Our habits become us. Our lives are arguably the net sum of the behaviors that we repeatedly do. One could even argue that our personalities are molded over time out of the habitual ways we behave influenced most strongly by the thoughts we think. This is partly due to our dedication to the known and familiar which helps us manage the overwhelming busyness of life, and evidenced by the fact that although our brain receives thousands of sensory signals every day, it can only process dozens. In the same way, of the thousands of random thoughts passing through our mind every day, over 90 percent of them are repetitive and for most of us, 80 percent of those thoughts are more negative than positive.
I have been working and writing about overcoming my own negative bias with intentional practices for years. It is still surprising to me that even after many years of practice, giving it up always ends me back to where I began. I think it is important here to acknowledge the power of the negativity bias which has kept us safe in our human evolution. There is good reason to be overly vigilant to threats to our survival, arguably even today. Yet, letting the fear, anxiety, and generally negative self-talk is not a winning proposition for joyful living.
As we all know too well, it takes only a moment for something bad to happen, while building good things takes time and persistence.
Likewise, bad habits are easier to develop but harder to live with and good habits are harder to develop but easier to live with. Once we fully comprehend that we become what we repeatedly do, it follows that productivity, excellence, and motivation are never singular acts. Rather, they are a life direction made up of hundreds of small choices every day. This explains the oxymoron that changing our life direction is at once so challenging and so simple. Intention is only valuable to the extent that it is accompanied by continuous vigilance and discipline.
The habits which define us most completely are the ones that control our mind. I began what has become a lifelong experiment to train my own negativity bias with an 82-day stretch of becoming painfully conscious of how frequently - yet, invisibly - my negative self-talk arises. After that initial stretch, I was able to self-correct much more rapidly, but at every time point where I lost my focus on my thinking, I had to begin again with renewed concentrated effort.
Here is a short list of tips to launch your own positive thinking practice. Try just one of these and let us know how it works.
1. Make a Public Commitment
Telling people that you are making a change to a personal habit, especially how you think, is one of the most powerful motivators for maintaining change. Being accountable for your intentions helps them to stick, and people who live close to you can both verify and help make quick corrections.
2. Write It Down and Keep Track
Anyone who has ever kept regular to-do lists knows the power of goal setting.
The act of writing down your commitment to give up negative thinking can dramatically increase your odds of success. I wrote a Positivity Quest blog every day for years. Looking back on those entries now, it is clear how my deliberate act of interpreting a day's event through a positive lens accelerated the truth of my thinking changes.
Even on the days I couldn’t get there, I was easier and more encouraging with myself.
3. Choose One Thing at a Time
Change is about focus; it is not a multitasking event. We can only really change one habit at a time, although when it comes to our thinking habits, one change can have far reaching impacts. Basically, you are doing a deep brain resurfacing which means that the neurological pathways in your brain are being retraced.
4. Give It Time and Check In
Before you can count any new behavior or thinking pattern as a new habit, you have to practice it continuously for 30 days.
Typical check-in times after the first month are at 90 days and one year. The longer you consistently practice a new behavior, the more likely it will become a permanent fixture in your life’s makeup.
5. Create a Pause in Your Thinking
One of the most powerful mechanisms in changing thought patterns is creating a physical pause. Inserting an action that punctuates the recognition of negative self-talk gives the brain a moment to resurface and take a different path.
A technique that has been effective for me is the wristband method. Essentially you wear a wristband (even a rubber band will do the trick) and each time you notice your thoughts degenerating, you switch wrists. In the early days, I was switching my band every few minutes.
6. Develop Some Believable Replacements
Rather than elaborate affirmations, just having some go to ideas about how you are thinking is all the brain needs. Paying attention to “the how” in your thinking and not necessarily “the content” of the thought was an epiphany for me.
For example, does an event create a moment of curiosity or judgment? When setbacks occur, do you evaluate the situation or lay blame on yourself or others? The words we say to others or ourselves are symptoms of our thinking mechanism. Looking at “how” we think gets you out of the personal narrative and lets you work on the deeper dynamics.
7. Let Go More Often
Replacing my negative talk with other neutral or positive choices got easier pretty quickly. Unlike giving up cigarettes, overeating, drinking or some other habitual comfort, it turns out that I didn’t really miss the inner critic much at all. In fact as she fell quiet, I enjoyed the space of the unknown and suddenly was more curious about everything.
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