Here’s a question to ponder: Do you control your mind, or does your mind control you?
If you’re like a lot of people, there are times when your mind feels like an enemy. Sometimes we get caught in gerbil-wheel-like thought patterns of anxiety, stressing over the same unanswerable questions over and over again. Other times, we find ourselves dragged completely off-course by distraction, procrastination, laziness, or depression.
When these kinds of thought patterns take over, it’s clear that we’re no longer the masters of our minds. And that’s a problem because when we’re not in control of our own mind, we’re not in control of anything. The more negative or self-destructive thought patterns begin to dominate, the more everything starts to fall apart – our career, our relationships, our physical health, and of course, our mental health.
There is some good news here, though. Of all the things in life that we try (or want) to control, controlling our own mind is something that’s within reach. You might not be able to control other people, your job, politics, or the weather, but with practice, you can learn to control your mind.
Here are five stages, complete with challenge exercises, for mastering your mind.
1. Start with a digital detox
Text. Email. Social media. The 24-hour news cycle. TV shows. Unless you’re stubbornly hanging on to 1980, you’re probably inundated with digital stimulation every day. If you have a white-collar job, you probably stare at a screen for a large portion of your day. And if you’re like most people, you then go home and relax in front of a different screen.
According to a 2016 report on CNN, the average American spends nearly half the day staring at one kind of screen or another. Eighty-one percent of Americans own smartphones, and those smartphones are being used to consume almost two hours of media each day.
When it comes to mastering our mind, digital overload is bad news. More studies are coming out about how overall levels of distraction have increased. We don’t need extensive data, however, to tell us what experience has already taught us. Digital oversaturation makes us distracted, interferes with productivity, reduces our attention span, keeps us up too late, and, like an addict deprived of his or her drug of choice, can make us irritable when we can’t get it.
It’s high time for a digital detox.
Mental mastery challenge:
The next time you’re on a train, in a car, waiting at the doctor’s office, or waiting for a friend to arrive at a meeting point, can you keep your phone in your pocket or your purse?
Take your detox further, and turn your phone all the way off (yes, OFF), and leave it off for a full hour. When you can go one hour, then push it to two. When you master two, go to three. Work up to having your phone all the way off for at least four hours per day (having it off while you sleep doesn’t count!).
2. …and then proceed with a digital diet
Once you’ve completed the initial challenge of digital detoxing, you need to sustain your gains through a digital diet. Think of your digital diet as being like a weight-loss diet — you don’t want a crash diet that’s not sustainable; you want to focus on long-term lifestyle change.
Start by identifying the “empty calories” you’re taking in too much of as the digital equivalent of doughnuts and energy drinks. Here are a few clues to help you:
- Is there an activity you do on your phone before you even get out of bed? For example, do you check your favorite social media site, read the news, or check email? Whatever you turn to first thing in the morning might be the “digital comfort food” you need to start reducing.
- Are there sites, games, apps, or news sources that either give you a thrill of pleasure or lead you to anger? These are also digital calories you’ll probably want to reduce or eliminate.
When it comes to mastering the mind, our phones, including the apps, news, and games that they support, are chaining us to a cycle of addiction that erodes our self-mastery. Science is showing that when we use our phones, we get a shot of dopamine, the “pleasure drug” naturally produced by the brain. That brief thrill you get when you open up Facebook might feel good for the short term, but it’s leading you into addiction, which then brings with it all of the problems addictions typically bring, like sleep problems, anxiety, and depression.
Mental mastery challenge:
Identify three apps on your phone that are sucking up your time and energy. Now – are you ready for this? – delete them. Delete them for 30 days, and see how it changes your overall state of mind. After 30 days, if you want the app back, put it back on, but with the caveat that you monitor how much you’re using it. Commit ahead of time to removing it from your phone permanently if it becomes a problem again.
If you’re morbidly obese and you want to get in shape, the first thing you have to do is gentle exercise and a nutrition overhaul to shed those unhealthy pounds. Only then can you try more advanced workout programs.
In the same way, you need to start your mental mastery with the two stages mentioned above before you move on to more advanced practices. Much like cutting out the junk food before you attempt to build muscle, it’s the low-hanging fruit when it comes to mental mastery. When you’re ready for the more advanced practices, start with:
3. Morning meditation
Meditation used to be for hippies and esoteric philosophers; these days, everyone from business executives to school kids is enjoying the benefits of a simple meditation practice. Clint Eastwood, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, and Tony Robbins are just a few of the admirable people who have made meditation a part of their daily routine.
Not unlike a physical exercise program, the hardest part of meditation, which is exercise for the mind, is getting started. Understanding that, don’t over-commit at the beginning. Start with a short, simple practice, like five minutes of observing your breath.
To get started, sit in a quiet place, close your eyes without squeezing them, and simply notice how your breath feels.
Don’t have high expectations. What sounds like the easiest thing in the world — sitting still and observing your breath — turns out to be far more challenging than you might expect. In fact, expect that you will get distracted by random thoughts frequently. Expect that you’ll get bored. Expect that you’ll fidget.
Instead of getting discouraged or trying to push the thoughts away when they come up, just return focus to your breath as soon as you notice your mind has wandered.
Mental mastery challenge:
Start by trying the simple meditation described above for five minutes every morning.
When you go a week without skipping a day, increase your meditation practice to 10 minutes. When you do that for a week without skipping a day, increase up to 15 minutes. From there, you can either stay at 15 or keep going up to what you feel is a comfortable level.
Try to be consistent; if you have to go back down to five minutes one day, or if you have to wait until nighttime before you finally sit down to meditate, that’s better than not meditating at all.
Journaling is another one of those activities that used to be looked down upon or dismissed, but which today has actual scientific evidence to back up its efficacy when it comes to mastering the mind.
The amygdala, which you might sometimes hear scientists jokingly refer to as our “lizard brain” because of its primitive quality, is the part of the brain that controls how we react to different stimuli, especially our fear response.
When a caveman saw a saber-tooth tiger and ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction, that was the amygdala kicking in. There are no saber-tooth tigers anymore, but our amygdala is still as active as ever. Giving a presentation at work, therefore, sometimes elicits the same stress response from the amygdala that a tiger once did. Over time, the daily stresses of life wear down both the body and the mind.
As touchy-feely as it might sound, scientists at UCLA have shown that writing out our feelings help us to regulate those intense emotions and overcome distress, specifically impacting the amygdala. One caveat: Writing your journal by hand seems to have a bigger positive effect on your brain than typing.
If you’re not sure where or how to begin journaling, then start a gratitude journal. Write down three things you are grateful for each day. According to one study out of the University of Georgia, expressing your gratitude on a regular basis might be the key to a long and healthy marriage.
Mental mastery challenge:
Get a journal. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy; a spiral-bound notebook is just fine, but if a high-quality, leather-bound journal motivates you to write more consistently, go with that.
Once you have your journal and your pen ready, sit down with your journal and your coffee, after your morning meditation, and start writing out the things for which you feel most grateful. If that’s all you write that day, just one thing you’re grateful for, that’s great. If you want to expand upon it, go for it.
(By the way, meditation and journaling are great substitute activities for a morning news or social media habit!)
4. Physical exercise
“Physical exercise?” you say. “Wait a second. I thought this article was about mastering the mind?”
It is. But it turns out that mental mastery and physical mastery are closely interlinked. Here are just a few examples of how staying physically active makes our mind stronger, too:
- Exercise makes learning a new task easier. After giving your brain a workout by trying to learn a new skill or new information, get some exercise. It turns out you stand a better chance of retaining that information if you combine learning with exercise than if you don’t.
- When combined with proper diet and better sleep, exercise might even reverse some effects of Alzheimer’s.
- In rat studies, new brain cells formed more easily in rats which were made to exercise than rats who didn’t. Specifically, a little light jogging seems to be optimal for building neurons.
Mental mastery challenge:
If you’re not exercising regularly, start off by just walking 30 minutes per day. If you are exercising already, see if you can increase the frequency until you’re doing it daily.
5. Train in mental flexibility
Balance and flexibility are essential for avoiding injury when exercising regularly. Similarly, staying mentally flexible is one of the best ways to master our thoughts during daily life.
By the time you get to this stage in your mental mastery, you should already be limiting your digital stimulation, meditating every day, counting your blessings and writing out your feelings, and exercising regularly. That’s great! Pat yourself on the back for having made it this far — you’re already far above average.
Bring it all together in your daily life by learning to control your moment-to-moment thoughts. A key to controlling your moment-to-moment thoughts is the skill of rolling with the punches life throws at you.
For example, your car breaks down, and you’re going to have to spend hundreds of dollars on repairs. You could do what most people do and dwell on how upset you are over the situation — texting all your friends frowny-face emojis, posting about it on social media, complaining about it to whoever will listen — or you can shrug your shoulders and focus on getting your car fixed.
Many of us center our unhappiness in life around wanting things to be different from what they are. This habit is the opposite of mental flexibility. Instead of staying flexible, rolling with the punches, and being willing to accept what comes our way, we get stiff and uptight about the slightest kink in our plans.
Mental mastery challenge:
Usually, our knee-jerk reaction to unexpected problems or challenges is to shout, “Oh, no!” We might not do it aloud, but we’re thinking it. Instead of saying, “Oh, no” when you face an unavoidable challenge, train yourself to say “I accept; what next?” Whereas the former is inherently problem-oriented, the latter is solution-oriented.
For the rest of this week, you are no longer allowed to say “Oh, no” or any equivalent phrase. Instead, you must only say, “I accept; what next?”
Keep sharpening the wheel
If you follow the five steps above, you will be well on your way to mastering your own mind. Stop allowing your mind to control you; learn that you are the one who’s meant to be in charge of your mind.
8 thoughts on “Mental Mastery: Master Your Own Mind and Change Your Life”
Thanks Ronalda! I’m glad you’re enjoying our content!
Simply wanna say that this is handy, thanks for taking your time to write this.
I’m glad you found it useful, Sisile!
Good article. I am facing a few of these issues as well…
I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I hope you found some of the ideas helpful!
I love the effort you have put in this, thank you for all the great articles.
Thanks for reading, Aurelie!
Wow, this post is fastidious, my sister is analyzing these kinds of things, therefore I am going to tell her.