How to shift into productive thinking

Mindset matters. When you adopt and cultivate an optimistic mindset, you can improve your performance and build resilience for those times when you’re navigating through change and uncertainty. Optimism is generally associated with your ability to expect good things to happen in the future, but it’s much more than that. 

Optimistic thinkers are skilled in their ABC’s—understanding activating events, their beliefs, and consequences. Optimistic thinkers have a heightened awareness of how they respond to both positive and negative events in their lives. They’re able to tune in to what they say to themselves and connect their thoughts to emotions and behaviors. In understanding they have a choice about how to think about events, optimistic thinkers are able to influence how they feel and behave.

When optimistic thinkers find themselves stuck on a broken record of unproductive thinking, they reframe their thoughts to drive more productive emotions and reactions. Reframing is not just about turning the negative thinking into positive, but rather about becoming more accurate and productive in our thinking. Try these steps to shift into productive thinking:

  1. Tune in. To become aware of how you think, you need to listen to how you talk to yourself. A good time to tune in is when your thoughts are generating feelings or behaviors you know aren’t productive in that moment. Try using what” questions to gain clarity on what might be driving your emotions.
  2. Take a tactical pause. Sometimes distancing yourself from your thoughts is all you need to examine them more objectively. Take a deep breath and write down what you’re thinking. Then ask yourself, “What are these thoughts leading me to feel and do (or not do)?”
  3. Reflect and re-engage. Just noticing and naming how you’re thinking and feeling is enough. You don’t need to change anything. But if your thinking isn’t working for you, try to generate some alternative thoughts. Here are some reframes you can try:
    • Hunt for opportunities in the face of threats. You’re probably very good at spotting threats because it’s what you’ve been taught to do in the military. This ability has helped our species survive. But in addition to acknowledging threats, we can often look for opportunities in the same situation. Ask yourself: What are some of the good things I might learn about myself or others through this challenge? How are circumstances providing me with new pathways to do or experience things I wasn’t able to before?
    • Refocus obligations into privileges. If you take a moment and reflect on all the obligations in your life, you can probably see most of them are things you can be grateful for too. Try shifting “I have to” to “I get to.” Try changing “I have to sit in meetings all day” to “I get to exchange ideas with high-speed colleagues,” or “I have to clean the gutters” to “I get to take care of my home.” How do these subtle shifts change your motivation or mood?
    • Grab control amid the chaos. In volatile and uncertain circumstances, focusing on things you can control can help bring your heart rate back to normal after it's been high. What if you focused on one productive action instead of repeatedly thinking about all the unknowns? What’s one small thing you have control or influence over right now?  
    • Look outward instead of inward. In the midst of challenging times, it’s easy to get stuck in a victim mentality and focus on your losses—or how circumstances might negatively impact you. Take a breath and look outward. Make the shift from “me” to “we.” How are others struggling? Ask yourself, “What can I do to help? What can we do to overcome these adversities together?”
  4. Do an after-action review. If you tried to reframe your thinking, what changes did you notice? Did the process help you feel different emotions, calm you down physically, or lead to more productive behaviors? Did it help you feel less stuck?

There are many benefits to thinking more optimistically. Try reframing to help you to better handle stress, improve your quality of life, and build motivation.

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