Before arriving to work in the morning, you’ll have processed 7,500 thoughts. By noon, that total will have risen to 22,000. Then as you’re falling asleep, you’ll have reached approximately 66,000 thoughts for the day. That’s about one thought per second.
Thoughts aren’t just words floating in your head or spewing out in an effort to connect and communicate. Each thought is material. It’s an electrical and chemical event within the most complex structure in the known universe. From that mysterious formula, which science knows only so little about, comes emotion.
Emotion is an immediate reaction. It comes from the limbic system deep in our brain. As we look at the event that spurred the emotion, thinking about what has happened and what it means for us, we form feelings from emotion. Feelings come from the abstract thinking happening at our frontal lobe.
This is the distinction between emotions and thoughts in the eyes of some researchers and clinicians, and it’s useful for this article.
So as your thoughts process the emotion’s chemical-electrical explosion, you experience a feeling. Whether that feeling is pleasant or painful depends largely on how you think about whatever it is that happened.
Emotions tend to pass. Feelings are a force of their own and can siphon our thoughts for the fuel they need to keep burning. Thinking generates feelings.
Supervising your thoughts is important since feelings can supply your self-motivation. If you want to do something, create something, or change yourself in some meaningful way, you’ll depend on the support of your feelings.
You’ll likely not be able to supervise every thought. That is an achievement worth a lifetime of effort, one made much easier if you don’t think quite so much. For most people, there are too many thoughts flying through our heads at lightning speed.
The idea is to prevent yourself from thinking habitually without regard to the feelings you’re creating. You have to own the experience you create through your own mental proclivities. If you can’t still your mind, it’s wise to think intentionally with the purpose of emotional self-regulation. Think purposefully to create helpful feelings.
The notion that events outside of you cause your feelings is untrue. Only you have the power to create and regulate your feelings. You may have an initial emotional response to the events of life, but the long-term experience of your feelings is a whole other matter.
By supervising your thoughts, you gain the option to create any emotion you think will help you deal with life’s challenges.
Consider what this means. If you’re thinking well when something unpleasant happens, you can still cause yourself to feel well and perform well. You don’t have to feel sad, blue, frustrated, or anything unless you allow these feelings.
There are surely unique experiences that challenge our ability to do this. Sometimes awful things need to be felt for their own reality, and the mental effort needed to generate an unnatural feeling would likely be self-defeating.
But in the vast majority of situations, how you feel and perform isn’t caused by external events, but by whether you take ownership of your thoughts.
Few people think about supervising their thoughts.
Here’s an example.
Let’s say your job requires placing a conference call to several individuals whom you don’t enjoy speaking with. As the time of the call approaches, your palms become sweaty, and instead of preparing for the call, you distract yourself with cat videos. Each time you look at the phone, you become more nervous. You send an email saying you’re tied up and will have to postpone the call until later.
You don’t intend for this wimpy behavior, but your motivation to make the call was sabotaged by the unintended feelings of fear and worry. Buzzing furiously at some level of your mind were thoughts of dread about this call. You can try to distract yourself, but a belief is a thought and it can generate a feeling. And in this instance, you believed that conference call was an unpleasant and unwelcome intrusion on your day.
Let’s say this call is routine, and every week it’s awful. And so over the weeks, you’ve unwittingly engaged in the same habitual thoughts each time the call loomed. A terrible and beautiful thing about the brain is that once it has learned something, even a repetitive thought, it is easier to formulate that thing later. All those weeks of ill thinking turned an idea into a rut.
Think of your thoughts as the engine to human performance and your resulting feelings as the fuel. To ensure you deliver the best performance, you need solid control over the engine and the best fuel you can formulate.
Here are a few examples that will help you think well to work well:
Don’t live or work in response to circumstances you can’t control. Live and work in response to what you can control—most importantly your own thoughts.
Choose to think intentionally in a non-negative manner as often as possible. Keep your thoughts realistic but also energized with optimism. “I don’t enjoy placing those calls, but it’s not that bad and I do feel more connected to the different departments.”
If you’re anticipating that an upcoming event may be difficult, prime the feelings you prefer to experience by planning how you’ll think when the event occurs.
Although thoughts create feelings, you can choose a helpful feeling and use it to energize your thoughts. Think enthusiastically about performing the task. Think toward courage to rise above any fears.
Create an affirmation and use it repeatedly. “I help others in making those calls. I’m good at handling those conversations. I get excited when we solve problems together.”
Use your imagination to envision yourself enjoying a task and succeeding with a high degree of confidence and enthusiasm. See yourself making the call without any fears or worries. See yourself smiling while placing those calls.
Decide how you’ll reward yourself for successfully performing a task and think how good you’ll feel when enjoying that reward.
Keep yourself mentally fit to supervise your thoughts with good rest, exercise, diet, and hydration.
Jeff Garton is a Milwaukee-based author, certified career coach, and former HR executive and training provider. He holds a master’s degree in organizational communication and public personnel administration. He is the originator of the concept and instruction of career contentment.