How to Make a Good Idea Cause a Real Change In Your Life

>> Saturday

IT'S RELATIVELY EASY to find good ideas to change your life. It's not too difficult to gain insights about what you need to do. Where it starts to get hard is translating those ideas and insights into actual changes in your life. You want those ideas and insights to make a real difference to you. Good ideas aren't enough. Insights alone don't cut it. You want real changes.

I'm right there with you.

So let's look at how real changes are be made.

Changes always start with thoughts. Not that thoughts can do much by themselves, but no changes can be made without them. When you think differently, you behave differently and feel differently, and when you behave and feel differently, you get different results in your life.

I know it's possible to behave differently in order to change the way you feel and think, but to behave differently, you first have to think it's a good idea to do so. So no matter how you look at it, to change the results you get in your life, you must first change the way you think.

Fair enough, you say, but how?

Let's ask the experts. Who are the real experts in changing the way people think? Who gets paid the most to change what people are thinking? Where is the biggest payoff for changing people's thought-habits? Who pays psychologists to find out exactly what needs to be done to change thoughts?

Advertisers and politicians, of course. These are people with a huge stake in being able to effectively alter people's thought patterns. In advertising and politics, it is survival-of-the-fittest: Those who are most effective at changing people's thinking habits are the only ones who can compete successfully and stay in business. The question is, how do they do it?

Since early in this century, observers have pointed out that political propaganda campaigns tend to use short, easy-to-remember phrases that encapsulate their message. These brief phrases are then repeated over and over again until their meaning becomes part of the thinking-habits of the population.

Even some presidential campaigns earlier in the last century are still memorable: "I like Ike" was Dwight D. Eisenhower's slogan. Woodrow Wilson used the slogan, "He kept us out of the war" to get reelected in 1916. Then after the strain of World War I, Warren G. Harding's slogan, "Back to normalcy," won him the presidency. A campaign slogan from as far back as 1840 is familiar: "Tippecanoe and Tyler too," a campaign for William Henry Harrison and John Tyler.

World War II can be seen, at least from one limited perspective, as a battle of political slogans. Hitler used several. They were repeated in his speeches and painted on walls and posters and huge signs. "One Reich, one Folk, one Leader!" This is short, pithy, easy to remember, and in this case, it has a certain primal rhythm. Here's another he used: "Today we own Germany, tomorrow the entire world!" These slogans were repeated vehemently for years and had a dramatic effect on the minds of Germans.

Mussolini used radio to a great effect. "Believe, obey, fight!" was one of the most repeated slogans. Another was: "Italy must have its great place in the world." These slogans were repeated in messages broadcast all over Italy.

Many different repeated ideas played an important role in World War II. From before they could talk, Japanese children were told again and again that the Japanese people were direct descendants of Heaven and it was their destiny to rule the world.

Of course, Americans had their slogans too, chief among them (in case you weren't alive at the time) was "Win the war unconditionally." Once America was provoked into the war, there was a national campaign to promote participation and cooperation in the war effort — certain resources needed to be conserved, like gas and steel and rubber, and money needed to be raised to fund the war. People were told that Japan and Germany had to be defeated unconditionally. They had to be not just defeated, but defeated soundly, completely — unconditionally. That was a key slogan. It focused attention. It was short, easy to remember, and packed an emotional punch besides. It was very motivating.

Advertisers use exactly the same tool politicians use. It's the real thing. Just do it. When you care enough to send the very best. Tastes great, less filling. The breakfast of champions. Don't leave home without it. You've come a long way baby. You deserve a break today. Takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Fly the friendly skies. Everything you always wanted in a beer — and less. Sometimes you feel like a nut. It's everywhere you want to be. And so on — short, easy to remember slogans repeated over and over and over again. Sometimes the same slogan is used for decades.

For a very long time, politicians and advertisers have been refining and improving their methods. Any method that didn't succeed disappeared from the scene: The campaigner didn't get elected, the product wasn't purchased. And after all this trial and error, both politicians and advertisers have come to rely on the same simple method. Why?

Because short, pithy phrases, repeated over and over, take advantage of the way the human brain works naturally. They focus the mind, simplify the issue, and stimulate action.

Our minds don't handle complicated formulas or doctrines very well unless we concentrate our attention. It's not that we're stupid — we're the most successful species on this planet — but all brains have their limitations.

Complicated ideas require our full attention, which is fine when we're reading in a quiet room or listening to a lecture. But when it comes down to our daily experience — when we're late for work, the kids are crying, and urgent tasks are taking our attention — we find it difficult to concentrate our minds on any concept that is even slightly complex.

So even if only two days ago the book you were reading really made sense, today in the midst of the hustle and bustle, the ideas seem distant and ineffective. You can read the most beautiful philosophy, you can answer all the Big Questions of Life during the evening, and the very next day you're right back in the soup.

And again, it's not because there's something wrong with you, but simply because most of the time, you need to focus on what you're doing. You don't have much extra attention to devote to philosophizing about it. That's true for everyone: Rich or poor, genius or average, in free countries and in nondemocratic countries. That's just how the human brain is.

It was even true for Benjamin Franklin, a man famed for his ability to improve himself. In his autobiography, he wrote about his frustration at changing himself. "While my Attention was taken up in guarding against one Fault," he wrote, "I was often surpris'd by another. Habit took the Advantage of Inattention."

When an advertising company repeats the same jingle in every ad they've ever created, and shows the same ad 15 times a night, it may be blatantly manipulative, not to mention annoying, but it works, and it works better than anything else.

When a ruthless dictator uses short phrases to focus ideas and make them easier to act on, it may be catastrophic for an entire generation of people, but the way someone uses a tool doesn't make the tool bad. A hammer can kill a puppy, but it can also be used to build a house. It's just a tool.

The repetition of a slogan is also a tool — a very powerful and effective mental tool. And it's a tool you can use to produce a lot of good for yourself. You can take advantage of the way your mind works.

You can make your own propaganda campaign in your head; you can alter your thoughts and change your actions for the better.


you don't get to start with a blank slate

THE REASON it's so difficult to change something in your life is that to change the way you feel or behave, you first have to change the way you think, and your thinking is ingrained and habitual.

You think the way you think because those ways of thinking were repeated in some form or another, either by yourself or others, enough times that the thought-pattern became a habit.

It wasn't only your parents and teachers who repeated the ideas that created your thought-patterns; you did it too. There are some thoughts you have thought many times in your life, and that repetition has created solid mental habits.

When I was in first grade, my family had recently moved to a different town in the middle of the school year, and my first day at class, we had "show and tell." I was fairly upset by the move, and didn't have anything to show, and I felt embarrassed at being the new kid, so I said, "I don't have anything to talk about."

And every week after that, I "forgot" to bring something to show. I felt self-conscious because I hadn't shared yet, and everyone else had, and every week that went by made it even worse, because everyone began to expect me to have nothing to say. Whenever I thought of getting up in front of the class, my thought was, "I can't do it." I repeated that thought to myself many times that year.

In fourth grade, my English teacher wanted us to memorize and recite a poem in front of the class every week. Whenever I thought about it, (and that was often) I thought, "I can't do it." This short phrase went through my head again and again throughout my life until about fifteen years ago, when I finally realized what had happened.

I took the Dale Carnegie course in public speaking. The course was designed to get you up in front of a group gradually. The reason that worked so well is that no matter what we were asked to do, I thought, "I can do that."

The first assignment was to sit on the edge of a long table with four other people and answer the instructor's questions about our names, where we lived, and what we did for a living. Of course, I could do that.

Each speaking assignment gradually moved toward eventually standing up there by myself giving a speech, but it was so gradual, the whole way along I kept thinking, "I can do that."

One fine day I was up there speaking and having a great time. I had formed a new thought-habit. "I can do that" replaced "I can't do it."

As a child, whenever you first think a thought, it sets a precedent. You've created the beginning of a pattern. As time goes on, you experience similar circumstances, and the thought tends to repeat itself. Each time it does, the thought becomes more and more likely the next time, until you are an adult with a bunch of thought-habits, and some don't work because they were invented by a little kid who didn't know much about the world.

Now you're an adult. And sometimes you get an insight about how you can change for the better.

But it's harder than you expected, isn't it? Why?

Because your insight is just one little thought against the accumulated force of your already-existing habit patterns.

Repetition cuts a groove like a trough in the dirt. Thoughts flow down that groove much easier than they do in other directions, just like water flows down a trough much better than on flat ground.

It physically works very much like that. Researchers like William Calvin, PhD, find that when a new stimulus is introduced into the brain, it forms a pattern of connections between certain brain cells. And once a pattern has been made, it becomes a little easier for the same pattern to fire again. The more often the pattern gets fired, the easier it is to set off the pattern again. The connections get stronger and stronger the more they are stimulated that way.

Patterns that have been repeated many times become dominant and out-compete with other (less-repeated) thoughts.

So you've got some dominant patterns already formed. Okay. And some of them produce effects you don't like. You want to cause a change in your life. But a lot of the thought-patterns you have are ones you didn't choose, or you chose when you were too young to make a good choice. Okay. That's where you are right now. You can't do anything about the past, but you can take over the process at this point. You can start creating your own patterns. You can start making thought habits you want.

You can do it with repetition.

You can do it by taking your insights and encapsulating them into short, easy-to-remember phrases and then repeating those phrases again and again until the new thought becomes a part of your thinking.

We're down to the practical nitty-gritty. This is where the rubber meets the road. Pick one thing you want to change. Create a thought you want to get in the habit of thinking. Write the principle on a card and carry the card with you to remind you to repeat it to yourself — literally practicing thinking this new thought.

Try to say it to yourself several times every day. Give advice to your children about it. Say your new thought out loud in conversations. Let it become the theme and motto of your life. Imbue your life with it.

Your new thought will begin to come into your mind on its own and when you need it. Do not stop practicing at this point. That's one of the biggest mistakes people make, and the main reason real change seems so difficult. You've got only a bare toe-hold on the new thought. Keep practicing until your behavior has changed to what you want.

Eventually your new thought will become "just the way you think." You couldn't imagine thinking any other way. At that point, you have accomplished a real change. You have translated a good idea into a real change in your life.

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Mistakes Are What You Make Of Them

>> Friday

A mistake might not be a mistake. You might think you should have done this or shouldn't have done that. But it would be better to ask what advantages your already-done deeds give you and exploit them in the present.

The architect Bonano erected a freestanding bell tower for a cathedral, but he made it on soft subsoil — a bad mistake which made the tower lean over. That mistake created a large tourist industry and put the town on the map. Almost everyone in the world has heard of the leaning tower of Pisa. Galileo conducted his famous gravity experiments from the tower. He was able to use that tower because it was leaning.

The compass and its use in navigation was developed in the Mediterranean because the sailors had several disadvantages: the water was very deep, the winds varied a lot in the winter, and the skies were usually overcast. So you couldn't reliably navigate by sounding, by the wind, or by the stars. Those were the three ways sailors all over the world used to navigate.

In the Indian oceans, they have the monsoon winds which are so regular (they change directions with the seasons) you could tell where you were headed by noticing which way the wind was blowing. And they had clear tropical skies so they could usually navigate by the stars.

In Northern Europe, they are on one of the continental shelves of the Atlantic so the water is shallow enough sailors could drop a lead weight attached to a rope to the sea floor to find their depth, and thus could tell where they were by how deep the water was. This was called "making a sounding," and it was a fairly accurate method of locating one's position in charted waters.

But the sailors of the Mediterranean had to develop some way to navigate without shallow waters, clear skies, or predictable winds. And because they had to develop navigation by compass, Spain, which borders both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, was the first to find and colonize the New World. Without having the know-how to navigate by compass, nobody in their right mind would have sailed across the Atlantic. There would have been no guarantee they'd be able to find their way back without a compass. They'd have no familiar landmarks, no soundings would work, wind directions would of course be unknown, and whether or not they'd have clear skies was unknown.

The disadvantage of having to sail the waters of the Mediterranean turned out to be quite an advantage for Spain.

But of course, given the mind's natural negative bias, I'm sure most people of Spain assumed their sailing conditions were only a disadvantage.

So what are you going to do with what you think is a disadvantage? What are you doing now? Aren't there things in your life right now that you consider a disadvantage? Aren't there conditions you "know" are bad? That you wish would go away?

Choose one of these bad things and ponder this question about it: Could this be an advantage in disguise? Or could I make an advantage out of it? If you don't want to ponder this for weeks, do a little concentrated pondering. Use the problem solving method. Write the question at the top of a piece of paper, "What is good about this?" And force yourself to come up with 15 answers. Write them all out.

Then take another piece of paper. At the top write, "How could I turn this into an advantage?" Make yourself come up with 15 more answers. At the end of this exercise, which will only take you an hour or two, your perspective on the "problem" will be tremendously altered. The "problem" will have lost most of its power to bring you down. This process can undemoralize you. It can give you strength and effectiveness and even good feelings.

Read more...

Reframing a Disadvantage and Making the Best of Trouble

>> Monday

WILLIAM COLEMAN HAD ONLY fifty percent of normal vision in one eye and only twenty-five percent in the other. The year was 1899 and although the electric light bulb had already been invented, not many people had one because electricity wasn't available in many places. Even with electricity, the light bulbs in those days weren't very bright. As a law student, the only way William could study at night was to have his parents read his texts to him.

His poor eyesight was obviously a disadvantage. Or was it?

One night William walked into a store brightly lit by a pressurized gas lamp. It was producing more illumination than he'd ever seen — it was bright enough to read by! He said it was the most important moment of his life.

Without the "disadvantage" of poor eyesight, it wouldn't have meant much to him. But since it did mean so much, he got involved in a gas lamp business — so involved he eventually owned the company.

A hundred years later, the Coleman Company is still in business with sales at about half a billion dollars a year. And even though electric light illuminates most of the world, people still use Coleman Lanterns when they go camping. More than a million of those original pressurized gas lanterns are sold every year.

If there's something you think is a disadvantage, think again. Assume there will be an advantage in it and then find it or make it. This intention is a fundamental key to a good attitude. With it, the inevitable setbacks in life won't bring you down as much and you will handle problems more effectively.

I know some people would scoff at this idea. Too airy-fairy. It might remind them of some annoyingly positive people to whom everything is great, but somehow, behind their forced smile, you can see it's all a facade. But this idea can be used with depth, not merely as a way to show a pleasant face to the world to hide your pain from yourself. It can be done with intelligence and wisdom.

I'd like to make a distinction here. Many people think that cynicism and pessimism show that they are mature. Usually these are young people, ironically enough. Somehow cynicism is cool. But it is actually dangerous and unhealthy. It makes you feel bad unnecessarily. It makes you less successful. And the bad attitude it creates is contagious.

In a study at Washington University in St. Louis, researchers interviewed people who had experienced a either a plane crash, a tornado, or a mass shooting. They interviewed the survivors a few weeks after the traumatic event and then again three years later. In the first interview, some people said they could find something good that came out of the event. Some reported they realized life was too short not to pursue their most important goals, or they realized how important their family was to them. Three years later, those were the people who recovered from the trauma most successfully.

In an interview in Psychology Today, the late Carl Sagan said, "This is my third time having to deal with intimations of mortality. And every time it's a character-building experience. You get a much clearer perspective on what's important and what isn't, the preciousness and beauty of life…I would recommend almost dying to everybody. I think it's a really good experience."

Think now about something you normally consider a disadvantage. Are you in debt? Did you have a rough childhood? Were you poor? Didn't have the advantages wealthier kids had? Do you lack education? Do you have a bad habit? Has something terrible happened to you?

What's good about it? Or how could you capitalize on your "disadvantage?" If you don't get a good answer right away, that only means it's a tough question. Try living in that question for several weeks or months. Ponder it while you drive. Wonder about it while you shower. Ask yourself the question every time you eat breakfast. Live with the question and you will get answers.

Take advantage of what you have, where you are, and when you are. It's the only practical way to deal with "disadvantages."

If you have a tendency to simply feel bad about your disadvantages, even that can become an advantage. Overcoming that tendency might teach you something valuable — something you couldn't have learned without it. And you can teach what you learned to your child, making a huge difference to the whole trajectory of her or his life.

Trying to make the best of something helps create solutions. It makes things better. It is even better for your health. It keeps you from feeling as bad when bad stuff happens, and that's important because negative emotions are not good for your health. As Richard H. Hoffmann, MD, said:

"The human body is a delicately adjusted mechanism. Whenever its even tenor is startled by some intruding emotion like sudden fright, anger or worry, the sympathetic nervous system flashes an emergency signal and the organs and glands spring into action. The adrenal glands shoot into the blood stream a surcharge of adrenaline which raises the blood sugar above normal needs. The pancreas then secretes insulin to burn the excess fuel. But this bonfire burns not only the excess but the normal supply. The result is a blood sugar shortage and an underfeeding of the vital organs. So the adrenals supply another charge, the pancreas burns the fuel again, and the vicious cycle goes on. This battle of the glands brings on exhaustion."

Bad feelings play havoc on your system. The idea that "trouble brings seeds of good fortune" allows you to consider the possibility that the bad event might not be as bad as it seems at the moment, and in a sense, makes it possible to procrastinate feeling bad. Procrastinate long enough, and you might just skip it altogether.

Volunteers at the Common Cold Research Unit in England filled out a questionnaire. The researcher, Sheldon Cohen, discovered that the more positive the volunteers' attitudes were, the less likely they would catch a cold. And even when they did catch a cold, the more positive their attitude was, the more mild their symptoms were.

Reframe your misfortunes. Make the best of them. It is good for your mood, your health, and your future.

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Self-Indoctrination: A Tool for Change Par Excellence

>> Friday

YOU GET INSIGHTS — you see things you hadn't seen before and you know your life could be better. But often (too often) the insight fades until you forget about it, and nothing changed. It's frustrating and demoralizing.

But I have found a simple tool that can change this: A digital recorder. Get a handheld digital recorder (here's the one I use) and when you read something you want to remember, or when you get an insight you'd like to remember, record the insight. It takes only seconds. Coach yourself.

Then when you're doing the dishes or walking to the parking lot after work, or whenever, put headphones on and listen to your insights (or just put the little speaker up to your ear and listen — it looks like you're on a cell phone). When you've listened to one insight enough that you've really got it (or if it's no longer relevant) delete it. Keep adding more as you get new insights.

This is an ever-changing, always-relevant self-coaching system. Use it to turn fleeting, temporary insights into something that will change your life for the better and for the long run.

Read about another tool for change: Postables.

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Ikigai is Good For You

>> Saturday

WHEN I TOOK the "signature strengths" questionnaire at authentichappiness.org, I received an update on Martin Seligman's work, as I mentioned awhile ago. Here's another passage from that update, also an excerpt from Seligman's new book, Flourish:

There is one trait similar to optimism that seems to protect against cardiovascular disease: ikigai. This Japanese concept means having something worth living for, and ikigai is intimately related to the meaning element of flourishing (M in PERMA) as well as to optimism.

There are three prospective Japanese studies of ikigai, and all point to high levels of ikigai reducing the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, even when controlling for traditional risk factors and perceived stress. In one study, the mortality rate among men and women without ikigai was 160 percent higher than for increased CVD mortality as compared to men and women with ikigai.

In a second study, men with ikigai had only 86 percent of the risk of mortality from CVD compared to men without ikigai; this was also true of women, but less robustly so.

And in a third study, men with high ikigai had only 28 percent of the risk for death from stroke relative to their low-ikigai counterparts, but there was no association with heart disease.

It is healthy to add more meaning and purpose to your life, and it will improve your mood. To explore this, start here:

Why Goals Are Good

How to Find a Purpose in Life

Immediate Practical Benefits to Having a Purpose

Visualizing Goals

"When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary projects, all your thoughts break their bonds; your mind trancends limitations; your consciousness expands in every direction; and you find yourself in a great new and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be."

- Patanjali

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