Bengermino was anxious so often, he started worrying about his own health. He lost thirty-four pounds from worry and exhaustion. He worried he might be a physical wreck when he went home after the war. He cried when he was alone. “There was a period soon after the Battle of the Bulge started,” he said, “that I gave up hope of ever being a normal human being again.”
He eventually ended up in the Army dispensary. The doctor examined Ted and concluded his problem was mental. “Ted,” he said, “I want you to think of your life as an hourglass…”
The doctor explained the basic truth: We all want to do more in a day than can be done. But we’ve got to take the tasks one at a time. If we don’t, it would be like trying to force the grains of sand through the narrow part of the hourglass. We would break under the strain.
The advice of the doctor was Ted’s turning point. He often said to himself, “One grain of sand at a time…One task at a time.” That became his slotra. He practiced thinking it. And he began to recover.
After the war, working for a printing company, he sometimes felt pressure and he became anxious and tense. The slotra would come into his mind, “One grain of sand at a time. One task at a time.”
“By repeating those words to myself over and over,” he said, “I accomplished my tasks in a more efficient manner and I did my work without the confused and jumbled feeling that had almost wrecked me on the battlefield.”
When you want to make a change in your life, remember that the key is remembering to think something specific at specific times. To ingrain a thought, make a slotra and repeat it. It’s the power tool for change.
Miki has been shy her whole life. She feels anxious around people, especially when she feels she’s being watched or judged. She feels strongly compelled to make sure people don’t disapprove of her. She tries to please everybody and in doing so, she limits her self-expression. She doesn’t feel free to be herself. She feels she must make sure everybody is pleased with her.
One day she realizes it’s okay if every person is not a hundred percent pleased with her. In fact, it’s impossible. She can’t please everybody. And she’s no longer willing to sacrifice her own integrity and honesty to make shallow people more comfortable.
That’s a great insight. Will it make any difference? It could. But tomorrow, when Miki is talking to her father, the old patterns will be there very strongly. She may forget all about her insight.
There is one technique that can preserve her insight: She will need to remind herself. Not by writing it in a journal that she may not read until three years from now. Not by thinking about it once or twice. But by taking on the task of reminding herself like it is important. How can she remind herself in a way that she cannot ignore or overlook?
This is our task also. We have insights all the time. Will they make any difference? It depends on how successfully we remind ourselves. Of course, you have to be selective. Some of the things you learn aren’t worth taking the time to ingrain. But when you find one, take the task seriously and do it wholeheartedly. Don’t let that insight fade away. Make it real. Let it change your life for the better.
Put the insight on your screensaver. Write it on a card and keep it in your pocket. Pull it out and look at it several times a day. Post it on your dashboard, on the refrigerator, on the bathroom mirror. Have it engraved on a pendant and wear it. Record it onto a tape and listen to it while you drive. And I’m not talking about doing one of these, like some sort of gesture. I mean do them all and anything else you can think of. Get serious about remembering your insights!
And here’s a hot tip: Your brain stops looking at stationary things. If Miki put a giant poster on her wall that says: “It’s okay if every person is not a hundred percent pleased with you,” even if the letters are six feet high, within a couple weeks she won’t notice the poster any more. Her brain will get used to seeing it. Her brain already knows what the poster says and will stop registering it.
That means if you post something on your bathroom mirror, you’ll have to move it to another location after a couple days or you will stop noticing it. Or you can ask your spouse to move it for you. Use your ingenuity to come up with novel ways to remind you of the insight.
I remembered to unroll the sleeves the first day I tried, because my decision was fresh in my mind. But then for three days I forgot. Then I reminded myself, and started concentrating on reminding myself, and did it for two days. Then I forgot for a few more. Eventually I formed a new habit. Now I’ve unrolled those shirtsleeves so many times, it would be difficult to remember to leave them rolled up.
You know how it is. There are lots of things we do automatically like that. We’ve done them so many times, the sequence of movements doesn’t require our attention, so our attention goes to other things while we do it.
For most people, driving a car is like that, which is amazing because driving a car is a complex activity, which anyone first learning to drive is painfully aware of. You have to pay attention to the road, other cars, signs, turns, etc., and move the steering wheel and foot-pedals in response to what you see. There’s a lot going on. A lot to remember.
But after driving for a few years, most people can do it all without really paying attention. When something unusual happens, you “wake up” and put your attention on the road, almost as if you took over the manual control of a car driving on “automatic pilot.”
If driving conditions are normal, an experienced driver can engage in a conversation with a passenger while the automatic pilot watches and responds to the driving situation. Amazing!
That amazing level of automatic behavior was created just by doing something many times.
But there are some things you’ve done even more often than driving, like tying your shoes. And thinking.
Have you ever seen a child learn to tie his shoes? You’ve forgotten what a complex task it is. You’ve done it thousands of times. If you tried to tie your shoes a different way now, you’d have a hard time. Each one of your movements is a cue or a trigger for the next movement in the sequence, and each has been linked together again and again. It’s a habit. It happens automatically. And when you’re doing it, you don’t really pay attention to the task. If you tried doing it differently you would have to work on it and it wouldn’t be easy.
It’s the same way with your thoughts. You’ve had some sequences of thoughts thousands of times, often triggered by the same or similar events.
For example, when someone you love has an unhappy look on her/his face, it triggers a sequence of thoughts. You’ve gone through the sequence of thoughts so many times, you aren’t even aware of them any more. All you know is the end result: You feel bad. You may have gone through that same sequence of thoughts since you first began to think.
When you were a child and your parents gave you that look, you first formed your sequence of thoughts, however primitive they were back then. Those thought-patterns may have been the first complex thoughts you ever had. And if you’ve never stopped and changed those patterns, you’ve been going through the same patterns over and over almost your entire life, having the same feelings in response to those same facial expressions.
Then I come along and tell you to pay attention to what you’re thinking. But by the time you feel a negative emotion, you’ve already gone through the sequence of thoughts that got you there. And you did it so quickly, you didn’t even know you were thinking. I had a hard enough time becoming aware enough to remember to unroll my shirtsleeves. It’s far more difficult to become aware of your thinking when you feel bad.
But while it’s true your habits can get you into trouble sometimes, habits are also tremendously useful. Habits are not the enemy. Habits are how you hold onto patterns, useful or not. If you weren’t able to form habits, life would be much more difficult.
The fact that you can form habits and that those habits are resistant to change is good because when you have a useful sequence of thoughts or actions, you won't have to try to remember every time. You can relax and put your attention on other things.
Because habits are hard to break, you can gain something. It’s like a ratchet. It allows you to move forward, but prevents you from slipping back. So you can get somewhere. You can improve.
The only catch is when you need to change a habit that already exists.
BLAZING A NEW PATH
A habit or thought pattern is like a well-worn path through a large meadow. If you’re going to cross this meadow, the easiest way to do it is by following the path.
But let’s say the path takes you to a swamp, and that’s not where you want to go anymore. There are berry bushes in a corner of the meadow, and that’s what you want.
The only problem is, there is no path to the berry bushes and the grass in the meadow is four feet high and hard to walk through.
Obviously, the thing you need to do is to make a new path. It will be hard. It will be a lot harder than going down the well-worn path to the swamp. But if you want to form a new path, that’s what you need to do.
You can start your new path anywhere along the old path — as long as you eventually aim toward the berry bushes.
Your brain is very close to that analogy. When you learn something new, it forms a pattern of paths between your brain cells. The more times the same thing goes over the same path, the stronger the signal gets, and the more likely it will fire next time.
For instance, when you first learn someone’s name, it’s a new pathway in your brain: You’re connecting this person’s face with the name David. The path is weak: You’ve only walked to the berry bushes once. When someone asks you what his name is, you have to struggle to remember.
But after awhile, by connecting David’s face with his name over and over, the path through your brain becomes well-worn. It’s easy for your brain to go down that particular path. It feels like there is no other way to go. Someone asks you, “What’s his name?” and automatically you say, “David.”
In the meadow, let’s say you’ve walked to the berry bushes a couple of times. When you begin down the original path again, you come to a fork in the path: there’s a well-worn path that leads to a swamp, and there’s another one — rough and difficult to walk on, but visible — that leads to berry bushes.
What happens when you choose the berry bush path every time you come to the fork? It becomes easier and easier to walk down. And what happens to the other path? It grows over and becomes more and more difficult to walk down. A new habit is forming and at some point it will hold without effort. It will become automatic.
For example: Once upon a time, I found it difficult to sit at my computer and write while Klassy, my wife, was in the room. I felt I was being rude. So I did most of my writing late at night after she went to bed, and then slept late.
But I didn’t like sleeping away so much of the daylight. I tried to write in the morning, but I let her interrupt me. I felt bad when I told her not to interrupt. She didn’t have a problem with it, but while I was writing, I felt bad. It felt as if she must resent me. It was really stupid, but somehow I had this habit of thinking. It was a sequence of thoughts. Klassy had no problem with it. It was all in my head.
I knew my life would work better if I wrote in the daytime while Klassy was around. The first time I tried it, I was distracted by feelings of guilt. So I asked myself what I was thinking. My answer: “She resents me. She wants to talk to me but feels shut out. Her feelings are hurt.”
I talked some sense into myself: “She already told me she doesn’t resent me.” And I kept writing. Every time the thoughts came up, I argued with them again. Now they don’t come up any more. And I am writing during the day and sleeping at night. It worked quickly because I had several opportunities every day to practice.
OPPORTUNITIES TO PRACTICE
I’m sure you’ve tried to change a habit many times — an eating habit, exercise, the way you communicate, whatever — and found it difficult. Do you know what made it difficult? It wasn’t because you didn’t really want to. It wasn’t because you didn’t try or weren’t sincere. It wasn’t because you “lacked discipline.” It was because the opportunities to practice were too far apart. For the love of all that is holy, you must remember this!
Your brain and the meadow work in the same way: If you came by one day and struggled your way across the meadow to the berry bushes and then came back a month later, what happened to the path to the berry bushes? It’s gone. It has grown over.
In the same way, when you have an insight — and you know it’s a good insight and will change your life — and then it comes to nothing, it’s because too much time has gone by between the moment of insight and the next opportunity to use that insight. When the opportunity finally came, the pathway in your brain was gone.
One insight will usually not be enough: It’s only one walk through the meadow. It’s a single pass through a new pattern in your brain.
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.
Another good way to establish a new pattern is to create opportunities to practice. Don't wait for natural opportunities to happen. Often you can’t do it in real life. If you’re trying to change the way you react when your spouse gets mad at you, for example, you probably don’t want to make your spouse mad at you every day for three weeks so you can lay down a new pattern in your brain. That would be too rough on everyone. But you can practice in your head, and it’ll still form a new pattern in your brain.
The fastest way to learn someone’s name is to use her name a lot and repeat it in your mind the first time you meet her. Every time you say her name to yourself while looking at her face, you’re strengthening that pathway in your brain. Saying it to yourself and visualizing her face works as well as saying it out loud while looking at her face. Mental rehearsal lays down patterns in the brain and nervous system just as well as real-live practice.
Have you read about the now famous experiments with basketball players? One group practiced making shots out on the court. Another group practiced making shots in their minds. The ones who mentally rehearsed improved nearly as much as those who practiced in reality. The experiment has been repeated with other tasks with the same results. Making a new pathway in your brain does not require reality. Imagination can do it.
When you try to form a new mental habit with any of the ideas in this book, make sure you practice often enough to form a new pathway. Those opportunities to practice must be close together.
If you’re dealing with something that happens every day, it won’t be a problem. But if the opportunity to use the new pattern is spaced further apart, then practice it mentally: Imagine situations that might happen or have already happened, and walk yourself through the new pattern several times. Do it again the next day, several times.
Keep this up until you have a real-live opportunity, and if you go down the new pathway automatically several times, you don’t need to practice anymore.
That’s how to make new paths in your life.
I want to emphasize that when you practice in your mind, it’s important to start before the veer-off point. That’s the crucial place. The patterns you already have go right by that place without stopping. So the most important part of the path to work on is the point of departure from the old pattern.
What’s going to remind you to take a new direction? Practice that, and go through the rest of the new path. Follow it all the way to the berry bushes. Try to never go down the old path again. Let it grow over and disappear.
This is the nuts and bolts of how to make your insights stick. This is how to make a change and hold it. This is how to form new habits. Go over the path enough to make a solid pathway.
One important principle is to focus on one thing at a time. Find one insight that will make a big difference, and focus on that. Until you have something specific to work on, it is very difficult to get anywhere. Work on one thing and make significant gain on it. Then go to the next thing.
Read the next chapter: The Slotrology Of Motivation And Focus
This article was excerpted from the book, Slotralogy: How to Change Your Habits of Thought.