It seems pretty instinctive that when something’s wrong, we try to fix it. Including with ourselves. Yet recent advances in neuroscience suggest this isn’t always the best way to get unstuck.
To understand why, we need to understand what it means to ‘think’. When we have a new thought, it happens in our conscious mind, known as the working memory. As space is at a premium (there’s only enough attention for a few thoughts at any one time), the thought is moved to the subcortex, our memory centre.
If the thought isn’t repeated, it fades, but when you think the thought again and again, more and more neuronal connections are made so that the thought becomes hardwired into the brain.
Now when you want to bring the thought (aka idea or memory) to mind, it’s little effort. More than that, to save the drain of conscious thought, the thought becomes an unconscious habit, deepened with every neuronal connection made.
Consider how much effort and ‘conscious’ driving was when you were a novice compared to how automatic and ‘unconscious’ it became with experience.
With that in mind, you might now see why trying to fix problems – i.e. thinking about what’s wrong – only makes things worse.
When you put a problem under the microscope, you are by default thinking about the problem, and therefore laying down more neuronal connections. Instead of excising the problematic thinking, we pour so much energy into it that we ram it in deeper.
Digging into our memories means we even create connections between experiences and across time (I’ve always been bad at organising. Maybe it’s the way I was raised, or because my teacher gave me a hard time for it, or perhaps my dog’s effortless achievements just made me feel inadequate…).
It’s a downward spiral, and the problem’s still going nowhere fast!
The answer lies not in trying to fix or resist the problem thoughts, but in creating new ‘solution’ thoughts.
Old thinking is so embedded, it’s like a well-worn forest track. If you want the old path to grow over, you simply have to stop walking that way and forge a new one. The more often you walk the new route, the easier it will be to pass that way next time.
Focus your attention on solutions. Cultivate the habit of thinking better thoughts.
Create visions – how would you like things to be? Not, what don’t I like about my life?, but what does my ideal life look like?
Examine what’s working well – what are your successes and talents? Not, what are my weaknesses? what did I do badly?, but what are my strengths? what did I do a great job at?
Focus on solutions – what’s a better way of doing things? Not, what went wrong? why isn’t this working?, but what will make it succeed next time?
Notice what makes you feel good – what puts you in a better state of mind and body? Not, why don’t I have enough energy, enough focus? why am I always stressed?, but what energises me, helps me relax, allows me to focus?
Next time you feel the tug to fix a problem or analyse what’s wrong, stop and ask yourself, what’s right?
Read more about the neuroscience of productive thinking with David Rock’s 2007 book, Quiet Leadership