Try to spend the next 10 days, starting now, without indulging a negative thought loop for more than 2 minutes. If you fail, you start the 10 days again. Repeat until you succeed.
- More awareness of your own thought loops
- Stronger control of your thoughts
- Reduced unpleasant emotions (anger, anxiety, sadness, stress etc.)
- Increased happiness / positive emotion
- Greater resilience to setbacks
So first of all, when I say “don’t indulge a negative thought,” I don’t mean pie-in-the-sky thinking, pretending things are hunky-dory when they’re not.
I’m not suggesting that, when you see your car’s been broken into, you think “This is great! I’m so glad my car was broken into! I hope they like my stuff!!”
This is why I didn’t call it the 10-day positivity challenge (the name by which it is more commonly known), because many people trip up on that name.
It’s OK to be angry, upset, or annoyed. These are normal human emotions and the goal is not to get rid of them.
Our negative emotions are there for a reason, and sometime we need them. For example, if you’re really getting creepy vibes from the guy you’re on a date with, you should trust your gut – rather than just reframe it away. Also, if something really serious happens in your life, don’t expect to complete the challenge. We often need to go through a “down” period to help us process certain difficult events.
These are normal, healthy experiences of emotion.
What we’re working on with this challenge, however, is reducing the unproductive, unhelpful, maladaptive thought patterns that impact our emotional state without offering any benefit in return.
- Is it really helpful to think about that time 8 years ago when you walked into a clear glass pane in front of a room full of people?
- So that job interview last week didn’t do so well. Is it productive to keep going over and over it in your mind, triggering a state of anxiety as you do?
- Is being so critical of yourself and others really doing any good?
If you’re ruminating over a job interview that went badly, you should do something productive about that. Go back over the questions – what better answers could you have given? If nerves go the better of you, could you look into meditation or relaxation techniques that might help you next time? Can you spend more time preparing your answers for the next interview? Is there a good book on interview technique you could read?
And that’s really the thrust of this exercise – replaying past failures and self-criticisms on a loop does you no good. Worrying about a future event without taking some action, does no good.
Better to take productive action, or if that’s not possible, to move your attention elsewhere.
How to do it
You can think of 10 days as the “Hard” difficulty setting in this game. So by all means, try to reach 3 or 5 day milestones initially.
Step 1) Start
First, you start the challenge. By reading this, I hereby announce that you just started.
Step 2) Awareness
Next, all you have to do is try to be aware of your thoughts.
All the time.
Yep, it’s gonna be tough. Thoughts have a way of running away with themselves, so you just kinda need to keep one eye on them at all times. At the risk if sounding discouraging, I should point something out:
THIS IS VERY DIFFICULT.
There’s a reason they call it “lost” in thought – we can very easily get wrapped up in thoughts without even realising it.
To maintain complete awareness of your thoughts at all times is probably beyond you, unless you’re a Buddhist monk, a Jedi, or a Nexus 6.
Luckily, however, we do possess the power of memory. In your initial attempts at the challenge, many of your failures will come because you remember that you were sat having a 10 minute mental argument with a your boss while you were on the train this morning.
Don’t worry about this – it’s actually a sign of progress. You’re becoming more aware of something that was previously unconscious.
Just start again. The key is to keep trying. It will take a while, but you’ll become gradually more and more aware of your thoughts, to the point where you can’t believe that all this mental chatter was going on without you even knowing it!
Eventually, your brain will get the message – “Ahhh, I get it, you want me to bring consciousness back online whenever I’m stuck in a negative thought loop. Aye aye Captain, will do!”
Then, it just sort of starts happening. You start to catch yourself in the act. One minute you’re chewing your boss a new one (not literally I hope… if you’re imagining literally chewing your boss a new you-know-what, well, you’ve got bigger problems), the next moment, you snap out of it. You’re awake!
Step 3) Test
And then comes the test – if you had been in a negative thought loop for longer than two minutes – sorry my friend, but you start again from this very moment. Don’t beat yourself up about it, or you might have to start again, again.
Next it’s time to intervene.
Step 4) Intervention
So you’ve caught yourself in a negative thought loop, and it’s been less than 2 minutes.
That’s great! But don’t celebrate too soon. Negative thought loops are addictive. It can be tough to pull your attention away from them.
It’s so weird how we can be thinking really unpleasant, negative things – picturing things going wrong, insulting ourselves, replaying our failures – and find it hard to not do that.
But don’t feel bad about it, we all do it (even the people that don’t admit they do it).
So how do you pry your mind away from this? Here are a few tips to start with:
- Problem-focused coping: like the job interview example above, try to think of lessons you can learn, ways to do better next time. Emotions are often messages, and when we get the message, they often reduce their intensity.
- Meditation: An excellent way to move your attention somewhere else.
- CBT: Tackle the thought head-on. Challenge it using the powerful techniques of cognitive behavioural therapy. May the bards sings songs of your great triumph!
- Distraction: Watch funny cat videos, play music, read a book. Or read a website. This website even.
- Social interruption: Talk to someone – if you have a big problem, you can talk to them about it. If it’s just a silly rumination, just chat about whatever, take your mind off things.
- Physical shift: Do some physical exercise to change your state immediately.
- Ridiculous shift: Take the mental activity and make it ridiculous. So you’re visualising arguing with your partner? Mentally make them 2 feet tall, be dressed like a clown, and talk like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Make the conversion take place on Mars. Anything to shift your mindset.
- Think about something else: Come up with a list of “interceptor thoughts” – things that are really compelling for you to think about, but are neutral, positive, or tend to snap you into a different state. What team should they put out in tonight’s game? Would Thor’s hammer go up if it was in a lift? Holy crap, is it Mother’s day next week?
- Make a list: Another class of interceptor thought, just make a list. List the cast of your favourite movie. List all the sports stadiums in your country. List every band you can think of beginning with B (by the way it’s The Beatles, not The Beetles. Like the beat of a drum, not the creature).
- Acknowledge: Mentally thank your mind for bringing this to your attention. Tell your brain that the message was received, and you’re ready to get on with other things now.
- Present moment: Just bring your attention to the present moment. What can you feel? What can you see? What can you hear? What can you smell? What can you taste? Keep your attention on the present for a few minutes to break the thought loop.
With time, this will get easier, but make no mistake – this is tough. Don’t be discouraged if it’s hard at first, just aim to get better at it, to leave longer gaps between restarts.
By striving to complete the 10 days, you get slowly and gradually closer to a state of emotional balance. Whether you get all the way or not, doesn’t matter – you’ll see improvements in your self-awareness, well-being, and mental focus along the way.
Constant vigilance. This is not an exercise you do for 20 minutes and then get back to your day. You do this exercise without ceasing.
Despite the name, this is not a 10 day exercise. It’s an ongoing, long-term training program.
Why it works
It’s possible to generate our own emotions and mental states with our minds.
You can do this deliberately – for example think about the most attractive person you can think of, and imaging you both lying naked on a bed next to each other. For most people, doing so will generate some physical and mental changes. Even if that doesn’t do anything for you, I think you get the point I’m trying to make.
However, many of the emotional states we generate happen unconsciously – we just get stuck in these mental loops.
That’s fine if you’re thinking about that great holiday you had last year. But very often, we end up thinking thoughts that generate unpleasant emotions.
These unpleasant emotions can then lead to unproductive behaviours – we make ourselves angry, then we shout at our partner. We make ourselves depressed, then we resort to eating unhealthy foods. We make ourselves anxious, then we avoid opportunities to connect with others.
It’s a vicious circle.
This exercise works by bringing these thought loops into your conscious awareness, so that you can stop them in their tracks.
You’ll still experience unpleasant emotions in life and this is totally normal. You can’t prevent that. But you can at least reduce, to some degree, and as much as you are able, the misery you create for yourself.