Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all Thought Managers. Whatever other job title we may temporarily have – Fire Station Superintendent, Chief Executive Officer, mother – our permanent job, the one we’ve had since birth and will have till the day we die, is Thought Manager.
The job of any manager is to marshal whatever resources are available to deliver the best possible outcome. So, too, the job of Thought Managers. Unfortunately for most of us, being unaware that we even have this important responsibility, we are not great at it. Rather than managing our thoughts, we are often managed by them. We can attribute most of our unhappiness to this unfortunate scenario. Tail wagging the dog. Inmates running the asylum. Choose your metaphor!
Looking around at the experience of others, it becomes self-evident that it’s not the circumstances of people’s lives that make them happy or unhappy, but the way they think about those circumstances. We all know people dealing with ongoing family, health, financial or other challenges who, generally speaking, may be much more content, easy-going or positive than others who face fewer such difficulties but are perpetually grumpy. Depression, anxiety and stress, so prevalent in our society, are not the preserve of the unemployed or socially marginalised. They affect everyone.
Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones
So it’s not circumstances, but the way we think about circumstances that drives our feelings. We get that as an idea. In the way that it applies to everyone else. Where we struggle is in the way it applies to ourselves. Our own thoughts, interpretations and beliefs about reality just seem, so, well, correct. Straightforward. Valid. We can see how other people tie themselves up in knots with their unduly pessimistic, or narrow, or irrational take on the world. But me? No siree! I see things the way they are, and if that makes me unhappy, it’s because unhappiness is the only sensible and valid response to my circumstances!
Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) can offer a way to genuine objectivity. Someone trained in CBT can hold up the mirror. Help us see what’s really there, rather than what we fear, stress out or agonise over. The CBT method to improved thought management is to identify those habitual, negative thoughts that cause us to be unhappy – usually irrational – and offer more positive alternatives. This is a transformative process and one of the most powerful strategies that a Thought Manager can deploy.
Letting go of thoughts altogether
Another complementary strategy is mindfulness. A Harvard Psychology Department study found that about 47% of the time we are in narrative mode – that is, lost in thought – rather than in direct mode, when we’re focusing on the here and now. The conclusion of the study was that the ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost. That cost is our happiness.
We can choose to be mindful of sights, sounds and so forth, but the effective Thought Manager practises being mindful of mind itself. Observing thoughts arise without the need to compulsively engage with them. Understanding how the only way that a thought can remain and give us trouble is if we provide it with the energy of our attention. Learning how to withdraw that attention, so the thought has nowhere to go but to fizzle out. When we learn how to step back from the habit of embracing our thoughts and feelings, and instead become their observers, we can become highly effective Thought Managers. And since thoughts lead directly to feelings, we improve out emotional equilibrium too, benefiting from enhanced levels of equanimity, wellbeing and inner peace.
It is sometimes said that when we change our mind, we change the world. Without any shift in our circumstances, it’s possible to find a way from despair to hope, from worry to calm, and from everyday boredom to a state of profound appreciation and fulfilment. Effective thought management is key!
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You’ll find much more about Thought Management in my book, Why Mindfulness is better than Chocolate. Different covers in different countries, but same content:
USA and Canada:
I had fun narrating this:
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