The Four Types of Mental Shortcuts8 min read

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Mental shortcuts can save you energy, enhance your willpower, and help you stay aligned with your goals and values. Let me illustrate this by sharing a little story with you.

One of my clients was struggling to do her daily journaling exercise, which is part of her alcohol recovery program. That particular exercise was somewhat lengthy and painful, involving deep emotional processing of her past, so avoiding it was an easy decision to make.

She wasn’t happy with that, but she couldn’t make a change despite trying it for many months. Then I told her that whenever her alarm rang, reminding her to do her journaling, all she needed to do was tell herself one thing: “Delaying this is delaying my recovery.

That was it. She couldn’t skip it anymore. The long-term consequences of that tiny decision became clear in the moment—so clear that they spoke louder than the pain of the process. She was effectively using what I call a mental shortcut.

This is just one of the countless times that I’ve seen mental shortcuts work wonders—both for me and for my clients. We also see this happening in the lives of people around us and in many movies. A sentence is given to you in a key moment, and that becomes a turning point in your life—something you hold on to in times of need.

It could be a short, uncompromising statement such as the one above. Or it could be a powerful coaching question, an inspiring quote, an affirmation, or a maxim from your field. Here are some examples:

  • How is this a blessing? (Tony Robbins)
  • Fall seven times, get up eight. (Japanese Proverb)
  • Act as you want to feel. (Cognitive-Behavior Therapy)
  • No hurry, no pause. (Tim Ferris)
  • Never Zero. (Mindful Self-Discipline)

There are different types of mental shortcuts, yet all of them have the same purpose: clarity and strength. In other words, awareness and willpower, the two key elements of self-discipline.

Mental shortcuts give you an immediate boost to your motivation and focus. They sharpen your awareness, showing you what is important and making it easier for you to take positive action.

They also help you save cognitive costs, for you don’t need to figure things out in the pressure of the moment, when your willpower might be weak and your mind influenced by a hundred different things. Mental shortcuts point an easy way out—they show a clear step forward toward your aspirations.

Let’s have a look at the four types of mental shortcuts.

1. Powerful Questions

Questions guide where we look, what we pay attention to, and what we see. For the purpose of living in alignment with our goals and values, we can make use of short questions that make us focus on the right things in the moment and take positive action.

Imagine you need to do something important and are procrastinating. Or that you are telling yourself excuses to indulge in something that is not good for you, or to skip a positive habit. Here are some powerful questions from the Mindful Self-Discipline book that could be used as mental shortcuts:

  • Is this choice a +1 or a -1 in my life?
  • Am I happy to make this a habit?
  • What is the next Baby Step I can take?
  • Will my future self be proud of this decision?
  • Every choice is a sacrifice. What am I sacrificing right now?
  • Am I arguing for my limitations or for my possibilities?
  • If I always think like this, who will I become?
  • With this choice, am I training myself to succeed or to fail?

These questions can be used to overcome many of the obstacles to self-discipline. Needless to say, you don’t need to use them all, nor memorize them. Simply choose one or two that are most impactful for you, and use them as your go-to mental shortcut.

2. Simple Instruction

The third type of mental shortcuts are direct, short, and memorable expressions of timeless principles. It could be a piece of popular wisdom taken to heart, a personal motto, or a maxim representing the practical wisdom of a given person or field.

  • Face your fears.
  • First purpose, then pleasure. (Mindful Self-Discipline)
  • Be radically honest with yourself.
  • Do what it takes.
  • Act as you want to feel. (Cognitive-Behavior Therapy)
  • Don’t be a slave to food.
  • Live inside out. (Wise Confidence)
  • Go for an extra no. (Sales principle)
  • Live Strong. (Lance Armstrong)
  • Do what is emotionally difficult. (Leo Gura)
  • Stay true to yourself, no matter what.
  • Do first what you don’t want to do most. (Clifford Cohen)

Like the first type of mental shortcut, this one is more universal and impersonal, not taking into account your unique story, longings, and triggers. Many different people can use the same shortcut, and it will still work.

The next two types of mental shortcuts are personalized. They integrate your own goals, desires, and fears to create impactful statements that uniquely suit you.

3. Remembering Your Aspiration

Psychology defines a self-control conflict as a situation where part of us wants to do something, and another part wants to do something else. More specifically, it is a situation in which you have two competing desires or impulses: one that is immediate and gratifying, and the other that is delayed but more beneficial in the long run.

The challenge is that our brain has a bias toward instant gratification. It naturally speaks louder than our long-term goals when making decisions in the moment. To change that, you need to increase the weight of your long-term goals by remembering your aspirations and reconnecting with your values. This third type of mental shortcut helps you do that.

Here are some examples that you can use when you want to stop yourself from doing something that is not aligned with your goals:

  • Eating this will hurt my future self.
  • If I snooze now, I’ll fail my exam.
  • This is not how my best self would act here.
  • Delaying this habit is delaying my recovery.
  • If I don’t do this, I’ll end up poor.
  • If I skip my exercise, I’ll die sooner.
  • If I continue thinking like this, I’ll become depressed.
  • If I don’t take this step, I’ll end up like my father.

This type of mental shortcut strongly associates not taking positive action with experiencing the opposite of your aspiration. You are clearly seeing the dissonance between your impulse for instant gratification and your higher goals.

The more specific the statement is for you, the better. You can also add a dose of exaggeration to it. It often helps. Otherwise, the link between your present action and your future self is very fuzzy, which causes the impulse of instant gratification to weigh much more in your decision-making at the moment.

You can also use affirmations to achieve a similar result. You affirm your positive end state now and then act accordingly. For example:

  • “I am confident and courageous.” (Then act like that!)
  • “I am getting fitter every day.” (Then act to make that a reality!)
  • “I have all the time and resources I need.” (Then live with an abundance mindset).

If you have clarity on what is your aspirational identity (with its Power Words), then use that. Or else, use a role model as a symbol for your aspirational identity. For example, “What would the Buddha do here?” is a powerful mental shortcut to help you live mindfully and make wiser choices.

Identity is the ultimate mental shortcut.

4. Desire and Fear

The fourth type of mental shortcut is the most personal of them all. It requires that you have done a lot of inner reflection and understand what are your most powerful triggers. Getting to this point of clarity can take some time and personal work. (A good first step could be to go through the Black and White Exercise in our free workbook.)

Think about the top state or quality you want to experience. This is your strongest core value, the why behind the why in many of your goals. It is described as a single word: love, safety, peace, freedom, power, connection, abundance, wisdom. This is your ultimate desire or positive state.

Then think of the opposite of your desire. It is the state that you want to make sure you never experience, no matter what. This is usually linked to the emotions that are most painful to you, to the suffering you received or witnessed growing up, or to your traumas and hidden insecurities. This is your ultimate fear or negative state.

The demon that you can swallow gives you its power.

— Joseph Campbell

Now think of what it is that you want to be more motivated to do and more focused on, and link that to your ultimate desire and fear. For example, if you want to focus your mind more deeply in meditation, you could have the mental shortcut: “Focus is (positive state). Distraction is (negative state)”. Examples:

  • Focus is peace. Distraction is chaos.
  • Focus is power. Distraction is weakness.
  • Focus creates freedom. Distraction is a prison.
  • Focus leads to wisdom. Distraction leads to ignorance.
  • Focus is life. Distraction is death.

Here, “focus” can be replaced by whatever you are trying to develop, achieve, or do. For example: “eating healthy”, “reading daily”, “enlightenment”, “financial freedom”. It can also be slightly longer, such as “growing in my career”, “becoming a successful entrepreneur”, “mastering dancing”, or “leaving this abusive relationship”.

In a nutshell: Find what your deepest motivators are, positive and negative, and connect them to your aspiration.

Create a mental shortcut that integrates them both. The simpler it is, the better. Choose words that elicit a raw and immediate emotional reaction. Express your goals in simple terms. Our subconscious mind is moved by emotions and imagination, not logic and complexities.

Exercise

Think of something you have been struggling with. Perhaps it’s a particular habit you want to build and are having a hard time staying consistent with. Perhaps it’s saying no to digital distractions or to any given temptation. It could also be overcoming one of the obstacles to self-discipline, such as procrastination or self-doubt. Or maybe persevering and staying focused on what matters, after failing repeatedly.

Then choose a mental shortcut from the templates above, or create your own. Go for something that really speaks to you.

If you create your own, craft it in a way that is short, memorable, and impactful. Creating your mental shortcut is more of an art than a science. In other words, we are not looking for accuracy and universality but for powerful mental and emotional focus.

Going Deeper

Once you have chosen or created your mental shortcut, the next step is to train yourself to remember it at the right times and with the right intensity. For this, try the POWER Visualization guided meditation, part of the Mindful Self-Discipline app. Practice it daily for three weeks, and then tapping into your mental shortcut will become second nature.

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