How “A Day In the Life” mindfulness exercise can help you make change
Updated: Nov 11, 2022
I get it every week. Someone calls or emails me and is in pain. They have reached their breaking point and finally decide that they need therapy and want to start as soon as possible. They have suffered and managed for a long time on their own, but something happens and it’s just all too much. They want the suffering to stop. They want their lives to change and to be different. They are committed to finally getting their life together and to making the changes that will make them happy or will give them their life back.
When I first start working with a client, it is important for me to get to know them and for the client to develop trust with me. Some clients tell me their details behind their suffering right off the bat in the consultation call and others wait a few sessions to share some of the deeper issues going on. And I am prepared to follow the journey at the client’s pace.
The Initial Activity
I begin the first few sessions by asking the client to walk me through a day in their life. By engaging in this activity, I get a sense of what they are doing in their lives that is habitual and familiar to them. It helps give me a sense of what is working and what isn’t. This day in the life activity is as specific as possible, from what time they wake up to what they have for breakfast to when they get in the car to go to work to when they have dinner and on and on it goes.
Many clients are bit taken aback by this activity as they just want to get to the change already. They’ve called, they recognize that there is a problem and they want the problem to go away. I get it. And when a client asks me what their breakfast has to do with their broken heart, I remind them of this.
Change happens in subtle ways. If you have ever read a book on habits, you may well know that lasting change happens in minor, incremental ways. I talk to clients about how some of the behaviors they engage in may inadvertently be contributing to their suffering.
So, for example, a client may tell me that they eat oatmeal for breakfast and it used to be the same breakfast that they used to eat with their ex. They may also eat said oatmeal at the same time that they did with their ex before they got in the car to go to work. Can you see how this seeming harmless habit is triggering memories of a life that is no longer?
Change is hard
Some of your current habits may not be triggering at all and may contribute nothing to your suffering, but this activity also helps me explore with the client how and when and where they plan to make all of this change that is going to end all of this suffering. Change is good in theory but in reality, it is hard if you don’t make room for it.
Change is hard because you are asking yourself to do something different and possibly out of your comfort zone. Change is hard because you may have to question long established beliefs and behavior. Change is hard because you have to actually take action steps to do something you’ve never done before. And to try to change your whole life sets you up to be disappointed, sad, frustrated, discouraged and angry. But if you are prepared for all of this, you can increase your likelihood of success.
"To accomplish great things we must first dream, then visualize, then plan... believe... act!" Alfred A. Montapert
A future "Day in the Life
Once a review of the present Day in the Life is completed, I then ask clients to describe for me what a future “Day in the Life” looks like. And it is surprising how difficult it is for people to complete this exercise. The reality is that people have been living so long with their suffering that they cannot imagine what a life without suffering could look like.
Most people will say “I don’t know, I’ll just feel better”. But feeling better doesn’t just happen. You have to work at it. And while we may not yet know what steps are going to be needed to get there, we have to plan to a future life so that we know what we are striving for. We have to figure out when you’ll know that you have healed. We have to know where the blind spots are so that we can deal with them as they arise.
How to use the Future “Day In the Life” to prepare for change
Think about your current day currently and write it down as specifically as you can, hour by hour. Then visualize what would be different as your idealized version. It is possible that nothing about your day changes but rather it is the way you go about your day will change.
Maybe you will go to your job without feeling anxious or resentful. Maybe you will wake up and not be crying over the loss of a relationship. Your emotional state may change but that will actually change also how your day looks. Imagine if you are no longer anxious or resentful about work. You may spend your commute time listening to something pleasant instead of something to “help you prepare’ for your awful work day. If you’re no longer crying and reaching for the tissues first thing in the morning, you may instead get up and work out or start journaling. Ask yourself what you would be doing if your idealized self existed.
After you explore what your idealized self would be doing, see if you can incorporate some of these new habits into your present life. Explore changing one or two things for a week and see what happens. See what works, see what doesn’t work and see how you feel as you take on some new habits. Recognize that there will be setbacks. Remember that change takes time and is not linear. Accept and embrace that you will be frustrated. In another blog post, I talk about the 4 steps of competence, and frustration is a core component of change. Check it out here.
As you prepare for change, whether through therapy or own your own, remember that change is incremental.
Complete a present day in the life activity hour by hour. Ask yourself what parts of your life are working and what parts aren’t. Explore how you feel about your day to day and assess what things in your life bring you joy and what things in your life bring you frustration or sadness or anger.
Visualize a Day in the Life where you feel whole. Be creative but also be realistic. Life is not without bad days but you want to envision a life where you feel content about your life and feel like your life has meaning, purpose and is full. It may be helpful to imagine that you are watching yourself as your ideal self. Notice what you are doing, what you are wearing, what you are eating, how you are talking to yourself and others. Take notes.
Try to incorporate some of those ideal habits into your present life. I recently completed this activity as I seek to get more organized. I envisioned coming to sit at my desk and saw that my ideal self had a clear desk.
My ideal self had no unread emails. My ideal self was drinking tea instead of coffee.
My ideal self had post its neatly lined up instead of papers everywhere. Because I had
a vision, I now had something to work on daily to get to ideal. And after a few weeks, I
could sit at my desk, without feeling overwhelmed and frazzled. I could do more
work without distraction and get more things written and recorded.
Recognize that change is slow going and may happen without you even realizing it. Subtle shifts may happen and you may find yourself being less anxious and more happy without being able to put your finger on it. It may be the culmination of several small habits that lead to the life that you want.
Embrace the ebbs and flows of the process. There will be good days and bad. As long as you keep taking steps, you will progress.