Three tools for changing your mindset

One of my earliest posts here was about different meanings of “habit”: there are …

  • intentional habits, things you regularly choose to do,
  • automatic habits, things you do on autopilot, and
  • mindset habits, your default ways of thinking.

Intentional and automatic habits look very similar — the difference is how much mental effort you have to put in to maintain them — and later I wrote a blog post series on how to convert your intentional habits into automatic habits (Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). What that series left out, however, is how to build mindset habits like the ones in Stephen Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (be proactive, think win-win, seek first to understand…), Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” (about growth mindset), or just general attitudes like perseverence, intentionality, or generosity. The tricky thing is that these mindsets influence the ways you behave when you’re not specifically thinking about it, which means they kick in at unpredictable times and you may only realize later that you’ve acted against your own values. In the last few years I’ve had some practice changing my own mindset (or failing to), and I want to share with you three tools that make it easier.

1. Wait until you actually believe the new mindset

There are times I’ve thought to myself something like, “hmm… it seems like I have a scarcity mindset (thinking I need to hoard my resources and not risk losing them), where it might be more useful to instead have an abundance mindset (thinking that whatever I lose or miss out on, there will be more to take its place).” So then I try to just dive in and think of things as abundant, but it doesn’t work: I’m still reluctant to spend money, I have a hard time saying “no” to an opportunity in case it never comes up again, and I procrastinate because I don’t believe I’ll get any rest otherwise. The problem for me here is that I don’t believe the abundance mindset is correct: I think there is genuine scarcity in the world and it’s a problem to ignore that. My scarcity mindset also seems to be causing problems for me, but it’s not possible for me to just jump over to an abundance mindset because it’s not something I believe.

So am I saying in order to adopt some new mindset you have to already have it? No, because having a certain mindset means that it influences your default thoughts or actions, not the ones that you believe when you stop and think carefully. To put it in terms of System 1 and System 2 from Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, I don’t think it works very well to try to convince your fast, gut-response System 1 of something that your slow, deliberative System 2 doesn’t believe either. If, after careful reasoning, you think it’s not only useful but correct to have a certain mindset, then you can work on adopting it.

2. Understand what your old mindset is doing for you

The flip side of changing your mindset is that you’re changing it from something else, and you probably have that other mindset for a reason. If you find yourself giving up on things and wishing you were more persistent, you might think about what your habit of giving up is doing for you. Is it protecting you from being committed to things that have become unpleasant or too much of a resource hog? Is it to keep your life from becoming monotonous by sticking with one thing for too long? It can be hard to change to a new mindset if part of you is (even unconsciously) worried about certain needs no longer being met.

This is also a process where it can help to talk with a professional therapist or counselor about what’s going on. Seeing one myself has been invaluable for understanding where I’m coming from and what’s in the way of where I want to be.

3. Start by rewarding yourself for just noticing

I remember years ago someone’s advice for training yourself out of negative self-talk: “Put a rubber band around your wrist, and use it to snap yourself every time you think something negative about yourself. You’ll learn quickly not to do that!” I’ve tried giving myself small punishments (even just subtracting a few mental “points”) for falling into old thinking habits, and what I learned to do was not to notice the times I reverted to them.

I’ve had much better success giving myself small rewards (even just a little self-congratulation) when I notice that I’m in an opportunity to exercise the new mindset, regardless of whether I actually do. Eventually, I notice these opportunities frequently enough that I feel comfortable mentally rewarding myself for using the new mindset. I think there are a few different reasons why this works better:

  • Using positive reinforcement means that it feels good to stick with the process, rather than get discouraged and stop.
  • Pausing to notice the situation gives you a little mental space in which you can learn to choose a different response.
  • Noticing the opportunity gives you a reliable cue to which you can eventually attach an automatic habit of responding with your new mindset.

I’ve used this method to compare myself less to other people (starting by just noticing when I was comparing myself to others), practice hoping more, and I’m currently working on noticing when I’m trying to live up to other people’s standards instead of my own. In a way, I’ve made “reward myself for noticing” into its own automatic habit.

How about you? Any of these stories resonate with you? Are there mindsets you’d like to change in yourself? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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