Recently, I was asked a powerful question by a colleague: “How do we get out of negative thought patterns?”
We all know that negative thoughts open the door to the path leading to burnout, but when we catch ourselves in the moment, what can we do to slam that door shut and find an open window to escape through?
First, a quick reminder about neuroplasticity1: the more we think about something, the stronger our neural connections and pathways get. I like to think back to when I was a kid and the neighbors weeded next to the sidewalks, causing our bike tires to get stuck in the deep ruts, and it was near impossible to get out of the rut unless we stopped our bikes, changed directions and lifted them out of the rut. Our brains can be retrained to make new connections. It’s so hard to stop our negative thought patterns because we’ve dug ourselves a deep rut—and it’s going to take some time and practice to create new thought patterns that better serve us.
It’s admittedly hard to stop old habits and start new ones, but once we understand how our brains work, it’s easier to see the big picture and stick to forming new habits and stop digging our old rut and start creating a new, more positive path towards our goals and dreams.
Here are my top five favorite tips to find joy and stop negative thought patterns in their tracks:
1) Get out of the weeds & look for the forest.
I was recently lamenting that I was no further along with my home remodel than when I started seven years ago—that’s almost a decade! Then I began to look around and remember where it was that I actually started, and I was further along than I thought I’d be right now while improving relationships with my friends and family, and meeting personal and professional goals.
Sometimes we need to stop and appreciate what we have accomplished and allow ourselves some grace. The more we connect each day with the world around us and spend time enjoying the journey, the happier we will feel. Life’s a journey; it’s not a destination!
2) Stop saying, “I can’t do this; it can’t be done,” and start asking, “What can I do? How can I get closer to my goal today?”
This simple shift cues your brain to start looking for solutions. After my service-connected surgeries, I was in chronic pain and physically could not do a lot of things I had been able to previously. I had to retrain my thought patterns and create new habits to support my new normal. This one simple action, repeated relentlessly, helped me get out of that rut and live a happier, more fulfilling life.
3) Create a boundary in advance.
We all experience those moments when we feel stressed and realize that we aren’t going to be as patient or thoughtful as we would like. But how do we set these intentions and boundaries in advance of needing them?
First, think about the buckets of issues you might encounter during the day, then decide which are urgent and important, which are important but not urgent and which can wait until tomorrow. You might recognize this technique as one that is often attributed to President Eisenhower2.
For example, if you know there are staff issues and concerns that crop up at 3pm every day, just as you are mentally hitting a wall, can you set a staff meeting for earlier in the day to quickly brainstorm on what the needs of the team might be in advance? Can you schedule the important but not urgent tasks for when you are at your absolute best and can devote the brainpower needed to tackle the tough important tasks? When urgent but unimportant things crop up, can you ask to have them scheduled for tomorrow or later in the week when you have time to think, reflect and show up as your best self?
4) How can you have more fun today?
What was it that created a feeling of absolute joy when you were five years old? For me, I have fond memories of going school supply shopping with my mom, who was a teacher. To this day, I love to use colored pens and various sizes and colors of note cards to organize my most significant projects. This brings me joy, even with the most mundane tasks or those I would prefer to procrastinate on, because I get to have fun while doing what is required. I also write positive messages on note cards with colored sharpies and often share them on Instagram (www.instagram.com/demareedvm).
5) Who can you surprise today?
I ask myself this question every morning, and by the end of the day, I’ve found a way to bring a bit of joy and fun into the world, and let a friend, colleague or family member know that I’m thinking of them. Bonus: research has shown that giving can improve our mood and feelings of happiness3. Win-Win! +
- Blatchford, E. (2017, November 21). How Neuroplasticity Can Help You Get Rid Of Your Bad Habits. Retrieved May 5, 2020, https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/11/20/how-neuroplasticity-can-help-you-get-rid-of-your-bad-habits_a_23283591/
- The Eisenhower Matrix: Introduction & 3-Minute Video Tutorial. (n.d.). Retrieved May 5, 2020, https://www.eisenhower.me/eisenhower-matrix/
- Suttie, J., & Marsh, J. (2010, December 13). 5 Ways Giving Is Good for You. Retrieved May 5, 2020, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/5_ways_giving_is_good_for_you