! What are you drinking?” “Where did you get that outfit?”
    • Opinions matter. This is any easy way to hit the ground running in conversation. Everyone has one, and when you share yours, another will reveal itself. The great thing about this line of thought is that you are instantly learning about the other person and what they like, dislike etc.
    • Environment. The place you’re in is full of things to comment on. The DJ, band, fashions; start talking about what you see.
    • Current events. Unless it’s something accessible or light-hearted, forget it. Don’t launch into your opinion on the war or politics. If your town has recently hosted a festival, ask what they think about it.

    Exiting Conversation

    Although I’d like to write a full post on exiting strategies for conversations you don’t want to be in, here are some tips:

    • The first thing is don’t stay in a conversation you’re not interested in. It’ll show and will be no fun for anyone.
    • Be polite and excuse yourself. You’re probably out with friends, go back to them.  Or buy a drink. Most people will probably want to finish the conversation as much as you.

    Likewise, you could start another conversation.

    If you’d like to learn more tips about starting a conversation, this guide maybe useful for you: How to Talk to Strangers Without Feeling Awkward

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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