“I don’t trust my brain. It’s got some good qualities, sure, but it needs constant supervision. It’s like an unruly Boston terrier – left to its own devices, it will scamper off and rummage through the garbage can, spreading rotten guacamole all over the house. In my brain’s case, this means the hours spent wallowing in unrealistic worries, time-wasting regret and revenge fantasies. My brain needs constant tugs on its leash to redirect it. And I think I’m not alone. Most brains are like that.” – AJ Jacobs
Mine certainly is.
Unless I’m paying attention to it, here are some of the unpleasant mental neighbourhoods my brain likes to wander into…
- Worries about things that might never happen.
- Jealousy of people about whom I know practically nothing.
- Stewing about perceived slights from years ago.
- Indulging in ancient regrets (like that horrendous speech I gave at my flatmate’s 21st – I honestly think about this a lot!).
But none of these are very helpful. So what is the solution? How do we reign in our thoughts?
Well, it’s simply about being your brain’s own babysitter.
Which is why it is so important to “think about your thinking” and to ask yourself on a regular basis, “What am I thinking about? Is that really a good use of my brain?”
The official term is “metacognition”, and I believe it is one of the most significant keys to personal happiness – right up there with supportive friends, and Netflix.
But how? How do we remind ourselves to monitor our own thoughts? Here are few ideas.
1. Link metacognition to regular behaviour.
So every time you take an elevator, ask yourself: “What am I thinking about?” Or every time you go to the bathroom. Or un-pocket your smartphone. Or when you pray (this is one of the reasons why prayer is such an effective mental act).
2. Take a step back and breathe.
I try to be especially aware of my thoughts whenever I start to get angry. Some things deserve righteous wrath, but most of the time the angst lies within us. The guy who cuts you off in traffic, the lady at the front of the line who is taking forever – does fuming about them help anyone? Is that a good use of my brain’s time? I think not.
3. Think happy thoughts.
Coming up with realistic solutions to problems, brainstorming, constructive nostalgia (by which I mean reinforcing good memories), thinking about others, gratitude for small things… these are all much better uses of our brains, and research shows that the positive effects of such thinking is exponential.
4. Set up external reminders
This is a more radical tactic, and it’s not for everybody, but maybe you’ll find it helpful. Try scheduling texts or email reminders, such as “What are you thinking about?” or “You only live once.” Write it on your mirror. It may just help automate your conscience and snap you out of a mental funk.
The good news is, once you start engaging in metacognition, it gets easier and easier. It becomes a habit. And you won’t need the triggers.
The other day I read a comment on someone’s Facebook feed that got me all riled up. I felt my heart-rate increase, but I took a step back and self-monitored. Otherwise I would have spent the next 20 minutes crafting an imaginary response to the “idiot” who obviously didn’t know what he was talking about! But no. That’s not helpful. Get back here brain. That’s better. Good boy.