There is nothing magical about the ideas we have put together to stimulate your thought about a game plan. No one of them is essential. Nevertheless, each represents a plausible point of attack, one way to begin to do something plausible to improve thinking in a regular way. Though you probably can't do all of these at the same time, we recommend an approach in which you experiment with all of these. You can add any others you find in this resource or come up with yourself. We will explain how this works after you familiarize yourself with some of the options.
The key is that the time is "spent," and if we had thought about it and considered our options, we would not have deliberately spent our time in that way. So our idea is this: Why not take advantage of the time you normally waste, by practicing good thinking during that time. For example, instead of sitting in front of the TV at the end of the day flicking from channel to channel in a vain search for a program worth watching, you could spend that time, or at least part of it, thinking back over your day and evaluating your strengths and weaknesses. You might ask yourself questions like these:
When did I do my worst thinking today?
When did I do my best thinking?
What did I actually think about today?
Did I figure out anything?
Did I allow any negative thinking to frustrate me unnecessarily?
If I had to repeat today, what would I do differently? Why?
Did I do anything today to further my long-term goals?
Did I do what I set out to do? Why or why not?
Did I act in accordance with my own expressed values?
If I were to spend every day this way for 10 years, would I, at the end, have accomplished something worthy of that time?
It is important to take a little time with each question. It also would be useful (perhaps in a daily journal) to record your observations so you are forced to spell out details and be explicit in what you recognize. As time passes, you also will be able to look back and search for patterns in your daily thinking and in your observations and assessments of that thinking.
Describe only situations that are emotionally significant to you (situations you care deeply about);
Describe only one situation at a time;
Describe (and keep this separate) what you did in response to that situation (being specific and exact);
Analyze, in the light of what you have written, what precisely was going on in the situation; dig beneath the surface;
Assess the implications of your analysis. (What did you learn about yourself? What would you do differently if you could relive the situation?)
Once you identify egocentric thinking in operation, you can work to replace it with more rational thought through systematic self-reflection. What would a rational person feel in this or that situation? What would a rational person do? How does that compare with what you did? (Hint: If you find that you continually conclude that a rational person would behave just as you behaved, you are probably engaging in self-deception.) (See Chapter 10 for more ways to identify egocentric thinking.)
Many of the negative definitions that we give to situations in our lives could in principle be transformed into positive definitions. As a result, we can gain when otherwise we would have lost. We can be happy when otherwise we would have been sad. We can be fulfilled when otherwise we would have been frustrated. In this game plan, we practice redefining the way we see things, turning negatives into positives, dead-ends into new beginnings, mistakes into opportunities to learn. To make this game plan practical, we should create some specific guidelines for ourselves. For example, we might make ourselves a list of five to ten recurrent negative situations in which we feel frustrated, angry, unhappy, or worried. We then could identify the definition in each case that is at the root of the negative emotion. Next, we would choose a plausible alternative definition for each and then plan for our new responses as well as our new emotions.
Suppose, for example, you are not a "morning person," that is, you do not like to get up early in the morning, preferring instead to sleep late. But let's say that your job requires you to get up early. You do not have a choice about whether to get up early. But you do have a choice about how you define the situation. You can either, on a daily basis, resent having to get up early, or you can redefine how you see your circumstance. You can remind yourself, for example, that you are able to get more done if you get an early start. You can focus your mental energy on being more productive (rather than being grumpy). Perhaps you have to get up early enough to see the sunrise, something you would never be able to see with a habitual pattern of sleeping late. If so, you can find daily pleasure in waking up with the sunrise.
Or let's say that you are in a job that is eliminated by the company for which you have worked for many years. As a result you are angry, dwelling on the injustice of the situation. But you have a choice. You can wallow in your resentment, or you can redefine the situation. You can see your unemployment as an opportunity to do something new; something interesting, something you would never have done had you not lost your job. Perhaps you decide to go back to college. Perhaps you decide to enter a new field of employment. The point is that you can choose not to be trapped by your thinking. Rather, you can take every opportunity you find to make lemonade out of lemons.
Or let's imagine that you feel constantly swamped at work. It seems that everyday is another day of too much work and not enough time. When you use your thinking to sort through your priorities and become creative about how to get your work done, you can begin to take control of the situation rather than being controlled by it. Instead of feeling frustration and anxiety, you can refuse to be a victim in the situation. In other words, you can define the situation differently in your mind. Instead of focusing on what you aren't getting done, you can focus on what you are accomplishing. Instead of doing all the work yourself, you might be able to delegate it or outsource it. In other words, through your thinking, you can redefine the situation, thereby redefining the way you experience it. (We are not assuming that doing this will be EASY. You may want to practice doing this in small ways first.)
When designing strategies, the key point is that you are engaged in an experiment. You are testing strategies in your professional and personal life. You are integrating them, and building on them, in light of your actual experience. All strategies have advantages and disadvantages. One plausible way to do this is to work with all of the strategies on the list below in any order of your choosing:
Suppose you find the strategy, "Redefine the way you see things" to be intuitive to you, so you use it to begin. Soon you find yourself noticing many situations in your life in which social definitions become obvious. You recognize how your behavior is shaped and controlled by the definitions these situations imply:
You begin to see how important and pervasive social definitions are. You begin to redefine situations in ways that run contrary to some commonly accepted definitions. You notice then how redefining situations and relationships enables you to "get in touch with your emotions." You recognize that the way you think (that is, you define things) generates the emotions you feel. When you think you are threatened (you define a situation as "threatening"), you feel fear. If you define a situation as a "failure," you may feel depressed. On the other hand, if you define that same situation as a "lesson or opportunity to learn," you feel empowered to learn. When you recognize this control that you are capable of exercising, the two strategies begin to work together and reinforce each other.
Next consider how you could integrate strategy #10 ("Analyze group influences on your life") into your practice. One of the main things that groups do is to control us by controlling the definitions we are allowed to use. When a group defines some things as "cool" and some as "dumb," members of the group try to appear "cool" and not appear "dumb." When the boss of a business says, "That makes a lot of sense," his subordinates know they are not to say, "No, it is ridiculous." They know this because defining someone as the "boss" gives him or her special privileges to define situations and relationships.
You now have three strategies interwoven: You "redefine the way you see things," "get in touch with your emotions," and "analyze group influences on your life." The three strategies are integrated into one. You now can experiment with any of those below, looking for opportunities to integrate them into your thinking and your life:
Use wasted time.
Handle a problem a day.
Internalize intellectual standards.
Keep an intellectual journal.
Practice intellectual strategies.
Reshape your character.
Deal with your ego.
If you follow through on a plan, you are going beyond being a beginning thinker; you are becoming a "practicing" thinker. Good luck in your pursuit of a plan for yourself.