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.