It's relatively easy to find good ideas to change your life. It's not too difficult to gain insights about what you need to do. Where it starts to get hard is translating those ideas and insights into actual changes in your life. You want those ideas and insights to make a real difference to you. Good ideas aren't enough. Insights alone don't cut it. You want real changes.
I'm right there with you.
So let's look at how real changes are be made.
Changes always start with thoughts. Not that thoughts can do much by themselves, but no changes can be made without them. When you think differently, you behave differently and feel differently, and when you behave and feel differently, you get different results in your life.
I know it's possible to behave differently in order to change the way you feel and think, but to behave differently, you first have to think it's a good idea to do so. So no matter how you look at it, to change the results you get in your life, you must first change the way you think.
Fair enough, you say, but how?
Let's ask the experts. Who are the real experts in changing the way people think? Who gets paid the most to change what people are thinking? Where is the biggest payoff for changing people's thought-habits? Who pays psychologists to find out exactly what needs to be done to change thoughts?
Advertisers and politicians, of course. These are people with a huge stake in being able to effectively alter people's thought patterns. In advertising and politics, it is survival-of-the-fittest: Those who are most effective at changing people's thinking habits are the only ones who can compete successfully and stay in business. The question is, how do they do it?
Since early in this century, observers have pointed out that political propaganda campaigns tend to use short, easy-to-remember phrases that encapsulate their message. These brief phrases are then repeated over and over again until their meaning becomes part of the thinking-habits of the population.
Even some presidential campaigns earlier in the last century are still memorable: "I like Ike" was Dwight D. Eisenhower's slogan. Woodrow Wilson used the slogan, "He kept us out of the war" to get reelected in 1916. Then after the strain of World War I, Warren G. Harding's slogan, "Back to normalcy," won him the presidency. A campaign slogan from as far back as 1840 is familiar: "Tippecanoe and Tyler too," a campaign for William Henry Harrison and John Tyler.
World War II can be seen, at least from one limited perspective, as a battle of political slogans. Hitler used several. They were repeated in his speeches and painted on walls and posters and huge signs. "One Reich, one Folk, one Leader!" This is short, pithy, easy to remember, and in this case, it has a certain primal rhythm. Here's another he used: "Today we own Germany, tomorrow the entire world!" These slogans were repeated vehemently for years and had a dramatic effect on the minds of Germans.
Mussolini used radio to a great effect. "Believe, obey, fight!" was one of the most repeated slogans. Another was: "Italy must have its great place in the world." These slogans were repeated in messages broadcast all over Italy.
Many different repeated ideas played an important role in World War II. From before they could talk, Japanese children were told again and again that the Japanese people were direct descendants of Heaven and it was their destiny to rule the world.
Of course, Americans had their slogans too, chief among them (in case you weren't alive at the time) was "Win the war unconditionally." Once America was provoked into the war, there was a national campaign to promote participation and cooperation in the war effort — certain resources needed to be conserved, like gas and steel and rubber, and money needed to be raised to fund the war. People were told that Japan and Germany had to be defeated unconditionally. They had to be not just defeated, but defeated soundly, completely — unconditionally. That was a key slogan. It focused attention. It was short, easy to remember, and packed an emotional punch besides. It was very motivating.
Advertisers use exactly the same tool politicians use. It's the real thing. Just do it. When you care enough to send the very best. Tastes great, less filling. The breakfast of champions. Don't leave home without it. You've come a long way baby. You deserve a break today. Takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Fly the friendly skies. Everything you always wanted in a beer — and less. Sometimes you feel like a nut. It's everywhere you want to be. And so on — short, easy to remember slogans repeated over and over and over again. Sometimes the same slogan is used for decades.
For a very long time, politicians and advertisers have been refining and improving their methods. Any method that didn't succeed disappeared from the scene: The campaigner didn't get elected, the product wasn't purchased. And after all this trial and error, both politicians and advertisers have come to rely on the same simple method. Why?
Because short, pithy phrases, repeated over and over, take advantage of the way the human brain works naturally. They focus the mind, simplify the issue, and stimulate action.
Our minds don't handle complicated formulas or doctrines very well unless we concentrate our attention. It's not that we're stupid — we're the most successful species on this planet — but all brains have their limitations.
Complicated ideas require our full attention, which is fine when we're reading in a quiet room or listening to a lecture. But when it comes down to our daily experience — when we're late for work, the kids are crying, and urgent tasks are taking our attention — we find it difficult to concentrate our minds on any concept that is even slightly complex.
So even if only two days ago the book you were reading really made sense, today in the midst of the hustle and bustle, the ideas seem distant and ineffective. You can read the most beautiful philosophy, you can answer all the Big Questions of Life during the evening, and the very next day you're right back in the soup.
And again, it's not because there's something wrong with you, but simply because most of the time, you need to focus on what you're doing. You don't have much extra attention to devote to philosophizing about it. That's true for everyone: Rich or poor, genius or average, in free countries and in nondemocratic countries. That's just how the human brain is.
It was even true for Benjamin Franklin, a man famed for his ability to improve himself. In his autobiography, he wrote about his frustration at changing himself. "While my Attention was taken up in guarding against one Fault," he wrote, "I was often surpris'd by another. Habit took the Advantage of Inattention."
When an advertising company repeats the same jingle in every ad they've ever created, and shows the same ad 15 times a night, it may be blatantly manipulative, not to mention annoying, but it works, and it works better than anything else.
When a ruthless dictator uses short phrases to focus ideas and make them easier to act on, it may be catastrophic for an entire generation of people, but the way someone uses a tool doesn't make the tool bad. A hammer can kill a puppy, but it can also be used to build a house. It's just a tool.
The repetition of a slogan is also a tool — a very powerful and effective mental tool. And it's a tool you can use to produce a lot of good for yourself. You can take advantage of the way your mind works.
You can make your own propaganda campaign in your head; you can alter your thoughts and change your actions for the better.
The reason it's so difficult to change something in your life is that to change the way you feel or behave, you first have to change the way you think, and your thinking is ingrained and habitual.
You think the way you think because those ways of thinking were repeated in some form or another, either by yourself or others, enough times that the thought-pattern became a habit.
It wasn't only your parents and teachers who repeated the ideas that created your thought-patterns; you did it too. There are some thoughts you have thought many times in your life, and that repetition has created solid mental habits.
When I was in first grade, my family had recently moved to a different town in the middle of the school year, and my first day at class, we had "show and tell." I was fairly upset by the move, and didn't have anything to show, and I felt embarrassed at being the new kid, so I said, "I don't have anything to talk about."
And every week after that, I "forgot" to bring something to show. I felt self-conscious because I hadn't shared yet, and everyone else had, and every week that went by made it even worse, because everyone began to expect me to have nothing to say. Whenever I thought of getting up in front of the class, my thought was, "I can't do it." I repeated that thought to myself many times that year.
In fourth grade, my English teacher wanted us to memorize and recite a poem in front of the class every week. Whenever I thought about it, (and that was often) I thought, "I can't do it." This short phrase went through my head again and again throughout my life until about fifteen years ago, when I finally realized what had happened.
I took the Dale Carnegie course in public speaking. The course was designed to get you up in front of a group gradually. The reason that worked so well is that no matter what we were asked to do, I thought, "I can do that."
The first assignment was to sit on the edge of a long table with four other people and answer the instructor's questions about our names, where we lived, and what we did for a living. Of course, I could do that.
Each speaking assignment gradually moved toward eventually standing up there by myself giving a speech, but it was so gradual, the whole way along I kept thinking, "I can do that."
One fine day I was up there speaking and having a great time. I had formed a new thought-habit. "I can do that" replaced "I can't do it."
As a child, whenever you first think a thought, it sets a precedent. You've created the beginning of a pattern. As time goes on, you experience similar circumstances, and the thought tends to repeat itself. Each time it does, the thought becomes more and more likely the next time, until you are an adult with a bunch of thought-habits, and some don't work because they were invented by a little kid who didn't know much about the world.
Now you're an adult. And sometimes you get an insight about how you can change for the better.
But it's harder than you expected, isn't it? Why?
Because your insight is just one little thought against the accumulated force of your already-existing habit patterns.
Repetition cuts a groove like a trough in the dirt. Thoughts flow down that groove much easier than they do in other directions, just like water flows down a trough much better than on flat ground.
It physically works very much like that. Researchers like William Calvin, PhD, find that when a new stimulus is introduced into the brain, it forms a pattern of connections between certain brain cells. And once a pattern has been made, it becomes a little easier for the same pattern to fire again. The more often the pattern gets fired, the easier it is to set off the pattern again. The connections get stronger and stronger the more they are stimulated that way.
Patterns that have been repeated many times become dominant and out-compete with other (less-repeated) thoughts.
So you've got some dominant patterns already formed. Okay. And some of them produce effects you don't like. You want to cause a change in your life. But a lot of the thought-patterns you have are ones you didn't choose, or you chose when you were too young to make a good choice. Okay. That's where you are right now. You can't do anything about the past, but you can take over the process at this point. You can start creating your own patterns. You can start making thought habits you want.
You can do it with repetition.
You can do it by taking your insights and encapsulating them into short, easy-to-remember phrases and then repeating those phrases again and again until the new thought becomes a part of your thinking.
We're down to the practical nitty-gritty. This is where the rubber meets the road. Pick one thing you want to change. Create a thought you want to get in the habit of thinking. Write the principle on a card and carry the card with you to remind you to repeat it to yourself — literally practicing thinking this new thought.
Try to say it to yourself several times every day. Give advice to your children about it. Say your new thought out loud in conversations. Let it become the theme and motto of your life. Imbue your life with it.
Your new thought will begin to come into your mind on its own and when you need it. Do not stop practicing at this point. That's one of the biggest mistakes people make, and the main reason real change seems so difficult. You've got only a bare toe-hold on the new thought. Keep practicing until your behavior has changed to what you want.
Eventually your new thought will become "just the way you think." You couldn't imagine thinking any other way. At that point, you have accomplished a real change. You have translated a good idea into a real change in your life.
Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy and co-author with Klassy Evans of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.