Cultivating the power of habit is the ultimate productivity tool. Learning how to shape your habits is like learning how to fly a plane — once you know how, you can go just about anywhere you want to go — much faster. But first, you’ve got to learn how to fly the plane.
The thing about habits is they have different characteristics and ingredients. How you cultivate them requires understanding the features of the habit and using strategies and tools appropriate to that habit. For example, habits range from simple to extremely complex. Some are easier to change than others. Some habits are composed of many smaller habits and so can’t be changed all at once. Some were learned on purpose, most are learned by accident, without you even being aware you are learning them. Most habits can’t be learned on a time schedule. In fact, putting time pressure on yourself to learn them actually makes them harder to learn. That old adage that it takes 21 days to establish a habit is actually a myth. (Here’s an article I wrote about the Myth of the 21 day Habit)
Some habits are so tiny and so deeply automated it’s hard to notice them. Many decision making and thinking habits are like that. They are so automatic that we are convinced they can’t be changed. Unfortunately, there are many people who will try to tell you they have the “secrets” to easily change any habit, for example, by repeating affirmations. Affirmations might work for some habits and some people if the habit is one that is simple and easy to change to begin with. But affirmations alone are not enough to change most automatic thinking habits. Those deeper thinking habits (some of which are beliefs and biases) are often the foundation of many other habits. Because they are so enmeshed, they can be extremely resistant to affirmations. And the habits built with these foundation habits will also be resistant to change if the core isn’t changed. I don’t have time to go into all the reasons for that here, but be assured, if affirmations haven’t worked for you, it’s not your fault, it’s because they weren’t the right tool for the job.
The good news is that foundation habits are like keystones – when you shift just one of them, even a little bit, all the systems and habits that are built upon them start to spontaneously loosen up and become easier to change too.
Gaining access to these keystone habits and learning how to shape them is the key to cultivating personal agility, strengthening your resilience, enhancing mindfulness, learning how to focus, reduce distractions, manage impulsivity, improve overall productivity and self-confidence, and strengthen your brain’s executive function capabilities.
Authenticating Self-limiting Thoughts
Today I want to focus on just one of those tiny foundation habits – the habit of authenticating your self-limiting thoughts. I use the word authenticate very carefully here. I could say challenge or change, but in reality, some of your self-limiting thoughts are highly valuable. They keep you safe and keep you from taking unnecessary risks that you will deeply regret later. The truth is that there ARE many things you can’t do or will never do. That’s the way we are designed as human beings. They only way we can focus our attention on our life purpose is to self-limit or say automatic no’s to all the “interesting” things that attract us but don’t add value to our higher purpose.
The purpose of “authenticating” a thought is to give yourself a moment to pause and consider whether or not the self-limiting thought is valid, useful, helpful or hindering you in your current context. To ask yourself – Is this limiting thought true? Is this really the only way to see the situation? Is there something I’m not seeing here?
If it is accurate, (at least for now) you might decide to completely embrace and own your limitation and stop struggling with it so that you can redirect that energy into cultivating a habit that is easier to change or into cultivating a strength.
If it’s not accurate, you might want to play with the idea of updating it. Ask yourself a few questions to discern how you might tweak the thought to make it more accurate and useful to you. Questions like:
- Would it be helpful or useful to my higher purpose to update this thought? How? In what ways?
- Would it be worth the effort required to “update” it?
- What might be possible for me if I could update, tweak or adjust this thought even a little bit?
Authenticating our recurring self-limiting thoughts is a core habit and life skill which is involved in making just about every major life change – for example if you want to eat healthier, exercise more, go to bed earlier, etc. Habits like those are extremely complex – composed of hundreds of other habits. They tend to be extremely resistant to change unless the pre-requisite foundation thinking habits are established.
If you are feeling stuck in habits and behaviors you seem to have no control over, cultivating the habit of authenticating your thoughts is a great place to start. Keep in mind that is both a skill and a habit. First you learn the skill, then you automate it into a habit.
When you master the skill and teach yourself the habit of identifying and authenticating the automatic limiting thoughts, it’s kinda like taking that old car that you don’t dare to get on the highway with and trading it in for a new car that you trust to drive anywhere. Better tools make the whole experience easier. So let’s get started.
Step 1 – NOTICE Your Habitual Recurring Automatic, Self-limiting Thoughts
The first step is to cultivate the habit of NOTICING your thoughts without instantly believing or disbelieving them. Since no one can be 100% aware of their thoughts at all times, I suggest limiting this exercise to noticing automatic thoughts that make you feel defeated or helpless. For example, a thought like, “what’s the point of trying to organize my paperwork, I’ve tried before and it’s never worked.” Or perhaps you have an automatic habit of calling yourself an “idiot” or “stupid” or “hopeless” Just noticing these thoughts and asking yourself to authenticate them often starts to change the habit in surprising ways. When I did this experiment, I was astonished how often I called myself names. Just by pausing to authenticate, I spontaneously starting laughing at the thought instead of feeling defeated by it. Eventually, I just sort of stopped calling myself names and started encouraging myself instead. It happened organically…no struggle needed. What it really took was patience and willingness to pause, notice and ask questions to authenticate.
Uncomfortable feelings like despair, anger, frustration, etc. are not meant to be eliminated, controlled, judged, or ignored they are meant to be used as feedback – as “signs” and indicators that we are in need of something. They are meant to trigger inquiry and dialogue with ourselves. Authentication is part of that process. If you habitually feel overwhelmed, or disappointed in yourself, there is a recurring automatic thought somewhere at the root of that feeling. Some of the more common automatic, self-limiting thoughts include:
- “I could never do that _____” (e.g., let myself relax, etc.)
- ”I could never say no to _fill in the name__.”
- “I’ll never be good at_____ (e.g., organizing or being on time, etc.”
- “I could never be interested in _______“
- “I could never like ______” (e.g., organizing, decluttering, preparing my tax return, cooking, etc.)”
When you notice yourself having an automatic thought like that (which by the way is actually a “prediction” about the future – not an authenticated fact. It is a possibility, but not the ONLY possibility) the mere act of responding differently triggers the process of “unlearning” or “loosening up” the old habit so that you can start learning the new one. It takes on average 10 to 300 repetitions to reach Level 1 mastery of a new skill or Level 1 automation of a new habit, so patience is needed. (Patience itself is one of those keystone thinking habits that is a prerequisite to making any major life change.)
The good news is that if you have 20 or 30 thoughts a day like this, and respond a little differently to each one, in just 10 days you’ll be well on your way to establishing the new habit. There are some :ground rules though. Mere repetition is not enough either as you will learn latter in this article. The quality of the way you observe yourself as you practice makes a huge difference.
Step 2 – RESPOND DIFFERENTLY – Pause to Authenticate
Once you notice the thought, the next step is to respond differently. Instead of agreeing or disagreeing with the thought, give yourself permission to authenticate it before you act on it. Start by acknowledging that although it may have been true in the past, the past does NOT determine the future. The past influences the future, but SO DO YOU. So what used to be accurate may not be accurate today.
Step 3 – FORMULATE AN INTRIGUING QUESTION AND SUBMIT TO YOUR INNER GOOGLE
Part of authenticating is asking questions. Instead of agreeing or disagreeing with the thought, activate your natural creative curiosity by asking an open-ended question that triggers and intrigues your creative brain. Give your brain something to wonder about. Think of this process as submitting a search question to your Inner Google.
Sample questions that open up the possibility that there is at at least one other alternative future include:
- “What might inspire me to be interested in doing my paperwork? or (_______) ?”
- “What might make it easier for me to learn about or discover a simpler way to deal with doing my tax return or (______)?
- “What might make looking at my calendar several times a day (or ________) more bearable or maybe even enjoyable or something I look forward to doing?”
Step 4 – HAVE FAITH AND PATIENTLY WAIT FOR ANSWERS
Sometimes you will get speedy answers. But if the self-limiting thought has been deeply programmed into your core operating system, it’s going to take a while for the question to trickle down through all the layers of protection that have accumulated over the years. It’s like cleaning a greasy stove that hasn’t cleaned for years. It just takes a little longer for the cleaning solvents to penetrate. So give it a little time to work.
If no ideas come to mind for several hours or days, try restating the question. New questions are like using stronger solvents when the stove isn’t coming clean. You could try furiously scrubbing, but that is kind of a waste of time and energy. Imagine all the other things you could be doing if you just wait for the solvent to do it’s work?
If your questions aren’t helping, it may mean you need to call in an expert to help you formulate more powerful and intriguing questions to submit to your Inner Google or to help you see the whole situation a little differently.
The more you practice asking intriguing questions to fine-tune your thoughts, the more you open up new possibilities for your future. The more you practice, the more empowered you become to reframe all kinds of automatic thoughts, update your beliefs, and even to desensitize emotional triggers and hot buttons. And by the way, you are also cultivating mastery of how to teach yourself any new habit. How’s that for optimizing your toolkit and meeting multiple needs with one activity?
All those benefits come from just one tiny little difference in the way you respond to an automatic thought. That is the quantum foundation of Agile Thinking Habits – one carefully designed, tiny change in thought energy CAN and WILL change everything that is built on the foundation of that one automatic thought.
Each time you practice this, you provide more “evidence” that your brain needs to trust that you really can change your thinking habits and you can even change what you like or dislike rather painlessly and with minimal effort – if you are patient and keep at it even when you think it’s “not working.”
You can change the intensity of even your strongest triggered feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness or even disgust. Once you accept that this is how your brain works, you now have a much updated and improved “Owner’s Manual” for your very advanced brain.
It’s like you have been using a car manual to fly an airplane. Isn’t it time to finally understand that you are NOT a broken car, that you actually have a plane engine inside you? You can learn to navigate it. Planes have lots of possibilities for changing course and so do you.
Step 5 – SET THE STAGE TO ENCOURAGE YOURSELF TO TRY AGAIN
This step is critical. Just considering alternative possibilities, even if you don’t believe they are true, flexes and strengthens the agility of your thinking muscles. Even if you don’t think of an alternative, acknowledge yourself and delight in the fact that you even tried.
Whether or not you came up with an answer doesn’t actually matter that much. Just formulating questions is a challenging skill that needs to be practiced to cultivate mastery. Just coming up with questions is monumental progress. It’s like putting your foot in the door before it closes completely.
You now have an in. The more times you practice formulating and asking questions, and imagining alternative possibilities to anything you currently take for granted, the more the tangled knot of self-doubt starts to unravel and the scar tissue holding these limiting automatic thought habits in place starts to dissolve.
When you take pride in the fact that you asked, you are encouraging yourself to try it again. Acknowledging yourself is literally stimulating chemicals in your brain that start building new paths and strengthening existing ones. This is what psychologists call “reinforcing” and “fusing” the new habit.
Ready to Experience a “Taste of the Agile Way”?
Design Your Own Experiential Learning Experiment
- Pick a time frame. I suggest 1 – 3 days to start.
- Set an intriguing goal that you can’t fail at. For example, “My goal is to see how many times I can notice myself having an automatic thought over the next 8 hours.“
There is no right or wrong answer. Only intrigue. The idea is to make this an adventure in discovery – NOT a test.
- Set up an “extra credit” scenario. Kinda like when you are playing a game and win bonus points. Suggestion: Pick an easy new phrase to say to yourself after you notice the thought. Make sure it’s a phrase you really believe. No lying to yourself. For example: “Maybe that’s true, but maybe it’s only true right now. Maybe with time, I could figure out a way to ________.”
Each time you say this in response to an automatic “I could never” thought, give yourself an inner glowing smile or whatever makes you really savor and feel extra good inside about this accomplishment.
- Set up “victory points” scenarios. This is like getting the “power pill” in a game of Pac-man. When you go above and beyond and achieve a new personal victory, it’s “happy dance” time. Sort of like getting to kick a field goal after making a touchdown in football. During this experiment if you catch yourself noticing the thought, AND you ask a question to authenticate it or that triggers you to imagine new possibilities, that is really worth celebrating. It’s like hitting a home run right out of the park when you are still just a rookie!
p.s. I personally used this approach to help me cultivate the habit of throwing away used up pens and markers. You may not think that deserves a victory dance, but I used to hoard pens – even ones that no longer worked. For most of my life I could not throw a pen away. Having taught myself to do it AND even to LOVE doing it is something I’m very proud of. I still celebrate and well up with pride at my personal victory every time I throw away a pen – even if I don’t do it till after the 3rd time I go to write with it and it doesn’t work. It’s still a minor but significant miracle in my life. One that empowered me to learn to love letting go of all kinds of clutter. Today, clutter clearing, instead of being a source of extreme anxiety, is what I do to help me RELAX and relieve stress. Honestly, it’s better than Xanax.
- When time is up, reflect. After doing this for a few days, look for signs of unplanned spontaneous changes, like – has your mood changed? Have you been sleeping better? Feeling a little less overwhelmed? less stressed? more hopeful or optimistic? have you been nicer to people? enjoyed playing with your pets more? relaxed more?
When I do this with clients, they are always stunned at how many things come unstuck and start changing just because they made one tiny change in the cycle and started the practice of “hunting” for signs of progress and possibilities instead of focusing on limits. Yet another very important keystone habit.
- Innovate and Iterate. We don’t learn by doing the same exact same thing over and over. Instead we learn best by “iterating.” Iterative learning means that you learn from each attempt, and next time do something a little different. So if one attempt doesn’t “work”, explore some tiny change you could make to the experiment to try next time and then see what happens.
The iterative approach makes all the difference in sustaining your fascination and intrigue. Instead of “grading” your performance as “pass” or “fail”, you are gathering feedback and using it to encourage yourself.
Learning is easiest when you approach it as a challenging game where there is no wrong way to play. You get better and learn more every time you play – regardless of whether you win or lose. The most important criteria for your experiments in changing your habits is that you design the game so that there is NO WAY TO FAIL OR LOSE, only to improve your mastery.
Winning the Game
The habit of “authenticating” your perceived limits and acknowledging yourself for subtle signs of progress is like turbo-charging your habit learning engine. Asking new questions is great, but acknowledging yourself for each attempt is how you get yourself to practice enough times to actually deepen the neural pathways of your experiences and learning to form the new habit.
Acknowledging yourself with a little victory dance, inner smile, or high five is like putting pavement on the new dirt road you just built. It makes it so much easier for you to travel that path again.
Each time you acknowledge yourself is like adding streetlights and signage systems that make it easier to go down that road again in the future. You can’t build the road in a day, but if you keep yourself busy focusing on celebrating each iteration, you will suddenly realize one day that you can barely remember what it felt like to automatically limit your possibilities.
That’s how learning keystone habits works – each layer of bricks is needed to make a house, but the foundation of the house is what makes it last. Once you have built the house, you rarely even notice the foundation. But the fact that the house is still standing is proof that the solid foundation is there AND that it was worth taking the time needed to build it.
Once you really master something, you often can’t remember what it felt like to not be able to do it. You may not even be to articulate how you do it. Can you remember not being able to walk, talk, or drive or ride a bike? It’s like that. It becomes a distant memory and a “non-issue” in your life. It becomes your new normal.
FREEDOM FROM OVERWHELM – The Ultimate Reward
One of the amazing side benefits of learning how to teach yourself habits, is that you naturally reduce anxiety and overwhelm with very little effort. When you understand the VALUE of “forgetting,” you learn to let go of the fear of forgetting and start trusting the power of allowing what you have learned to become part of your “autopilot” habit mechanism. The more you “trust” in your deep learning process, the less you need to “know” things in your conscious mind in order to feel confident. That means you can actually welcome “forgetting” instead of being afraid you’ll forget.
After all, are you ever afraid that you will forget to walk? Do you fear that unless you write down or can instantly articulate how you walk, that you might not remember how to walk again? Of course not. In fact, you have already learned so many habits that you can’t articulate AND can’t forget – it’s not even funny.
Imagine what you can do when you master the process of choosing what skills to teach yourself and teaching yourself how to automate them into habits? The possibilities are not “limitless” but I guarantee you, you will amaze yourself.
Instead of focusing on trying to control your memory or make yourself “remember” everything, you become free to focus on designing ways to learn and automate what you want to remember so you can more easily trigger or activate yourself to do things automatically – WITHOUT stressing over whether or not you will remember.
Ultimately, the whole point of automating habits and learning is to eventually “forget” what you know – to trust that it’s embedded in your operating system.
That frees your mind from the overwhelm of trying to actively remember everything at once and wasting time believing your predictions about your long term future.
Redirecting your thoughts, instead of trying to control them, empowers you to release all the energy being sucked up by stress and overwhelm and channel it into designing your life to fit, function and feel good about yourself every day.
5 Steps to Cultivating the Power of Habit - The Agile Way : )
Mythbusting: Are New Habits Established in 21 Days? (from my NEAT & SIMPLE LIVING blog)
Is it worth trying to change your habits? If so, how can you make it easier to change habits? (NEAT & SIMPLE LIVING)
MORE RESOURCES YOU MIGHT LIKE
Sidebar: Trusting Your Inner Google
Search engines are a great metaphor for how our brains process information requests, questions, and instructions. Sometimes our brains are slow to respond. It may feel like we “freeze” when we are asked a question…that is NORMAL. We are processing. We get anxious about it because we expect an instant response, that makes the freeze even worse. Like putting gas on a fire. Change your expectation. Expect the process to take a little while. Your patience will be vastly rewarded.
Both ADHD and creative brains tend to have lots of windows open which slows down the way we process instructions of any kind. Our brains are fast when we are inspired or generating our own ideas, but not so fast when trying to answer a question or to follow instructions.
Our brains are simply not designed for our attention to be easily controlled. The goods news is that if we are patient and feed our brains intriguing questions, and just get out of the way, the ideas will come. We can’t control when we get ideas, but we can trust that we will get ideas eventually. The more we trust and the less we try to micromanage and control our brains, the better the results.
Asking a question of ourselves with trusting energy and without demanding instant responses, facilitates our natural ability to digest the question and process it in the background of our minds. My favorite saying when nothing comes to mind, is
“Nothing is coming to mind right now, so check in with me later, it will pop up when I least expect it as long as I don’t stress about it.”
Sure enough, as soon as I’m doing something mindless, the ideas flow. This is quite reliable and consistent in my life. So much so that I’ve designed my whole life around it and the results have been beyond my wildest expectations. The only thing not predictable about it is the timing. Just like the way a plant grows and blooms, the ideas and productivity are inevitable, I just have to seed them, cultivate them, and be patient.
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