Monday, May 20, 2024

How to Train Your Inner Voice and Silence Intrusive Thoughts

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There’s a certain grandeur in the idea of solitude. Picture Henry David Thoreau, gazing out into the blue-green expanse of Walden Pond. In our minds, Thoreau is at peace. He stares into the distance, thinking big, important ideas. Occasionally, he’ll write these important ideas in a leather-bound notebook.

The Thoreau of our imagination doesn’t battle with intrusive thoughts. He doesn’t slap irritably at flies and wonder why he’s out here. He’s not caught chopping wood during a sudden downpour, cursing himself for thinking he could do this, and that maybe he should just pack it in and move back to Concord.

Thoreau was famous for valuing solitude — that time at Walden Pond produced his best-known work. But we also know that even for the most confident lone wolves, solitude can be hard — especially when your inner monologue gets involved.

As a solo founder and proud introvert, I’m very familiar with the rewards and challenges of working alone. Here are some ways to make it work for you, too.

Related: Introverts and Extroverts Both Need Solitude to Do Their Best Work. Here’s Why — and How to Give it to Them.

The perks of going it alone

Startup culture places a premium on collaboration, but there are major benefits to going it alone. Not only do you not have to worry about compromising your vision or stepping on toes, but you also have the freedom to make the choices you want and follow your instincts.

Those instincts are a crucial aspect of succeeding as an entrepreneur. As much as data and facts matter, there’s an ineffable power in following your gut. One study found that when people make choices based on instinct alone, they make the right call up to 90% of the time. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, famous for his ability to make instinct-based decisions, explained this.

“Sometimes making a decision is hard, not because it is unpopular, but because it comes from your gut and defies a technical rationale,” he once said.

“Much has been written about the mystery of the gut, but it’s really just pattern recognition, isn’t it? You’ve seen something so many times you just know what’s going on this time. The facts may be incomplete or the data limited, but the situation feels very, very familiar to you.”

But intuition can be tough to explain to others, especially a skeptical cofounder who might have their own ideas. This isn’t to say you should never seek input from others — it can be incredibly helpful to have a mentor or peer network for times when you could use advice or a gut check. Still, when push comes to shove and you know deep down which fork in the road to take, it’s liberating to do it without having to explain yourself to anyone else.

Related: 10 Benefits for Entrepreneurs Who Make Time for Silence and Solitude

Dealing with intrusive thoughts

Working alone means being able to trust yourself. That can be tough when intrusive thoughts start to creep in, as they inevitably do.

Your inner dialogue can be your greatest asset — or a terrible, destructive foe. The first step to ensuring that your mind is working for you, not against you, is to understand your default mindset. When you hit a roadblock, what is your reaction? Do you wallow in defeat? Spiral into a panic? Shut down? Or do you see the obstacle at hand as a challenge and approach it with a sense of curiosity?

If your answer is the former, it means you need to reframe your mindset. Doing this will take some work. But in the same way that we go to the gym to build muscle, we can train our brains to resist negativity and intrusive thoughts.

Practicing mindfulness is a surefire way to become aware of your self-talk and reframe it more productively. Start paying attention — as non-judgmentally as possible — to your thoughts, feelings and reactions throughout the day. As humans, we often conflate the things we’re thinking and feeling with who we are. But it’s important to remember that some of these thoughts are simply not true. Being cognizant of limiting beliefs means you can start to acknowledge them for what they are — stories that we’ve invented, often not based on fact.

When you find yourself besieged by negative thoughts, try making a list of topics you actually want to think about — a problem you’re trying to work through or a recent win. This is called “intentional thinking,” and it’s a great use of your alone time, Ethan Kross, a University of Michigan professor and author of Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, tells Vox. Intentional thinking doesn’t have to be a major time commitment, either — Kross prefers to combine his with other pursuits already in his schedule, like exercising.

“I’ll just activate what the issue is that I want to work through, and then I go on the treadmill, and inevitably, my mind starts working, coming up with all sorts of solutions. I have lots of insights that way,” he says.

Related: How to Escape From the Prison of Negative Thinking

Finding solitude in an overly connected world

In some ways, it may seem like Thoreau had it easier than your modern-day solopreneur. He was in the middle of nature, and more importantly, he didn’t have a smartphone constantly chirping notifications at him, beckoning him to abandon his musings and distract himself by scrolling through his social feeds.

Giving in to the lure of the digital dopamine rush is easy, but resisting is where you’ll find the rewards of alone time. Close your door and set your phone to “do not disturb” for a period of time each day, and you may be surprised by the creativity and innovation that flourish in that space.

Personally, I build solo time into my schedule, designating a certain amount each day to clear my mind and engage in deep work. These quiet moments hearken back to my days founding Jotform 18 years ago. While I wasn’t confronted with the same buzz of devices that we regularly endure these days, I was spending a lot of time alone — more than I ever had. I’ll admit, it could be a struggle. In the absence of distractions, my brain filled the silence by assailing me with “what ifs.”

But I refused to give in. And guess what? The times I pushed through the discomfort were the ones where my best thoughts took root. Today, Jotform has over 25 million users, and I attribute much of our success to those valuable moments of emptiness, where, free of distraction, I could simply be.

Being alone — truly alone, without the company of digital distractions — can be hard. It’s so much easier to grab your phone and engage in some mindless scrolling than learning to work with your inner monologue. But once you harness that voice in your head and train it to work with you, rather than against you, there’s no end to what you can achieve.

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