Can’t stick to your diet? Can’t stop procrastinating? Have trouble falling asleep? Don’t reach your goals no matter what you do? There’s a simple way to change your mental approach that will make all the difference.
I am a firm believer in simple. As discussed in a previous article, the principle of Occam’s Razor – that the simplest solution is often the best one – can work wonders in your life.
I grow skeptical when someone trots out their 9-point plan for success. By the time we memorize all the steps, we have trouble remembering just what the problem was we were supposed to solve or how this new plan will solve it.
Often, making just one small change and sticking to it will help you leapfrog ahead more surely than a “sophisticated” improvement plan. There's a simple change in mindset you can adopt that, if you use it consistently, can move you forward quickly in many areas of your life.
Recently, I discussed this technique specifically in the context of gaining control over strong emotions such as anxiety and anger. If you haven’t read that article, I suggest going to it now (you can read it here) as it not only gives you a powerful way to master your emotions, but provides the foundation to extend it to other areas of your life as discussed below.
In short, as I learned when I studied with Dr. Les Fehmi, when we try to reduce our anxiety or any other strong emotion, we engage in a battle with that emotion which we often lose. Try really hard not to think of a purple cow, and all you’ll see in your mind is a purple cow. Try really hard to reduce your stress (or any emotion) – i.e. not to be stressed – and that stress you're feeling will stick around with annoying stubbornness.
The simple hack to reducing your strong emotion is to not work so hard on reducing it. Instead, view it as a continuum. Try making your stress feel more intense, then less intense, and again more, then less, back and forth. Experiment with how far you move the intensity dial in either direction.
That of course feels counterintuitive and unhelpful (why would you want to increase your stress?). But if you enter a mental space where, instead of constantly trying to reduce your stress, you can move it up or down at will, you now have complete mastery over it.
Even if you are not entirely successful (at first) in moving the stressful emotion up and down, you will have a completely differently relationship to the stress. You no longer need to work so hard (and often unsuccessfully) at reducing it because you will instead be cultivating the ability to experience your stress (or not) in whatever way you please.
A Simple Hack to Master Your Life
This “continuum” hack works for more than mastering your emotional life. You can use it to gain control over many aspects of your life where mastery has long proven elusive.
Let’s say you have trouble falling asleep. You try counting sheep. You try to tame those thoughts swirling in your head. You try not to stress out at the thought that you have a big presentation at work tomorrow and now you’re not going to get a good night’s sleep.
In other words, as with stress, you’re trying everything you can to turn the volume down – to become less awake, to reduce those factors that are preventing you from falling asleep.
And we all know what happens. As when you try to reduce stress, the battle is now joined. You keep trying to fall asleep and you keep staying awake.
Instead, try moving the dial up and down. Try to relax and drift a little closer to sleep, without worrying whether you actually do. Now try to stay awake. Actually tell yourself you are going to stay awake no matter what. Then try drifting again. Then staying awake.
If you’re like most people, at some point in this back and forth, when you are in the middle of trying hard to stay awake, you will drift effortlessly into sleep. As with stress, you will have changed your mental relationship to falling asleep. Rather than fighting staying awake, you will be cultivating your ability to determine your level of wakefulness.
You can also try this with procrastination. You’re putting off that big project. You keep trying not to procrastinate, and you keep procrastinating. Again, experiment with moving the dial. Allow yourself to procrastinate. Then, move the dial in the other direction and work on your project for just five minutes. Then procrastinate again. Go back and forth a few times.
If you work at this diligently, you will now be able to choose your level of procrastination – which means you will now be able to control whether you procrastinate or not.
Feeling back pain or shoulder tension? Try to increase it, then decrease it, then increase it again. You’ll take yourself out of the space of trying to avoid the pain, and paradoxically you’ll have a better shot at reducing the pain’s intensity.
You can even do this with a diet. Instead of constantly trying to avoid the hot fudge sundae, only to give in eventually, experiment with eating more, then less, then more, then less.
If you develop the ability to control how much you eat, rather than simply fighting to reduce your intake, you will now be in control of your diet. (Be careful though – you may not want to get too carried away in the “eat more” stages of the exercise).
You get the idea. Pick an area of your life you’ve been struggling with. Identify the element within it that you’ve been fighting to reduce or eliminate in order to accomplish your goal. Then practice turning the dial up and down.
Warning: This won’t work if you try it just once or twice. It takes a bit of diligent practice, particularly because most of us have been working on fighting to reduce for so long that it’s an ingrained habit. Moving the dial at will is a new skill that can take a little effort to acquire – but the returns are well worth the investment.