Controlling your thoughts can lead to a happier, more productive life


This guy is either worrying about the bathroom habits of the bird or whether that fabric will fall.

When I was little, I could be alone in a crowded car. I’d stare out the window, dream of Tarzan, and be happy.

Today, I’m driving my four kids to Southlake Children’s Choir rehearsal. On the radio is classical music—what tiny Max calls “kitty running music” because it reminds him of a cat running on piano keys.

But I can’t hear that cat. The kids are too loud. Silence doesn’t compute for them: Born less than four years apart, none knows what it means to be alone.

I clear my throat. “Everybody, I’m not mad, but it’s important to be your own best friend. Sometimes it’s nice just to be quiet and think.”

In the rearview mirror, four puzzled blond heads stared at me. I tried again. “For the next five minutes, we’re not going to say anything. Got it?”

The heads nodded. “Great,” I said. “Ready? Go.”

Madeline’s hand shot up.

“Madeline, you’re not even supposed to ask questions,” I said.

Max tapped my shoulder. “Un, deux, trois,” he proclaimed, knowing he couldn’t get in trouble for practicing his French.

“Good job,” I said. “OK, everybody. Look out the windows at the budding trees; make up an imaginary world. But don’t talk.”

Again, the four heads nodded. And–silence.

Ten seconds passed. Twenty, thirty. Triumph.

And then. “Did I win the game?” Madeline asked.

I know I didn’t.

Americans don’t like silence, alone or in groups. On first dates, if quiet happens, we panic and figure the night’s a disaster. But silence could be a compliment that the other person is so comfortable, he doesn’t need to talk.

I thought I understood the power of the mind until I started running. On my first No Boundaries team at FleetFeet in Schererville, our beginning session consisted of running one minute and walking three. That first minute running was the longest of my life.

My second team started practicing about four months later. Now I couldn’t run one minute—I could run an hour. I started the run one/walk three sequence with my original mentor, Tracy Govert of Crown Point. She blew the whistle to start the minute, and then, seconds later, she blew the whistle to end it. The whole time, we were chatting.

“I’m sorry for distracting you,” I said. “That wasn’t a minute.”

Tracy showed me her running watch. “Yes, it was. It’s all in your head.”

She’d often said that, but I’d always dismissed it as rah-rah coach-y talk. Finally, I got it, and the statement’s reality stunned me: My attitude could deeply distort my perception of time. Now, whenever I run or drive a long distance, I bring a palm-sized notepad with lists of thoughts to examine, like counting my blessings. If I don’t, there’s danger my thoughts will turn negative.

The List

I spent 12 years teaching Interpersonal Communication—full time—at Valparaiso University, and I often used a textbook that cited a statistic that 90 percent of our thoughts are negative. The first time I read this, I considered this the hugest pile of poop, the biggest generalization—until I started monitoring my self-talk, which consisted of items like:

Can the driver in front of me go any slower? I’m so tired. I’ll never get the house picked up by the end of the day.

Stuff like that. I realized I was lucky if only 90 percent of my thoughts were negative. Now I listen to the messages I send myself and talk back. My all-purpose response is to remind myself that dwelling on the negative won’t make the day any easier: Negativity sucks away your energy, and I need all the energy I can get.

Anyway, I’m a very slooooow runner, and it’s tough to see everybody else taking off and leaving me behind. It might take me an hour to cover a distance that another runner would cover in fifteen minutes.

To keep my mind from working against me, I developed this list. I wrote it into a palm-sized notepad, and I carry it with me while I run to keep my mind busy. If you think the run will seem fast, it will; if you think it’ll seem slow, it’ll be slow.

To answer the below questions, I sometimes bring a cell phone with me and record my answers. Then, when I return, I play back the recording and write down the answers.

Feel free to add your own positive thoughts as a comment.

  1. Count your blessings.
  2. Now, thank God for your blessings.
  3. Pray for people who need help. (Note to readers: In your notepad, you can write a list of prayer intentions so you can remember them day after day.)
  4. What will you eat the rest of the day? Make it healthy.
  5. What will you accomplish the rest of the day? Make it positive.
  6. What do you need to accomplish tomorrow?
  7. Check your body. What parts of your body are unnecessarily tense? Relax them.
  8. Focus on your form and breathing.
  9. Notice the world around you. Are the birds singing? Trees budding? What’s beautiful? Enjoy the silence.
  10. (Note to readers: On my notepad, I write my goals. Reviewing them daily keeps me accountable. I ask myself how I can improve them and how I’ve already accomplished them.)
  11. How can I be compassionate to everyone I meet? Who particularly needs my compassion?
  12. What is my mission in life? How can I accomplish it?
  13. If the timing is appropriate, do stretches while you run.
  14. Do I harbor negative feelings about a person or event that can be dealt with more constructively? How?

About Rebecca Bailey

* Columnist, The Times of Northwest Indiana, for three years. * Professor for twelve years. * Mom of four teeny kids. * Voted "Most Dramatic," Castle Junior High School eighth grade, 1984. * Failed to diaper her first child before he projectile-pooped on the curtains. * Accidentally splattered her white Jack Russell Terrier with her red hair dye, which did not come out.

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