How To Achieve Self-Mastery By Leveraging Your Mind
Table of Contents
- A Thought Experiment – Who Has The Upper Hand
- A Conflict In Our Heads
- Two Systems and Time Preferences
- Rationalizing Vs Reasoning
- How to Help the Mind to Work With You
- Putting it All Together
When did you first notice that little voice in your head?
We all have one, but why is it there?
What is it?
Perhaps most importantly, are you in control of it, or is it in control of you?
Naturally, we all feel like we have control over our bodies.
But what about our minds…
Do you think you’ve achieved self-mastery?
Are you really in the driver’s seat or are you being taken for a ride?
There’s a well-hidden source of influence that exists right between your ears.
So when it comes to self-mastery and satisfaction, it’s critical to understand and refine that most central relationship you have: Your relationship to yourself.
A Thought Experiment – Who Has The Upper Hand
Let’s do a quick test to see who’s really in charge of this mind of yours.
The thought experiment is a little battle of wills: You vs. The Voice in Your Head.
If you and I are in control of our own minds, then we should be able to direct our thinking.
And if we can move our thinking in a direction of our choosing, then we should also be able to stop it from moving in certain directions, shouldn’t we?
In fact, if we are in complete control of our minds, then it seems reasonable that should even be able to pause our thoughts if we try.
So here’s the test:
Set a timer for 2 minutes, sit in a quiet place, close your eyes, and simply stop all thoughts until the timer goes off.
When finished, let’s explore the results.
And The Winner Is
Let’s be honest (assuming you actually tried the experiment):
Unless you’re a Zen master who just recently came down from a monastery in the mountains, your experience probably went like this:
You sat there quietly for a few seconds, maybe as much as 10 or even 20 if you were particularly focused.
Then thoughts, images, ideas, your to-do list, questions, feelings, boredom, Facebook, friends, videos, movies, music, and a lot more started flooding into your awareness.
Once you recognized it, you could clear your mind for a few seconds, but then this whole process repeated.
The Key Takeaway:
None of us have complete control over our minds.
We have instincts and other automatic learned behaviors.
If we don’t acknowledge and understand how this works then that automatic part of us can be our greatest obstacle to success.
A Conflict In Our Heads
Can you remember a time when you had a goal that you sincerely desired, but at the same time you couldn’t get yourself to take the steps to make it happen?
Maybe it was a health goal.
Or perhaps you wanted to learn a new language, a new skill, or even a musical instrument.
But for whatever reason, something inside of you resisted your efforts.
Even when you had the time, something just held you back.
We’ve all been there, so what’s the deal?
Why is it that we can have a clear goal that we honestly want while at the same time we can’t get ourselves to do the work to make it happen?
Is there any reason for this inner turmoil?
An Important Psychological Fact
Research in psychology has found that our brains have at least two systems for processing information.
They work in parallel to one another but are responsible for different functions.
In his now classic book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman called them System 1 and System 2.
System 1 is fast and automatic. It’s about gut feelings and emotional snap-judgments.
Sometimes these are thought of as “hot” cognitions.
It’s how you just know when someone is angry or excited at a moment’s notice.
Overall, this processing is outside of our conscious control.
We can think of system 1 as our instincts, learned responses, and impulses.
System 2 is just the opposite.
It’s slow, rational, and deliberate.
This system is responsible for “executive processes” like planning, reflecting, “cold” cognitions.
We can think of system 2 as our rationality, intellect, and self-control.
“One task of System 2 is to overcome the impulses of System 1. In other words, System 2 is in charge of self-control” ~ Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D. – Thinking Fast and Slow
Two Systems and Time Preferences
System 1 (our automatic thinking) is concerned with the here and now.
It can’t think about things in the future.
It’s motto: “I want it all, and I want it now.”
On the other hand, system 2 (our deliberate thinking) is that part of us that can see the benefits of planning long into the future.
It can easily see how a little work now can have big benefits down the road.
It’s motto: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.
Instincts and The Pleasure Principle
In the survival game, nature has given all animals, including humans, some quick and dirty guidelines to help us survive.
Freud called this the pleasure principle.
And it motivates us with 2 simple rules:
- Rule 1 – “Feels Good! Want more!”
- Rule 2 – “Feels Bad! Stay away!”
All in all, it’s a pretty handy quick guide to staying alive and passing on genes.
Food, water, and sex all bring pleasure and keep us going.
Predators and poisonous foods make for a short living.
Our System 1 (i.e. instinctual thinking or that voice in our heads) still uses the pleasure principle to make decisions.
Unfortunately, these basic rules are just too simple to help us make the best of life in our modern technological worlds.
If peak performance or self-mastery matter to you, it’s critical to consciously recognize how system 1 influences your thinking.
Reasoning and Delayed Gratification
Living as a human in the 21st century is about as complex as life has ever been.
If you want to do great things, then you can’t always chase whatever feels best right now.
This is where the power of System 2, the intellect, comes into the picture.
Since we all have this powerful ability to think and plan for the future, we know that creating the life that’s best for us will take some work.
That means that occasionally we need to go against the pleasure principle and delay gratification.
Delayed gratification means giving up short-term pleasure for even greater rewards in the future.
“The more unwilling we are to make room for discomfort, the lower our quality of life” ~ Dr. Russ Harris – The Confidence Gap
Intellect Plans – Instincts Resist
Every day, we wake up, and these two sides of our minds wrestle with each other.
Our intellect can think about the future and create plans for how we can get what we want out of life.
But our instinctual side just can’t understand the long-game. It can’t understand the idea of “mastery.”
And doing work now for distant rewards seems uncomfortable.
So our instincts resist all those good ideas to improve our lives.
Even worse, it uses emotions and the voice in our heads to trick us into thinking that…
Maybe those distant goals aren’t really worth all that effort. Perhaps it’s better just to forget about them and live for the moment.
“Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.” ~ Steven Pressfield – The War of Art
Rationalizing Vs Reasoning
We can use our power of intelligence either to help or hinder our progress.
So we have to be careful when the instincts snatch the tools of the intellect.
When this happens, we can come up with powerful arguments for why “we don’t really have to do the work right now anyway.”
This is is called rationalizing.
Rationalizing is when we start with a conclusion and then find reasons to support that position.
It usually starts with a feeling and then looks for excuses to justify it.
I don’t really feel like working out, but I can skip my exercise today because I already did a good job at work. Plus, I didn’t even get a pastry with breakfast this morning.
Reasoning, by contrast, is the opposite.
It starts with the facts and evidence, then moves towards a logical conclusion.
Regular exercise has been shown to help increase memory, creativity, baseline energy levels, and general self-confidence. I wonder how I can fit three days of strength training into my schedule each week?
How to Help the Mind to Work With You
Once we recognize the nature of the mind and what we’re dealing with, we can craft strategies for creating better outcomes for ourselves.
They all have one thing in common:
Seeing the bigger picture and then setting yourself up for success.
Because instincts will always be there.
So we can’t rely on will-power alone.
With this in mind, it’s possible to create conditions that set us up for success every day, every week, every year, and every decade.
“If Passion drives, let Reason hold the Reins.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
Strategy #1: Recognize and Remove Distractions
If you have a distant goal that will take persistent effort, then make it hard for that voice in your head to distract you when it’s time to work.
Instincts are always looking for potential distractions.
So create a workspace that helps you get the results you seek.
If you know, your phone or social media easily grab your attention, then leave them in another room.
If you have trouble focusing with other people around, find a space where you can be alone.
If you there’s no place where you can be alone, then politely explain to those around you that you are working on something important and would appreciate being left alone for a period of time.
Strategy #2: Find Your Cognitive Peak
We all have a time when our mind is at its peak.
When we focus our energy during that time, we can create better results faster.
In general, most people reach their peak around 2-4 hours after waking up.
But some people vary.
So, experiment and find that time of day where your mind is fresh, and you can make things happen.
By focusing your efforts at this time, you help yourself create excellent results with maximum efficiency.
Strategy #3: If It’s Important, Do It Early
If something is important to your long-term goals, finish it early in the day.
Unexpected things pop up all the time.
The longer you wait, the more likely it is that something will interrupt your routine.
By putting important things first, you ensure that even when a long-lost friend calls, or when an emergency strikes, you have already invested some time on crafting your dreams.
Not to mention, willpower fades as the day goes on.
So, it’s harder make ourselves do the work as the day progresses.
Strategy #4: Weekly Reflections
There is no overstating the power of a weekly review.
This is a key to making consistent improvements for the rest of your life.
Simply take a few minutes each week to write about:
• What went well this week?
• What got in the way of my progress?
• How will I improve next week?
Very few people take advantage of this practice.
Those who do put themselves in the fast lane to success.
This habit sets you up for success in 3 ways.
- You acknowledge what went right and appreciated the effort you gave.
- You identify some potential areas that hindered your progress.
(Often there are small factors in our lives that make huge differences – It’s the 80/20 rule).
- You set a new focus to direct you over the next week.
It may not seem like much at in any single moment, but this practice can transform your life in as little as a 1-year.
Putting it All Together
Overall, even though we feel like we are the master’s of our own lives, this is not entirely true.
We all have instincts, and these instincts are a powerful driving force influencing everything we think.
Instincts use the pleasure principle to make decisions.
If we want to craft deeply satisfying lives, we must recognize the influence of instincts and learn to see past them.
Once we do, we can use the power of the intellect to create strategies to help us thrive.
Among those strategies, the most powerful is self-reflection.
By setting aside a few minutes every week to consider how we can make improvements next week, we give ourselves the opportunity to continually improve our lives.
This is the mechanism of self-mastery and can ultimately help us achieve almost any dream we can imagine.
Over to you –
Instincts or intellect, which side of you is in the driver’s seat of life? What do you think we ought to do about the voice in our head? Does it help? Does it get in the way? Share in the comments.
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