Guardrails for Your Thinking

The open secret of successful meditation is simple: you can’t stop your “monkey mind” from pushing lots of irrelevant thoughts and feelings forward into your consciousness. That’s always going to happen. The best you can do, therefore, is try to give them less attention and, instead, focus a little more on what’s truly important.

The same holds true when you’re not meditating.

Unwanted, unhelpful, unproductive thoughts and feelings will regularly arise. The only real question is whether or not you will let them hijack your attention and energy.

Fortunately, keeping your thoughts and feelings on a useful track is a skill you can learn, practice, and strengthen.   

Here are some simple guidelines to help you become more productive and successful by recognizing when to let go of certain thoughts and feelings, and when to hold on:

What You Can’t Control

I remember waking up on my 25th birthday with a new and vivid realization: the world is way too big and my life way too complex for me ever to have full control. It had been foolish for me to try. All I can really control is what I do and say, and how I react to the situations and events I encounter. I immediately decided I would follow this new strategy.

The result was – and continues to be – a profound ease and simplification of my life.

This is because, at any given moment, there are only a manageable number of issues confronting me, factors to identify and understand, and choices available. All the rest plays out however it will, totally outside my control.

This recognition frees up lots of attention and energy for observing what’s going on, enjoying the good, preparing for the (inevitable, but hopefully minimal) bad, and building my resilience to recover from those times when situations and events go against me.

Alternatives to this strategy – such as worrying, or trying to influence situations and events outside your control – will always absorb as much time and energy as you care to waste, without ever yielding any advantage or benefit.

Anger, Frustration, and Revenge

These are very seductive feelings to which some people are more susceptible than others. They can – if you are not wary – drive your whole life. But the results of giving in to them can be downright destructive.

Anger, felt too often or held too long, is almost always unhealthy. It reduces your ability to think clearly and usually worsens rather than improves difficult situations and events.

Frustration results when hopes, plans, or expectations are blocked. It often produces sadness and occasionally anger, and rarely contributes to productivity or beneficial results.

A desire for revenge is almost entirely unproductive, although daydreaming about successful revenge is usually very enticing. It clouds your judgment and allows your ideas and actions to be controlled by externalities, particularly people, situations, and events that disappoint or harm you. Actions to get revenge often produce blowback, harming the revenge-seeker more than the target.

These and other negative emotions can absorb far more of your attention and energy than they should, and can readily displace positive thoughts and feelings that would prove more fruitful in building a satisfying, successful life.

Immediate Satisfaction and Rewards

An aphorism I have always enjoyed is: “It’s remarkable what people can achieve if they don’t care who gets the credit.”

While credit for good results – like other immediate satisfactions and rewards – are natural motivators, hard to ignore, they pale in comparison to the satisfaction and rewards flowing from more meaningful and important efforts.

To fully understand this, think in terms of making a purchase or investment that brings an immediate reward versus making one that generates long-term benefits.

Here’s a frequently stated example: many people today routinely spend several dollars a day for their favorite coffee drink. It’s tasty, and it jump-starts their energy for the day. But they could spend the same money to buy savings bonds that pay an attractive interest rate. Over 20 or 30 years, if they keep buying coffee, or keep making such investments, the results of their spending will be vastly divergent.

Every day, you encounter a great many situations and events that can trigger seductive and habit-forming – yet unwanted, unhelpful, and unproductive – thoughts and feelings that won’t help you gain the long-term benefits and results you really want. They will naturally come up, but you don’t have to honor or pursue them.

If you learn to steadfastly guard against them in your work and our life, you can reserve more time, attention, and energy for positive thoughts and feelings more likely to help you get where you want to go.

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