Aghhh – I’m alone with my thoughts!

Psychologist Timothy Wilson led a study in 2014 describing how hard some people find it to be with their thoughts.  One experiment even tested if people would rather give themselves an unpleasant electric shock than sit alone with their thoughts for fifteen minutes – 67% of men and 25% of women shocked themselves (in one extreme case, 190 times!)

Why does it matter if we’d prefer to be doing anything other than being alone with our thoughts?  For me, it’s about wellbeing.

I don’t deliberately mess up my house, but it gets messy.  I am vacuuming again, more cobwebs, wiping down.  And it quickly becomes apparent if I’m neglecting things (hang on, just getting the mop out).

And my mind is a bit like my house, accumulating clutter – randomly scattered unthunk thoughts waiting to be dealt with.

Sleep is an excellent cleaner – particularly REM (or dream) sleep, which seems to help process thoughts and emotions, casting off the unneeded ones and filing away those it deems significant.  But it’s not always as discerning as I might like, leaving a few unpleasant ones lurking behind the sofa and removing some of the more pleasant ones I’d left on the coffee table.

Consciously choosing to process our thoughts can add an element of discernment into the mix.  Though, as Prof. Wilson showed, there must be reasons we avoid our thoughts, probably many, and I’m going to go with three, boredom, discomfort, and effort.

Boredom (or the need for entertainment) – sometimes thoughts don’t seem terribly interesting, boring even.  Not when I compare them with making progress on my language learning app, getting on with dinner, or working through my ever-extending task list.  And, when evening comes, I can settle down with the next episode on Netflix.

Boredom is an unpleasant state for most of us.  But a little counterintuitively, I think it’s also an active state – we are processing our situation, deciding it’s not engaging, and wishing things were different.  Sometimes that’s valuable input, but if it leads to avoiding the things it’s helpful to face, whether that’s my tax return or allowing my mind to think, boredom is another way our clever minds procrastinate.

We don’t have to accept boredom.  Bringing curiosity into the mix, noticing if the boredom is avoidance, or having a little conversation with ourselves about what might be going on.  Then making an active choice rather than going with a reactive ‘get my phone out’ or whatever well-worn habit we’ve learned to ease this state might serve us well.

Discomfort – the thoughts we need to process are sometimes unpleasant, and frankly, I don’t want to be having these thoughts and wish they’d go away!  They might be ones I’m very familiar with, and, groan, here they come again.  Or they might be fresh nasties readily cooked up by my sometimes unhelpfully creative mind.

Although this might not be the right moment to process unpleasant thoughts, often, they will stick around until we do.  So, having the skill and the courage to do it, perhaps with some support, is worth the investment.

An article paragraph isn’t spacious enough to teach the skills of sitting with unpleasant thoughts (an 8-week mindfulness course provides more space).  Still, some key elements include being open and non-judgemental of ourselves (I’m not ‘broken’ because I have these thoughts).  Then, being willing to sit with the discomfort without reacting to it – neither giving in or fighting it nor pushing it away or trying to master it, but being curious about any value that might be lurking beneath.

Often this way of sitting with the discomfort can be enough to allow perspective and creativity to provide valuable insight.

Effort – processing thoughts can be hard work.  I know my mind would rather not work too hard; it’s much easier to follow its habits.  Whether thinking about things it’s used to thinking about, bizarrely, even if those things are unpleasant, like the ones I worked hard to develop around anxiety or self-criticism.  It’s not thinking itself that’s hard; it’s new thinking, new ways of looking at things, and choosing to sit with complex or challenging thoughts rather than heading down the oh-so-familiar mental pathways.

The key for me is to make the helpful things I find hard now automatic in the future, which requires going through an effort barrier.  Repetition is one of the ways the mind gets good at something.  For example, suppose I practice sitting with unpleasant emotion, starting with something just a little unpleasant, and moving through it rather than continually fighting it off.  Although it might not become a pleasant task, I will get much better at it.  It will embed itself in my brain as a skill I can call on, ultimately requiring less effort.

When I was learning mindful meditation, it was, at times, frustrating, tedious, and sometimes felt like hard work.  I tell people now that I hope they struggle when learning it – not because I want anyone to suffer, but because that way, you know you’re on the path to change.  And it does get easier, usually quite quickly, often turning out to be quite pleasant!

Unpleasant, dull, or difficult thoughts, like the detritus of my house, do seem to keep coming.  And that’s OK, or at least, it’s normal.  Once we’ve built some good habits, we know to clear up behind the sofa and to put the good stuff back on the coffee table.

Don’t depend on willpower

Sometimes change is easy; perhaps you or someone you know changed or started a new habit and found it straightforward. But, it’s not the typical path. We might decide to eat differently, maybe following the 16/8 fasting approach we’ve heard about, where you eat within an 8-hour window (and so not eat for 16 hours), deciding, for example, that you won’t eat after 7.30pm or before 11.30am.

In the moment we make the decision, we’re healthy, not hungry, and the evidence seems to suggest it’s worth trying this fasting approach, so it’s an easy decision.

The first day, buoyed with enthusiasm, we follow the approach. The next day, Friday, we’re watching our favourite TV show at 9pm, the one where we usually have a glass of wine, or our favourite snack… and we’re faced with the reality of craving. Aghh, I really want that snack and come on, it is Friday, and so the craving wins. And that’s the end of this silly 16/8 fasting lark.

The challenge is not just establishing a new habit; it’s dealing with all the existing ones! We often put too much trust in our willpower which is often not up to the job. To say this isn’t to suggest that any of us is weak. In our example, the combination of habit, emotion and biology are all rooting for the wrong side, and willpower is easily overwhelmed.

Those with the best results know not to rely on willpower. What we need are strategies! Firstly, anticipate the craving (or remember it from the past), and decide what to do when it inevitably comes — when faced with the craving, what will you do?

The strategies don’t have to be complex or sophisticated, how one or more of:

  • Drink water – expanding the stomach can reduce hunger perception
  • Clean your teeth – who wants to spoil that minty freshness
  • Sit in a different seat – the trigger leading to craving may depend on several time and place elements coming together
  • Remove the snacks – don’t buy them, hide them, lock them up, …
  • Allow snacks once per week, e.g. only on Fridays
  • Get support from family, friends, a coach, or community
  • Watch a different program

These examples may or may not work for you, the key is to use strategies that don’t leave you at the whim of willpower.

If you find change difficult, then welcome to club human. Disrupting established patterns in our lives, even when we know they are unhelpful patterns, can include a mix of physical and mental obstacles that make change messy.

So, if you’re using the new year as an opportunity to initiate change, go for it, but take along a bag of strategies to support you along the way.

Sticking at mindfulness meditation

Create a Mindfulness Habit

Sitting quietly for 20 or so minutes every day seems like such a simple thing – yet, it’s actually quite difficult for many of us.  We so used to doing, that something we perceive as not doing (just being) is hard to do.  It’s strange, if think about all the hours we work in order to take two weeks break away from it all, you’d think a 15 minute holiday every day would be easy.

If someone suggested that with 15 minutes of relaxed training a day, you could improve your mental performance, self-control, resilience, concentration, relationships with others, and reduce stress, do you think you would give it a go*?  In my experience, most people would, and do.

The problem comes a week or two down the road.  It’s difficult to feel like you are accomplishing anything during mindfulness practice – how can this relaxing, activity be doing me good; then add in that doing bias, and you have a recipe for lots of people to start mindfulness practice, only to give it up quite soon after.

If the benefits are real, and there are plenty of empirical studies that say they are, then how do we stay motivated to stick at our mindfulness practice?  Here are a few suggestions, see if any of them work for you…

Create a habit

Once it’s made its home in our regular schedule, anything becomes easier to do.  So, making it a habit is a good goal.  Association is one of the tricks to creating a habit – associate your mindfulness practice with… your morning coffee, do your practice then have your coffee; or practice before your shower; or after you’ve been to gym.  With association, you’re hooking your mindfulness practice to an existing habit.  Also, after you’ve practiced, giving yourself a reward will help cement it – so the coffee after your morning practice, or 5 minutes playing your favourite game, or a little taste of something sweet.

Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, has plenty of examples on making and breaking habits, and he also offers a number of supporting resources, like a flow chart on habit creation in the resources section of his website, it’s worth a look.

A regular reminder of the benefits

Part of the problem with dwindling practice, is that the details of the benefits and the reasons why we first thought we’d like them, fade.

Do some of your own research on the benefits of mindfulness, and write yourself a personalised summary.  It doesn’t have to be elaborate, perhaps half a page on how repeated mindfulness practice might impact your life.  Now, take a copy of the benefits with you, in your bag or wallet, and take a look at the summary as you walk between meetings, commute to work, or take a break, reading your summary regularly.

I’m sure you can think of multiple variations on this theme, including re-writing the benefits from memory, writing a blog post about them (ahem), discussing the benefits with like minded friends, and so on.


This one is tried and tested… find a buddy who is already practicing mindfulness, or just starting, and practice together.  Or, agree to text each other after you’ve completed your practice, or some other model of mutual encouragement.  Or, if there is a group that practices regularly, join them.

Commitment contracts

Finally, a personal commitment contract might work.  This is a contract you make with yourself, committing you to regular practice – and if you fail to keep your commitment, there is a forfeit.  It might be, paying  money to a charity you don’t agree with, or denying yourself pudding, or … doing something else that you don’t like.  It doesn’t have to be big, just a little nudge to get you over the practice hurdle, while you’re still working on making it a habit.  It’s really useful to have a buddy to report to, even if they’re not practicing themselves.  You agree to tell them when you’ve done it, and if you don’t tell them, they ensure the forfeit goes ahead.

It’s worth checking out the website StickK where you can automate this process, for free!

Generally, it’s easy to see why we should practice mindfulness, the benefits generally out-way the costs.  But, regular practice for many of us, isn’t quite as easy as we’d imagine.  So, use that initial period of motivation to help create a habit that will keep you practicing for the long term.

Happy mindfulness habits,

Beyond willpower to auto-pilot


So, we’ve seen that we have a finite reserve of willpower or self-control, and that it’s related to our energy levels, that even the most experienced decision makers run out of the self-control required to make decisions.  But also that strong self-control can leads to a more successful future!

Then I introduced Mark Richardson, who was able to stick to tough long term goals, leading him to the 2012 Ironman world championships.  So if it’s finite, and even the best struggle maintaining it, how on earth can it be used to achieve a 10 year goal, and ultimately a more successful future?

Major long term goals help set a direction, and you work in that direction bit by bit, day by day.  So, firstly, use your self-control to achieve the toughest tasks each day that will move your forward… before it runs out.  Or as Brian Tracy wrote about in Eat That Frog! if the first thing you do each day is eat a frog, it gets easier from then on.

Because self-control is an expensive activity, using up precious energy, wouldn’t it be nice if we could avoid dipping into those limited reserves, particularly when doing something regularly like training for Ironman, or writing, or running quality meetings?  This is where our ability to adapt and learn, coupled with our brains natural desire to avoid expending excess energy come to our rescue.

Our brains have an adaptation mechanism we commonly call habit forming.  Simply summarised, repeated exposure to an activity in tandem with a trigger, like getting out of bed or preparing for a regular meeting, combine to form a habit – when I get up I put on my cycling gear, drink some water and go for a ride.

When you start doing your new desired activity, it’s hard.  It takes self-control, sometimes copious amounts.  But after a period of time – shorter if you really want to do the task, longer if you don’t – your brain adapts to the behaviour.  This adaptation removes some or all of the need to consciously drive yourself, a new habit is formed, you’re away on auto-pilot.

People with high self-control are more successful at forming good habits – they stick to their tasks long enough for the adaptation to occur.

So boosting your self-control muscle is worthwhile, and we’ll look at that next.

Be remarkable,