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The Fickle Power of the Human Mind


Doubtless, you have experienced sleepless nights. Nights of turning a thought over and over in your head – a troubling thought that wouldn’t leave you alone. Maybe it was about a stressful situation at work or a relationship that had hit a rough patch. Possibly, you have been kept awake into the early hours of the morning, staring into the blackness, just wondering where your life is heading.

There is a common cliché in the world of self-help: ‘energy flows where attention goes’. It’s hard to argue with the truth of this. We all know how fixated we human beings can become. A thought can plague you - taunt you from the periphery of your consciousness, hobbling your attempts to be productive. It can even become a pathological obsession. In such cases, energy, as well as time, is wasted that could be put to better use.

Yet sometimes the challenge is the opposite - to try and keep an idea in the forefront of your mind, to focus on it – to concentrate. If you want to learn something new and complicated, for instance, you have to give it sufficient attention – this is a positive investment of time and of energy.

In general, though we are able to direct our attention to one extent or another, we often feel that it is not entirely within our control. The attention seems to wander of its own accord. The mind seems to have a mind of its own. There may be distractions that we just can’t ignore. But it is important to be able to set aside such distracting thoughts, to forget them, in order to be able to get on with other things. We will talk about this ‘forgetting’ later, but first let’s discuss the latter case, needing to direct our attention effectively.

It goes without saying that changing one’s unhelpful habits requires intensive attention. If we can’t stay focused on our behaviour-change goals, we are unlikely to achieve them. In previous posts, we looked at behaviour change as seen through the lens of Nietzsche’s thought. We’ve looked at changes that some might consider pretty trivial. Did Nietzsche really give a fig about weight loss? Was quitting smoking a philosophical topic that concerned him?

Well, in fact he did talk about the ways and means to change undesirable behaviours. In Daybreak he writes of the ‘six essentially different methods of combating the vehemence of a drive.’ We looked at those methods back in January 2018. The truth is that Nietzsche was absolutely concerned with overcoming everyday failings, regardless of their specific character, and he argued that dealing with them was an essential step in the journey towards self-overcoming.

In The Wanderer and his Shadow he writes:

‘The Most Necessary Gymnastic. Through deficiency in self-control in small matters a similar deficiency on great occasions slowly arises. Every day on which we have not at least once denied ourselves some trifle is turned to bad use and a danger to the next day. This gymnastic is indispensable if we wish to maintain the joy of being our own master.’

So discipline in everyday matters is crucial. If Nietzsche’s ultimate project was the perfection of the human animal, its ultimate exemplar being the Übermensch, then getting the basics right was the necessary basis for this extraordinary endeavour. The aspirant to such an enterprise must cultivate robust physical health, mental fortitude, excellent personal efficiency and high levels of self-possession.

What we are talking about here is a kind of asceticism. Asceticism is the practice of observing tough regimens of self-denial and self-control. These could include abstinence from sex, alcohol or even food, or adherence to gruelling programmes of physical and mental exercise.

Historically, it has even included painful ordeals of self-mortification such as were practiced by Christian flagellants of the medieval period. Nietzsche was strongly opposed to the religious asceticism shown by these fanatics. For him, their asceticism was negative – it was a denial of their natural instincts, casting them as something sinful and shameful. They rejected the real world around us in favour of some fairytale afterlife – they denigrated the material body in favour of a supposed immaterial ‘soul’.

Though their motives were questionable, not to say downright silly, Nietzsche thought their self-control was admirable in the highest degree. He too lauded the individual who could live ascetically, but the difference was that his asceticism was about gaining power over one’s self in order to become a higher type of human being.

In one of his letters he wrote:

‘I want to make asceticism natural once again: in place of the aim of denial, the aim of strengthening; a gymnastics of the will’

This is the positive asceticism that we wish to implement.

We have already discussed some evidence-based techniques for changing our behaviours. Recall that ‘salience’ is a key component of several of them. Something is salient when it is striking, prominent, noticeable or otherwise difficult to disregard. That which is salient commands our attention.

Making your commitment to a new positive behaviour as salient as possible is an effective way of improving your chances of embedding that behaviour successfully. You need to be constantly reminded of your commitment and you want to eliminate any possibility that it might be forgotten.

Think of some of those techniques that we discussed:

These help make your behaviour change goals salient by forcing you to think about the steps required for their achievement and encouraging you to monitor those steps. They help you to keep your goals in the forefront of your mind by sharing your commitment to change with others – and no one wants to appear inconsistent or flaky to other people.

I have even known people to leave notes around their home and workplace with reminders about their behaviour change goals. It is a case of whatever works for you.

But one can record and monitor progress in a more structured and consistent way. To that end I recommend using tools to capture data on your progress. This will increase salience and assist you in achieving your goals.

I would encourage you to develop your own tools if you have the knowhow, but I am providing you with a Behaviour Tracker (download here) which I use myself and which you might find useful. The tracker uses Microsoft Excel, which you will need on your computer if you want to use it. In the absence of such a programme you can create a similar tracker on paper and stick it on a wall somewhere prominent in your home.

The tracker allows you to select four behaviour goals and track them over the next year, giving your self a score from 1 to 5 for each day for each of the behaviours – 1 being abject failure and 5 being complete success. The higher the score, the more green the cells and the overview sheet on tab 1 will appear. The lower the scores, the more amber or red the cells and the overview sheet will appear.

The tracker provides immediate visual feedback on your performance to help increase salience on your progress. Full instructions are provided within the tool on tab 4. I encourage you to adapt and tailor the tool to your own needs, adding more or fewer behaviours, changing the weighting of allocated points and so on.

Let me know how you get on with the tool.

So, we have discussed the importance of remembering but at the start of this article I also mentioned Nietzsche’s emphasis on active forgetting. In fact, Nietzsche said ‘Forgetting is essential to action of any kind.’ (On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life).

What did he mean by this, and how do we use forgetting in our quest for self-mastery. This will be our topic for next time.

Next Time: Remember to Remember

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