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Is It Worth It?

I like to think I'm an unofficial expert on negative thinking. It's not unusual for me to start and finish the day ruminating on something that could go wrong—but most likely won't. And I typically take my lunch with a side of worry, too.

I'm far from alone in experiencing negative thoughts: The average person has 60,000 thoughts per day, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Of those thoughts: 95 percent repeat each day, and, on average, 80 percent of repeated thoughts are negative.

I've tried numerous tactics to cut the negativity…Shouting "STOP" in my head when a negative thought appears…Softly singing "Oops!…I Did It Again" to drown out the thoughts…Writing down all my negative thoughts to see my irrational thinking…Meditating. Individually (and combined) they all have worked.  But I have found myself slipping back into the rut of the negative thinking, running the hamster wheel until I realize, “Wait! What? Oh yeah” and I would pick back up again.

Today, thanks to a variety of tactics and professional help, I've learned to better manage my anxiety. But that doesn't mean I'm "negative thought-free." I'm still human—so I'm always on the lookout for new strategies to check my negativity. Recently, I found an easy trick that's helped. It doesn't involve a 10-minute meditation or setting aside time to journal—all it involves is asking yourself one simple question: "Is this useful?"

You control which thoughts matter

I learned about this mindfulness hack from Eric Barker, a blogger. In a post about emotional strength, Barker explains that we can't control which thoughts "bounce around" in our mind. What we can control: the thoughts we focus on. "You’re the thing that decides which thoughts are useful and should be taken seriously," he writes. And he shared a perfect analogy to better explain this:

"You’re not your brain; you’re the CEO of your brain. You can’t control everything that goes on in 'Mind, Inc.' But you can decide which projects get funded with your attention and action." - Eric Barker

Ask yourself: 'Is this useful?'

So, how do you decide which "projects" get funded? Barker says to ask yourself, "Is this useful?" It's a tactic Barker learned from Joseph Goldstein, a Buddhist mindfulness expert. It's designed to help you assess if a thought is serving you or others—or if it's just irrational.  "If the worry is reasonable, do something about it," Barker writes. "If it’s irrational or out of your control, recognize that. Neuroscience shows that merely making a decision like this can reduce worry and anxiety."

I’ve put this strategy to the test. When negative thoughts (unsurprisingly) popped into my head, I challenged them with a peaceful, "Is this useful?" Pausing to ask that question did a few things: First, it forced me to climb out of my thoughts and see them from a new perspective. I became CEO of Allen’s Mind, Inc. My mission: To make sure thoughts bettered my company. Adopting that point of view made me more curious than concerned about what went on in my head.

Make your thoughts work for you, not against you 

Second, asking myself "Is this useful?" made me more intentional when I challenged my thoughts. Unlike desperately shouting at my thoughts to "STOP", I calmly faced them head-on and assessed them. I quickly decided if the thoughts served me, and I let those that didn't fall to the wayside.

I started viewing my thoughts like a Grinder/Scruff scenario: I swiped left for those that didn't prove beneficial to me, and right for those that I could act on. I was making my thoughts work for me, not against me—and it felt good.

Take back your power

Is this the end all?  Is it my knight in shining armor?  Do I do it all the time? Well, yes and no.  I find that by sticking with the "Is this useful?" tactic I have had more success with overcoming my negative thoughts. I also find that when I’m at my lowest, i.e., the world just seems too much, I’m really low on physical and mental energy, it is easier to let the negative thoughts take over. But one thing I've learned as a "negative thought expert": What works for one person might not work for everyone. Mindfulness, journaling, a classic early 2000s jams—there are lots of ways to combat negative thinking. It's all about what works best for you. However, you manage your Mind, Inc., just know that you are in charge. And any unfriendly "employees"—a.k.a. negative thoughts—are yours to dismiss.

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