One morning, Hanna was criticized by her boss. She spent the next hour thinking about it, defending herself in her head, and feeling upset. Her mind wasn't fully on her work, which made her less effective. Hanna's experience demonstrates that a lack of mental discipline can interfere with your work and make you feel unnecessarily bad.
After five minutes of fuming, Hanna could have said to herself, "All this stewing is getting me nowhere. Why don't I make a little note to remind me to think about this when I get home? After thinking about it, I'll decide whether there is something I ought to do about it. In the meantime, what is my purpose here at work? What should I be accomplishing? How can I maximize my output?" Hanna could direct her thoughts deliberately. But that kind of mental control is relatively rare, and she didn't have it. And she paid the price of her lack of discipline: Unnecessary suffering and ineffectiveness.
The degree of discipline you have over your own thoughts will determine how successful and happy you are. Controlling your own mind is somewhat like disciplining a child. You don't need to use excessive force. You only have to lead firmly, and you'll get cooperation.
You formed many of your mental habits while you were quite young, and some of these ways of thinking are counter-productive and self-defeating. But you aren't stuck with them. With a modest amount of effort, you can form new habits. The good news is that even during the effort, your mood will change for the better. Your ability to control your environment will also improve right away — as soon as you change the direction of your thinking.
When you find yourself experiencing negative feelings or acting against your own best interest, stop and take notice of your thinking. You will usually find you're thinking childishly, and that your thinking is somewhat compulsive and automatic. At that point, deliberately talk sense to yourself and direct your attention to a saner, more productive line of thought.
You don't have to be a victim of your own mind. You don't have to be a victim of your past habits of thinking. You can take control and deliberately direct your thoughts. This will changing your feelings, which will change your effectiveness in the world.
Many people don't control their own minds because the possibility of doing so has simply never occurred to them. Others have tried and failed and given up. But it's like any other skill: It takes work. When you learn to play the piano, the first few times you sit down to play, you will "fail." It doesn't really matter in the long run. Just keep at it.
Keep making the effort and you'll gain more control over your thoughts. Each time you try, you'll gain a little more mental discipline. It may prove to be the best investment of effort you've ever made.
Don't try to control your mind all the time. Only do it when you don't like the way you feel. First, notice what you're thinking, and then direct your thoughts in a different direction (or argue forcefully with the thoughts that are bringing you down). When you're feeling fine, there's no point in controlling your mind. When a child is playing happily or otherwise engaged in constructive action, it is usually counter-productive to interfere or overtake control. Let it be. A lot of creativity happens when the mind is left on its own. However, when unhappiness hits, grab the steering wheel.
Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy: How to Change Your Habits of Thought, Direct Your Mind, and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.