This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Psycho-Cybernetics" by Maxwell Maltz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Does your mind often sabotage you, preventing you from acting in alignment with your goals? Is there a way to program your mind to act in a more goal-oriented way?
According to Maxwell Maltz, the author of Psycho-Cybernetics, the main reason people sabotage their own goals is that their internal programming (how they have been programmed to think throughout their lives) is in contradiction with their conscious goals. But even if you have been thinking and acting in a self-sabotaging way for your whole life, it doesn’t mean that you have to keep doing it: you can program it for success.
In this article, we’ll explore specific success programming methods you can use to align your subconscious actions with your conscious goals.
Align Your Self-Image With What You Want
In his book Psycho-Cybernetics, Maxwell Maltz describes five success programming methods you can use to direct your imagination towards thoughts and feelings of success related to specific goals and the improvement of your self-image.
Method 1: Prove That Change Is Possible
Maltz suggests that you choose a habit that you perform daily—one that’s not tied to your self-image, such as brushing your teeth or putting your shoes on—and commit to doing it differently over the course of the 21 days. Every time you make the effort to change this particular habit, affirm to yourself that if you can break this habit, you can also break any negative thought patterns by replacing them with successful thought patterns. For example, if you normally put your right shoe on first, start making the conscious effort to put your left shoe on first. Use the act of putting your shoes on differently to remind yourself that you can choose to think differently.
Method 2: Relax Your Way to Success
Maltz argues that practicing physical relaxation will enable you to consciously control your imagination and, subsequently, your self-image. When your mind is relaxed, it’s more receptive to positive suggestions. This is because negative thoughts create tension in the body—this tension makes it difficult for your subconscious to accept new ideas or possibilities. On the other hand, when you’re in a state of relaxation, negative thoughts tend to disappear. Relaxing your mind and body will create space for your positive suggestions to thrive.
(Shortform note: In addition to creating tension that blocks your subconscious from accepting new thoughts and ideas, negative and stressful thoughts impact your ability to think about what you’re experiencing. This is because, when you feel stress, your amygdala acts as if you’re in danger: It ensures that you respond automatically to threats by inhibiting the thinking part of your brain (the hippocampus). In other words, stress and tension stop you from thinking objectively and lead you to act in irrational ways.)
Relaxation doesn’t only prime you to receive positive thoughts—additionally, Maltz explains that your subconscious requires relaxation to come up with solutions and ideas to help you achieve the goals that you set for it.
- For example, writers often find that their best ideas come when they take a break from periods of intensive research. It’s the space in between their writing sessions, often when they’re thinking about completely different things, that they’re hit with inspiration.
Maltz claims that tranquilizers help to relax you because they reduce or eliminate your response to external stimuli. He cautions against the use of tranquilizers for relaxation because they don’t actually change the environment or the thing that is disturbing you—they only numb your emotional response to all stimuli. Instead, he recommends that you develop the habit of relaxation because it will help you to become more aware of how you respond to external stimuli, tone down any excessive reactions, think rationally, and introduce positive thought patterns with little resistance from your subconscious.
Maltz suggests that you set aside 15-30 minutes a day to imagine yourself as relaxed and calm as possible. The more you practice relaxation, the more accustomed your mind and body will become to feeling this way. Practicing relaxation every day will help you to be more aware of your thoughts, think more rationally, and allow your subconscious mind to solve problems for you.
Create a Peaceful Room in Your Mind
In addition to spending time every day to practice relaxation, Maltz suggests that you clearly imagine a relaxing and peaceful room in your mind that you can retreat to throughout the day whenever you need a break or a mental pick-me-up. You’ll find it particularly useful to visit this peaceful room when you need to switch between different tasks that require different mindsets. For example, when you need to switch from working intensely on a project to reading your kids a calm bedtime story.
(Shortform note: If you find it difficult to visualize a peaceful room in your mind, Abraham Hicks provides a useful Law of Attraction technique to help you switch mindsets when you need to: segment intending. To use this process, set an intention about how you aim to feel before moving into a new situation. For example, if you’ve just returned home after a stressful day, and need to get your kids to bed, you could set the following intention: “I intend to feel relaxed and to engage with my kids in a meaningful way.” Declaring your intent in this way encourages self-awareness and self-control—you’re more likely to be aware of your automatic reactions and, therefore, more able to choose your behaviors.)
Method 3: Imagine Your Successful Personality
Maltz suggests that you use your imagination to think about the person you want to be and to recall your successful memories.
Maltz argues that each time you create or recall successful feelings, your subconscious will record them and imprint them into your self-image. These successful feelings will accumulate in your self-image and will lead to new, automatic responses to your experiences—in other words, you’ll gradually find yourself naturally feeling and acting more successfully.
In addition to your relaxation time, set aside 15-30 minutes a day to visualize and think about what sort of person you would be if you freed yourself from everything that is holding you back—such as your negative self-image, the expectations of others, or specific fears. Come up with different situations and imagine how your “positive and successful self” would react. Make your images as vivid and as detailed as possible.
- For example, if you imagine yourself driving a car, picture yourself sitting in the car relaxed and confident. Notice the small sensory details to make it feel more real—the weight and feel of the steering wheel, the hum of the air-conditioning, the way the upholstery smells, and so on. The most important thing is to feel successful throughout this time.
In addition, make the effort to remember successful experiences from your past—times when you felt satisfied and self-confident. Your subconscious doesn’t know the difference between past, present, or future, so memories of your past successes will impact your subconscious and accumulate alongside all of the successful feelings you create.
Method 4: Focus on a Goal
Maltz argues that you need to find a reason to change your self-image before you can develop the skills to change it. In other words, you should know what results you hope to achieve with an improved self-image. Without a clear reason, you’re unlikely to find the motivation you need to make the required changes.
So, if you want to change your self-image so that you can feel more inner peace, think about why you want this—what you’ll get, or what improvements you hope to see in your life once you make this change. For example, will you get along better with your family, or feel more productive at work?
Once you’ve thought of something that your successful self would want to achieve, break it down and think of the first step that you can realistically achieve—Maltz argues that it’s important to develop the habit of success early on so that you can gradually build up your self-confidence to achieve more demanding goals.
For example, if you’d love to compete in a marathon but you don’t currently have an exercise routine, your realistic goal would be to go for a short run a couple of times a week. Clearly visualize yourself going for a run and imagine how good you’ll feel about yourself after your first run. Remember, your subconscious can’t tell the difference between real feelings and imagined feelings so, if you feel successful while you’re imagining yourself going for a run, your subconscious will believe that you’re capable of going for a run, and make it easier for you to achieve.
Create Successful Feedback Loops
Your current personality traits and habits are a result of your current self-image. When you have clear goals in mind, you can more easily check that the habits you’ve chosen to develop reinforce your efforts to achieve those goals, and strive to develop more successful habits. These success habits will help you to see yourself in a more positive light and encourage you to take actions that lead to the results that you want. This positive feedback loop will train your mind to approach your goal with an attitude of success.
For example, to achieve your long-term goal of running a marathon, you’ll need to develop a healthier lifestyle. You begin by introducing a light exercise routine into your life so that you can start to view yourself as a healthy person. The more you view yourself as a healthy person, the more likely you are to continue exercising and feel the benefits. The more benefits you feel from exercising, the more likely you are to see yourself as a healthy person.
(Shortform note: In Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins expands upon Maltz’s concept that feedback loops reinforce specific behaviors by arguing that neuro-associations—the way your brain links certain experiences with pain and others with pleasure—influence all of your decisions and behaviors. According to Robbins, your brain relies on these neuro-associations to direct your behavior toward feeling pleasure and away from feeling pain, and you have to reprogram these associations to create new patterns of behavior. So, for the example above, you need to program your mind to associate healthy behaviors with pleasurable feelings in order for this habit to stick. For example, you could take the scenic route when you go for a run, or plan to reward yourself every time you complete a run.)
Focus on One Thing at a Time
Maltz argues that your levels of stress and anxiety increase when you allow yourself to get distracted by too many thoughts. But when you decide to pursue a well-defined goal, you set priorities for what you choose to focus your attention on, and this reduces your mind’s propensity to wander.
He believes that you’re more likely to achieve success if you focus on one thing at a time, and do it to the best of your ability without distractions. This will increase your sense of self-satisfaction and contribute to your successful feedback loop. So, focus on the moment—give your full attention to what you’re doing and don’t move on to another task until you’ve completed the first one.
(Shortform note: Like Maltz, Gary Keller, author of The One Thing, believes that you’re more likely to achieve the success you want when you focus on one thing at a time. This is because success builds on success. He suggests that you prioritize the actions you need to complete to reach your goals—break down your goal into a series of logical steps that take you from where you are to where you want to be—and focus exclusively on completing each step in sequential order. With each step you complete, you’ll build your momentum and find it easier to complete each subsequent step.)
Method 5: Choose Happiness Now
Maltz argues that genuine success and wellbeing come from cultivating and developing the habit of happiness in your life. Further, he claims that your mental attitude influences the way that your body heals.
This idea came about from an observation that Maltz made repeatedly throughout his career: Patients who were optimistic and had things to look forward to in life generally recovered from surgery faster than patients who didn’t feel any satisfaction in life. In other words, Maltz claims that happy people are generally healthier and more resilient to physical setbacks because they expect to get well and have a reason to get well.
On the other hand, unhappy people suffer from poor health and wellbeing because they don’t have a reason to get better—they don’t have anything to look forward to. Studies have shown results that support his idea that negative attitudes are bad for your health. For example, stressed out and unhappy people often suffer from ulcers and high blood pressure and are more likely to develop addictive behaviors and less likely to engage in healthy routines.
An Active Mind Is a Happy Mind
The realization that success comes from cultivating happiness led Maltz to think about what makes people feel happy. Maltz argues that your mind is designed to achieve goals. You’re more likely to feel interested and engaged in your life when you give your mind goals to pursue. The more you pursue satisfying goals, the more you have to look forward to and engage with. This makes you want to look after your health and your wellbeing. As a result, you’re more inclined to feel happy.
(Shortform note: Like Maltz, the author of Flow argues that people are more likely to feel happy when they focus all of their attention on completing tasks and achieving goals. He claims that the more you direct your focus to achieve a goal, the more absorbed you feel in what you’re doing. This sense of absorption makes it difficult for your mind to wander and get distracted by negative thoughts. This process trains your mind to feel satisfied and happy—your mind gets used to experiencing satisfaction and this feeling impacts your overall mood and behavior.)
In contrast, if you stop pursuing goals, you find it difficult to find meaning in your life, and your physical health reflects this. For example, it’s common to hear about people that suffer from depression or severe illness within a few months of retirement. Maltz argues that this is because they no longer feel satisfied—their jobs gave them active goals and made them feel important and valued. When they don’t provide themselves with meaningful goals to replace their jobs, they feel useless and worthless and their bodies literally give up.
Make the Decision to Be Happy Regardless of External Circumstances
It’s important to note that, while the pursuit of goals will increase your chances of feeling happy, you’ll only experience the benefits if you let yourself feel happy and satisfied throughout the process. People tend to delay their happiness—they wait until they’ve achieved or acquired something until they let themselves feel happy. Life is full of problems, minor annoyances, and challenges—there’s always an excuse to be unhappy.
However, Maltz argues that you shouldn’t wait to achieve your goals to feel happy—you should choose to see the best in every experience and decide to feel happy now. This becomes easier the more you remember that your opinions about experiences determine how you feel, not the experiences themselves.
(Shortform note: Throughout the book, Maltz argues that you need to experience success and happiness internally before you see the results externally. Similarly, The Happiness Advantage applies the latest research in neuroscience and positive psychology to argue that happiness isn’t the result of success, but the cause of it. When you choose to cultivate the habit of thinking positive thoughts, you train your brain to find opportunities in adversity and find it easier to overcome challenges and setbacks. This creates positive momentum in your life and fuels further opportunities to feel happy.)
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Here's what you'll find in our full Psycho-Cybernetics summary :
- How to program your mind in the same way you’d program a machine
- How your self-image and patterns of thinking impact everything you do
- Five methods you can use to improve self-image and create success