World War II, Ted Bengermino was responsible for maintaining
records of men killed or missing in action. He often had to take
the personal effects of soldiers killed in action and send the
things to the young mens parents, and he worried himself
sick that his department might make a mistake. What if they accidentally
told the wrong parents their son was dead?
Bengermino was anxious so often, he started
worrying about his own health. He lost thirty-four pounds from
worry and exhaustion. He worried he might be a physical wreck
when he went home after the war. He cried when he was alone.
There was a period soon after the Battle of the Bulge started,
he said, that I gave up hope of ever being a normal human
He eventually ended up in the Army dispensary.
The doctor examined Ted and concluded his problem was mental.
Ted, he said, I want you to think of your life
as an hourglass
The doctor explained the basic truth: We
all want to do more in a day than can be done. But weve
got to take the tasks one at a time. If we dont, it would
be like trying to force the grains of sand through the narrow
part of the hourglass. We would break under the strain.
The advice of the doctor was Teds
turning point. He often said to himself, One grain of sand
at a time
One task at a time. That became his slotra. He practiced
thinking it. And he began to recover.
After the war, working for a printing company,
he sometimes felt pressure and he became anxious and tense. The
slotra would come into his mind, One grain of sand at a
time. One task at a time.
By repeating those words to myself
over and over, he said, I accomplished my tasks in
a more efficient manner and I did my work without the confused
and jumbled feeling that had almost wrecked me on the battlefield.
When you want to make a change in your
life, remember that the key is remembering to think something
specific at specific times. To ingrain a thought, make a
slotra and repeat it. Its the power tool for change.
Miki has been shy her whole life. She feels
anxious around people, especially when she feels shes being
watched or judged. She feels strongly compelled to make sure
people dont disapprove of her. She tries to please everybody
and in doing so, she limits her self-expression. She doesnt
feel free to be herself. She feels she must make sure everybody
is pleased with her.
One day she realizes its okay if
every person is not a hundred percent pleased with her. In fact,
its impossible. She cant please everybody. And shes
no longer willing to sacrifice her own integrity and honesty
to make shallow people more comfortable.
Thats a great insight. Will it make
any difference? It could. But tomorrow, when Miki is talking
to her father, the old patterns will be there very strongly.
She may forget all about her insight.
There is one technique that can preserve
her insight: She will need to remind herself. Not by writing
it in a journal that she may not read until three years from
now. Not by thinking about it once or twice. But by taking on
the task of reminding herself like it is important. How
can she remind herself in a way that she cannot ignore or overlook?
This is our task also. We have insights
all the time. Will they make any difference? It depends on how
successfully we remind ourselves. Of course, you have to be selective.
Some of the things you learn arent worth taking the time
to ingrain. But when you find one, take the task seriously and
do it wholeheartedly. Dont let that insight fade away.
Make it real. Let it change your life for the better.
Put the insight on your screensaver. Write
it on a card and keep it in your pocket. Pull it out and look
at it several times a day. Post it on your dashboard, on the
refrigerator, on the bathroom mirror. Have it engraved on a pendant
and wear it. Record it onto a tape and listen to it while you
drive. And Im not talking about doing one of these, like
some sort of gesture. I mean do them all and anything
else you can think of. Get serious about remembering your insights!
And heres a hot tip: Your brain stops
looking at stationary things. If Miki put a giant poster on her
wall that says: Its okay if every person is not a
hundred percent pleased with you, even if the letters are
six feet high, within a couple weeks she wont notice the
poster any more. Her brain will get used to seeing it. Her brain
already knows what the poster says and will stop registering
That means if you post something on your
bathroom mirror, youll have to move it to another location
after a couple days or you will stop noticing it. Or you can
ask your spouse to move it for you. Use your ingenuity to come
up with novel ways to remind you of the insight.
I remembered to unroll the sleeves the
first day I tried, because my decision was fresh in my mind.
But then for three days I forgot. Then I reminded myself, and
started concentrating on reminding myself, and did it for two
days. Then I forgot for a few more. Eventually I formed a new
habit. Now Ive unrolled those shirtsleeves so many times,
it would be difficult to remember to leave them rolled up.
You know how it is. There are lots of things
we do automatically like that. Weve done them so many times,
the sequence of movements doesnt require our attention,
so our attention goes to other things while we do it.
For most people, driving a car is like
that, which is amazing because driving a car is a complex activity,
which anyone first learning to drive is painfully aware of. You
have to pay attention to the road, other cars, signs, turns,
etc., and move the steering wheel and foot-pedals in response
to what you see. Theres a lot going on. A lot to remember.
But after driving for a few years, most
people can do it all without really paying attention. When something
unusual happens, you wake up and put your attention
on the road, almost as if you took over the manual control of
a car driving on automatic pilot.
If driving conditions are normal, an experienced
driver can engage in a conversation with a passenger while the
automatic pilot watches and responds to the driving situation.
That amazing level of automatic behavior
was created just by doing something many times.
But there are some things youve done
even more often than driving, like tying your shoes. And thinking.
Have you ever seen a child learn to tie
his shoes? Youve forgotten what a complex task it is. Youve
done it thousands of times. If you tried to tie your shoes a
different way now, youd have a hard time. Each one of your
movements is a cue or a trigger for the next movement in the
sequence, and each has been linked together again and again.
Its a habit. It happens automatically. And when youre
doing it, you dont really pay attention to the task. If
you tried doing it differently you would have to work on it and
it wouldnt be easy.
Its the same way with your thoughts.
Youve had some sequences of thoughts thousands of times,
often triggered by the same or similar events.
For example, when someone you love has
an unhappy look on her/his face, it triggers a sequence of thoughts.
Youve gone through the sequence of thoughts so many times,
you arent even aware of them any more. All you know is
the end result: You feel bad. You may have gone through that
same sequence of thoughts since you first began to think.
When you were a child and your parents
gave you that look, you first formed your sequence of thoughts,
however primitive they were back then. Those thought-patterns
may have been the first complex thoughts you ever had. And if
youve never stopped and changed those patterns, youve
been going through the same patterns over and over almost your
entire life, having the same feelings in response to those same
Then I come along and tell you to pay attention
to what youre thinking. But by the time you feel a negative
emotion, youve already gone through the sequence of thoughts
that got you there. And you did it so quickly, you didnt
even know you were thinking. I had a hard enough time becoming
aware enough to remember to unroll my shirtsleeves. Its
far more difficult to become aware of your thinking when you
But while its true your habits can
get you into trouble sometimes, habits are also tremendously
useful. Habits are not the enemy. Habits are how you hold onto
patterns, useful or not. If you werent able to form habits,
life would be much more difficult.
The fact that you can form habits and that
those habits are resistant to change is good because when you
have a useful sequence of thoughts or actions, you won't have
to try to remember every time. You can relax and put your attention
on other things.
Because habits are hard to break, you can
gain something. Its like a ratchet. It allows you to move
forward, but prevents you from slipping back. So you can get
somewhere. You can improve.
The only catch is when you need to change
a habit that already exists.
BLAZING A NEW PATH
A habit or thought pattern is like a well-worn
path through a large meadow. If youre going to cross this
meadow, the easiest way to do it is by following the path.
But lets say the path takes you to
a swamp, and thats not where you want to go anymore. There
are berry bushes in a corner of the meadow, and thats what
only problem is, there is no path to the berry bushes and the
grass in the meadow is four feet high and hard to walk through.
Obviously, the thing you need to do is
to make a new path. It will be hard. It will be a lot harder
than going down the well-worn path to the swamp. But if you want
to form a new path, thats what you need to do.