Intentional Thinking in Four Steps

Throughout this book, we’ll use the formula “uncover, remove, reduce, and transform” to address these mental blocks and develop intentional thinking. We can tackle mental blocks by uncovering their cause, removing them by challenging our self-talk, beliefs and assumptions, reducing the impact these blocks have on our lives, and slowly transforming this part of ourselves into something beneficial.

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Intentional Thinking in Four Steps

Our first step is to UNCOVER the causes and roots of our mental blocks.

Let’s return to our example of the first employee who messed up at work. This person chose not to own up to his mistake immediately, and instead defaulted to blame—why? Maybe a combination of his personality, upbringing, past experiences and personal values conspired to make him feel like it was simply not acceptable to fail, and that owning up to a mistake was a weakness to feel ashamed about.

Maybe this person feels they have no worth at all unless they are clever, always right, always on the ball. If this employee were to dig a little, they may find that some of their core values were intelligence, competence and prestige. Where did these core values come from?

Perhaps from a perfectionist parent, or training at an elite and ruthless university, or living in a culture that rewards ambition and punishes mediocrity. To uncover the hidden causes of your own mental blocks, you need only ask why again and again in the same way, until you reveal what is powering your assumptions, values and beliefs about yourself.

What do I feel or think?
Why do I think/feel that way?
Who taught me this, or where did I first encounter this belief?
What associations do I have?
What life “rules” am I following?
What are the effects of this belief on my life?
Do I like how thinking this way makes me feel?

On reflection, the employee may discover that his unspoken belief is that “I am worthless if I fail.” Looking closely can allow him to see something else: that these values and beliefs actually conflict with other convictions he holds. For example, he may see that in his life, refusing to acknowledge mistakes has cost him learning opportunities, and ironically made him less successful over time, and more likely to fail. He realizes that his mental blocks are actively hindering him from living the kind of life he wants.

The next step is to actually REMOVE the mental block.

Easier said than done! Be gentle on yourself—your mental blocks have probably been with you from childhood, and can be so fixed they seem like reality itself. This step takes time and patience, but the first thing you need to do is simply become aware of what you say to yourself, mentally, day in and day out.

At first, just listen as you talk to yourself. Pay attention to your inner monologue and hear the tone of voice you use, the phrases and words you keep returning to, the patterns. Become curious about where this perspective or interpretation comes from. Many people are often surprised to find that their inner voice is none other than that of a critical parent or teacher, or an amalgamation of other peoples’ opinions.

Be curious and simply ask where thoughts and self-talk originates. When was the first time you felt or thought this way? Why?

The surest way to gradually start loosening the grip of a mental block is to challenge it once it appears. Don’t simply take your own word for it—demand evidence. Do you know that such-and-such is the case, or have you simply told yourself so many times that you assume it’s true?

Stopping to deliberately look at self-talk with a fresh eye invites in some intentional thinking. Our employee could notice himself saying, “you always mess up, you’re a terrible person,” and deliberately decide to pause to examine this claim.

Is it really true? No. He can find evidence that he has achieved many impressive things in life. True, he has made mistakes, but it’s simply factually incorrect that he always messes up. He also argues with his self-belief—making mistakes doesn’t make you a bad person. After all, haven’t all his heroes made mistakes, too?

Challenging negative self-talk is not easy, but with repetition and time, you can gradually loosen automatic and unconscious beliefs that run on autopilot, sabotaging your success.

The third step is to REDUCE the mental block’s power.

If you begin to pick at your mental blocks, you may start to notice something: you don’t exactly want to be rid of them. This is because they exist for a reason. They serve a purpose. Sure, they may be limiting you in many ways, but chances are some of these mental blocks have their advantages, too.

For our employee, for example, his intolerance for failure may well inspire him to work extra hard, giving him grit and resilience, conveying an attitude of confidence and optimism. This makes tempering these mental blocks a little harder. The trick is to find moderation.

A useful analogy is to imagine that your life is a car, driving toward its destination (or off a cliff, if it’s that kind of life!). Try to imagine that all your personality quirks, mental blocks, beliefs, values and so on are allowed in the car, but only as passengers—never as the driver.

So, our employee could acknowledge that his perfectionist streak is a part of him and has its uses at times, but ultimately it’s his higher, conscious, intentional self that is driving the vehicle. He will not allow his fear of failure, in other words, to run the show. He will appreciate its contributions now and then, though.

The final step of the process is to TRANSFORM the mental block into something that is actually a valuable asset to your life. The thing is, when approached consciously and with intentional awareness, even our greatest flaws can be sources of meaning and growth for us.

For our employee, his perfectionism and inflexibility can be a stern teacher about the power of vulnerability, teaching him the importance of asking for help, staying humble, and the virtues of a growth mindset. His greatest insight could come from a real reversal of his core beliefs—i.e. that he is a valuable person and his efforts are worthwhile, no matter how many mistakes he makes. In fact, the more he experiences, the more he can grow. Being vulnerable and admitting imperfection or ignorance ironically makes him stronger.

Identifying mental blocks is a necessary first step, but we really grow and change when we take conscious, focused action. If you’re afraid and uncertain, ask for help. If you’re stuck comparing yourself to others, decide to reach out and compliment someone you admire, and then take one step toward achieving your own goals. If you know that you are usually triggered by tight deadlines, plan accordingly and take action to work around your limitations.

Self-doubt, uncertainty, negative self-talk, and similar issues are not problems in themselves. When you become aware of them, however, you can take control and start to act toward something better. Look at your mind for what it is: something that can be reprogrammed, improved, enhanced. It can grow and adapt. You can be better.

These four steps of uncover, remove, reduce and transform actually overlap in reality, and are never really finished. It took a lifetime to program your personal mental blocks, and it will take time to gradually replace them with something better. We’ll be returning to these four straightforward steps again and again in the chapters that follow, and that’s simply because they work, no matter what mental blocks we’re talking about.

Once you get the hang of removing the obstacles between you and conscious, intentional thinking, then the sky really is the limit.