The way you habitually think has a profound impact on your daily moods, how successful you are, how well you deal with people, how much you exercise, how healthy you eat, and on and on. I have an idea to share with you that my wife and I developed — an idea that evolved organically into something that can help you change the way you think. Permanently.
It began because I would get insights into how I could make my life better, but then I forgot them. This is a normal human problem. How can you possibly change the way you think if you consistently forget your insights?
So I started writing down my insights. But then what? At first I created a file called “read again.” But after awhile this file got too big, and I wasn’t reading it very often. It seemed like a chore. I would have to make myself take the time to read insights I’d already gotten. I never felt like doing it because I like to explore. I like new ideas, new books, new insights. I’m sure you do too. But is this an effective way to change how you think? What should you do when you discover new insights? How can you make them stick?
I put a corkboard in the bathroom, right next to the bathroom mirror, so when I’m doing things like brushing my teeth or toweling off after a shower, when my mind is otherwise idle, I can look over and read my insights. You’ve tried to change the way you think, right? Have you tried posting something on your bathroom mirror? How well did it work?
After a few times of reading my insights on the corkboard, I stopped noticing them. My theory is that once your mind knows what something is, you tend to overlook it. Trying to change the way you think isn’t as easy as it seems because of this “extinguishing factor” — your mind gets used to things and stops noticing them.
So I started changing the insights as soon as I wasn’t noticing them any more — usually every few days. I took the insights down from the corkboard and put them in the back of the “read again” file and took a couple of new pieces of paper (the corkboard is big enough to post two pieces of paper at a time) from the front of the file, and posted them. This way the insights were rotated so I eventually saw them all. In our quest to change the way you think — to change thought habits — this was a significant improvement.
But I had a new problem. My “read again” file was so large, it would take months before I saw an insight again, and by then I had forgotten it. This wasn’t getting me the results I was looking for. It seems to change the way you think, having so much time between reminders is counterproductive.
I started deciding where to place the insights when I took them down from the corkboard. If the insight was already a well-established habit, I threw it away. If it was almost completely established, I might put it at the back of the file. If it was a fairly new insight, I would put it close to the front so it would come up again in a day or two. If I had already done this with one of the insights, I would put it a little farther back — say, a week away. And as it got more and more established and familiar in my mind, I would put it deeper and deeper into the file, further and further back.
This was it. This was the formula I was looking for. This made insights really stick in our minds.
Some of my notes are handwritten. Some are excerpts from books. When I read, sometimes I come across something I want to remember, and I mark the passage with a small Post-it Note. When I’m done with the book, I copy the pages I marked on my copy machine, highlight the passage, and put it in my read again file, which I have since renamed “the postables file.”
Recently, I have devoted, or rather I should say we have devoted (because it was my wife, Klassy’s, idea) a whole filing cabinet to the postables file.
Now when I take down a postable — a piece of paper with an insight on it — I put it in a file in its own category. If the insight is about exercise, it goes in a file called “working out.”
We’ve since replaced the corkboard with a magnetic dry-erase board, and replaced the thumbtacks with magnets. Much better.
The Content of Your Mind
Now some people might think this is ridiculous. I’ve got a file cabinet in my bathroom, for crying out loud! I post insights on our magnetic board almost every day.
I don’t know what most people would think of the idea since almost nobody knows about it. When we have guests over, nobody has ever commented on it other than to say, “I like that quote you have in the bathroom.” But we’ve never explained what it’s there for and nobody has ever asked.
But if anyone ever thought we’ve gone too far to capture insights, I would say this: The content of our minds has an enormous impact on the quality of our lives and on our effectiveness in the world. That’s a fact. We are simply being responsible for that fact.
Insights are often hard to hang on to. You think your new insight will change your life, and it really could if you somehow held onto it, but for the most part we don’t take responsibility for making sure the insight sticks — maybe because nobody came up with a good way to do it yet.
Well here’s at least one good way. It has been working for us for over twenty years. It's been a key ingredient in our success, in our marriage (we post insights on relationship issues), in our writing (we post insights on the craft of writing), our health (we post facts, tips, and insights about diet and exercise), and so on.
About a year ago, I found another way to accomplish almost the same thing. The Google Calendar. It’s easy to use: You type a message to yourself and tell it how often to remind you — every day, every other day, every week, once a month, whatever.
Google Calendar sends the message to your email inbox as often as you want.
When I first put a new insight on Google Calendar, I tell it to send me the insight every day. After a few days, I change it to every other day. Then every four days, and so on, as the insight becomes more well-established in my mind.
Making a new insight stick is like making a path through a meadow where one didn’t exist before. When you walk through the meadow once, you’ve tramped down the grass a little, but a couple of days from now if you came back to the meadow, you wouldn’t be able to tell where you walked. The grass has straightened itself out already.
But if you walked the path three times today and three times each day, after awhile, the path would become well-established.
Once the path is well-etched across the meadow, it becomes self-perpetuating. Anyone walking across the meadow takes the already-established path, which packs it down even more, making it more and more permanent as time goes by.
If you go over an insight often enough, it becomes like a well-worn path through your neurons, and the thought is easier and easier to think until it becomes the "natural" way for you to think — it happens automatically.
The “postables” idea and the Google Calendar service are two good ways to accomplish this. It doesn’t take much work, it doesn’t take much time, but it has a tremendous impact on the most important thing you need for personal change: To reliably alter your habitual way of thinking.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.