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3 Steps to Thinking Differently (Shift Your Negative Thoughts)

Different Thoughts - snow

During a recent productivity workshop that I facilitated, I showed a picture of snow at night with this description: "The neighbor is shoveling at 3 in the morning." I asked people to share their thoughts. Thoughts ranged from "I'll have to wake up a little early to shovel", "The neighbor is so rude", "I'm so excited to go sledding", "Sounds like the neighbor is shoveling - I'm going back to sleep", and everything in between!

Neuroscientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is the author of the memoir My Stroke of Insight, which detailed her own stroke and her subsequent recovery. Through her research, she has noted that the physiological sensation of an emotion lasts up to 90 seconds. This is the adrenaline, body tension, increased heart rate, etc. After 90 seconds these physical sensations dissipate. While it seems as though it can last substantially longer, what's left afterward is actually your thoughts about what caused the emotion.

Perhaps you have seen this in your own thoughts. "I've got 10,000 things to do today" when you have a big project due. "I dropped the ball on that again" when you forget to hit send on an email. "I really should learn to prioritize better" when your boss asks you to add to your task list. Your thoughts can veer to all-or-nothing (10,000 things to do) or catastrophizing (dropped the ball again) or "should" statements. In the cognitive therapy world, there is a technique called reframing that can help shift your perspective or look at things and people differently. The snow shoveling thoughts that the workshop participants shared demonstrate the point that there are many different thoughts that you can think!

Consider Kimberly: she is in a new job and missed a deadline. Her boss scolded her in front of her colleagues. The physical sensation of anxiety and worry lasted about 90 seconds. The residual is Kimberly's thoughts: she likes this job and wants to keep it. She doesn't want to have to find a new job. She is frustrated that she didn't complete the project on time. She is upset with herself that she didn't ask about the timeline ahead of time. She is frustrated that no one told her there was a timeline. (You get the idea... lots of thoughts)

Our brains are always thinking: that's what they do. And those thoughts influence or create our emotions. Our emotions influence how we act or react. Many of us don't realize how automatic this process is until we learn to recognize it. And once we recognize this cycle, we can begin to shift it.

Enter the Think-Feel-Do model. For example, in the marketing field, it's about understanding what customers might be thinking, how they might be feeling about something, and what actions they might take. It is used for technology user experiences, presentations, communications, employee engagement. It's also a powerful tool for recognizing how your own thoughts affect your feelings and your actions. I've also found that it can help reframe how you think about difficult or unpleasant tasks that you might procrastinate.

Labeling our emotions is a crucial step in dealing with them. As Mark Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, says: "If you can name it you can tame it." An important part of the think-feel-do model is pinpointing your emotions.

How to Use the Think-Feel-Do Model

Step 1: Label the situation as objectively as possible

Kimberly's situation: Missed a deadline on a project

Step 2: Assess your thoughts with the think-feel-do pattern

Think: I'm going to lose my job over this

Feel: Worried

Do: Update my resume and look for a new job

Step 3: Reframe your thoughts with the think-feel-do pattern

Think: I am now aware and will add this to my job's timeline to ensure that this is completed on time next year

Feel: empowered

Do: Ensure that all project discussions include the answer to the question: what is the timeline?

The Think-Feel-Do model isn't designed as a way to stop feeling negative emotions because all emotions are part of the human experience. Instead, it's a way to realize that you can always choose a different thought or a different action. When I started using this model, I would journal this process. It becomes more automatic with practice. When I notice negative thoughts or feelings slipping into my actions, I journal about it. I've also found that a mindfulness practice has helped in bringing awareness to these thoughts and feelings.


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