How To Take Control of Your Thoughts
I spent most of my career stressed and frustrated, thinking ahead to the day when I could quit my job and feel “free.”
Well, when I quit my job, it didn’t work that way.
Jumping from the bonfire into the forest fire, doing what I wanted was way harder than anything I had ever done on Wall Street, and my mind simply wasn’t up for the task.
I wanted to write a book. In my head, it sounded easy, almost a bit indulgent. It turned out to be the hardest thing I’d ever done. For days, weeks, months, and eventually years, my stress and frustration went far beyond my ability to manage it.
Those were by far the hardest years of my life. Unwilling to let the overwhelming task beat me, I “forced” my mind to find a way through. For the first time in my life, I was feeling “unhappy,” “depressed,” “anxious,” “fearful.”
I simply wanted to feel amazing every day.
Already thinking I was an “expert” on getting what you want, I realized that I was missing a big piece of the puzzle.
How do you keep taking powerful actions when your mind isn’t up for the task? How do you train yourself to feel great when those things around you (e.g. your life) keep dragging you back down?
So many of us are victims to our minds. The thoughts in our heads constantly turning, few of us feel how we want to feel each day. Tired, we use our daily upper, caffeine. Stressed, we bring ourselves back down with alcohol. Unable to stop that damn machine at night, we put out the lights with sleeping aids.
This is the best our society teaches us to do, but we can do better.
The fact is, you can take complete control of your mind and thoughts. It’s not easy. In fact it’s damn hard. It’s taken me years of daily practice, and I’m still far from perfect at it, but having gone deeper on the mind than is “reasonable” (e.g. hours a day of training) I’ve found enough of the map that I can see the rest of the territory.
Step 1: Start With The Thoughts You Want To Think
Imagine you’re in a dark room, fumbling around the wall for a light switch. Do you stop and reflect on how you came to be in this dark room? Do you analyze the process that led you to walk into a dark room without a flashlight or knowledge of exactly where the light switch is?
No. You find the light switch, and illuminate the room.
So many of us want to get straight to the “fixing.” We want to break down the mental processes that keep us stressed or awake at night, when we’d sleep better if we simply stop thinking about it, and focus on the thoughts we do want.
Ask yourself, how would I like to be thinking right now? Do I want to be stressed and frustrated or at ease? Do I want to be worried about this or that, or feeling like it’s under control?
Then ask yourself, if I were in that state of mind, what thoughts would I be having? How would it feel to be thinking that way?
Just role playing this in your mind, you’ll get a “state change.” Your brain knows how to do it, and like tapping an icon, your brain goes where you direct it.
When you decide, in the moment, to focus on something positive, something pleasant, you’re using your mind (attention) to direct the machine we call the brain.
Step 2: Define The Habits of Who You Want To Be
Step 1 is difficult, there’s no getting around it. Summoning the willpower to tell your mind, “No, this is how I’m going to think right now” is no small feat.
Doing that over and over again, day-in and day-out, is positively Herculean.
That’s why monks spend their lives separated from all worldly “agitations,” and surround themselves with people and in an environment that is only conducive to conditioning that way of being.
Few of us want to cut off the rest of the world just to train our minds, but you too can create the habits and routines that will allow you to control your thoughts more easily and consistently.
In the previous step, you envisioned the way you want to think. Now, envision the person who thinks this way all the time. If you’re trying to banish insecurity and anxiety, envision a version of you who feels supremely confident a majority of the time. If you’re trying to become a more mindful and zen person, imagine the version of you who is unshakeable and always at ease.
What does this person’s day look like?
- When they first wake up, how do they respond to grogginess, to the temptation to hit the snooze button?
- When they’re in traffic, how do they respond to the delay in their day?
- When they’re drawn into a confrontation or conflict at work, how do they feel and respond?
- When they decide they are done for the day, how do they disconnect?
Actually imagine yourself going through a complete day as this person, and record how they react to outside stimulus. You will never have complete control over the external stimuli in your day, but you do control how you react.
By doing this exercise, you are giving your brain a map, showing it, specifically, how you want to be. When I’m confronted by an angry client, I will react this way. When I’m under an imposing deadline, I will think that way.
These small daily habits aren’t small at all. Just like 20 pushups a day will condition your body, this is mental conditioning.
Step 3: Tap Into Your Burning Desire
None of this is easy. A common bit of drugstore psychology is the saying, “The hardest part is getting started,” but that’s bullshit. The hardest part is staying committed.
Go to any gym on January 3rd. I guarantee you it will be overrun with people who are “getting started” with their resolution to get in shape this year. Go back to the same gym the first week of February, and most of them will be gone.
Anyone can get started. The world is full of people who registered businesses but never grew them, who quit their jobs to start new lives and ended up in the same place.
What’s rare in this world are the people who stayed the course, who overcame the exhaustion and grind that success demands and changed their lives for the better.
Winners aren’t common, but all of them have one thing in common: burning desire.
The Dalai Lama, potentially the most skilled human being on the planet at “controlling” his own mind, mediates 3–5 hours a day! Seriously!
If you want to master this topic, you must tap into your burning desire and decide what you are willing to do in order to better manage the way you think and feel. At the very least, incorporate these three steps into your Daily Exercises:
- Every morning, take ten minutes to ground yourself. Breathe slowly and deeply, focusing on the sensations in your body. Let yourself center in the moment. Think back to a time you felt exactly how you wanted, and embrace that feeling now.
- Throughout your day, kill negative self-talk. In my article on anxiety, I talked about this. The root of anxiousness is often our internal dialogue. Just as you would turn off a TV program that disturbed you, realize that self-doubt is just a conversation you can end.
- Before you end your day, rehearse success. Michael Phelps calls it “Putting in the video tape.” Every night before bed, he took time to envision himself swimming and winning the gold medal. At night, imagine yourself waking up how you want to feel and having the most extraordinary day.
Step 4: Build Your Psychological Toolkit
A Mercedes requires different parts, tools, and expertise to work on than a Maybach. The same is true for each of us.
The specifics of what motivates and challenges you are going to be different than what motivates and challenges me. On a day-to-day basis, you’re going to come across situations that consistently challenge your mental self-control, and you’re going to need to find the tools that work for you in overcoming these hurdles.
For example, there are two areas I struggled with for some time due to my belligerent mind. The first was my inability to shake off a negative state. If something went wrong early in my day (often as simple as sitting down to write and nothing coming out), it was hard for me to feel positive or act confidently for the rest of the day.
To crush this, I developed a tool I call The Cure, a four-step process that enables you to change your neurology no matter what is going on around you:
- Force a smile. The sensation of your muscles tensing to a smile — even a fake one — signals to your brain that it’s time to be happy.
- Thrust your arms in the air. Any sudden burst of movement will release tension, get your blood flowing, and get you focused on the present. Motion creates emotion.
- Repeat a mantra. Something as simple as “Yeah!” or “I’m killing it!” can work wonders by “over-writing” your negative self-talk and letting you vocalize, similar to primal screaming.
- Deep exhale. Let go of all that tension and relax. Really do this now, just take a deep breath and let it all go, millions of times during the day ☺
The other area I struggled with was getting into a flow state. We all have those moments where we’re “in the zone” and absolutely killing it, but I struggled to get beyond the resistance that was holding me back from fully absorbing in what I was doing.
I created an entire system for getting myself into a flow state on demand, which I call The House of Flow. It’s a bit much to get into right here, but if you want to learn it, I have a free audio file that walks you through it in less than 30 minutes.
Your situations are going to be different than mine, and the tools you need will vary accordingly. The best way to find the tools you need is to accumulate as much knowledge as possible. I guarantee you, someone has developed a mental tool that you can tweak to your needs, you just need to find it.
To that end, I trained with the best teachers in the world, consumed hundreds of audio programs, and read many hundreds of books just on topics of the brain and mind. I am currently writing the best book I can imagine on these tools, but in the meantime I’d suggest that you read at least one book a week and search for your best answers.
But What If I’m Just An X-Type of Person?
I hear this all the time:
- “Well, I’m just an anxious person.”
- “I’m just an insomniac.”
- “I just have a short attention span.”
No. You aren’t just anything.
Your mind is a fucking supercomputer the likes of which even the brightest humans in the world aren’t even close to understanding.
If you’re reading this article, you’re fluent in an incredibly difficult language, you’re capable of using an abstract network of information-as-electronic-signals we call the Internet, you learned things as an adolescent that the greatest minds in the world didn’t know just one century ago.
You don’t think of these things as significant because everyone around you can say the same, but that just speaks to how incredibly powerful the human brain is.
Your mind isn’t just anything. In the same way that someone with a bad diet and poor physical health can get in shape with the right diet and exercise, you are capable of overcoming any prior conditioning, so long as you are willing to do the work.
The First Step To Success Is Taking Control
In my Do What You Want books, I start with a chapter called Starting With You.
That’s because no matter what you want, all success begins in your head. That requires taking control of your thinking.
To be completely honest, some of you will be able to do this on your own, and others, well, you want to find someone to help you out.
I couldn’t have done this on my own. The task I set my mind to was far too hard, and I simply lacked the skills to do it. Even the best teachers in the world couldn’t “save me” from my obsessive mind, but I owe my life to them because they taught me how to build my own solutions to tame it.
All of that experience led me to build a team of advisors so I could serve not just CEOs and leaders, but anyone else who needs better answers for their life and mind.
If you’re interested in that sort of advice, check out what we’re doing here.
No matter how you go after this topic, know, with absolutely certainty, that you are in control, and with practice you can think and feel exactly how you choose.