To get the context for these slogans, see my summary of Constructive Living principles. Then return here often to find a particular slogan that resonates with you.
Every moment is fresh
Who among us could bear being held accountable for every mistake we’ve ever made? Our past actions are beyond our control.
All we can do is apologize, make amends — and use the present moment to make a choice that sets a new direction.
Whatever you did just a second ago has already flowed into the stream of the past. The present moment brings a new possibility.
Even something that you’ve already done a thousand times can be done in a slightly different way, with greater attention and more precision.
I’m feeling…; what needs doing now?
There’s one aspect of being human that’s profound, easy to verify, and easy to forget: When appropriate, we can separate feelings from actions.
We can feel sad and still do the laundry.
We can feel stage fright and still give a speech.
We can dread doing our taxes and still sort our receipts.
We can feel angry with someone and still listen to what they say.
If we wait to take important actions until we feel “motivated,” then we could end up waiting a long time. Maybe a lifetime.
Variations on this slogan:
- Feelings are for feeling.
- Feelings change like the Japanese sky.
- Making friends with fear.
- Don’t try to shovel away your shadow (that is, control your feelings by will power).
And closely related: You can’t make anyone else feel good.
All I can do is…the next thing and the next thing and the next
“Moment by moment,” writes Reynolds, “reality brings us tasks in just this order.”
This slogan reminds us that there is no such thing as multitasking. When people say that they’re multi-tasking, they’re not really doing several things at once. They’re actually doing one thing for a few seconds, then another thing for a few seconds, and then another…ad infinitum.
The problem with this is that rapid switching between tasks imposes cognitive burdens that our poor brain is not designed to bear.
How much better it is — and how much more fun — to do one thing at a time with full attention.
A variation on this slogan: There is always just enough time to do what needs to be done.
Behavior wags the tail of feelings
This is one way to deal with procrastination. For example, don’t wait to do yoga until you feel like doing it. Waiting probably won’t generate the desire to get moving. Rolling out your mat, and doing one simple stretch might.
But even if this behavior doesn’t change your feelings, you’ll still be doing yoga.
A variation on this slogan: If it’s raining and you have an umbrella, use it. (If you can change unpleasant circumstances by taking action, then do so.)
Thanksgiving, not thanksfeeling
Recognize when other people deserve your gratitude even when you don’t feel grateful to them. Demonstrate this recognition through simple actions such as writing thank you notes to them and giving them token gifts. As a byproduct, such actions can actually generate feelings of gratitude.
A variation on this slogan: You care about what you care for.
Have it be the way it is
Cars get stuck in snow banks. People get laid off from their jobs. Accidents take place. Why pretend that reality is anything other than what actually happened?
If a problem surfaces, accept it. That is, permit yourself to have it for now (along with all your feelings about the problem). Then choose your next action.
A variant on this one is: Things turn out the way they do.
Run to the edge of the cliff and stop on a dime
Notice the three key words in this slogan:
- Run refers to doing whatever you can to solve a problem.
- Edge means keep taking action up to the moment that a solution appears.
- Stop means letting go of the results of your efforts, which are ultimately beyond your control.
When we forget the meaning of these words, we fall into the traps of denying that the problem exists, making only half-hearted attempts at a solution, or blindly trusting that everything will “just work out.”
Variations on this slogan:
- Effort is good fortune.
- Flounder with full attention.
- Don’t put your life on hold.
Action brings experience; experiential knowledge is dependable
Anxiety and depression can lead to over-thinking and under-acting. We waste time by spinning scenarios in our mind and predicting negative outcomes.
Taking action breaks this cycle. Some ideas can be understood only when implemented.
When reading self-help books, I look for ideas that I can turn into behaviors. I often wonder if the authors have ever done what they’re suggesting that I do.
Testing ideas through our own behavior gives us reliable knowledge about what works for us.
Give and give until you wave goodbye
We might feel tempted to disengage from a relationship long before it ends. Doing so is not necessary, and it can make matters worse.
Another option is to do everything possible to resolve the conflict until it’s clear that leaving is a wise choice. There’s inherent value in acting impeccably in difficult circumstances — and with difficult people.
And if we eventually choose to end the relationship, we can do so without regrets — knowing that we did our best.
For all of my dreams, I am what I do
It’s fine for us to imagine big possibilities for our lives — having a dream career, achieving financial independence, or even becoming enlightened. But dreaming is different than focusing on a specific outcome and actually doing something that moves us one step closer to the goal.
Repeating affirmations, chanting mantras, and doing mental exercises to “manifest your dreams” are no substitutes for taking action.
Stick it in your hara
Hara is a Japanese word for your lower abdomen. In certain spiritual traditions, this part of your body is considered the seat of wisdom — not your head. Americans might say that hara is “gut wisdom.”
The suggestion here is to refrain from acting impulsively, especially when your actions could alienate or hurt other people. Let your intention sit in your hara for a while. Act only after your gut wisdom has spoken.
You are a bundle of different identities. When with your parents, you might revert to a childhood role. At work, you might be competent and assertive. At a party with friends, another version of you emerges. Behavior depends on context.
This is useful to remember when you’re tempted to label someone in your life as “toxic” or “neurotic.” No single behavior or set of behaviors defines a person in an ultimate way. All of us have neurotic moments. Even “toxic” people have moments of clarity and compassion.
Unpleasant doesn’t mean “bad”
Many symptoms arise from positive intentions.
For example, someone who feels anxiety about public speaking wants to perform well. The person who fears getting on an airplane wants to stay safe. The person who is compulsive about making lists wants to make sure that everything gets done.
Remembering this can help us temper our judgments of ourselves and other people. It can also free up energy for taking constructive action.
Variations on this slogan:
- Suffering grows from a seed of beauty.
- Muck grows out of the lotus.
- Look for the beautiful source.
- Moldy perfume.
Symptoms are misattention
Symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other emotional ailments are strongest when we grant them our undivided attention. Constructive activities such as meditating, exercising, preparing healthy meals, and taking time to see friends can redirect our attention and reduce our suffering.
A variation on this slogan: When you’re not noticing your grief, where is it?
Self-centeredness is suffering
To dwell on our resentments is to place ourselves at the center of the universe. This is a recipe for neurotic suffering.
A constructive alternative is self-transcendence. For instance:
- Instead of griping about how the government fails you, sign up to volunteer at your local food shelf.
- Instead of complaining about loneliness, invite others to a dinner party at your house.
- Instead of competing with other drivers for a prime parking space, drive to a more distant spot to relieve the congestion.
When our mindset shifts from What’s in it for me? to How can I serve?, life takes on a new quality.
Exchange yourself for another
We feel most self-conscious when we’re focused on our performance and worried about what other people think of us. The alternative is to redirect our attention to our larger purpose and moment-to-moment experience.
When making a speech, don’t dwell on how nervous you feel. Instead, focus on the point that you want to make and how to make it clear to your audience.
During yoga class, focus on doing the asanas with precision. Notice the body sensations that arise with each movement. Don’t worry about whether the other people in class think you’re too fat, too stiff, or too old.
As David Reynolds notes:
Self-consciousness disappears when attention is merged with reality. When the shy woman loses herself in her companion, when the beachgoer becomes the wave in which he swims, there is no awkward introspection.
Variations on this slogan:
- Go be a wave.
- Melt into the moment.
Reality is more interesting than all our ideas about it
Our default mental mode is distraction. We get lost in our mind by recycling events from the past, worrying about what will go wrong in the future, and spinning sexual fantasies.
Meanwhile, we become blind to the beauty and sensory richness of our environment. We stumble through our days on cruise control, not really noticing the world outside our head.
Take a few minutes every day to stop and simply notice colors, sounds, textures, shapes, and aromas.
Take a short break to close your eyes and feel the physical sensations associated with breathing.
During a conversation, observe the other person’s nonverbal language and tone of voice. Stop thinking about the next point that you want to make and pour 100 percent of your attention into hearing that person’s words.
The world is fascinating. If only we’d tune in to it!
I wish I weren’t miserable
Albert Ellis, creator of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, said that three beliefs are responsible for most of our misery:
- I must always be perfectly competent.
- Other people must always behave exactly the way that I expect.
- Events must always turn out exactly the way I expect.
Since these statements all include the word must, Ellis also referred to them as examples of musterbating.
The spirit of musterbating is also present in statements that begin with:
- If only….
- They should have….
- Why didn’t I just….
As an earlier slogan reminds us, things turn out the way they do. And, nobody is perfect. When circumstances disappoint us, the most constructive response is note that feeling and ask: What can I do about it?
Two kinds of “can’t”
Some of our difficulties result from sloppy language. Often we use the word can’t when what we really mean is:
- I’m not willing to….
- I’m afraid to….
- I just really don’t want to….
In these cases, can’t is a sign of procrastination or a simple unwillingness to endure temporary discomfort.
Save can’t for the rare times when it’s actually physically impossible for you to do something.
Confidence follows success
Courage is the willingness to work toward your goals even when you feel unsure about achieving them.
Courage is the student who moves far away from home to attend college in a strange new city.
Courage is the person who starts a new business while knowing the risk of failure.
Courage is the first-time author who sits down to write a book — even if she feels inadequate to the task.
David Reynolds puts it this way:
Some people believe they should undertake a venture only after they feel confident of their ability to do it. With that attitude they rarely start any ventures. Trembling and unsure, without confidence, we give life a try. Confidence comes after we have succeeded, not before.
Freedom through discipline
After mastering the rules of grammar, great writers can use sentence fragments and neologisms (invented words) to great effect.
After memorizing musical scales and patterns, great jazz musicians can improvise gorgeous melodies on the spot.
After learning to draw with near-photographic realism, Picasso created masterpieces of cubism and abstraction.
Mastery begins with learning the basic techniques and materials of your craft. Then, after knowing the rules, you are free to bend or even break them.
In Constructive Living, mastery begins with learning to take charge of your behavior in the midst of constantly changing emotional states. This is a fundamental life skill that increases your effectiveness in any vocation.
If you’re feeling tired, the most appropriate response might be to take a nap. On the other hand, staying in bed for more than nine hours a day might be an attempt to avoid problems.
Often we can refresh ourselves by simply switching activities.
If you feel foggy after sitting for long hours at the computer, then get up to take a brisk walk.
If you feel drained after a long day of meetings at work, then step on to a yoga mat and stretch for a few minutes.
Relaxation is not always the same as withdrawal from activity.
Bonus slogan #1: If nothing changes, then nothing changes
This slogan does not from David Reynolds. But it’s so closely aligned with Constructive Living that I feel compelled to include it.
Some people complain endlessly about their circumstances while refusing to change their behavior. They want better health, more money, and more friends. But they’re not willing to exercise more, eat better, gain new job skills, or invite a friend out to lunch.
When I’m not satisfied some aspect of my life, I ask: What am I doing to create this outcome? And, What can I do differently?
Bonus slogan #2: Eat, move, sleep
Again, this is not an “official” Constructive Living slogan. In fact, it’s the title of a wonderful little book by Tom Rath — Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes.
However, “eat, move, sleep” fits perfectly with another Constructive Living slogan: Depressed? Get moving!
Many self-help books for anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues focus on techniques for changing self-defeating thoughts. But equally important is the simple stuff that we do everyday to maintain our fragile human body — sleeping, eating, and exercising.
In Constructive Living, David Reynolds suggests a simple experiment: Eat, sleep, and exercise regularly for one week. Then notice the effects on your overall emotional state.
Here’s his rationale:
Many of the troubled people I know have neglected these fundamental aspects of human life. A lot of moodiness, depression, nervousness, and even craziness improves when these simple needs are met in regular fashion. Erratic uncontrolled lifestyles produce erratic uncontrolled people.
This sounds drop-dead simple. And, it can be a Herculean challenge to carry out.
Why? Because you will meet walls of resistance in the form of rationalizations and fluctuating emotions: I’ll exercise tomorrow…. I don’t have time to cook…. I feel too tired to get up when the alarm goes off.
If you acknowledge all this resistance and act on your plans anyway, you will make one of the most liberating discoveries possible for a human being: You can take constructive action no matter what you feel.
Thoughts come and go. Feelings arise and fade. But none of them need to stop you from living a life based on your values.