Friday, March 21, 2014

Flagging Thoughts

We have a lot of habits. Apart from little things like the side of your mouth you start with when brushing your teeth, or where you tend to kick off your shoes and set your keys, we also have thought habits.

The habits trigger when we find ourselves in particular situations or we feel certain things. Sometimes the thoughts are useful and help us take actions that remedy our problems. Sometimes the thoughts are specifically trained to increase our efficiency, which is basically the point of learning things and practicing them. Sometimes, however, the habits aren’t so useful.

Sometimes they can be depressing or angering. They can be excuses that keep us from improving. They can be distractions that cause us not to focus, that divert us from what needs our effort and energy. They can be nearly anything. And if we get caught up in the thoughts without noticing, they can translate to actions that don’t benefit us, or ones that directly damage us and people around us.

The process happens naturally, one thing reminding you of another with no obvious effort. It can also happen quickly before you even notice. But if you listen to yourself think for a bit, you will pick up on patterns. There will be certain words and phrases that run through your mind. In fact, sometimes they run straight from your mind and out your mouth, which makes them even easier to track, but a bit harder to take back.

It can take a bit of time. But if you hear certain thoughts and phrases occurring frequently, you can flag them. You can begin to attach ideas to those thoughts.

My personal example came from dealing with depression for a long time. I knew that when I ended up in that kind of mood, my thoughts automatically skewed towards things that were unproductive. I started noticing certain phrases and word clusters. One of them was I would ask myself frustrated questions that started with the phrase, “Why can’t I”. I would do so in an extremely depressed tone, questioning my ability and my worth, then start following that train of thought all the way down the line until I wasn't in a fit mood to do anything. While I was thinking those things, I wouldn’t be solving problems, I wouldn’t be acting, I’d just be making myself unhappier.

Over time, I noticed just how often my thoughts would start with “I can’t” and “Why can’t I” when I was in a depressive mood. The thoughts would be similar, they would run to certain points. Soon they began to stick out more and more; if I heard myself thinking those thoughts, bells would go off. My head would snap up and I’d realize what was going on, I’d realize where I was. It was like a landmark in the desert, or a detail in a dream that let me know things weren’t real. Hearing those thoughts said, "you're off track, you're biased, you aren't at your best right now."

I notice a lot of people have thought habits centered around inability and failure. Listen to people making mistakes in games, and you’ll hear phrases like “I suck” and “I’m an idiot” thrown around automatically with surprising frequency. But if something like that is a habit, it can actually be incredibly valuable. It’s a tell, a marker, a sign that you’re going on tilt. It’s your wake-up call. If you flag these thoughts, they are the clearest indicators that you’ve gone off track. Once you know that, once you catch it, you can begin to right yourself.

In my case, once a flagged, depressive thought would pop up, I would notice. This told me that I was clearly in a depressed mood, and that my thoughts and decisions would be biased towards negativity, that they wouldn’t benefit me. So this meant that if I was in that kind of a mood, I would either 1) avoid making serious decisions if possible, or 2) search for something that tended to pick me up. Going for walks, listening to certain songs, whatever I could do to get myself in a better state of mind. Heck, sometimes just recognizing I was in a poor frame of mind would make it a bit better on its own.

It isn’t a perfect process, honestly. Ideally, you just wouldn’t think the unhelpful thoughts at all. But if we assume that you live in a world where certain thoughts crop up and get in your way, then you need some form of damage control. Flagging the thoughts is something that helps. It tells you what kind of mental territory you’re in.

Unless you have a perfectly optimal, 100% controlled brain, the odds of you having these kinds of thoughts are fairly high. Not necessarily depressive ones, but mental grooves and ruts that you frequently slip into which don’t actually benefit you. They might be excuses or self-deprecations or justifications. They might be ways to decrease how much you care so you can pretend you aren't losing or getting frustrated, when you’re still not achieving what you want. The end result is that these thoughts translate into decisions that you later wish you hadn’t made. They don't have to be big, giant mistakes; it might be not trying as hard as you could, it might be choosing not to do things that would help you. What matters is your state of mind stops being helpful.

But let’s say you do flag a thought, or a certain kind of thought. You think it, and your ear perks up like a dog's right before somebody knocks at the door. What then?

Well, if we accept that being in a certain mood can chain into certain thoughts, or certain experiences can increase the odds that you think a certain way, then there is no reason that the flagged thoughts can’t be triggers as well. I used the analogy earlier of seeing a landmark in a desert; the point of recognizing landmarks is that they give you opportunities to reorient. So if you have a more useful or inspiring thought, and you actively try to think it every time you encounter your flagged thoughts, over time the flagged thoughts will associate more and more strongly with the positive one. Or you might have a physical, behavioral habit that always picks you up and gets you going.

In short, you use the associative process to conquer itself. If a situation leads to a thought, and the thought leads to a mood that isn’t productive, then ask yourself “what puts me in a mood that is productive?” Create a series of links, X leads to Y leads to Z, where Z is something useful.

When was the last time you were angry, frustrated, depressed, whatever? When is the last time you caught yourself making excuses? What specifically were you saying to yourself? Have you ever had those same thoughts before? And can you watch for those specific thoughts? More importantly, do you have certain thoughts that tend to guide you to productivity? Inspiring ones, motivating ones, things that simply remind you of better habits and behaviors? Because if one thought guides you to another, then you can intentionally link from negative to positive.

It starts with listening to yourself. You need to find patterns in the things you think when you’re feeling low, or frustrated, or unproductive. Find something that stands out, a defining hallmark of the mood or mindset, a tell, something, and flag it for future reference. Then have a plan for dealing with it until the plan itself becomes a habit.

Thanks for reading. See you next week.


  1. Hey Wobbles!

    I always enjoy reading your posts. Keep it up! :]
    In response to this post, I was wondering if there was anything else that you do or suggestions for when you flag a thought? More specifically, if you find yourself being completely, or even fairly, reasonable/logical. I'm kind of at a rough spot with myself today, but I don't think I'm being biased or unreasonable or whatnot.

    1. I think the issue is always going to be "is this thought process leading me to a decision that helps me?" Sometimes people *do* have very reasonable conclusions based on hard data you can't dispute, but then don't think about how to use that information constructively.

      For instance, perhaps you have a really bad performance. And you crown it by making a mistake that is actually very common for you that you haven't been able to fix. It's *not* wrong to assess the performance as bad, nor is it wrong for you to say "I always make this mistake." The question is about what direction those assessments take. Maybe you look around and see everybody performing better and think "I suck compared to these guys," and those thoughts *are* true and not based on self-deprecation. But if they are true, genuine analyses, then the question is "alright, what are they doing differently? What are they seeing that I'm not?" and if you can't think of anything, "maybe one of them can help me."

      If it's rooted in a tendency to attack yourself, then it's going to take on a different tone, one of blame and frustration and dejection. "I am worse than them because I'm a stupid dumbface, and I'm just bad at everything" for instance. This doesn't move in a productive direction.

      Being hard on yourself and demanding of your results is a big part of how you actually become great at something. But it needs to be rooted in productivity, self-improvement, and useful action. What you're flagging is, more than anything, a purpose or tone that you take with yourself when you're being unhelpful or self-harming.