4 Mental Habits to Help You Get the Most Out of Your Mind

Some off-the-beaten-path tricks to help kick-start a productive frame of mind

The mind is a powerful thing. The more we study it, the more we see just how much is going on in there, and just how much we can do when we learn to use it well. When we have insight into our own minds we increase our chances of being more productive, and being better people in general. That’s why mindfulness is such a big deal these days.

I’d like to lay out 4 mental habits that I’ve found to be extremely useful in my personal and professional life. They’re like mental models, but they’re more individualized. Taking on just one of these habits should prove very helpful. But if you can do all 4, you’re well on your way.

Don’t BE your thoughts

You are not your thoughts. You’re not the random things that pop into your head, or the knee-jerk reactions you feel to things. The character of a painter is not in her brushes and paints, but what she does with them. In the same way, your character lies not in your thoughts and feelings, but in what you do with them.

We forget this constantly — and it does real damage. We judge ourselves based on the myriad fleeting thoughts and feelings that float through our minds. We build a narrative of harsh judgments against ourselves. We built anxiety, impatience, and a lack of compassion. That spills over into how we treat others.

If you just took a minute to sit alone and merely observe your mind — like a people-watcher sitting on a park bench — it could make all the difference.

c/o Headspace

Subordinate yourself to something larger

12-step programs have been helping people recover from world-shattering addictions for decades. The first step in each of them has the same basic tenet: admit that there is a power greater than yourself, and to an extent, you’re at its mercy.

This power doesn’t need to be conceptualized as God — though in such programs, it often is. It could just be the swirling momentum of reality as a whole — which has been churning since long before you were born. In fact, you should try to define it as little as possible.The more defined your idea of what a higher power is, the less effective it will be in modifying your outlook and behavior.

The point in this act of subordination is to do two things:

  1. Take the pressure off of yourself — you can’t control everything — nor should you.
  2. Transform your preoccupation with yourself into awareness of others and your overall environment.

To get out of your own head, and to get out of your own way, is key to a balanced life. That starts with moving the spotlights off of yourself.

Cleanse consistently

Most of us have a lot on our plates. We get demands and requests all day long — from work and from home. That stress mounts up, even if you’re not conscious of each piece, and it has an effect on you. It is a psychological buildup — like gunk in an engine. That’s why you need to cleanse consistently.

In order to really do any kind of important work, you need to be able concentrate on it. But when you retain all of the mental residue of stress, undefined tasks, and expectations, concentration is hard to muster. So being able to cleanse that away becomes important.

Greg McKeown wrote an interesting piece where he suggests a simple exercise: sit down at your desk (or wherever), and take three deep breaths. Stay conscious of those breaths. Then go back to what you were going to do.

Just those 3 breaths can be extremely helpful to cleanse the mental gunk that keeps you down during the day. It’s truly cleansing. With a clean mind, concentration is more easily at hand. With concentration comes better work.

Work with thoughts, rather than ideas

Ideation is a big deal nowadays. Being creative and innovative is important in pretty much any role you might find yourself. Being able to come up with great ideas that change the game and solve tough problems is the best way to advance your career, and your own personal growth.

But coming up with ideas is difficult. That’s largely because of the mental baggage that we carry around regarding ideation.

Here’s a suggestion: change the directive. Rather than tasking yourself to “come up with ideas”, task yourself with something that carries less baggage, like “exploring your thoughts”.

It may sound silly, but the term “idea” carries a lot of weight — the weight of expectations, of ownership, and of value judgment. Ideas can be good or bad. Furthermore, an idea implies ownership (whose idea was that?). Ideas are expected to initiate further action(make this idea happen!).

Thoughts, on the other hand, have little of that same weight. Consider the phrase “it’s just a thought”. It’s usually brought up in a benign, less intrusive way. Thoughts just pop in and out of our heads — we’re not married to them. Furthermore, no one blames people for just having a thought.

Your mind is a sensitive thing, and it feels the difference between the presence and absence of all the baggage that words and concepts carry. It matters what words you use, and what words you use to think about things. So when you sit down, take a breath, and just search and record your thoughts — you might be surprised at how many of them you have about a given topic. Collect those thoughts now, then work with them and evaluate them later.

Go Forth and Implement

Some of these 4 habits may seem small and almost semantic in nature. But that’s exactly why they can be so powerful. The small nature of the change makes it easier to implement and sustain. The longer you sustain it, the more the benefits compound. They become part of your standard mental operating procedure. You continue to reap the benefits.

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