Changing the way you think or behave isn't easy. Maybe you've noticed that already. But the reason it is difficult is not that your mind is pigheaded. It is because you're not in the habit of thinking certain things at certain times. Let me be extra clear on this. And please be aware this is a very important point. Change is not difficult because you "subconsciously resist" or because you "really" don't want to change, or because you're lazy, or because you're stubborn. There is a very simple and quite benign reason change is difficult:
YOU'RE NOT IN THE HABIT OF THINKING CERTAIN THINGS AT CERTAIN TIMES.
Habits are very powerful. And they can work for you or against you. True story: A man named Jimmy Jones was in jail in Florida and wanted to escape. He put himself in a trash bag and might have gotten away with it but when they called his name during roll call, habit took over and he answered, "Here," from inside the bag. Habit is powerful. And mental habits are as firmly rooted as any physical habit like responding to role call.
How can you harness the incredible power of habit? Specifically, how can you form the habit of thinking certain things at certain times? How can you make sure you'll remember at the right time?
Answer: Make a slogan and repeat it. That's such a direct solution, I know you might dismiss it as impossibly easy. But it works beautifully.
If you want to remember to listen well to your spouse, make a slogan: Listen well or live in hell. Repeat that slogan to yourself. Make a goal of repeating it, say, ten times a day. Do that for a few weeks and you will form a new habit. Your brain will become accustomed to thinking that thought. The thought will become something you naturally think when you need to. The thought will come to mind easily.
I'm making this sound very easy, and truly it is. But there is a catch: You will get bored and want to move on. When that happens, start thinking of the reasons you really want to do this. Don't try to make yourself feel motivated. Just think of the reasons, and it will naturally motivate you. Then get back to repeating your slogan.
By repeating the slogan over and over — by repeating the exact words you want to think over and over — the thought gets fixed in your mind and highly available. It's not in the back of your mind. It's right up front and easy to access. So you'll remember it more in those key moments, and that will allow your habits to change.
I once had the habit of not sticking with things. I tried to change that habit many times, but never stuck with it long enough to get rid of the habit!
After learning how thinking patterns can be changed, I chose STAY ON TRACK as my slogan. After repeating that phrase to myself many times a day for only a couple of days, whenever I found myself about to give up on something or go off on a tangent that caught my interest, the thought would pop into my mind: Stay on track.
It was so handy to have that phrase come into my mind when I needed it. And every time it came to mind, I heeded it. I got back on track.
Of course, when the thought appeared my mind, I could have ignored it. But I didn't want to ignore it. And you won't either, for the same reason: This is a change you have deliberately chosen. It's something you want, and the slogan has come into your mind at the perfect moment.
This isn't unpleasant. This isn't "forcing" yourself to change. I didn't feel at all bothered when the slogan popped up in my thoughts. My feeling was similar to wanting to remember to buy milk at the store, but forgetting. Then a friend who went to the store with me says, "Remember, you wanted to get some milk." I don't feel harassed. Just the opposite. My response is: "Oh yeah! Thanks for reminding me!"
To make a good slogan, decide what you'd like to go through your head at certain key times. For example, I was about to walk into a radio station to ask if they would interview me. I thought to myself, This is going to be fun! That was my slogan. I had already repeated it to myself many times and it came to mind naturally as I walked up to the door. It relaxed me and made me more effective.
I came up with that slogan by asking myself, "What would I like to go through my mind as I walk into radio stations (or call them)?" I made a list of possible phrases and chose the best one. Then I practiced thinking that phrase — saying it to myself many times a day until it was a natural, comfortable thought that came to mind automatically in those circumstances. This is fairly easy to do.
Some people get lucky and someone does it for them (a parent or a drill sergeant). If you weren't that lucky, you can do it for yourself and design thoughts more closely tailored to what you want.
A slogan you repeat is not an affirmation. It's a statement of fact or purpose (or a question). Make it short, tight, and memorable, because most of the time you're doing something. Not too often do you sit around doing nothing.
Only have one or two you're concentrating on. Create and mold your phrases until they exactly suit you, feel right, and fit you. Write them on cards, have them professionally imprinted or engraved, post them somewhere. Repeat them to yourself, forging them into powerful tools.
GRAINS OF SAND
In World War II, Ted Bengermino was responsible for maintaining records of men killed or missing in action. He often had to take the personal effects of soldiers who had died and send the things to the young men's parents and he worried himself sick that his department might make a mistake. What if they accidentally told the wrong parents their son was dead? He was anxious so often, he started worrying about his own health. He had already 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 that 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 slogan. He practiced thinking it.
After the war, working for a printing company, he sometimes felt pressure and he became anxious and tense. The thought would come to 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 slogan 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? What would you do?
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 screen saver. 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. 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 insight!
And here's a hot tip: Your brain stops looking at stationary things. If you put a giant poster on your 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 you won't notice it any more. Your brain will get used to seeing it. Your 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.
CREATING A SLOGAN
Your slogan can be a statement of fact, an idea, a question, or a clear statement of purpose. The exercise to create the slogan is itself useful — especially when you're creating a statement of purpose slogan. Whatever the task, work out a simple phrase that expresses your purpose. And keep working with it and refining it until you get it down to a simple, clear phrase.
For example, a waiter tries to work it out. "I am supposed to take the order and bring the food and drink." That's only a start. Yes, he's supposed to do those things, but part of his job is his attitude. He could add, "with a good attitude," but it doesn't quite encompass the whole thing, because what about special requests? What about going beyond the call of duty?
He works with it and finally comes up with Help them have a good time. This encompasses everything. It helps them have a good time if he takes their order — and helps even more if he takes their order when they want it taken. And it helps them have a good time if he brings their food and drink to them — especially if he brings it right after it was made. And all the little things he does is part of his purpose, beautifully and simply expressed in the phrase Help them have a good time. And it's a phrase short enough that it could zip through his mind quickly while he's working and while he's got his actual task on his mind too.
And that's why you want it short and sweet. Most tasks require some of your RAM, some of your mental attention, hopefully quite a bit. So if you try to think about your slogan and it is huge and difficult to memorize, your effort to remember your slogan will interfere with what you're trying to do.
Use the statement of purpose as a slogan when you're not doing anything important. Repeat it to yourself often. And then when you're actively engaged in a task, think about it once in awhile and make sure you stay on purpose. It'll make your work more efficient. It'll make you more effective. It'll keep you from being sidetracked.
After repeating your purpose for awhile, the thought will come to you when you need it most. Automatically. When it does, heed it.
"One of the most dangerous forms of human error," wrote Paul Nitze, "is forgetting what one is trying to achieve."
No matter where you are or what you're doing, this is true: The best use of an idle mind is thinking about a purpose. When your mind is cut loose of needing to think about something, it'll tend to eventually think about something unpleasant. There are at least two good reasons for this: First of all negative stuff is more compelling that positive stuff. I mean, how often do you see a crowd gather when a person helps an old lady across the street? But if the old lady gets run over by a bus? Well, then you'd get a crowd.
This is not a criticism of the human race. Not at all. It is not a comment on how low we have slipped. It is nothing like that. We are animals. We have evolved to survive. And part of that is that we have evolved to be acutely aware of danger. Dangerous information turns all our senses on high and compels our attention, even against our will.
Because of that, any worries are more compelling than the thought of something nice that might happen, so as your mind wanders around, it won't stick as often on a nice thought as it will on a scary thought.
But the second reason an aimless mind will gravitate toward negativity is that there are more negative possibilities that positive, so just by the numbers alone, the chances are, even if it was random, that your mind would think about more negative stuff than positive.
What do I mean there are more negative possibilities? Well, think about health, for example. A positive possibility is that you will be in good health, and for that to be, your spleen has to be functioning right, your knees need to be painless, your teeth need to be without pain, and so on. Any one thing wrong and you are not in good health or feeling good. How many negative possibilities are there? As many as the number of things that can go wrong with the human body.
But when you think of good health, it's all one thing, usually. You don't think, "Boy I feel good today. My liver feels good, and my shins feel good. Even my eyelids are doing great!" It's all one thing, and so there's not much to think about, except all the million things that could go wrong.
And another reason your mind will be more likely to think negatively when it's idle is that negative things like pain compel your attention, but positive things usually do not. In other words, when your elbow hurts, you notice it. You can't help it. The pain draws your attention. But when your elbow is feeling fine, what is there to notice? What would alert your attention to your fine-feeling elbow? Chances are your elbows have felt fine all day. But until I mentioned it, did you give even one little thought to your elbows today?
An idle mind is like a warm damp place where unhappy thoughts and feelings, like bacteria, grow and multiply out of control.
How do you stop your mind from being idle? The best use of an idle mind is thinking about a purpose. And if you're actively working on a purpose, there's nothing to worry about, because the purpose and the task at hand will organize your mind and keep your attention too occupied to worry or ruminate.
But when you're not actively working, when you're driving somewhere or waiting in line or taking a shower, or lying in bed waiting for sleep, that's when to start thinking about a purpose of yours. If you have an overriding goal, that's the one to choose. Think about how you're going to get it done. Think about the advantages of accomplishing it. Think about why you want to accomplish it, and think up new reasons.
Think about better and more efficient ways of accomplishing the goal. Ponder the goal. Mull it over purposefully. And if nothing else, use your goal as a slogan and repeat it over and over. This itself, you will notice, brings up new ideas that can help you.
And when you are thinking up good reasons why you want to accomplish this goal, thinking up the advantages you will gain from its accomplishment, make those into slotras. Repeat the advantages to yourself.
You can accomplish things without being motivated: Simply make a promise and make sure you keep it. But it's more fun to accomplish things when you're motivated. And fun is worth a lot.
One of the best things to focus on when you are driving your car or taking a shower and your mind is wandering aimlessly, is why you are doing what you're doing. Why do you want to accomplish your goal? What will it do for you, for your family, for the world at large? And what else?
It seems strange, but sometimes people set a goal for very good reasons, and then get so busy pursuing it and living life they actually forget the reasons. And then the task starts feeling like you're just going through the motions. It feels like you have to do what you're doing. It's not fun any more.
Solution? Keep yourself aware of your motivations. Your motivations are actually more important than the goal itself, because the goal came out of the motivations. The goal is a specific target chosen out of those more general motivations. And if the goal is not doing what you wanted it to do, you change the goal, not the motivation.
In other words, if you want to invent a new kind of car that burns honey because you think it will make less pollution, but it actually pollutes more, but costs less, you don't change your original motivation, you change the goal. You want to build a car that pollutes less. One that burns honey doesn't do it, so you come up with a new goal, and your motivation to do something good for the environment still remains. Motivations are more important than the goal.
So keep yourself reminded of the advantages of your goal, of why you want to achieve it. This'll make it easier to change your tack if you need to, and it'll make the work a lot more enjoyable. And really, bottom line, real enjoyment is the name of the game.
Houdini loved magic tricks from the time he was a boy, and spent a huge portion of his time learning to amaze people. It was tremendously fun for him. As he started to perform, he didn't make much money. It was a difficult business to succeed at. But he eventually did succeed. He had a motivation he could not forget: The vow he made when he was still a young man to his dying father to financially support his mother for the rest of her life.
He worked unbelievably hard to keep that vow. It was a powerful motivation. His mind was on his purpose constantly.
Consider the patience, persistence, and commitment required to learn just one skill: The ability to swallow something only halfway to the stomach and hold it there, and be able to bring it up again to your mouth. A Japanese performer showed Houdini the trick, and it took Houdini hundreds of hours of practice to master it, but it enabled him to do his most famous stunts and put him in the headlines.
He would "swallow" lock-picking tools, and he dared the finest jails to search him head to toe and lock him up. When he was all locked up, he brought his tools out and escaped from the jail — sometimes making it to the front gate before the jailers did!
While he was learning his skills, he was driven by a powerful motivation: He had to make enough money to support his mother. He had to keep a vow he made to his dying father.
Nietzsche said, "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how." Think about the why. With a good enough reason, you can easily and even joyously bear with any suffering, hardship, difficulty, or tediousness that your goal requires.
And as you're thinking, your mind will be electrified with earnest intention, and will generate ideas. Eric Hoffer wrote, "We are told that talent creates its own opportunities, but it sometimes seems that intense desire creates not only its own opportunities, but its own talents."
But thinking about a purpose is only what to do with your mind when it is idle and when you can't actually work on your purpose. And thinking about it is not the same as talking about it. I tend to agree with Earl Nightingale, who certainly knows something about accomplishment. He said:
Like a steam valve, if we talk at great length about what we are going to do, we seem to lose just that much steam when it comes to actually doing it.
CHANGE WITH CHANGE
One novel way to remember to do something, to form a new habit, is to use spare change. Put five dimes in your left pocket and try to apply the principle or do the thing five times that day. Every time you do, move a dime to your right pocket. Try to move all five in one day. It's a simple trick, but it helps you keep track. It gives you a clear, short-term target and feedback on how you're doing. And you get a feeling of accomplishment when you move the last dime.
For example, Tim tends to slouch. He has read that good posture might get rid of his back pain, so he has decided to improve his posture. He has already decided this seventeen times in the last two years, but his resolve never lasted long enough to form a new habit.
But Tim is going to use change for change. He decides to remind himself to have good posture three times a day.
He now has a daily goal that will work. If he can remember to straighten up three times a day and keeps that up every day, it won't take him long before the new posture becomes a habit. He will no longer have to remember to do it consciously. He'll eventually find that when he wants to move one of his dimes, his posture will need no improvement.
At some point he will no longer need to use the dimes. The change will be complete. He will have established a new habit.
When I was talking about this idea once on a radio interview, the host told me, "That's an old vacuum-cleaner salesman's trick. They used to put nine pennies in one pocket," he said, "and they wouldn't leave a house until they heard nine no's. Each time they heard a no they'd move a penny to the other pocket."
Here's a way to use this trick for good instead of evil — to improve your life rather than harass innocent housewives. Use change to make change. And keep to one principle, one thing you want to change, at a time. The more complex you make it, the harder it is to remember something. Keep it simple. Keep it to one change at a time. Like shooting an ant with an elephant gun, your focus and power will be so concentrated, you will nail the change you want every time.
Take one insight and remind yourself of it again and again.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Direct Your Mind, and Self-Reliance, Translated. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.