The 3 golden rules to shift your mindset

October 10


Ever come across the term? A simple definition in the dictionary is:

control exerted to do something or restrain impulses‘. 

We have been sold all our life that willpower is the cure for all our problems. We have been told to find that inner strength and it will finally help you push through those unhealthy behaviours you hate about yourself.

Muster up the desire, stop being weak and get on with it…’ and that will be the recipe for changing your behaviour. 

It does not work like that. Motivation and willpower can be the most unreliable tools for behaviour change.

You will have established up front that the 3 golden rules to shift your mindset does not include willpower. 

Do you find yourself feeling ‘full of energy’ and ready to hit the day and then only moments later feel the opposite and feel like you cannot get anything done?

Or perhaps you say that you are going to eat healthily only to then give in to the chocolate later that evening because you have had a ‘bad day’.

Sound familiar? If you want to find out why this happens and how to change it, keep reading.

How a human being functions

Human beings are deeply complex. We are a physical substance of interconnected cells, systems and chemicals that serve a purpose to keep us alive and functioning

“In other words, all these interacting factors contribute to who we are and how we behave.”

Simply put, the human body works to facilitate, maintain and regulate things that help us in our everyday lives. Human beings do not just grow and evolve in isolation; we evolve in connection with the environment around us.

All these interacting factors contribute to who we are and how we behave. Our brain develops patterns of thinking that determine how we should interact with situations and make predictions on how to react in situations unfamiliar. It forms these patterns so they can be automated and easy to perform. Evolutionary, this is incredibly helpful. Imagine having to think about everything we do. We would never get anything done and things would be a lot slower.

For instance, you come home from a really stressful day at work, you walk into the kitchen and you grab a bottle of wine. The brain takes a ‘multi-sensory picture’ of that scenario and remembers what happened. It remembers the sweaty palms, the smell of the wine, the sight of the kitchen counter and fridge, the noise of wine glass as you remove from the cupboard and the relief in negative thoughts once you have had a glass of wine.

The next time you feel stressed from work, the brain remembers how to reduce the feeling of stress by activating the patterns to perform the same behaviours again. Without any conscious thinking, the brain and body has entered an automatic mode of operating to ensure your physical feeling of discomfort is returned to a normal state as quickly as possible. 

The way the brain organises itself to protect you is incredible and often helpful. However, in many cases, where there is no actual threat, it can be very unhelpful. If you are interested in the neuroscience, Lisa Feldman Barret has a book called ‘how emotions are made’ that references in greater detail the summary above. 

In very simple terms, the brain and body want to keep you safe and to maintain things the way they have always been.

That is why the saying ‘we are creatures of habit’ is very true. When we try to create a new behaviour or habit, we come up against the wall of opposition in the human mind and body. That wall of the opposition wants to save energy by maintaining the status quo.

Does willpower work?

Willpower relies on you resisting impulses and control as the basis for living your life more successfully. I think we would all agree we would like to have strategies to live a better life. However, using control and restraint as the tool goes against science as outlined above. It is like putting your hand in the fire repeatedly expecting not to get burnt.

“you are also relying on a decision-making process that wants to avoid uncomfortable situations”

Willpower is the very reason why you are going around the cycle of frustration.

Willpower suggests you should use that inner strength, those positive feelings, to overrule or perform the task. Yet, that feeling comes and goes and changes all the time. Is relying on this system to live your life helpful to you? 

Cast your mind back to moments when you have decided on something based on how you feel. Did it serve you well?

  • Those times when you went to bed saying you were determined to get up in the morning for a workout yet did not feel like it in the morning.
  • You were determined you were only going to have one drink to wake up with a massive hangover after 12 drinks the night before?
  • You felt highly motivated to write a to-do list yet one hour later you found it difficult to get through the first item so go and do something else.
  • You felt determined to have the difficult conversation with your boss, yet you did like the feeling you had before the call so decided to reschedule it for next week.

When you use your feelings as the basis to decide how to act, not only are you allowing the decision to be taken out of your hands, but you are also relying on a decision-making process that wants to avoid difficult/uncomfortable situations and wants to keep things the same.

Why willpower does not work!

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If you have got into a pattern of not doing exercise, going to bed late/getting up late or having a bottle of wine each night, your brain is working hard to keep it that way. 

That is why creating new behaviours and habits are very hard. When you rely on your feelings and thoughts to determine how you behave, counterintuitively, it is helping you save energy, but it is not helping you in the long term. It is only serving you to feel good right now.

We can do a quick exercise to show how your thoughts and feelings occur without you having any control over them.

  1. Think of a situation when you behaved or acted in a way that was unhelpful to you(e. raiding the freezer and ate the whole tub of ice cream).
  2. What thoughts and feelings occurred during that situation?(e. ‘I feel so stressed’, ‘it has been a terrible day’, ‘I am so hungry’, ‘I am not hungry, I am trying to be healthy’, ‘Do not eat the ice cream’, ‘Just have a little bit’).

Write them down.

Now ask yourself this question: did I want those thoughts and feelings?

“Using willpower to leverage control will result in you having less control”

If the answer is no, you can see that those thoughts and feelings are not you. They occurred automatically, outside of your control. You did not have a say in it. If they were within your control, you would have stopped them.

Using willpower to leverage control will result in you having less control. Think about this, willpower is keeping you locked into the hamster wheel of going round in circles, never achieving the change you want to see.

So, what is the alternative?

I am going to provide you with the 3 golden rules to shift your mindset that have helped multiple clients of mine break this cycle. 

If you have fallen into the pattern of relying on your feelings and thoughts to achieve what you want, come to terms with the idea that your approach to date is ok but it is time to make a change. What has happened previously has happened, let us now focus on what you can control, in the here and now.

1. Free yourself with acceptance

The first golden rule is accepting that you cannot control your thoughts and feelings.

Now say that out loud “I cannot control my thoughts and feelings”! 

The more you try to control your thoughts and feelings using willpower, the more out of control you will be. Drop the need for control by accepting your thoughts and feelings for what they are. It is now your time to let go of that control. Letting go of that control can be difficult as you are seeing yourself, others, and the world in a different way.

Acknowledge those thoughts and feelings as patterns developed through experience. If your brain has created those patterns through experience, it means you can introduce new experiences to help create behaviours you want.

2. You are not your thoughts and feelings

Observe ‘you’ as being separate from your ‘thoughts and feelings’. Through practice and patience, visualising the separation can help you see that you have a choice. You have a choice to decide how ‘you’ want to respond. Let us take an example.

When you are lying in bed feeling tired and your thoughts are telling you to ‘stay in bed, it is cold’, notice and observe this is happening. A useful technique from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is saying to yourself ‘I am noticing I am having the thoughts I want to stay in bed’. By applying this technique, you are creating space for choice. 

Key tip: Try to avoid a dialogue in your mind at that moment. When you reason with your thoughts, argue with them or try to change them at that moment, you end up using the very strategy that has not served you so far, willpower. Trying to think your way out of the situation will not help you perform the behaviour you want; you will end up feeding the system which loves to avoid taking action.

3. Being committed

When creating space by observing ‘you’ from your thoughts and feelings, you want to refocus your attention on what action/behaviour you want to take and commit to this action. Choose what you want to do next that will help serve you later in that day or the longer term. You are delaying the need for instant gratification for a behaviour that is going to serve you in the long run.

A huge part of life is learning to live with discomfort. A large part of that is the uncomfortable feelings and thoughts we experience. Living with them can be hard and uncomfortable. Yet, we know they will never go away. With that in mind, rather than always being led by them, we can acknowledge them and by embracing them, still choosing to behave in a way more in line with what we want.

“Choose what you want to do next that will help serve you later in that day or the longer term”

You may be experiencing painful feelings and thoughts, but you can choose how you want to respond to them. Your thoughts are not rules.

No journey in life comes with comfort all the time. Life is tough and difficult at times. As with discomfort, behaving in ways that help you achieve what you want comes with a price and that is sacrifice.

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