A trim tab is a little rudder on the end of a big rudder. You can move the little rudder (the trim tab) and it moves the big rudder, which moves the ship. The trim tab needs only a little energy and it can move the entire ship!
There's a trim tab of your mind, too. In the larger sense, on the scale of the big rudder in this analogy, is your attention. You can put your attention on different things and it will give you a different experience. Having a nice meal with your family, you can allow yourself to enjoy the moment, put your attention on the good food and the pleasure of sharing it with people you love, or you can put your attention on something bad that happened yesterday or something bad that might happen tomorrow.
The objective circumstances haven't changed at all, but you'll have an entirely different experience depending on where you put your attention. The quality of your life at any given moment depends on what you have your attention on.
The problem is, you don't have complete control of your attention, do you? You don't try to worry; you try not to worry and you still worry. Or get angry. Or remember depressing events, or whatever. Your mind seems to have a mind of its own and thinks what it wants to, at least some of the time. It seems very clear that you don't have control of your own mind.
But that isn't true. You are potentially capable of controlling your mind. You can potentially control your attention. And if you did, you would control the quality of your life. But just because you are potentially capable doesn't mean you know how. You are potentially capable of picking a lock, but that doesn't mean you know how. And in a sense, if you don't know how, it doesn't really matter if you're potentially capable.
I'm going to tell you how you can control your attention and thus control the quality of your life. It is very simple. It's like a magic trick. It seems very mysterious and amazing until you see how it's done and then it's no big deal. I'm going to tell you what the trim tab of your life is. Are you ready?
The way you control your mind, the way to control your attention and with it the quality of your life is by asking questions.
Asking questions are the trim tab. With very little effort, they can move your attention, and where you put your attention alters the course of your life.
Have you ever tried to "think positive?" How did you do it? Probably by telling yourself things. You find yourself worried about something and you tell yourself, "It's going to turn out okay." Or you're going to go in for an interview and you try to pump yourself up, "Come on, Adam, you're going to go in there and do great!" It sometimes doesn't work very well, does it? Telling yourself things is not very effective much of the time. It's like trying to turn a ship by pushing on its side: It takes a lot of effort for a little result. Sure, it works a little bit. But not very much and it often feels like you're lying to yourself, which in itself is an unpleasant experience.
Asking questions is much easier. You don't have to lie to yourself. You don't have to pump up anything. You don't have to use force. It is easy and gentle. Your mind, your thoughts, your attention — they all naturally and easily follow the direction of a question.
I have heard a well-paid speaker say you can't control your thinking. And he proved it. He said, "If you think you can control your thinking, then stop thinking. Right now. Go ahead. Stop thinking. You can't." That's a pretty good argument if you don't really look at it too deeply. No, you can't stop thinking. Your mind thinks. That's what it does. Just like your lungs breathe. That's what they do. You can't stop breathing either (not for very long anyway), but that doesn't mean you can't control your breathing. You can breathe shallow and slow or hyperventilate. It's up to you. You can control it. But if you don't do anything about it, your lungs will continue breathing anyway. You might not like the way your lungs are breathing, and if that's the case, you can simply take over the controls and start breathing any way you want. And as soon as you stop paying attention, your lungs go on "automatic pilot."
The same is true of your thoughts. When your "automatic pilot" — that is, your normal, habitual pattern of thinking — makes you miserable, that is the time to take over, to sit in the pilot seat and take control. You steer your mind by asking questions. And soon as you get your mind going where you want, you can leave it alone and it will go back on automatic pilot again.
There are a few important points to know about asking yourself questions because which questions you ask make a big difference. If you ask yourself things like, "What should I be afraid of? What might go wrong? Why am I such a loser? Why is life so miserable?" those questions will direct your mind all right — but in the wrong direction.
The first question to ask is always something about your purpose. What is your goal here? Let's say you find yourself feeling down. You realize you are experiencing dysphoria (negative emotion), and you want to get out of it. Your automatic pilot is taking you to hell and you don't want to go that way. The way to get hold of the steering column is by asking a question. Make your first question about your purpose: "What is my goal here?" or "What do I want?" This is not to figure out why you are thinking depressed thoughts. You are asking yourself what you desire. What do you intend to accomplish right now? Probably your answer is, "I want to feel better." Or, "I want to concentrate on my work," or, "I want my spouse and I to have a good time."
Your next questions should be to bring about that purpose. And this is not a way to avoid important issues in your life. If you are depressed because you haven't done your taxes, you can feel better if you decide when you will sit down and do them. Write that down if you have to. Then you can turn your attention to other things.
Let's say you want you and your spouse to have a good time. Next question is something about that: "What can I do in that direction?" You have redirected your mind. You're now thinking along a new line. And it will take you in a different direction.
In the book, Antivirus For Your Mind, the techniques are effective, and guess what? The techniques are based on asking particular questions. When you feel dysphoric, what do you do? First ask yourself, "What am I thinking?"
When you figure that out, then ask yourself, "Is that necessarily the case? Am I completely sure it's true? Is there any evidence for it? Is it logical? Am I completely justified in making that assumption?" And if you can't determine whether it's true or not, you again ask yourself a question: "Is it practical to think? Or is it counterproductive?"
The way to take over the direction of your mind is by asking questions. Your mind is compelled to find answers to the questions you sincerely ask. So make sure you are asking good questions. Use your ability to ask questions to direct your attention in ways that serve your outcome.
When you're trying to go to sleep, for example, you don't want to have your thoughts on frightening things: It doesn't serve the outcome you want (to fall asleep). You want your attention to be on feelings of comfort and relaxation, so ask questions to direct your attention: "What is the most comfortable part of my body right now? Can I shift to another position and become even more relaxed and comfortable? Is there a tense muscle somewhere in my body? (And when you find it): How relaxed can I make that muscle? Would I feel better if I took a deep breath?"
Hey! Wake up! Are you yawning? Did those questions direct your mind into a sleepy state? But what is your purpose here? To go to sleep? If so, shut off your computer and go to bed.
But if you want to be wide awake and learn something, ask yourself right now, "What can I do to become more alert?" Ponder the possibilities. Sit up straight? Change your breathing? Turn the lights on brighter? Sometimes it even works to simply imagine the lights are brighter. How about this one: Read a little faster and make the voice in your head talk faster in a slightly higher pitch with more emphasis and urgency. Feeling more alert now? Good.
My point is: Direct your attention in a way that serves your purpose. Ask questions (that's the trim tab) to direct your attention (that's the rudder) to change the quality of your life (that's the ship). It starts with a question.
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.