Did you know that 80% of all people break their New Year’s Resolutions by Valentine’s Day? Was it for lack of training?
Why do you think that is?
Pastor Craig Groeschel thinks it’s because we’re trying too hard. Instead, we need to approach life like an athlete approaches training.
Neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf proves it’s because we’re going about it the wrong way. She believes we can literally perform brain surgery on ourselves (not with knives, but with thoughts).
Were you aware that master performers still hire coaches? You might think that once you reach a certain level of proficiency, you no longer need a coach. After all, you’re already the best.
We explored how that’s true for athletes in our conversation about resiliency, but I was surprised to learn that professional musicians still have coaches. It doesn’t mean the coach is better, but the coach has permission to mettle.
In this article, we’re going to allow Dr. Leaf to be our coach.
5 Ways to Train Your Mind for Thankfulness
Based on extensive research, Dr. Leaf developed a deceptively simple 5-step model for reprogramming your thoughts. She integrates the scientific research with biblical truth in the most comprehensive way I’ve discovered.
She’s learned that it takes 21 days to replace a toxic thought with a new healthy thought, but the new thought is merely a baby plant that needs nurturing. It typically takes another two to three cycles of 21 days to make that thought automatic or nonconscious.
She illustrates by comparing how we learn to ride a bicycle. At first, we are completely focused on balancing and avoiding falling. After a while, it becomes easier and eventually, we don’t even have to think about it.
The same thing happens with our thoughts.
Each of Dr. Leaf’s 5 steps are rigorously backed by science too deep for this pastor to explain. You can read more in her book, Switch on the Brain. If you want to skip the book, use the Switch app she also developed to help you implement this methodology for 21 days.
Training Step #1: Gather
In this phase, you are collecting input from all your senses to become aware of what’s influencing your thoughts. You also identify the positive thoughts and the negative thoughts that have power over your mind. The goal at this stage is to build your awareness muscle.
GRATITUDE CHALLENGE: What are thoughts you have that tend to be ungrateful? Write them down. Also write down thankful thoughts that you want to permeate your thinking.
Training Step #2: Focused Reflection
The Bible calls this meditation. The word implies to chew upon, like a cow chews upon food. Paul tells us in Phil. 4:8–9 to think about: whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable…”
The goal is to take one rogue thought and to develop a mental training program for replacing that thought. Michael Hyatt describes this as replacing “Limiting Beliefs” with “Liberating Beliefs.” It sounds so easy, but Dr. Leaf makes it obvious this takes time and disciplined focus.
GRATITUDE CHALLENGE: Take one of those thoughts, and start to reflect upon it. Consider its origin. Why does it consume you? What’s the biblical alternative?
Training Step #3: Write
It’s not good enough to just make mental notes about the thoughts consuming you. Writing requires deep focused thinking and the complex elements of your brain working together to organize these thoughts. The result is the development of new neural pathways.
Dr. Leaf encourages us to not limit ourselves to linear thinking. Drawing pictures, mind maps, or even poems can be healthy. The idea is to write about the thoughts you are having. Don’t try to organize them, as that’s the next step.
Dr. Arnold taught me multi-cultural anthropology in college. It’s the last class I would have expected a journal to be required for, but he wanted us to just write in our journals for a few pages every week. He knew he was trying to get us to experience things outside of our comfort zone, and the best way to track our reactions was for us to write about it. I’m so glad he did because that began a lifelong habit of journaling.
GRATITUDE CHALLENGE: The process of writing allows you to go deeper in your thinking about the negative and positive thoughts affecting your gratitude. Why is the negative thought so consuming? What’s exciting about the positive thought?
Training Step #4: Revisit
Now your brain is starting to become plastic, meaning it’s moldable or shapeable. Go through your thoughts to evaluate just how toxic your thoughts might be. How might you relabel, reorganize, or reorient you mind and heart?
At this stage, you may find it helpful to talk to someone else—perhaps a trained counselor depending on how toxic the thoughts are. Sometimes we can’t even untangle the webs of our thoughts enough to recognize the false beliefs that are holding us back.
GRATITUDE CHALLENGE: At this point, just pick one ungrateful thought that seems to be preventing you from being grateful. Start to reframe that belief. Identify the positive beliefs that you will embrace.
Training Step #5: Active reach
Now is when you start to pull out the toxic weeds and plant healthy trees (thoughts). Using techniques like visualization and actions, you start to exercise faith in living a different way. This is your active training program.
GRATITUDE CHALLENGE: You’ll notice throughout this Gratitude Challenge that we have been actively implementing daily activities designed to help us become more grateful. Now it’s time to proactively attack those thoughts that hold us back and replace them with positive thoughts that lead toward increased gratitude.
Training note: Athletes and musicians don’t try to overhaul their skills all at once. A basketball player might just focus on improving their free throws by working on one specific aspect for hundreds of shots per day. Training requires discipline and focus. Retraining our brains does, too.
I’ve had the chance to watch a complete transformation on the basketball court. Morris Udeze plays for Wichita State University. In the 2019–2020 season, he shot only 48% from the foul line. He worked hard with a trainer over the summer, and now he shoots 80%. That’s perhaps the greatest transformation his coaches have seen.
He transformed through daily, disciplined practice. The same kind of training you and I can use to renew our minds to become more grateful.
Use these 5 steps every day for the next 21 days. Pick one negative thought that prevents you from being grateful, and watch as God replaces that.
Lord, you have made us fearfully and wonderfully. I thank you that the mind is such a powerful instrument. Forgive me for allowing myself to get stuck in the deceptive webs of my own making. I also see that the enemy has worked hard to confuse and keep me frozen. Break off the power of all negative beliefs, and replace them with the liberating truths of the Gospel. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.