As we approach the New Year, many of you may be starting to consider one or more New Year’s resolutions. Okay, you’ve done it before—probably many, many times—and the results have not been spectacular in terms of success. In fact, most of your past resolutions have lasted maybe a week or two. Don’t despair. Exactly the same thing happens to most people, and for the same reason: the deadly habit of deficit thinking.

Deficit thinking is an ingrained habit of focusing on gaps and weaknesses (the deficit) instead of what’s working (and can be made to work still better). It’s focusing on what you can’t do, not what you can. Instead of your dreams and ambitions propelling you forward, you let the gap between your current state and your desires become a source of frustration and depression. It’s the old business of seeing the glass as half empty.

People who suffer from ingrained deficit thinking (and that’s just about all of us, since it’s drummed into us from school onwards) spend their whole time checking up on their failings, limitations, weaknesses, and the gaps in their knowledge. Then, armed with a mental list of all the things that are wrong with them, they start trying to put them right, usually by applying willpower. It rarely, if ever, works. Why? Because many of the “problems” are part of their basic make-up, so that’s like deciding to will yourself to be six inches taller, or to have blue eyes instead of brown ones. Go at it all you like, but nothing will change.

Most of the other “gaps” are there because, deep down, it isn’t you who wants to be different or “better” in that precise way: it’s other people who tell you that you ought to be so. They want you to change to suit their agendas. And you go along—on the surface—because it’s polite, or socially desirable, or you wish that you could agree with them (only you don’t). This gives you almost zero real motivation to change. Result: you talk a great talk about whatever it is, yet never quite seem to be able to turn the talk into effective action. If you truly wanted to change—or give up whatever it is—you would find a way to do it, believe me.

Deficit thinking is a waste of time, promoting misery, guilt, and frustration for no good reason. Here’s how to get rid of it:

  • Don’t waste energy looking for gaps and deficiencies. Sure, you have some. Everyone does. Try using that energy to celebrate and build on what you do well. It’ll give you a far better payback.
  • Don’t assume the glass is half empty, when it’s simply half a glassful. Be grateful and enjoy what you have and who you are, instead of ignoring both in favor of worrying about what you don’t have and aren’t likely to become, however much you obsess about it.
  • Don’t take fears for reality, commonplace thoughts for truth, and worries for real problems. Nearly all such opinions and thoughts are wrong. Most of the gaps you’ve been encouraged to fret about don’t exist outside the minds of those others who want you to change to fit in with their ideas. The “gaps” are only in your mind because you allowed someone else to put them there.
  • Don’t accept judgments by others without looking at whatever they tell you very, very closely. If you saw a slice of pizza lying on the sidewalk, would you pick it up and eat it? No? Then why do so many people accept judgments and assessments from just about anyone and swallow them down without a moment’s hesitation? Judgments like that are even more likely to contain something toxic than the pizza. What you put in your head can poison you as easily as something you put in your mouth. When someone passes judgment, or tries to put some guilt feeling onto you, tell them to go poison someone else’s mind.
  • Stop focusing on life’s negatives. The world is uncertain and difficult enough without you adding to the pile of problems you have to deal with.
  • Don’t buy the foolish idea you have a right to be happy. There’s no such right. The best way to be happy is to give up being miserable. Let it go. Sometimes you’ll feel happy, sometimes sad, and very often neither. That’s the way life is. Smile and enjoy it.
  • Stop watching your emotions. They’re not worth it. They go up, then down, then up again like the stockmarket. No one really knows why, whatever they try to tell you—not even mental health professionals. You can’t will your emotions go or stay where you want, so quit driving yourself nuts by trying. Best of all, treat them like the weather: sometimes an inconvenience, sometimes a pain, and sometimes full of joyous sunshine. Many of them are probably due more to what you ate or drank yesterday than anything meaningful.

The commonest source of the fears that weigh us down is some belief about what is “normal” or “standard.” Here’s an example. One company that I worked in had a common belief that anyone who hadn’t been promoted to a significant management position by the age of 30 was never going to be promoted. There was no basis for this belief, but it persisted. The results were predictable. People of 29 lived in constant fear of being “passed over.” By age 31, anyone not promoted had already left to find another job.

A good way to start clearing up the problems in your life this New Year is by throwing away all your old, wrongheaded beliefs and assumptions. Many of them will be plain wrong; others will be long out of date. Most people carry around a heavy load of such mistaken beliefs about the world, themselves and others: beliefs that stir up negative emotions and behaviors; assumptions that cause deficit thinking; and a host of other habitual ways of seeing the world that are virtually guaranteed to limit their achievements and cause them unnecessary suffering.

Take them out and question them mercilessly. If they’re still true and sound, you have nothing to lose. If they aren’t—and many, many won’t be—drop them immediately. Then make sure you repeat the process often. Today’s knowledge quickly gets stale. Yesterday’s beliefs soon become moldy. Don’t let them fill your mind with outdated worries, useless guilt, and idiotic deficit thinking for one moment longer.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His new book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available through all good bookstores.

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