The new year is when we traditionally take a moment to sit down, reflect on the prior year, and make new resolutions for the upcoming year. Often times, this takes the form of acknowledging and vowing to “get back on track” in some way or another.
You want to lose that weight. Again. Or try again for the third year in a row.
Exercising more should help with weight loss, right, and it’s also supposed to be good for you in general, so add exercise to the list.
We all know that “eating better” is an important component of health, so maybe that should also be a priority and will certainly help with the weight loss goal.
Your house is also a mess, so getting more organized this year would be great.
It would also be nice to reintroduce a past interest that’s long fallen by the wayside, so maybe you want to get back into reading more books for fun this year or plan some travel.
All of a sudden, that resolution may have morphed into a laundry list of goals for the year or a poignant reminder of all the things you’ve tried to achieve before but just haven’t quite accomplished yet. Are you a little bit tired or discouraged before you’ve even gotten started just by looking at what you want to accomplish in the coming year?
You’re not alone.
One estimate suggests that after only one month into the year, less than 25% of people are still committed to their resolutions. By the end of the year, only 8% of people actually accomplish their resolution.
Think about this for yourself: what was the last New Year’s resolution you made? How many times have you made that resolution before? How long were you actively working toward achieving your resolution before you got too busy, things got too hard, or you just lost interest in it? And how do you feel now when you think about not achieving that goal? What do you think about yourself being exactly where you are right now versus where you thought you’d be if that goal was already achieved or that resolution fulfilled?
If you really want this year to be different than previous years consider this: instead of resolving to DO things differently, how about resolving to THINK differently?
Here’s why this is important. Every day, we have roughly 60,000 thoughts. 60,000 ideas or phrases running in the background of our minds. 60,000 interpretations of the things going on around us in our world. This is how our brains evaluate all the information coming at us from the outside and make meaning of it: what could potentially harm us, what we should do or eat or avoid in order to stay safe, how to ensure that we keep ourselves alive and thriving.
Digging Deeper into Our Thoughts
We’re not aware of the vast majority of those thoughts running in the background, but they’re there. They’re important because these thoughts, especially the default ones that we’re not even aware of, create all of our feelings and determine everything that we do.
Think about it like this: our body is constantly breathing, even when we’re not aware of it. For the majority of the time, we breathe without even thinking about it. It’s just happening in the background, constantly, all day long. We breathe without consciously directing our bodies to inhale, exhale, repeat. The subconscious action of breathing has a direct effect. It carries oxygen throughout our bodies, enabling our tissues and organs to perform their necessary functions and keep our bodies moving and alive.
When we need to or want to, we can bring attention to our breathing to help us accomplish a task. We can deliberately increase how fast we breathe when our bodies demand more oxygen-like when we decide to go for a run or need to sprint after somebody. We can also slow down our breathing if we want to. We can intentionally take longer inhales, hold our breath, and slowly exhale if we want to calm down.
Most of the time, breathing is an activity that functions on autopilot for us, supplying necessary oxygen to our tissues. The result of breathing is maintenance of our baseline activity level and providing our bodies with necessary oxygen. The same thing is true of all of those 60,000 thoughts that run through our heads everyday. These thoughts that occur on autopilot without awareness impact everything in our lives.
The subconscious thoughts running on autopilot in our brains are what cause that persistent, nagging feeling of stress we can’t quite get rid of.
These subconscious thoughts are what cause us to yell out of frustration when we know better. They’re why we don’t stick to our exercise plan even though we want to lose weight or get stronger. They’re why we end up eating a bag of potato chips for dinner even though we know a salad might be better.
Harness Your Mindset
This is where the importance of mindset comes in. This is why instead of trying to DO things differently this year, try THINKING differently this year. What does that even look like?
Remember that story about breathing: most of the time, it’s working on default in the background, and everything works fine. But when you need to suddenly sprint after somebody, or you’re trying to calm down after being startled, it’s critical that you can deliberately change the pace of your breathing. Breathing on default would actually become harmful and dangerous if you couldn’t control it when you needed to.
The same is true of your thinking. The thousands of default thoughts running in the background have done a pretty good job of keeping you alive and functioning. But if you truly want something to change in your life-whether it’s your weight, wanting to feel more calm instead of stress and overwhelm, or getting more organized, you need to be in control of those default thoughts and deliberately change them in order to get the result you desire instead.
And you can’t change your default thoughts without first knowing what they are and seeing how it’s actually those thoughts that are preventing you from achieving your goals or realizing your resolutions. Once we are aware of our default thoughts, we can actually evaluate them and determine if they’re really helping us get what we want, or if they’re holding us back in some way. Then we have the power to decide if we want to change our thoughts to get us a different outcome.
Reshaping Your Mind
So how do we start to change what we think instead of just trying to change what we do?
There are three steps to taking control of your mindset:
- Increase awareness
- Evaluate default thoughts
- Create new beliefs
First, we need to figure out what our default thoughts are. An easy way to find our unconscious thoughts is by writing them down. This gets them out of your brain and onto paper where you can see them. This practice of writing down your thoughts separates you from them and gives you the distance and perspective you’ll need in order to evaluate them.
An easy way to do this is to set a timer for five minutes, and just write down everything you’re thinking. It doesn’t have to flow. Just write down all the individual sentences in your brain.
This is where the second step of evaluation comes in. Once you can see your thoughts on paper, you can start to question what effect they’re having in your life. When you think a certain thought, how do you feel and act? What result does that thought create?
If you realize your thoughts about working out regularly are “it will be impossible to fit this into my schedule,” or “working out a few days a week won’t matter anyway,” is it any surprise that you feel discouraged and unmotivated and are unlikely to stick to your exercise schedule for more than a few days?
Evaluating the results of our thoughts shows us whether a belief is actually helping us or preventing us from achieving our goals. Once we become aware of a thought and evaluate it as not being helpful, we can actually change that thought or create a new belief that does help us.
If you see that the belief “it will be impossible to fit working out into my schedule” makes you feel discouraged and leads to you give up on exercising regularly, identify what you’d need to think instead that would actually help you accomplish your goal. Perhaps you could believe that you could carve out 15 minutes one day a week for exercise. Maybe you believe that you could park farther away from your office to get some extra steps in from the parking lot to your office.
Putting It All Together
New thoughts don’t have to be grandiose-they should be believable. Start small. Once you’ve identified a new thought that is more useful than your default thought and is believable to you know, the next step is to practice the new thought.
Leave yourself reminders of your new thought on sticky notes where you’re sure to see them. Set a reminder on your phone so that you’ll see or hear a recording of your new thought several times a day. Once you practice your new thought enough times, it will replace your default thought.
And once you’ve trained your brain how to think differently, you’ll notice you start doing things differently, without force or willpower or beating yourself up. That is the power of deciding to take control of your mindset and the result of learning to think differently.
This practice sounds simple, but it’s not always easy. It can take time and practice to learn to think differently. You’ll probably stumble and struggle a few times, and that’s okay. With persistence and practice, any belief can change.
And if you ever need help identifying or changing a thought, consider working with a coach. These are people specifically trained to help you manage your mind so that you can be more in charge of how you think, feel, and act.
Devon Gimbel MD is a double board certified physician who is also a life coach for successful, over-achieving women physicians who feel stuck and find themselves asking “Is this really it?” after all their years of education and training. Through 1:1 coaching with an emphasis on mindset and positive psychology, Dr. Gimbel works with her clients to teach them how to get un-stuck so they can love their lives. You can find out more about Dr. Gimbel and coaching with her at physicianlifecoaching.com