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The Behaviorist: Escaping the trap of repetitive thoughts

By , - Last modified: November 17, 2017 at 7:49 AM
Sarah Colantonio works at Work Wisdom LLC.
Sarah Colantonio works at Work Wisdom LLC. - (Photo / )

At the recent Social Enterprise Pitch event in Lancaster, the speaker — CEO of online fair-trade retailer RUNA — had the packed crowd in the Ware Center stand up.

We stretched out our arms, left hand, palm up, right hand, thumbs up and closed our eyes per his instructions. We imagined a stack of encyclopedias resting in our left hand, felt the weight, sensed the heaviness. Then we imagined our right thumb tied to a large helium balloon that was floating up and up.

After a few moments of guiding our imaginations, he said, “Now open your eyes.” We did — and laughed at the sight.

Everyone’s left hand, the encyclopedia hand, was much lower than our right. Some people had their left hands practically at their sides while their right thumbs waved high in the air.

The point of the exercise was to illustrate how our minds dictate our lives in a surprising and often limiting way. Carol Dweck’s New York Times bestseller, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” reinforces through research the power of our minds and how our thoughts dictate how we experience the world around us. In a study of children and learning, kids with higher IQs but a more rigid view of themselves learned less than children with lower IQs who were more open-minded and curious.

A rather sobering piece of data is that we think about 95 percent of the same thoughts day after day. That can be great if you’re thinking the thoughts you want to be thinking. But if your thoughts are disempowering, you’re in trouble. You’re acting like that imaginary stack of encyclopedias is real.

Harvard researcher, Ellen Langer talks about the problem of acting from a “single perspective.” In her book, “Mindfulness,” she provides a small test on “how a narrow perspective can dominate our thinking.” You can try it here:

FINAL FOLIOS SEEM TO RESULT FROM YEARS OF DUTIFUL STUDY OF TEXTS ALONG WITH YEARS OF SCIENTIFIC EXPERIENCE.

Read through one more time and count the number of F’s.

Langer points out, “If you find fewer than there actually are, your counting was probably influenced by the fact that the first two words of the sentence begin with F. In counting, your mind would tend to cling to this single perspective and miss some of the F’s hidden within and at the end of words.” (8 is the correct number of F’s).

How can we disrupt our own rigid and myopic thinking?

While on a walk, I noticed how displaced I was. I wasn’t experiencing it. It was automatic. I was walking our dog, Lacy, to get it over with. My mind was filled with obsessions and worries. I stopped myself. If my thinking is mostly the same, day after day, am I getting inspired and excited about what I’m thinking about? It sure didn’t feel that way.

I asked myself what the top five things are that I think about each day. I quickly reeled off a list, then examined each one. Is it something I want to be devoting my energy to?

Only one of them passed muster. Okay, now what? What do I want to think about instead? That was a fairly easy task. I came up with five things I would like to focus on. I went home and wrote them down. Yes, I want to be inspired and creative each day. But I have to create the fertile ground for that.

If you are feeling stuck or stressed, try this exercise. List your top five daily thoughts. Evaluate them. If any of them need to be dropped, come up with the thoughts you want to cultivate. Write them down and put them in your pocket. Or use your phone to record them.

This adventuresome life is filled with trials and tribulations, joys and thrills. We want to be engaged for all of it. Like Rilke says, “Let everything happen to you. The beauty and the terror.” We have the locus of control with how we respond, how we think about things, what we choose to focus on. Our brains are tools to help us create our best future.

Sarah Colantonio works at Work Wisdom LLC, a consulting firm in Lancaster County. Her focus is on communication and mindfulness in the workplace. She can be reached at sarah@workwisdomllc.com.

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