The things every high-achiever should know
In: Achieving Goals21 Apr 2011
As we grow up, we learn how to interact with the world. The way we communicate with superiors (bosses, parents, etc.) is very different than the way we communicate with friends, family, and significant others. We learn how to communicate properly by observing how others around us are doing so. Perhaps we may even read a book or two on how to communicate with others (such as Dale Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People).
However, there is one set of communication skills that is grossly neglected by our society: communicating with our own minds. Why is this important, you ask? Simple. Can you think back to a time when you understood that it would be best to do one thing, but you ended up doing the total opposite? I think we’ve all been there at least once, whether it was overindulging on desserts or procrastinating all weekend. Why is it that we can determine the best logical choice, but end up doing something completely different? It’s because most people don’t know how to communicate with the part of their minds that controls automatic behaviors, urges, emotions, and habit forming (otherwise known as the subconscious mind).
Because there are so few people in our society who understand how to communicate with this very important part of our minds, we just assume that fighting impulse, emotion, and habit with willpower and rational thinking is the proper response. It’s not. The failure rates of diets and various other lifestyle changes show that willpower and rational thinking are often not enough to make difficult, worthwhile alterations to your life. In response, most people try harder and harder, only to keep failing against the untiring resistance of their subconscious mind.
Working Harder vs. Working Smarter
“It is psychological law that whatever we desire to accomplish we must impress upon the subjective or subconscious mind.”
-Orison Swett Marden
Working harder against your subconscious doesn’t produce better results. It’s been demonstrated in lab studies that trying to fight against your emotions, habits, and beliefs head on is a battle that is seldom won… unless you do so in the right way. Those who understand how to effectively communicate with their subconscious will reap the benefits of easier lifestyle changes. Those people will find that their goals seem to be pursued automatically, rather than through excruciating struggles against natural inclination. Here are three guidelines for communicating with and influencing your subconscious mind.
1) The mind doesn’t think in negative terms. Therefore, think positively.
“It is only through your conscious mind that you can reach the subconscious. Your conscious mind is the porter at the door, the watchman at the gate. It is to the conscious mind that the subconscious looks for all its impressions.”
Right now, I want you to follow this one brief instruction:
Don’t think about a purple elephant.
What just happened? A purple elephant just popped into your head didn’t it? Your brain doesn’t think in negatives, so if you dwell on goals with a negative spin – don’t eat that cake, don’t think about my ex-girlfriend, etc. – your brain will instantly start dwelling on cake, your ex-girlfriend, or whatever it is you’re trying to avoid. This is why optimists are often more successful at making positive change in their lives. They dwell on the positive rather than the negative, so they’re better able to put negative thoughts out of their mind.
According to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, harmful obsessions can develop when you try and repress these types of negative thoughts, because your brain keeps bringing the memory up with increasing frequency as you think about the very act of repressing it (similar to how it’s impossible to not think about a purple elephant when prompted). It becomes a vicious cycle that can lead to a slew of psychological disorders. This process has been studied and proven by psychologists, who have been able to create minor obsessions in subjects by instructing them not to obsess over something that’s on their minds. Thinking in negatives is never the correct approach.
Whenever you catch yourself thinking in negative terms, stop yourself and reverse the thought by dwelling on the positive opposite. Using the previous examples:
Negative thought: Don’t eat that cake.
Positive reversal: I can’t wait to lose these final 20 pounds and be at a healthy weight.
Negative thought: Don’t think about my ex-girlfriend, she’s not worth thinking about.
Positive reversal: I’m excited for my date coming up next week.
This change in thinking patterns will take approximately a month of active attention and effort, but once the habit kicks in, you will notice many improvements in your automatic thought processes with zero additional effort. Personally, this is one of the biggest steps I’ve taken in improving my outlook on life.
2) Avoid head on confrontations. Learn to disarm and distract.
If you see a cake lying on the table and you start channeling all of your will power to resist temptation, you’re working against yourself, which will result in failure. The urge to eat high calorie foods is hardwired into your subconscious, which is a much stronger influence on your behavior than logic. As I’ve just discussed in the previous section, telling yourself not to do something becomes a battle of wills, and the conscious mind will lose this battle almost every time.
In the famous “Marshmallow Test” conducted in 1970, children were put in front of a marshmallow and told they could either eat it immediately, or wait a bit of time and earn two marshmallows as a reward for waiting. The children who were most successful in delaying gratification and earning two marshmallows were able to do so by learning how to distract themselves with other activities. The children that engaged in a direct battle of willpower almost always caved in before the time limit was up. Jonathan Haidt comments on this study by using the metaphor of your subconscious being a wild elephant and your conscious mind being the rider steering the elephant: “An emotionally intelligent person has a skilled rider who knows how to distract and coax the elephant without having to engage in a direct contest of wills.”
For example, I’m a sugarholic who has difficulty avoiding free donuts and treats at office gatherings. In order to distract and discourage my subconscious, I first strike up a conversation with a colleague/friend and mention that, because I’m watching my diet, I won’t be touching the donuts. This commitment puts social pressure on me to avoid the sugary foods. Next, I make sure to have something in my hand to sip/munch on, such as fruit or tea. This keeps my mouth busy with something else. And finally, I keep myself in conversation to prevent myself from dwelling on food. These are a few methods I’ve learned to distract the “elephant” rather than engage it in a battle of wills.
3) Learn how to have a two-way conversation.
“Whatever we plant in our subconscious mind and nourish with repetition and emotion will one day become a reality.”
Normally, your subconscious communicates with you through emotions, habits, urges, and gut feelings. But how often do you effectively speak back to your subconscious to try and steer it in the right direction? There are quite a few methods of communication that will help banish negative thought patterns and re-frame how you see the world. By changing how you see the world, problems can become opportunities, once intimidating situations can become easy to handle, and so on. Here are a few methods that are proven to work:
a) Visualizations – By rehearsing your future in the “Theatre of Your Mind,” you can picture how you would behave with newfound beliefs and habits. Visualization is very tough to do effectively at first, but after a few weeks of practice, it becomes very natural. By far, the best resource for learning the importance of and proper technique for visualizations is Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz. This is one of the most powerful resources I’ve ever read on reinventing one’s self.
b) Affirmations – If you repeatedly hear a message, you start to believe it to be true. Unfortunately, this often works against us when we’re told by negative influences that we’re worthless or stupid. But there is no better time than now to start using this technique to your advantage to alter your beliefs. There are many personal development coaches and gurus that recommend different forms of affirmations, but the best place to start is with the time-tested classics. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill has one of the most basic, yet most effective, affirmation routines.
c) Hypnosis – Although hypnosis is often scoffed at as a party gimmick, it has very strong backing as a tool for healing and reversing mental blocks and psychological disorders. My favorite hypnotist is Paul McKenna because he is very up-to-date on his research on the mind, and he combines hypnosis with visualizations for an extra effective approach. He has multiple programs for weight loss, confidence, quitting smoking, and more. The confidence program is effective, based on my experiences with it. You can check it out here. I’ll be posting a review of my 30-day hypnosis experiment in an upcoming post.
The mind is a very complex creation, which makes me wonder how people possibly function without knowing how to communicate with their subconscious, one of the most influential parts of their brain. If there’s any one language that every person should learn how to speak, it’s the language of the mind. By learning about and using the three techniques above, I guarantee that you will become fluent in no time. And the greater your fluency, the more positive changes you will see happening in your life.
I'm Jon Guerrera, a life hacker at heart, and the man behind the scenes here at Living For Improvement. This blog documents all of my successes, failures, experiments and lessons learned as I hack my way to happiness, fulfillment and success.
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