(And what you can do to really use this sentence to your advantage).
Don’t get me wrong. Personal development books (by the way, I hate the term “self-help”) do work. In fact, I changed my life because such a book caused a shift in my perspective on success and life.
However, they don’t work very often. And this one overused sentence is a reason for that:
“Ask Yourself a Question…”
I don’t suggest you shouldn’t ask yourself questions, because the book should provide all the solutions for you on a golden plate. Yep, you should do the work. If you want someone else to do the heavy lifting for you, pay hundreds of bucks for coaching or thousands of bucks for consultations, not a few bucks for the “self-help” book.
In fact, purchasing and reading a book suggests that you prefer to work out your problems alone. No shame in that; many small issues in life are totally manageable on your own.
So, where does the damage come from? Why is this sentence overused to the point of abuse?
Expert’s Blind Spot
I write personal development books. I know plenty of other authors in that genre. We are not a common flock.
Most of us are self-made, and we are especially skillful in areas that most people really suck: mindset, self-analysis, motivation, willpower and managing our emotional states. Oh yes, at one point every personal development author was at the same starting position as his readers – confused at best, and a clueless mess at worst. But they painstakingly built themselves from the ground level (and some, like me, from the below-ground level) to the point where those skills are as natural to them as breathing.
But asking self-analysis questions is not natural for the majority of the population.
Even if a reader takes a break to actually do the exercises prescribed by an author (which only a very few do), the results of such exercises will rarely convert into any lasting effect. Overwhelmed by life, a reader will simply forgot about his insightful answers. They will fade away with time.
Authors are sadly ignorant about this fact, and they pack their books with exercise after exercise and a question after question. Eventually, they assume that their readers are an above-average bunch, and they possess the art of governing one’s mind effectively.
That’s why, most of the time, the biggest benefit of reading “self-help” books is that you are not indulging yourself with much more harmful activities, like watching TV or taking drugs. They occupy your time, and something useful (research says we retain about 4% of what we read one time) always will stick in your mind.
What Can You Do to Make this “Magic Sentence” Work for You?
Develop a habit of mindfulness. The exact method you’ll employ is of little importance. The crucial part is to make your mindfulness habitual. I call it “mindfulness” because it’s the most popular term, but what I mean is the state of mind that allows you to ask yourself questions. What is more, those are different questions than usual.
Your subconscious bombards you with questions all the time. And most of those questions are crap: “Why does it always happen to me?” or “Why am I a failure?”
They aren’t tools for gathering information, but rather clubs used to beat you down.
Developing your new habit, you should follow the framework: design it consciously, do it every day, identify yourself with a habit (“I am a person who…”), track it, build a streak (do it every day and maintain a visual reminder of how long your streak is). If necessary, start very small, so doing your new habit every day should not be a problem. Consistency of your routine is more important than initial results.
Here comes several specific activities to build such mindfulness habits:
This is, by far, my favorite method. 6 days a week, I ask myself an insightful question and answer it on paper. On the 7th day, I read and review my entries. I dedicate 10-15 minutes in my morning for this. I’ve been doing it since 26th of May, 2013. That’s a lot of repetitions and a lot of questions answered.
Not only did I get over a thousand answers, I also developed a mindfulness habit. I don’t go lightly over new questions in my life. This practice hammered into me a deep work kind of approach to answering personal development questions. I don’t brush them aside. In fact, when I get an interesting question, I note it down in my journal and answer in one of my morning sessions.
Meditation is very easy to start in small doses (2 minutes or less). You don’t need any accessories for it, and you can do it practically everywhere and in any moment.
It gives you a picture of your mental world like no other activity. Apart from journaling, of course 😉
I started meditating about a year after I started journaling, and I found it very easy. Why? Because I was used to the bustle of my thoughts, thanks to my journaling sessions. Most beginners of meditation complain about the mental chatter that takes place in their heads and disperses their focus. Advanced meditators don’t complain about this, but not because they had no voices in their heads or because they are super humans who can silence them down without raising a finger. Nope. They have the same mental chatter inside, but they got used to noticing and acknowledging it.
That’s the whole point of meditation: self-awareness. You are no longer responding on autopilot to subconscious mental stimulus. You become aware and can discern more and more different signals that are usually enticed by emotions. You know what thoughts appear when you are bored, angry, frustrated or exhausted.
Try not to utter a single word for a specific period of time. It’s especially hard when you are among other people, whether at home or at work. I tried unsuccessfully for a few months to be quiet for an entire day while living my ordinary life. I think my best result was opening my mouth only a couple dozen times.
However, I learned that such a struggle of will provides increased awareness about what’s going in your mind. You see, whatever you utter aloud is first born in your mind. If you want to tame your tongue, the best way is to intervene into your thinking before words land on your tongue ready to launch. You must be watchful all the time to shepherd your words. I think my few-month practice of silence was another factor that contributed to my ease of mastering meditation.
4. Govern Your Talk.
If keeping your mouth shut is difficult, controlling it is downright impossible. The Bible says
Nobody can tame the tongue — it is a pest that will not keep still, full of deadly poison. — James, 3:8
On the other hand, even unsuccessful attempts to reign over your speech patterns will provide self-awareness in the same way that silence does. You need to be extremely focused on what’s going on in your head to be able to control your words.
A few simple methods to tame your tongue:
-introduce a new word or phrase into your vocabulary; try to use it 10 times a day for a few days;
-avoid specific words and phrases; a foul language makes a great game for this technique;
-introduce synonyms; replace a word you commonly use with its synonym or a few of them.
This is the trickiest method. Affirmations will not make you mindful, per se. They are difficult to use even without a goal of improving your self-awareness.
You can use affirmations with the aim to grow your mindfulness. “I purposefully stop and marvel on the beauty of the universe,” or you can try to use them to manage your emotional states. For example, every time you feel frustrated, you can say to yourself: “In ten years, it will not matter at all.”
The best affirmations are the simplest ones. In fact, the two I mentioned above are overly complicated. I used to tell myself three times “It’s possible” whenever self-doubts attacked me.
6. Ask Questions.
Yes, I stated most of us cannot do this. But you can learn this skill. Approach it like any other habit you build.
a) Design it
Have specific questions in mind; be prepared. Write them down, carry them with you in your mobile or on an index card.
Define how your routine will look: Will you ruminate about it briefly in your head or will you write down your answer on paper? Decide how often you will do it and when. If you want to discuss the thing internally, you have plenty of opportunities during the day – while commuting, walking to a grocery store, using stairs or elevator, waiting in a queue.
If you want to answer on paper, you need to be able to sit down and write for at least a couple of minutes. Maybe during the lunch break at work, or early in the morning when everybody else in your household sleeps?
b) Pick your trigger
The trigger is the most important element of your habit creation. A good reliable trigger improves manifold your chances for developing a lasting habit.
If your routine is quick and dirty – you think over the question and answer in 1-2 sentences in your mind- it can be as simple as setting a reminder with the specific question on your mobile. The alarm goes off, the question pops up on the screen, and you are instantly reminded about your questioning habit.
At the beginning I recommend this approach, so you can repeat your routine many times a day, and repetition is the food of a new habit.
Another great idea is to base your trigger on an existing habit: making a coffee at home or at the office in the morning, arriving on a bus station or a train platform on your way to/from work, brushing your teeth. Doing these activities is already automatic for you. When you consciously make them a starting point for your new habit, it will become automatic much faster than without such a rock solid trigger.
c) Do the routine
This is truly the easiest part. Once you know what you have to do, where, when and how, doing it is a trivia. If you choose your trigger right, it will spring you to action. You will take out a mobile to silence the reminder’s alarm, read the question, have a moment of reflection, and answer it before putting the mobile down.
Or you will make the coffee before going to work and have your journal and pen ready at a coffee table with a question already written down at the top of a page. You will sip your coffee, writing down your thoughts.
An endpoint to a habit should be self-explanatory; a clear point that finishes your routine. Like in the examples above: finishing your coffee, putting your mobile back into a pocket, a train arriving at the platform.
I answer one question every day in my journal, and I have a specific space on a page for that. When the page is filled with my reflections, I finish the routine of answering the question.
Now you know what to do. Build your mindfulness habit.
Make the “magic sentence” work for you. Any questions? Shoot them in the comments below.