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Stop Feeding the Dog: Break Negative Cycles

Imagine that you have a dog. In this case, it’s a big, mean, nasty dog (not your cuddly pet). We’re sitting around the table eating dinner, and this dog comes up begging for food. Just one little bite is all it wants. You give it a bite, and it goes away…

Until tomorrow. The dog comes up. This time, one bite’s not good enough. Now it wants two. The next day, it wants three.

This goes on and on until the dog is eating all of your food – and all of mine. Are you ok with that? I’m certainly not! So what do you do?

You can’t reason with a dog, right? “Go eat your Alpo. This is my pizza!” Dogs don’t speak English.

What’s your next option?

(For the purposes of this example, you can’t get rid of the dog). You could certainly try eating out, but what happens when you eat at home again? Nothing has changed. You could try locking the dog in a kennel while you eat, but has the dog really learned anything? What would happen if you let it out?

Your only real option is to STOP FEEDING THE DOG.

Now, as I mentioned, this is a big, mean, nasty dog. If it comes up expecting a bite and you don’t give it one, what is it going to do?

It’s going to beg, bark, whine, and scratch. Are you going to feed it then?

NO! (I know some of you may be tempted, but if you truly want to eat in peace, you have to be strong here).

EVENTUALLY, if you don’t feed it, the dog will give up and go away. And if you don’t feed it from the table the next time or two it begs, it will eventually learn to leave you alone.

Your mind is just like that dog. You must quit feeding it to break negative cycles.

When you feel anxious and have negative thoughts and you avoid, or otherwise, “feed the dog,” you get relief…but you are pretty much guaranteed to feel anxious next time. You are stuck in a negative cycle, and breaking the cycle can be hard, but it is possible! 

When you have a craving for sweets, and you indulge that craving, “feeding the dog,” you’ll notice more cravings.

When your mind says “You don’t have time for that” and you “feed the dog” by sacrificing self-care, you’re all but telling your mind “I like that thought.” It is going to return, louder than before. 

The good news is, you can stop feeding the dog! You just have to notice the cycle of negative reinforcement. 

Negative Reinforcement

This process is called negative reinforcement. Contrary to what most people mean when they say it, negative reinforcement actually means increasing the likelihood of a behavior by removing something unpleasant. In other words, when something gives you relief of some sort (e.g., from pain, discomfort, by getting rid of unwanted thoughts or feelings), you’re likely to do that thing again in the future. It can create a vicious, self-feeding cycle.

Like scratching an itchy mosquito bite, these actions provide short-term relief while amplifying the problem in the long run.

Fortunately, you have the power to override your mind, to resist feeding the dog, and break negative cycles, if you are willing to endure its tantrum (check out Ascend for more techniques to help with this).

At Peak Mind, we love to say that your mind can be your greatest asset or your biggest barrier. You get to choose.

What amplifying loops are you in?

Are you ready to break negative cycles and stop feeding the dog?

Are you ready to have more positive thoughts and helpful habits? 

“Growth is uncomfortable; you have to embrace the discomfort if you want to expand.”
– Jonathan Majors

P.S. A huge shout out goes to Dr. Marty Franklin, pediatric psychologist and anxiety expert at the University of Pennsylvania. I learned the feed the dog metaphor from him years ago and have used it no less than 1000 times since.

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Blogs

Gratitude Habits for Life

Gratitude gets a lot of attention these days. Hopefully, you’re at least somewhat familiar with the benefits of a gratitude practice. It helps train your brain to notice and appreciate the little things in life and, in doing so, shifts your life experience tremendously. 

Gratitude can increase your happiness and wellbeing, life satisfaction, even overall health while decreasing the stuff we all want less of like anxiety, depression, and anger. Whether its a gratitude journal or expressing gratitude, it is important to practice gratitude. Today, though, I want to offer some new perspectives on gratitude.

Power of Gratitude as a Competing Response

In the world of habits, there’s a treatment approach called Habit Reversal Training. A key component of HRT is the use of a competing response, which is an action that is incompatible with the habit you are trying to break. For example, if you’re trying to break a nail biting habit, you might clasp your hands as a competing response when you feel the urge to bite. It’s really difficult to clasp your hands AND bite your nails at the same time. Consistently using a competing response trains your body to replace the undesired habit with the new one.

Rumination, worry, complaining, and negativity are mental habits, and ones with far worse consequences than nail biting. These mental habits involve stewing on negative thoughts, indulging them in a repeating and amplifying loop with the effect of dragging down your mood and pulling you out of the present moment. I propose that we try gratitude as a competing response for these mental habits

It’s surprisingly difficult to tap into gratitude – really tap into it – and also get stuck in negativity. When you find yourself getting wrapped up in those negative thoughts or starting down a spiral, challenge your mind to find something in that moment to be grateful for. Be sure you don’t just go through the motions, though. The goal is to truly activate grateful feelings to help buoy you against the negativity and to help keep you grounded in the present moment.

When Gratitude Backfires

I’d argue that you’d be hard pressed to find a situation in which tapping into gratitude isn’t possible or isn’t helpful. That said, be mindful that gratitude doesn’t become fuel for guilt. That happens when your mind uses gratitude to minimize your painful experiences.

It might sound something like this: “I don’t have a right to be sad. I have so much to be grateful for. I haven’t been hit as hard as others.” Sentiments like that take gratitude, which is an expanding and bolstering practice, and turn it into a mental whip with which to flog yourself. The resulting guilt is unnecessary and underserved.

Research shows that grateful people are generally happier people, but gratitude doesn’t negate pain. It’s a “both and” not an “either or” practice. You can be both hurting AND grateful. You can use gratitude as a lifeline to keep you from drowning in the negative mental habits that intensify your pain but not to eliminate pain completely.

Your daily gratitude practice can start small. Spend time every single day just tapping into feelings of gratitude. Acknowledge the reality of your present situation and find some small bright spot. 

In this moment, I miss my family who I haven’t seen in eons because of COVID AND I am grateful for grocery delivery and a warm sunny day.

In this moment, my heart hurts for those who were affected by the recent shootings in the U.S. AND I am grateful for feeling well rested this morning.

In this moment, I am SO OVER this pandemic AND I appreciate my Brandon Sanderson audio books that I love so much.

In this moment, I am grateful for you, that you’re in our community and that you’re a part of the movement to make life better.

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously.”
–       Ralph Waldo Emerson

P.S. If you like this post and want to understand gratitude even better, Dr. April and I just recorded a podcast episode about gratitude habits and toxic positivity. We go so much deeper into these topics. It was such a great conversation!

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Blogs

How to Change Your Most Difficult Habits

The new year is slowly creeping up on us, and after the year we’ve all had, wow can we use a fresh start! Just like every year, now is a good time to change habits and pivot your life in the direction you want it. 

New Years brings with it a number of predictable things: anticipation, excitement….and new years’ resolutions.

The most common new years’ resolutions tend to involve habit change. Eating better, not drinking as much, quitting smoking, exercise, you name it. Habit change is front and center to new years’ resolutions, and we’re here to help.

Habit change is one topic I’m personally passionate about because so much of our physical and mental behavior is driven by habits. Change your habits, change your life.

(Habit change is such an important topic to us that it’s a bonus module in the Ascend program!)

The Problem

The problem is that most people miss one simple step in the habit change process, making it significantly more likely they’ll fail in changing their habits.

In this post, you’ll learn what that step is and how you can avoid skipping over it to set yourself up for much more success in the new year.

What is a habit?

We think we know good habits and we think we know how to break bad habits, but the truth is building habits takes time. You must create a habit loop. To fully understand the power of habit of this oftentimes missing step, you first need to understand the anatomy of a habit.

Habits have 3 components: 

  • A cue
  • The behavior itself
  • And a reward

Over time, our minds learn that certain behaviors (e.g., smoking) will get us a reward (e.g., reduction in anxiety). Furthermore, they learn to associate certain cues with the absence of the reward (e.g., getting in your car).

A fundamental thing you need to understand about your mind is that it’s a problem-solving machine. Habits are one major way it solves problems.

Your mind recognizes that you’re missing out on or lacking a reward, and it attempts to get you that reward by doing the behavior that’s reliably gotten you the reward in the past.

The behavior itself (smoking) isn’t the reward. The behavior is what we do to get the reward (reduction in anxiety).

Here’s the thing, the cue is what tells your mind that you’re missing out on a reward.

Without the cue, the whole equation falls apart and your habit disappears.

Find your cues

Most people have no idea what the cues of their habit are. They set the new years’ resolution to stop smoking and immediately try to grit their way through it.

And they fail.

My initial piece of advice for people trying to stop a ‘bad habit’ is always the same: spend time at the beginning learning your cues.

Don’t skip this step. 

Taking time to form new habits or end bad habits is a worthwhile endeavor. If you bite your nails, try using deep breaths and pausing when you find the temptation. If you want to get around to reading that bestselling book, leave it somewhere convenient and schedule a small amount of time to get started.

Before you dive in and attempt to use willpower to change your habit, set yourself up for success by learning and understanding the cues that make you want to do the behavior in the first place.

Maybe you are trying to break a habit like social media scrolling. By setting smart goals that are measurable you will be able to find out if you are stuck in a loop cue, which habits stick, and what habit forming behavior you need to break. This is something that is measurable. You can move the app you are most addicted to, and then notice how often your thumb unknowingly drifts to that part of your screen when you open your phone. Change your loop cue, break your habit! 

How to find your cues

Before you begin trying to change your habit, spend a few weeks paying attention to what the cues of that habit are.

Cues come in a variety of forms, but here are some of the most common:

  • Time – I always get the urge to smoke first thing in the morning
  • Location – I always get the urge to smoke when I get in my car
  • Preceding event – I always get the urge to smoke after I’ve eaten a meal
  • Emotional state – I always get the urge to smoke when I’m bored / anxious / etc.
  • Other people – I always get the urge to smoke when I’m around my friend who also smokes

Spend some time in ‘personal ethnography,’ which is just a fancy way of saying, observe your own behavior and urges and attempt to diagnose what cues might be present that signaled your mind that you’re missing out on a reward.

The more you do this, the more you’ll see common cues pop up.

The more clearly you understand your own cues, the more ready you’ll be to anticipate and work through the urge to engage in the bad habit the next time it arises.

“Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”
 – James Clear
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Podcasts

How to Develop Habits That Change Your Life

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When you think about your day, what percent of it would you guess is being run by or influenced by habits? I bet the percentage is a lot higher than you think! Creating habits is always possible.

You see, so much of our behavior, the thoughts we have, and our emotions are ingrained in us to the point that they run nearly on autopilot. Sometimes these habits move us in the direction we want to go, but sometimes they don’t.  

Sometimes, our habits subtly nudge us away from the end goal we have in mind for ourselves, and we may not even realize the impact those small behaviors have on our ultimate outcomes. 

It’s often asked, “How long does it take to create a habit?” and the truth is that it can vary from person to person. Research shows that positive habits take a minimum of 21 days to form but bad habits can take 66 days to break. Good habits like forming a morning routine of brushing your teeth can be easy to adjust if, for example, you want to start exercising. The key to forming new habits is to stay consistent. As we build habits, forming a habit loop makes it easier to stick to these new learned behaviors.

Because of this, today, we’re focusing on the compounding power of habits.  

Today we’re speaking with Will Moore. Will hit rock bottom in his first year of college when he hit his mom and ended up in jail. Through a turn of events, Will found himself immersed in his first personal development book, and it occurred to him that he wasn’t at all on the path that would lead him to become the type of man he wanted to be.  

Through years of studying and experimentation, Will became the success he is today by focusing on the incremental and compounding nature of small, everyday habits in the areas of life that matter most. And he’s sharing that expertise with us today. 

In this episode, we talk about: 

  • What habits are and what they aren’t  
  • Some common misconceptions about habits 
  • 5 core areas of your life that you develop habits around and why each one is so important to your ultimate outcome.  

Will is the founder of Moore Momentum, and he’s sharing his wisdom and expertise with us in this episode. Dig in, and ask yourself, are you truly on the path that will lead you to become the type of person you want to be? Is your simple habit formation making those habits stick? If not, it’s time to adjust course.  

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Blogs

Stepping in Poo: Getting a Handle on Helpful Thinking

Yes. You read that title correctly. I want to talk about stepping in poo (but in the context of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.)

Imagine that I’m walking along, walking along, and  – “squish” – I step in a pile of dog poop.

I think: “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe that I just stepped in that poop! What if it ruins my shoes? What if I track it all over my floor? What if the people at the grocery store can smell it from a safe 6 feet away? They’ll think I stink!”

How am I feeling?

Anxious, right? Worried? Nervous? Probably mostly negative aspects come to mind.

Now, imagine that I’m walking along, and – “squish” – I step in a pile of dog poop, and I think, “That stupid son of a gun! They shouldn’t be allowed to have a dog if they’re not going to clean up after it!”

How am I feeling now?

Yep. Angry. Ticked. Mad. Pissed.

This time I’m walking along, and – “squish” – I step in that pile of poop. This time I think, “I’m such an idiot! No one else would do this. I totally deserve this. Today’s going to be terrible.”

How am I feeling now?

Sad, down, defeated. Anxiety and depression ensue.

Last one, I promise!

I’m walking along, – “squish” – and I think, “That stinks. Oh well, no big deal. I’ll just wipe it off as best as I can and go on about my day.”

How am I feeling now?

Did you say “fine?” That’s not technically a feeling, but I’ll give it to you. Maybe calm, neutral, or indifferent?

Notice that I’m not happy. I wasn’t thinking “Woohoo!!!!! Poo!!!!”

No one likes stepping in poo. That would be weird.

But, I stepped in poop four different times and had four very different reactions. Why?

The Link Between Thoughts and Feelings

Because my thoughts – my mindset – was different each time, and that led to different reactions. If I’m paying attention, this really means something. 

Which one was right?

PAUSE FOR A HOT SECOND HERE and really think about the answer to that question.

Which one was right?

Trick question! None of them are right, per se, but which one was more helpful? 

The last one for sure.

So what’s my point here? Well, we seem to find ourselves right in the middle of one giant pile of pandemic poop. We didn’t see it coming. We didn’t ask for it or cause it. Yet we’re here in the middle of it, nonetheless. Moreover, there are going to be countless poo situations, big and small, throughout your life, many of which are completely out of your control.

Applying a response called cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT is an evidence-based way to recalibrate our approach to uncomfortable situations.

Having a neutral response filled with balanced thought helps break those negative thought patterns. I’m not saying you have to always have positive thoughts… stepping in dog poop sucks! It’s ok to feel sad or angry from time to time, but long term this kind of automatic negative response is not good for your mental health. It’s not black and white, but the better you can change your thought process and get a handle on your unhelpful thinking, the better you will feel. 

As you now know, there are many different ways to think about the same situation. While there may not be a clear cut right way to think, I’ll bet there are more and less helpful ways to view it. 

Mental health professionals might give you some advice for diagnosis for clinical purposes only. This may help ease the social anxiety and temporary anger for a while, but the cognitive distortions will not go away without constant attention to helpful thinking. 

Tip for Helpful Thinking

You may not naturally have helpful automatic thoughts, but you can certainly change that. Ask yourself these two questions to get a jumpstart on building a more helpful mindset:

1. Is this thought helpful?

2. What are three alternative ways to view or think about the situation?  

If you want turn your unhelpful thinking patterns into helpful thinking patterns, check out our ASCEND program which includes an entire module dedicated to understanding how your mind works and tools for taming it. 

“If you don’t like something change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
 – Maya Angelou
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Blogs

Change Your Habits, Change Your Life!

Change your habits, change your life, and right now it’s more important than ever.

As the world begins to return to some semblance of normality, you might find that some of your old habits sneak back into your life. Or, maybe you have found that you’ve developed some new habits during the quarantine period that you want to change.

Regardless of which camp you fall into, this post is for you. We’re going to break down exactly what a habit is (they’re VERY misunderstood) and ways to change them.

What is a habit?

Did you know that upwards of 40% of our behavior and 80% of our cognition is involuntary? 

Think about that!

Nearly half of the behaviors you execute in a day happen outside of your intentional control.

This is because our brains are habit-forming machines. They’re EXCEPTIONAL at it, and for good reason. Our brains have very big jobs. They have to run and maintain all of our bodily functions, while simultaneously taking in an incomprehensible amount of information each day, all the while, keeping us from missteps that could hurt or kill us.

No small feat!

Good habits are hard to make and bad habits are hard to break. The effort required to break a habit, even as small as biting your nails, can take weeks of effort to adjust habit loop cues. Once you’ve formed new habits (hopefully good ones), it can be just as hard to make those habits stick.

To help preserve resources, our minds automate as much as possible, and much of that automation happens in the form of habits.

Now here’s the thing, habits are very misunderstood. People typically think about exercise, drinking, eating, and other things like that. But, habits are much broader than that. 

Habits are any behavior that is cued by something external or internal (or sometimes both) that leads to a reward. It’s that simple.

When you think about it that way, you start to realize that habits are broad and pervasive in our lives. 

Seeing your toothbrush cues you to brush your teeth.

Smelling coffee cues you to go out and get the newspaper.

Your hunger pang at 12:00 cues you to look for food.

A specific chime on your phone calls you to check your social media.

Laying down in bed cues you to pick up your phone and check email.

So many of our behaviors run off of external and internal cues, which means it can be incredibly difficult to make changes to our routine when our environment is such a strong driver behind our behavior.

Never fear! There are a few things you can do to make it more likely that you’ll successfully harness the power of habits and help you to change your habits. 

TIP #1: Get specific & intentional

Many people lose the habit game before they even start playing. It’s because they haven’t really thought through what behavior they’re trying to change.

They’ll say things like, “I want to eat better.” That’s not specific at all!

Being specific and intentional means examining your current behavior and selecting the very specific, “point-at-able” thing you want to change. (“I want to stop snacking after 8:00 pm.”)

TIP #2: Dissect the behavior

Scroll back up and look at that image of the anatomy of a habit that you saw earlier in this post. If you’ve done Tip #1, you’ve identified the middle of the sandwich: the behavior.

To truly understand your behavior and have a chance at changing it, you have to dissect the other 2 parts as well.

What cue (or CUES!) trigger you to want to execute the behavior?

What reward (or REWARDS!) do you get for executing the behavior?

In our previous example, your late-night snacking probably has a few cues, both internal and external.

  • Seeing the sun go down is a temporal (time-based), external cue
  • Feeling the boredom of the evening set in is an internal cue
  • Feeling a pang of hunger is an internal cue
  • The thought, “Come on, you’ve had a hard day and deserve it!” is another internal cue

You get the picture. Multiple cues can work together to trigger an involuntary behavior like late-night snacking.

The reward you get can be just as nuanced:

  • My boredom is relieved by snacking.
  • I feel rewarded and acknowledged for my hard work that day.
  • The fatty or sugary food tastes good.

 

TIP #3: Watch for cues!!!

Once you know what cues your behavior, spend a few days (or weeks, depending upon the regularity of the behavior), noticing the cues in action in your environment. Don’t worry about changing your behavior just yet. Just get good at noticing the cues and calling them out.

TIP #4: Replicate the reward

Now comes the real magic. Experiment with other behaviors that you can insert into the middle of the sandwich that give you the same or a similar reward to what you got from the original behavior you want to replace

Experiment with a BUNCH of different options. Try them on for size for a few days and see which ones work better for you. 

TIP #5: Monitor and separate yourself from your thoughts

As you make changes, your mind is going to go crazy! As I mentioned, our minds LOVE habits. Anything that we can execute involuntarily is one more thing our minds don’t have to worry about. 

Expect that your mind will throw you very convincing arguments against the behavior change you’re trying to make. This is so normal. 

Practice mindfulness by labeling the thought, (“The thought that I deserve that cookie is just my mind trying to get me to go back to my old habit.”). Then, practice labeling any of the urges, feelings, or thoughts that arise from it.

The goal isn’t to ignore anything or stop thinking. That’s not possible and can even back-fire. 

Rather, acknowledge the thought without judgement and label the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that arise.

TIP #6: Mind the gap!

Finally, as you’re making a habit change, expect that you’ll revert back to your old behavior. Habits are POWERFUL, even if they’re simple to dissect and understand. 

NEVER, NOT FOR ONE MOMENT, should you think you’ve failed, “fallen off the wagon,” or quit just because you’ve reverted back to an old behavior during your habit-change journey.

Instead of focusing on your one slip-up, start paying attention to the duration of the “gap” in between slip-ups. If you’re going in the right direction, that gap should slowly widen over time. 

If it does, THAT IS SUCCESS! Even if you slip up. That widening gap means you’re weakening the old behavior and strengthening the new one. 

Keep practicing with different cues, behaviors, and rewards until you start to see that gap widen.

Want more info?

This was the tiniest, mini-crash course in habits, but there is a wealth of information in this arena that is so worth diving into especially if you want to break bad habits in addition to forming good new ones.

If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend the following 3 books:

   

I also encourage you to try out Peak Mind’s ASCEND program. In addition to all of the great psychological strength building content, you’ll get access to a bonus Habit Formation & Change module.

You can do this!

My biggest wish for you coming out of this post is that you intentionally think about the actions you take in a given day / week / month / year, and spend some time thinking about which ones move you in the direction you want to go, and which ones don’t.

Too many of us are living our one precious life on auto-pilot.

You deserve more than that.

You deserve to live intentionally, purposefully, and by design. 

“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”
 – James Clear (“Atomic Habits”)
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Blogs

Don’t Slouch: Building New Thinking Habits

Thinking – both what we think and how we think – is shaped by experience and becomes habitual. Pay attention, because what you focus on becomes what you focus on more, be it the downside or the bright side, what could go wrong or what could go right, dwelling in the past or being present.

Story Time. 

From the time I was 3 until I was 17, I was a ballet dancer. My main teacher, Miss Judy, was a stickler. She demanded poise and precise body position and technique. As a result, I had perfect posture

I had practiced so much that my default was a straight spine and broad open shoulders, even outside of the studio. This habit was so ingrained, it stayed with me all the way through graduate school to my first full-time job, where someone even commented on my first week, “You walk like a model.”

No, I walked like a dancer. 

I sat in a chair for the bulk of the day at that job, which was pretty different from the more active mobile life I had been leading. Gradually, that experience of sitting all day began to take a toll. As I sat comfortably in my cushy chair, my spine began to slouch a bit – just barely. 

Over time, though, that barely slouch started to happen more and more often, hanging around even when I stood up, and it started to deepen. That slouch became my default. And the twisted part? I didn’t even realize it was happening.

Experience shaped my spinal habit in a way that became self-fueling. The same thing happens with our minds, too. When we form new habits, whether they are positive habits or bad habits research shows that it is how we build habits that make those habits stick.

Thinking Is A Habit

Fortunately, our minds – like our bodies – are incredibly plastic, continually changing throughout our lives. Even more fortunate is that we can take charge of that process. Just like my efforts to catch and correct my bad posture are paying off – I may not look like a ballerina anymore, but I’m much more aware and much better able to correct it. Your efforts to intentionally shape the way your mind works are well worth it. 

That’s what psychological strength is all about! Building mental muscle.

Knowing your mental strengths and weaknesses is just as important as knowing whether you have naturally good posture, or are slipping into a slouch. If your mind is automatically in a system of negative thoughts, you must catch it just like I do my slouching. Your working memory becomes mental muscle and will positively reinforce your good habits later on. 

Just like our bodies can be trained and toned and attuned to what we need from it, our brains can be too. Just as you would spend time training your muscles in the gym, you have to dedicate time to training your brain throughout the day. 

Even simple habits like brushing your teeth as part of your morning routine make those habits easier to stick when we stay consistent and form a habit loop. Habit formation is said to take 21 days but it takes 66 days to break a habit (exact periods vary from person to person.)

Train yourself to recognize your thought patterns. Train your brain to stop negative patterns. As important as it is to start exercising, we also need to exercise our mental muscles as well.

Build Your Mental Muscle

And that’s one of the reasons we created Ascend. We want to help people like you understand how and why your mind works the way it does and, more importantly, how to make it work for you.

If you’re at all interested in checking out Ascend, do it now! 

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
– Aristotle