Our subconscious is filled with rules, do’s, don’ts, and “truths” we’ve been collecting since childhood.
There’s not enough time, so hurry.
No matter what you do, it must be the best.
Work hard to get ahead.
These rules make up a hidden instruction manual we use to evaluate ourselves and other people.
At work, we have additional instructions. Whole sections of the manual warn us not to trust our competitors (they’ll steal your clients), prescribe employee behavior (they should be faster), and dictate how we should show up (never let anyone know you’re worried).
Most of the time, we’re unaware of this manual, but it guides our actions anyway. The instructions are beliefs that form a lens through which we see the world. The brain automatically notices and finds evidence to reinforce our beliefs, making it seem as though they are “true.”
It’s not bad to have a manual; it saves your brain from decision fatigue. The trick is to periodically examine your manual and update your beliefs, so they work for you.
To do this, start by noticing how you feel. When you’re feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, ask yourself these questions:
1. WHY AM I CHOOSING TO FEEL THIS WAY?
This question makes clear that how you feel is a choice. It creates an opening for change.
Feelings don’t just happen to us. They’re not caused by situations in our lives. Feelings are caused by thoughts.
When reality doesn’t match our manual, the mind produces negative thoughts because the world isn’t following our “rules.”
2. HOW DO I WANT TO FEEL?
Asking how you want to feel can jolt you into awareness that you have a choice. If you’re frustrated because you or someone else missed a deadline, you may feel justified because you’re thinking, “This will damage our relationship with the manager or client.” But it’s this thought that creates the feeling of frustration, not the person.
Do you really want to feel frustrated? You’re the one feeling it, not anyone else. They have their own feelings. If you prefer to feel calm, clear and focused as you go through life, choose thoughts like: “There must be a reason this happened and I’m going to put a system in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
3. WHAT AM I MAKING THIS MEAN?
This question helps you see that you’re the one assigning meaning to every situation and it’s up to you to decide what that meaning is. For example, if an employee quits, you could make it mean “I’m not a good leader.” But does it serve you to think that?
Uncover the story you’re creating so you can see that it’s optional. Write it down.
Over time, you’ll likely discover you have many variations of similar stories because they’re connected to long-held core beliefs in your hidden instruction manual. Stories are interpretations, not facts, so create stories that increase your confidence, like “I’m growing as a leader.”
4. WHAT ELSE COULD THIS MEAN?
The primitive part of the brain is quick to imagine the worst-case scenario in order to keep you safe, but its judgment is often wrong. This question helps you imagine other possibilities.
Maybe your employee quit because of their own story. The scowl on your client’s face may mean they just don’t feel well. The proposal you lost is for the best because it was for work you’re phasing out anyway.
At a minimum, every situation offers the possibility to learn and grow.
5. WHAT IF I DID KNOW WHAT TO DO?
Asking this is especially useful when you feel overwhelmed, uncertain, or worried. For example, you lost a client, and need to make up the revenue to reach your goals.
Answering this question engages your prefrontal cortex, and your brain will start solving the problem and creating plans. Expect that there is a solution, and command your brain to find it.
You’re more capable of solving problems than you realize. Doubt and uncertainty create interference, slowing down your brain. Ask this question instead.
6. WHERE ELSE DOES THIS HAPPEN IN MY LIFE?
This question will help you find patterns in your instruction manual. The brain develops patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting that lead to similar results and point to core beliefs, like “I’m not good enough,” or “Leaders must always be right.”
Because many beliefs form during childhood, you may not be aware that they’re beliefs at all. You may think they’re facts. But patterns provide clues. Once you identify patterns that create negative results, you can begin to change them.
7. WHAT WOULD THE BEST VERSION OF ME DO?
This question is a great reminder that you have a choice in how you show up.
The best version of you would respond with reason and calm, poise, and grace. Picture what the best version of you would think, say, and do. Then, bring those thoughts and actions into the present moment.
You can’t change what you don’t see. The practice of asking yourself these questions will help you uncover your hidden instruction manual and habitual patterns of thinking. When you become aware of how your mind interprets the world around it, you can create new rules to reprogram your brain to work for you.