In a world like this, it seems awfully foolish to repeat anything — to read the same book twice, or think the same thought over and over again. It seems foolish, but it is very much not foolish. Repetition generates power in many different ways and in many different contexts. Let me go over a few to give you an idea.
Obviously the first place to start is with slogans. Repetition is what makes slogans work. (See the chapter from Self-Help Stuff That Works called Personal Propaganda.) Repetition goes over and over the same pathway in your brain, making that pathway stronger and easier to go down again, and that strength and easiness is exactly what makes the slogan worth anything. It allows that thought to be very easy to think, and if it's the right thought for the right context, it can do a lot of good. The good was created with repetition.
The most lasting way to memorize something is a seemingly clumsy, time-consuming, and old fashioned way: Go over it again and again. If it's a poem, for example, it is reading it aloud again and again. Go over it enough times, and you will have it memorized. And it will be memorized so well that forty years from now you'll be able to recite it by heart. This is the power of rote learning. Repetition generated the power to put something in the mind and have it stick. The power to take something as ephemeral as a thought and make it solid in the mind.
If you were one of the many children who recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag every morning at school, you have with you right now a good example of how solid repetition can make something in an organic organ as soft and alive as the human brain. You can stand up right now, put your hand over your heart and say the whole thing start to finish without batting an eye, and chances are good you haven't said it or even heard it for a long time — ten, twenty, maybe even fifty years. But there it is, complete.
It would seem really old fashioned to walk by a fifth grade classroom and hear them all chanting aloud the rules of grammar, because that was done in the olden days before mimeographed copies could be handed out. But those rules and facts that were repeated over and over out loud were indelibly printed on the mind of those students.
Unless you're a writer, you probably know very few rules of grammar by heart. I am a writer and I hardly remember any of them.
We've gotten away from that sort of learning in our schools, and for some good reasons. But it has its uses for some things, and perhaps we've gotten too far away from it.
One of the arguments against rote learning is that it stifles creativity. But that isn't true. Perhaps nothing but rote learning would stifle creativity, but memorizing some things by repeating them over and over doesn't keep the mind from being creative.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention and Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, and a researcher in the field for over thirty years, wrote,
It is a mistake to assume that creativity and rote learning are incompatible. Some of the most original scientists, for instance, have been known to have memorized music, poetry, or historical information extensively.
There's something very calming about well-memorized words. It is a place to come home to, a stable place in a sometimes unstable world of experience. "A person who can remember stories," wrote Mihaly,
poems, lyrics of songs, baseball statistics, chemical formulas, mathematical operations, historical dates, biblical passages, and wise quotations has many advantages over one who has not cultivated such a skill. The consciousness of such a person is independent of the order that may or may not be provided by the environment. She can always amuse herself, and find meaning in the contents of her mind. While others need external stimulation — television, reading, conversation, or drugs — to keep their minds from drifting into chaos, the person whose memory is stocked with patterns of information is autonomous and self-contained.
Benjamin Franklin wrote in his essay Way to Wealth, "To encourage the Practice of remembering and repeating those wise Sentences, I have sometimes quoted myself with great Gravity."
Of course, he said that tongue-in-cheek, but he did create a lot of aphorisms and they did get repeated often, and became like proverbs and rules people lived by, and some still do to this day. Many of his aphorisms are well known. He made many of them rhyme or made them especially pithy and memorable. Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise; God helps them that help themselves; Diligence is the mother of good luck; Constant dropping wears away stones; Little strokes fell great oaks, and so on and on. He was fond of making sayings and repeating them often in his writings. He repeated himself so much that others got the ideas stuck in their brains, and they have become a part of our culture.
repetition and focus
The first definition for "slogan" in Webster's New Collegiate is "A war cry or rallying cry esp. of a Scottish clan." When you need to bolster your courage, when you need to get off your rump and go to work, when you need to overcome your own inertia or nervousness, repeat the following slogan to yourself over and over, making the intensity and urgency of your tone rise each time you say it until it becomes like a war cry — focus creates power! Focus creates power! Focus creates power! You'll be up and moving!
In a sense, this is the principle that makes slogans work. By repeating the slogan over and over, you allow your mind to focus, like the sun through a magnifying glass. The sun could shine all day without changing a piece of paper lying on the ground. But use a magnifying glass to focus a lot of light on one little spot, and you'll start to see something happen.
It's like reading a book. You read and get a lot of good ideas, and then get up and go on about your day, and the ideas never had a sharp enough focus onto a single point to make a difference. But take one of those ideas and repeat it and think about it and tell your friends about it, and you'll start to see something happen. Repetition creates focus. Focus creates power.
In experiments on Yoga practitioners, researchers found that their intense focus during meditation created a specific power: the power to maintain an alpha brain rhythm even during annoying stimulation. During meditation, the yogis' brain waves slowed down and became rhythmical. It is known as an alpha state, and the state cannot be achieved by force. You can't make yourself, by any effort, create that state, because the state of forcing or "making yourself" puts your brain in a beta state, a normal waking state characterized by a faster and more chaotic electrical pulse.
Anyway, once the yogis got into that alpha state, the researchers tried to see what they could do that might pop them out of alpha and into beta. They tried strong light, a loud banging noise, touching them with something hot, ringing a tuning fork, and sticking their hands into ice-cold water for forty-five minutes. Something they didn't try was smacking them on the back of the head with a baseball bat. I think it would've worked, but I wasn't there at the time and they didn't ask me for my ideas. But anyway, the things they tried didn't work at all. The yogis stayed in alpha, and their alpha rhythm didn't respond at all to the annoying stimuli. By contrast, normal people sitting there who had relaxed enough to be in alpha would immediately come out of it from any of those stimuli.
What were the yogis doing? They were simply repeating some stimulus over and over. Either saying a word over and over to themselves, or holding a picture in their mind's eye and when they drifted away into other thoughts, bringing it back to that picture or word. Focus is what created the power.
The ability to stay with what you're doing without getting your attention scattered by non-relevant stimuli is a vital component to your general effectiveness in life. Csikszentmihalyi wrote, "If the rock-climber were to worry about his job or his love life as he is hanging by his fingertips over the void, he would soon fall. The musician would hit a wrong note, the chess player would lose the game."
If you can set a goal and stay with it through all the normal distractions of our modern world day after day until you reach your goal, you are in possession of a power to be reckoned with!
Focus creates power. Even my repetition of this principle in this article is creating a certain amount of focus.
But repetition is boring, isn't it? Let's look at that for a moment. Boredom means what? It's an unpleasant state characterized by a wandering mind. Your mind wanders, which is the opposite of focus. When you're repeating your slogans, and your mind wanders, you can handle it in one of two ways. I don't know which way is best. Either you can wait until you notice your mind has wandered, and then gently bring it back to repeating the slogan again. That's the peaceful way. If you have too much stress in your life, that's the one I recommend. If you want more motivation and energy in your life, I recommend the other way: say your slogan fast enough and intensely enough that your mind doesn't wander very much.
The repetition of the slogan focuses your mental powers on one idea and forms a well-worn path through your dendrites. The branches of connections through your brain cells form a pattern for each thought. And the more times that pattern gets activated, the easier it is for that thought to form in the future. It's like making a path in a meadow. Walk across the grass once, and you don't make much of a mark. That's the equivalent to having an insight. Have you ever had the frustrating experience of knowing exactly what you need to do to solve a problem or reach a goal only to have time go by without anything coming of your great insight? Well, there was probably nothing wrong with the insight itself. It was just one walk through the meadow.
If you then tell that thought to someone else, it's another walk through the meadow. If you then write it on a card and post it on your bathroom mirror, that's another walk. If you read it the next morning, that's another walk. And after enough of these walks, a faint path begins to form, and the more times you go down that path, the clearer it becomes, and analogously, the more you think that insight, the easier it becomes to think it, the more natural it becomes until eventually it becomes "second nature." Eventually when you look at the field there is only one way to go: There is only one path and all the others have grown over.
Of course a faster way would be to repeat that thought over and over fifty, a hundred, two hundred times a day. It would be like walking back and forth on the meadow two hundred times a day. It doesn't take many days to make that thought very easy to think and come to you naturally. And when thought habits change, behavior and feeling habits change, and when those change, the kinds of results you get change too.
In Ben Franklin's autobiography, he wrote about how he changed himself. He made a list of thirteen virtues he wanted to acquire, and, he wrote:
My Intention being to acquire the Habitude of all these Virtues, I judg'd it would be well not to distract my Attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time, and when I should be Master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on till I should have gone thro' the thirteen...I determined to give a Week's strict Attention to each of the Virtues successively.
His method of concentrating his attention on one at a time worked wonderfully, and through the practice of these virtues became one of the most useful men in America during his lifetime.
The most effective formula for success is: Pick one goal and think about it and work toward it all the time. Make it your Magnificent Obsession. There may be many things you want. As Earl Nightingale suggests, write them all down, but then choose one. Forget about the others for now. Choose one and make it your top priority, your most urgent daily obsession. Do this, and keep it up long enough, and success is practically guaranteed.
Adam Khan is the author of Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot, Principles For Personal Growth, and Slotralogy: How to Change Your Habits of Thought.