How many thoughts go through your mind every day? Estimates range from 12,000 to 80,000 thoughts per day.¹ Although there might be disagreement over the exact number, we can all agree we think a very large number of thoughts!
Thinking became an important part of life during the enlightenment, when the French philosopher René Descartes wrote in Discourse on the Method in 1637:
“I think, therefore I am.”
But how many of your thoughts are important? Do you need to take all your thoughts seriously? Or just some of them? Or should you even disregard most of your thoughts?
Positive vs Negative Thoughts
Amazingly, between 60% and 70% of our thoughts are negative, according to the results of an experiment on negative mental chatter reported in Psychology Today.²
This isn’t very surprising, though, when you consider that traditionally, we gave more weight to negative thoughts in order to avoid danger and survive.
Before the industrial revolution, when people lived in tribes and villages, human beings needed to be aware of predators, invaders and any other people and animals who threatened their village, tribe and livelihood.³
So, the negative thought process was hard-wired into our brains as a survival mechanism. These days, there are fewer threats to our lives and livelihoods, yet that circuit in our brains remains.
To combat your natural bias toward negative thoughts, positive psychologists advocate training yourself to think three positive thoughts for every negative thought.⁴
How can you become aware of your thoughts?
We’ve grown so used to the constant chatter in our heads, which starts the second we wake up and continues until we fall asleep, that we’re not aware of exactly what we’re thinking.
We don’t realize we’re criticizing ourselves many times a day.
We’re not aware of the constant stream of judgemental thoughts that go through our mind about our environment, ourselves and other people.
We may think that we’re quite positive, when, in reality, we are highly negative in our heads.
So, how can you become aware of your thoughts?
Meditation helps you become aware of your thoughts over time. Start by sitting in silence for just 5 minutes a day.
Notice each thought as it comes into your mind. Try not to get caught up in the thought. Just gently let it go. Imagine it is as a cloud that has floated off in the sky or as a stick that has floated down a stream.
This is easier said than done! At first, you’ll find it difficult to let thoughts go, but, with practice, you’ll be able to do so.
Meditation helps you to become aware of exactly what you’re thinking. I didn’t realize how self-critical I was until I started to listen to my own thoughts during meditation. I was also shocked at the extent I judged other people.
Over time, I realized that my harsh judgement of myself was related to my harsh judgement of other people. As I became kinder to myself, I began to be kinder to others, but this is still a work in progress!
Mindfulness can also help to stop the torrent of thoughts that assault you every day.
At work, stop what you’re doing for a few moments and take a few deep breaths at your desk. Focusing on your breathing takes your attention away from your thoughts and activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which calms you down.⁵
At home, do an everyday task mindfully, concentrating fully on what you’re doing in the present moment. This helps you stop thinking about other things, but it’s inevitable that your mind will wander. When it does, just let the thoughts float away and bring your attention back to what you’re doing.
How much attention should you pay to each thought?
Thoughts aren’t created equal. Some are beneficial, others are neutral, and some are detrimental. But, how can you decide which thoughts are worth focusing on and which ones are best let go of?
Thoughts about the Past
If a thought is about the past, it’s only helpful if it’s about a lesson learned from something that happened in the past. If not, it’s not a good idea to dwell on it because you can’t change the past in any way.
Reliving past events and situations in your mind won’t help you move forward with your life today. Thinking about what happened at a certain time will keep you stuck in the past.
The same is true for things you regret saying or doing. If such thoughts come into your mind, it’s best to let them go.
Imagine the past being represented by words and pictures on a blackboard. Wipe the blackboard clean and give yourself a fresh start in your mind.
Thoughts about the Future
The future is uncertain for all of us. No one knows what will happen tomorrow, next week, next year or in a decade from now. For this reason, it’s very easy to worry about the future, but this won’t make you feel good today.
Thinking about the future a lot can also create a kind of “analysis paralysis” which can stop you from taking action now.
Of course, it’s a good idea to plan ahead, but build in some flexibility because we all know that life can take us in different directions from those we planned to take!
Instead of fighting or resisting life, try to go with the flow and accept reality as it is now, not how you’d like it to be. This is easier said than done, but, when you become more aware of your thoughts, you start to realize just how much and how often you resist whatever life is asking you to do.
Thoughts about Today
What are my goals for today? What do I want to achieve today? What is my main priority for today?
These are the thoughts we need focus on. Write down your goals for today and work through them one by one. Don’t think about them too much before taking action. It’s better to do something than to over-think and end up doing little or nothing.
If your motivation feels low, just do one small task first. Choose something that is quick and easy to accomplish. Once you’ve checked that task off your list, you’ll feel more motivated to continue with your more challenging tasks.
If negative thoughts about your goals creep in, try to let them go. If your thoughts aren’t helping you move forward, they’re not helpful. Counteract them with encouraging thoughts, such as:
- I will achieve all my goals today
- I will finish x, y and z today
- I am creating a wonderful life
- I’m having a great day.
Cultivate Positive and Encouraging Thoughts
Positive and encouraging thoughts motivate us and help us move forward in life. That’s why it’s a good idea to cultivate as many positive and encouraging thoughts as possible.
This takes time because your head has been filled with negative thoughts for years and years, so be patient, kind and gentle with yourself. Even thinking a few more positive thoughts during the day will help.
Sometimes it’s possible to turn negative into positive thoughts. For example, instead of thinking “I’ll never finish all this work today,” say to yourself: “I’m working easily and effortlessly.”
Don’t beat yourself up if you do get caught up in a negative train of thought. As soon as you realize what has happened, let it go and focus on positive thoughts.
I find that it helps to start the day with some positive affirmations. In their book, You Can Create An Exceptional Life⁶, Louise Hay and Cheryl Richardson suggest starting your day with positive affirmations, such as these:
- Today is going to be a wonderful day.
- Today, I will smile at everyone I meet.
- Everything is working out for my highest good.
- I am safe and secure.
- All is well in my life today.
Choose an affirmation and repeat it at least 10 times before you start your day. Write your favorite affirmations on index cards and carry them around with you. When you have a few moments during the day, take them out, remind yourself of them, and repeat them to yourself.
Pause at certain times during the day, such as when you go to the bathroom or during your lunch or coffee break, to breath deeply and remind yourself of positive, encouraging and nurturing thoughts, such as:
- I deserve kindness and compassion
- I am kind to myself — progress takes time and I’m doing the best I can today
- I’m good enough just as I am right now.
Flashes of Inspiration
Have you ever had a brilliant idea? Did it pop into your head when you were doing something completely unrelated or even when you were thinking or talking about something else?
Pay attention to these flashes of inspiration. They’re often easy to forget but that’s the last thing you should do. Carry around a small notebook and write them down as soon as they pop into your head or make a note of them in the notes section of your smartphone.
Never discount your flashes of inspiration, even if they seem like completely crazy ideas to your rational mind.
How many of your thoughts are important?
So, we don’t need to regard many of our thoughts as important. We can let go of:
- many thoughts about the past
- negative or even neutral thoughts about the future
- critical, judgement or discouraging thoughts.
Let these thoughts go as quickly as possible but try not to get frustrated with yourself if you do get caught up in them. Remember that progress takes time and you’re doing the best you can today.
Removing unnecessary thoughts from your mind creates much more space for positive and encouraging thoughts, and occasional flashes of inspiration. These are the thoughts that will help you take action today, moving your life forward and creating success.