Let’s talk about this bad mood you’re in. Maybe you’re feeling angry, or stressed, or something a little more fancy, like guilt.
Whatever it is… you allowed yourself to feel that way.
Not only did you allow it, but you actively chose to feel shitty.
Are you aware of that? Do you remember choosing it?
There were plenty of warning signs on your way here. You could’ve easily gone back to the way you were feeling before you were in a bad mood, but you chose not to.
Do you know what I’m talking about? Or did you miss all of the warnings?
This isn’t a fluff article about thinking “positively”. What follows are practical ways to avoid a bad mood, by recognising and walking away from certain trigger thoughts.
How to spot rabbit holes of negativity, and avoid bad moods
Bad Mood Rabbit Hole #1: “I have to be right.”
I was sitting on a bus, minding my own business. There were plenty of empty seats so I put my backpack on the seat next to me, fully prepared to move it if anyone wanted to sit down.
A lady sat behind me, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You’re so inconsiderate, leaving your bag on the seat like that.”
She opened the bad mood rabbit hole, and I dived in head first.
I told her I didn’t think it was inconsiderate, because I was ready to move it if anyone wanted to sit there. Then I moved the bag and said nothing else.
Of course in my head I was thinking, “Mind your own business you stupid bat. The bus is practically empty.” I was angry that someone could think I was inconsiderate.
Each negative thought in my mind spawned another negative thought and I spiraled downwards. Did other people really think I was inconsiderate? I stayed frustrated for hours.
This was years ago, and I still remember that completely insignificant 5-second bus incident that ruined the rest of my day. Can you relate?
How to avoid Bad Mood Rabbit Hole #1
We all like to be right. We certainly don’t like other people being wrong about us.
When people disagree with us, they open a rabbit hole. When we defend ourselves, we jump right into their hole. We dig the hole deeper with every attempt to affirm our viewpoint, making us feel worse.
Anytime you notice yourself trying to be right, just pause for a second. Treat it as a warning.
Take a look at all of these warning signs on my journey down. I completely ignored them.
Am I really inconsiderate?
> No way, this woman doesn’t know about that nice thing I did this morning.
> But what about that inconsiderate thing I did yesterday? Shit, maybe she’s right?
> No, I wasn’t bothering anyone. She’s just got a stick up her bum.
> She’s the only one who had a problem with it.
> Yeah, that’s what I should’ve told her. If she says anything else, that’s what I’ll tell her.
Do you really need to defend yourself? Why not just let her think you’re inconsiderate? You don’t need to convince her.
I chose to feel angry when I chose to defend myself. The point where I told her “It’s not inconsiderate because blah blah blah” was the point where I jumped down the hole. Then I got stuck grappling with the impossible question: Am I an inconsiderate person?
Answer: There is no answer. Just a rabbit hole full of anger, defensiveness and more impossible questions.
What if I hadn’t jumped down the hole she opened?
I could’ve simply thanked her for her opinion. Because that’s all it was, and she’s entitled to it.
If I did that I’d have a much simpler question to answer: Can I accept that this woman thinks I’m inconsiderate?
You’re not accepting that you are inconsiderate. You’re accepting that she thinks you’re inconsiderate. And when you sidestep her accusation like this, rather than defending yourself, it becomes much easier to move onto thinking about something else.
But you’re not quite out of the woods yet.
The bad mood rabbit hole will continue to nag for your attention in gradually fading intervals. Be vigilant in ignoring it. Don’t follow its threads. Leave them behind and look for other threads that will lead you toward thinking about something else.
Because if you don’t dig, rabbit holes can only tempt you for a few seconds. The better you ignore them, the smaller they get, until they lose their grip and disappear.
Bad Mood Rabbit Hole #2: “It’ll only take a second.”
We’ve all been there. You’re working on something difficult and time-consuming, then you get stuck. You need to pause and think for a few minutes to solve the problem.
But your brain doesn’t like thinking hard when it’s not in a flow state, so it gives you some better suggestions.
“Hey you should just quickly check your email.”
“Hey you should just quickly do this easy thing on your to-do list.”
“Hey you should just quickly watch this YouTube video.”
You’re familiar with this type of rabbit hole. Tim Urban over at Wait But Why calls it the Instant Gratification Monkey (pictured below). Check out his entertaining post about procrastination.
But you fall for the trick anyway.
And now your deadline is tomorrow and your stress levels are through the roof.
Not only are you on-schedule to miss your deadline, but you’ve somehow managed to open 13 browser tabs and fill your to-do list with 5 additional things that absolutely must be done TODAY:
- Get a haircut
- Clean the shower
- Update Tinder profile
- Research dog training
- Learn to cook gnocchi
The legitimately important problem you were originally trying to solve seems substantially more difficult than it did yesterday, because you’ve been “working on it” for hours without actually getting any work done on it. As far as your brain can tell it’ll take you a week to finish this thing by tomorrow.
All the stress!
Why do we fall into this rabbit hole over and over again?
How to avoid Bad Mood Rabbit Hole #2
The secret to beating procrastination, and a good chunk of our stress, is saying No to things that will “only take a second”.
Not because they actually take more than one second. We already know they do and we don’t care. We choose to do them anyway.
And not because each activity leads us to another time-wasting activity. We already know it does and we don’t care. We choose to do it anyway.
Say No because the “one second” activity that you think will make you feel good is the very thing that’s making you feel bad.
You think a short break will make you enjoy the difficult task more, but it actually makes you enjoy it less.
It’s incredibly counter-intuitive, but focusing on challenging tasks without interruption actually makes you enjoy them more. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says it takes up to 45 minutes of solid focus before you hit the “Damn I feel good” peak flow state. Read his book Flow (here) if you want to be more productive & creative. Seriously, it’s full of insight.
So you’re choosing to feel stressed when you choose to do that one thing that will “only take a second” in the middle of trying to be productive.
When the “only one second” rabbit hole pops up it feels almost inevitable that you’re going to jump in. Because it feels like it won’t make any difference to your productivity. But if you learn to say “no” and go back to working on the difficult task, the urge to stray disappears in a few seconds.
Then you get your important stuff done without stress. And it feels f#cking good.
Bad Mood Rabbit Hole #3: “I’m a bad person”.
When I was 6 my dad bought me some Power Rangers Pogs.
The night he gave them to me I went to a sleepover party and traded them all, because that’s kind of what you were supposed to do with them.
When I got home the next day my dad lost his shit and gave me the biggest guilt trip of my life.
Dad: “I bought these gifts for you and you gave them all away!”
I carried that guilt around with me for 10 years, reliving the memory and feeling like a terrible person.
I knew where the memory led but I jumped down the rabbit hole every time anyway, searching in vain for some kind of resolution.
I can’t even begin to imagine how many days I spent feeling like shit over this incident that lasted just a few minutes.
The funny thing is I brought this up with my Dad when I was 16, and he had no idea what Pogs were or what I was talking about. He’d probably forgotten the whole thing the day after it happened.
So why did I choose to feel guilty for 10 years?
How to avoid Bad Mood Rabbit Hole #3
Sometimes it’s good to feel terrible about something. Sometimes we want to be in a bad mood because it kind of makes us feel better.
But other times feeling bad serves no useful purpose. In those cases you can choose to feel good instead by cutting negative thoughts off from their food source — attention.
This is difficult to do. It takes practice. But it works.
Say each thought that pops into your head gets 1 second of your attention. Then you drop it and pick up another thought.
As each thought falls it screams for you to pick it back up again.
Scattered on the ground around you lies a huge pile of potential thoughts fighting for your attention. They grow weak without it.
The weak thoughts scream quietly and are forgotten. The strong thoughts, like “I am a bad person”, scream loudly. You pick the loud ones up often. You feed them with your attention, and they grow.
As you give them more attention they learn your triggers. They learn how to get even more attention from you. They make you fear that something bad will happen if you forget to give them attention, so you become afraid of dropping them.
The other scattered thoughts want attention too. They learn to be more like the strong thoughts. They learn that they have a greater chance of being picked up if they scream things like
- “Everyone thinks you’re inconsiderate.”
- “If you don’t check your email right now, you’ll miss something important.”
- “You did a terrible thing, and you should re-live the guilt as punishment.”
All of a sudden your pile is full of shitty thoughts that you’re afraid to drop.
But you know what? They’re lying.
You can’t hear the good thoughts over the bad ones, but they’re still there, in the same place you left them.
Start by picking one up. Any one. It’ll replace one negative thought.
Then pick up another good thought. And another one.
It’ll take some time, because the bad thoughts are still the majority. They’ll scream the loudest. But you don’t have to pick them up.
You can choose to engage the good thoughts and ignore the bad ones until their screams fade to nothing.
The cool thing is that once you’ve forgotten the bad thoughts you’ve also forgotten that you were afraid of forgetting them. Nothing remains in your conscious awareness unless you choose to look back.
Avoiding bad mood rabbit holes is a skill that takes practice. They’re deceptively small and harmless at first, but they grow if you let them. Keep your eyes open for the warning signs and catch them early, while they’re only little kitten holes. (Because baby rabbits are apparently called kittens).