Saturday, 27 June 2020

Better contact management with Dunbar’s Number

We can only ever have 150 friends. Our brains can’t cope with more.

150 is known as Dunbar’s Number. It was suggested by Robin Dunbar as the cognitive limit to the number of people who any human is capable of maintaining a close, meaningful relationship with.

It’s therefore hardly surprising that we start feeling overwhelmed when our Twitter community grows to several hundred (or thousand!) contacts. Even if someone should claim to possess the brainpower to handle more relationships, there just wouldn’t be enough hours in a day for managing such a huge circle of friends and work contacts.

Information overload is affecting us all

As a minimalist I am always on the lookout for theories on limitations, boundaries or minimisation, so I was pleased to stumble upon the concept of Dunbar’s Number. I find it fascinating! It should make us ponder the following:

How much information can our brains process on a daily basis?

We all probably reach a point occasionally when we feel our brains are about to shut down. The amount of information that we can take in at any one time is limited. Information overload is affecting us all.

Which of our (many) relationships matter the most?

The social and business environments that we live in today are complex and wide-ranging. Staying on top of all our relationships is becoming more and more of a challenge. Can we even identify off the top of our heads the contacts that are truly important to us?

How best to manage the contacts that are truly important to us?

Interacting and socialising online clearly has its benefits, not least for the introverts among us. Yet in the end, it cannot be denied that getting together physically (Covid allowing!) is best. It is the most effective method for maintaining and nurturing “true” interpersonal relationships.

Constantly adding to our lists of social contacts may seem easy, but isn’t everything; we should invest in cultivating existing relationships, too. And it’s worth remembering that according to the Dunbar’s Number concept, we can only ever have at most 150 friends.

- Guardian: Robin Dunbar: we can only ever have 150 friends at most
- Wikipedia: Dunbar's Number

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Decluttering, digitisation and running: flashback to 25 October 1998

As a minimalist, I love throwing out things which I don’t need anymore. Throwing out things sometimes teaches me lessons, or it makes me realise how much I’ve moved on!

In an effort to further reduce any physical stuff that I have, I’ve started scanning the diaries which I kept for a few years when I was (much) younger. Scanning diary entries (and storing back-ups on hard drives and in the cloud) means I can then dispose of the physical versions.

This entry of 25 October 1998 is among the funniest I’ve found since embarking on my diary digitisation project. It is, in a way, also quite thought-provoking:

Translated into English, it means: I find it irritating that people are staring at me when I’m out jogging, as if they’d never seen a jogger in their life before! I’ve therefore decided that from now on I’ll only go out on runs in the evening, at dusk.

Baffling! Not only had I completely forgotten that I’d already been into running back then, but also it is extraordinary I’d been so irritated by people staring at me that I’d decided to henceforth only go on runs at a time in the day when it was less likely people would see me.

The insight that crystallises from this decluttering find? Clearly, it can only be this one: don’t care about what other people might think of you. It really is that simple.

These days I go running anytime, and even in broad daylight!

I'm grateful to Gary Woodruff, one of our brilliant photographers at Pomphrey Hill parkrun (which, of course, currently is suspended due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis), for taking the amazing running photos in this post.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Book recommendation: “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport

It is one of those books that you’ll probably want to devour in one go. In “Digital Minimalism”, bestselling author Cal Newport offers smart advice on how to ruthlessly strip away any online activities that don’t serve you, and how to regain control of your digital life.

Digital minimalism is a quiet movement and has been defined by Cal Newport as “a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else”.

Exhausted from leading a digital life

One word that came up repeatedly in conversations that Cal Newport had with people following the publication of his earlier bestseller “Deep Work” was exhaustion. Many people feel exhausted from leading a digital life.

And many people he spoke to mentioned social media’s ability to manipulate their mood. Let’s face it: constant exposure to our colleagues’ and friends’ meticulously curated portrayal of their lives, careers and activities will inevitably arouse the feeling that our own lives, careers and activities are somehow inadequate. (That certainly is the case for me!)

The deep-seated psychological vulnerabilities that every single one of us has

If you’re a social media user, this book will hook you in right from the first page. “Digital Minimalism” is a hands-on guide to minimising screen time and becoming more mindful about technology use. It sets out very clearly and in the most striking way how social media apps target the deep-seated psychological vulnerabilities that every single one of us (!) has.

Digital minimalism is based on 3 principles:

Principle #1: Clutter is costly.

Principle #2: Optimisation is important.

Principle #3: Intentionality is satisfying.

Cal Newport suggests initially performing a 30-day digital declutter. He describes how he was hoping that for his research 40 to 50 brave volunteers would sign up for a digital declutter experiment and commit to recording their experiences along the way. His guess was very wrong: more than 1,600 volunteers signed up! (This even made national headlines.)

At the end of the digital declutter, volunteers had the opportunity to allow optional technologies back into their lives, on the condition that such technologies served something that they deeply valued. Volunteers would, for example, not allow a feature of an app back into their life if it offered just some vague benefit.

The aim of digital minimalism is to no longer experience FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Instead, as a digital minimalist you already know which specific online activities provide you with meaning and satisfaction.

In “Digital Minimalism”, Cal Newport argues that unrestricted online activity has a negative impact on our psychological well-being. He suggests digital minimalism as an alternative approach: using technologies in a way that supports your values and goals – rather than letting technologies use you!

Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University who studies the theory of distributed systems. In addition to his academic work, he writes about the intersection of technology and culture. He is the author of six books. His work has been published in over 25 languages and has been featured in many major publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, Washington Post, and Economist.

(Note that I haven’t yet had a go at implementing digital minimalism in the way set out in the book, but I will report back once I have.)

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Blogging in a foreign language: good or bad idea?

Blogging in English has always been something that I’ve felt uneasy about. I’m a German translator, and my professional association’s code of conduct does not allow me to translate into anything other than my mother tongue. Translating is basically writing, so I can’t shake off the impression that it raises eyebrows when I blog in English.

Yet my English has been “okayed” by numerous people: an American colleague, whom I sometimes run blog posts past for feedback (thank you, Will!); other native speakers who read my blog; and a professional editor whom I’ve approached to ask for input into my English writing (thank you, Matt!). I was assured by everyone that my English is fine. Yet the deep-seated uneasiness remains.

I should add for completeness that my professional association’s code of conduct prescribes translating either into my mother tongue or into a “language of habitual use”. Note that, although I’ve lived in the UK for a very long time, my command of English is not (and will never be) as good as a native speaker’s.

As a German translator, I’m not qualified to translate into English, so blogging in English does not have any immediate benefits to my work. Blogging in English is simply something which I enjoy doing. To me, my blog is the perfect tool to further improve my English skills.

(A German translation of this blog post is available here.)

Monday, 13 April 2020

Book recommendation: “Riverflow” by Alison Layland

Gripping, topical and intelligent, “Riverflow” by Alison Layland is an eco-thriller set in a small rural community in Shropshire on the banks of the River Severn. I warmly and enthusiastically recommend it!

“Riverflow” is Alison Layland’s second novel and is “a novel of family secrets, community tensions and environmental protest against a background of fracking and floods on the River Severn”, to quote from the Booka Bookshop website. It addresses climate change, one of the pressing issues of our time, reminding readers of how frighteningly close we have come to destroying nature and the planet for good.

“Riverflow” reminds readers of how frighteningly close we have come
to destroying nature and the planet for good

While many of us translators like to think of ourselves as writers, Alison Layland is a real writer in that she’s both a translator (who translates from German, French and Welsh into English) and a talented and successful novelist. I met Alison at a Twitter workshop in Birmingham in 2015. You can find a short blog entry about her debut novel, “Someone Else’s Conflict”, here.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I get bored by novels very quickly. I’ve lost track of the number of novels which I started reading, only to put them down again to either do something more exciting or read something much more useful (as you may remember, I’m a non-fiction translator).

So whenever I do read a novel from beginning to end, this must mean something! “Riverflow” with its haunting plot pulled me right in and kept my attention. Alison’s writing style also appeals to me: it’s engaging, original and comfortable to read. And the language she uses is very modern in that it features words like “ecocide” and “upcycling”.

“Riverflow” was chosen as Welsh Book of the Month for August 2019 by Waterstones. You can watch the book trailer here:

Friday, 3 April 2020

The Minimalist Translator is on Facebook

My blog finally has its own Facebook page! Unlike numerous translators and interpreters, I only recently jumped on this bandwagon. What’s more, as some of you will have noticed, I’ve recently put in real effort to use Facebook a bit more generally.

Facebook has always been a site popular with translators and interpreters and also with my other friends. So why has it taken so long for me to set up a Facebook page for my blog

Initial reservations about using Facebook

- Many Facebook users report they feel out of control as they’re using Facebook. It makes them feel uneasy, and it makes me feel uneasy, too. This feeling of being out of control is exacerbated whenever I log on after not getting around to logging on for several weeks.

- Research suggests our brains become addicted to the surge of dopamine that kicks in after every “like” that we receive. I feel this is awkward. I also feel it’s awkward that followers, shares and likes can be bought (for very little money) if they’re what you need for whatever business goal you’re trying to accomplish.


More exposure for The Minimalist Translator

Despite these initial reservations, my blog is now on Facebook. I’ve decided a little more exposure can only be a good thing! Although time leftover for social media is as short as ever, I am keen to share my musings about minimalism and translation henceforth a little more widely.

Therefore, if you’re on Facebook and are enjoying this blog, do please like it.

You can subscribe to The Minimalist Translator on Facebook here or by clicking the Like button:

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Feeling gratitude right now à la Fumio Sasaki

“Goodbye, things” by minimalist Fumio Sasaki, which I've written a book review about (published here yesterday), includes a chapter that proposes a thinking technique for feeling gratitude right now, at this very moment. It is bafflingly easy to implement and, as I’ve found, highly effective:

It involves turning any negative thoughts creeping up on you into positive ones instantly, within the same sentence. Fumio Sasaki lists a whole page of (heart-warming and funny) examples of his thought-processes while he is thinking in this way.

Fumio Sasaki proposes a thinking technique that’s designed to help us change and reframe our thoughts and feelings
(Image source: Image by 昕 沈 on Pixabay)

His technique helped me overcome my disappointment about a translators’ conference I had booked to attend in Milan, Italy, at the end of February 2020 being cancelled due to the sudden coronavirus outbreak in a region in Lombardy near Milan. I had just finished the packing, when I heard the news on the radio. The conference was cancelled the next day.

My thought-processes went like this:

I am so disappointed that I’m not heading off to the conference in Milan … but it is, of course, always better to be safe than sorry! I’m so lucky the outbreak in Europe was discovered a few days before – and not during or shortly after – my journey.

It’s such a shame that the opportunity of exploring Milan this week has evaporated … but it hasn’t evaporated – it’s just been postponed. Now I have plenty more time for current work projects and other things, which is a real luxury!

I was looking forward to chilling out at the hotel spa at the end of the two conference days … but I’m doing yoga right now at my regular yoga class instead and I’m feeling absolutely amazing!

I’d already been gearing up for writing a blog article about the stay in Milan … but there are plenty of other topics I can blog about instead.

See what I mean? It’s thinking that is unbelievably simple and very effective.

Fumio Sasaki in his book “Goodbye, things” describes a thinking technique that’s designed to help us change and reframe our thoughts and feelings. He argues that when we aim for gratitude right now, we become more positive, tolerant and generous.

Note: I tend to batch-produce my blog posts, and I wrote this blog post several weeks ago, but I have meanwhile also integrated this technique into my efforts to mentally cope with the dire situation of the coronavirus pandemic that we are finding ourselves in right now.

It is, of course, very difficult to stay positive amidst all of this, but turning some of those nagging coronavirus-related thoughts and fears around mid-sentence in this way has had the effect that it’s made me feel, admittedly, not great, but at least a bit better.

Figuring out ways how to look after and protect our mental health is vital – perhaps now more than ever before.


Saturday, 28 March 2020

Book recommendation: “Goodbye, things” by Fumio Sasaki

“Goodbye, things” by Japanese minimalist Fumio Sasaki, published by Penguin, is an inspiring and uplifting book. It explores the philosophy and cultural history of minimalism from Zen Buddhism to Steve Jobs. Reading even just a few chapters in it from time to time always puts a smile on my face!

Fumio Sasaki is one of the hardcore minimalists whom we sometimes hear about: he’s a writer who lives in a tiny studio in Tokyo with just three shirts, four pairs of trousers, four pairs of socks and not much else. Minimalism has opened his mind to happiness he’d never experienced before.

Fumio Sasaki is someone like any of us,
who struggled with what we’re also struggling with

I found “Goodbye, things” heart-warming because Fumio Sasaki does not proclaim himself to be a minimalism guru or a decluttering expert: he’s just an ordinary guy. He’s someone like any of us, who was weighed down by too much stuff and struggled with what we’re also struggling with.

As a result, he set out to explore minimalism. He figured out that incorporating minimalism into your life not only transforms the physical space around you, but also can bring about a fundamental shift in life and lead to more happiness.

In the book, he offers 55 tips to help you say goodbye to your things and 15 more tips for the next stage of your minimalism journey. In addition, he sets out 12 ways in which he himself has changed since he said goodbye to his things.

His tips and his insights into minimalism are neatly packaged into short, compact chapters, which are written in a punchy and highly readable style. Special praise to translator Eriko Sugita!

In “Goodbye, things” Fumio Sasaki explores the philosophy and cultural history of minimalism from Zen Buddhism to Steve Jobs. It takes the reader on a fascinating journey into minimalism, which is defined as a lifestyle in which possessions are reduced to the absolute minimum that one needs.

Related links:

- Penguin webpage for “Goodbye, things” by Fumio Sasaki:

- “Goodbye things, hello minimalism: can living with less make you happier?” (Guardian article of 12 April 2017):

- An in-depth look at “Goodbye, things” by Fumio Sasaki (book summary) (by Kyle Kowalski):

- What I’ve learned from “Goodbye, things” by Fumio Sasaki (by Meziah Ruby):

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Coronavirus crisis and using time wisely while stuck at home

Suddenly, with massive restrictions imposed on our work and social lives following the worldwide spread of coronavirus, most of us are finding ourselves stuck at home. I’m sure we all wish to spend that extra time at home wisely.

Minimalist Joshua Becker (whose books back in April 2014 inspired me to want to also become a minimalist) has published an appropriately timed article in which he sets out 14 achievable tasks to help declutter your home while stuck inside. You’ll find it on the Becoming Minimalist website.

Feeling braced for the impact of the cataclysmic coronavirus crisis
(Image source: Alexey Hulsov on Pixabay)

I hope I, too, will be able to set aside some time to tackle some of those tasks, although for the time being I intend to mainly carry on working in my home office, as I’ve done for many years. Right now, I’m fully booked for some time to come, with yet more orders coming in over the past week.

The impact of the cataclysmic coronavirus crisis

Without a doubt, the huge economic shock we’re currently experiencing is going to be felt by everyone around the globe. As far as my translation job is concerned, it remains to be seen what the exact impact will be on the IP industry, which I mainly work for these days.

I am under no illusion that the current cataclysmic crisis has the potential of impacting my business, with perhaps noticeable effects such as fewer translation projects available or a degradation of my current good standard of living. Am I feeling braced for this?

Social distancing, solidarity and love

Yes, the fear of the impending economic downturn and the hit my small business is potentially going to take from it do bother me; yet it bothers me (a lot) less than it would have in the past. After all, less often frees up the space for more, and thanks to my new minimalist mindset, I now know work isn’t the main thing in life.

Over recent days, I have witnessed people coming together (while adhering to the new social distancing rules) in extraordinary acts of solidarity and human warmth. What really matters in life is these things: kindness, empathy, love for oneself, and love for others.

Stay healthy, happy and safe, everyone. And perhaps you, too, will find some time to tackle some of the tasks that are set out in Joshua’s article “14 Achievable Tasks to Help Declutter Your Home While Stuck Inside”.

What really matters in life: kindness, empathy, love for oneself, and love for others
(Image source: drawing by Hannah Heisler)

Sunday, 8 March 2020

My (unusual) approach to minimising social media time

As I work at a screen all day, I’m faced with this problem: I don’t have much “brain capacity” left to absorb yet more online content, such as social media contributions, blog posts or online newspaper articles. However, I want to read online outside of work, too. And I am keen to interact with my colleagues and friends online as well, and want to show an interest in what they have posted.

A minimalist’s approach to social media use

How to make time for (non-work) online reading? As I work all day at a screen already (and blog as a hobby), spending lots of time in addition on social media isn’t really what I’m after. I’ve therefore adopted this approach, which minimises my time on social media and news sites:

I simply copy interesting content (whether in the form of whole articles or even just interesting bits of Facebook discussions) and paste it all (without any photos) into a Word file. Once that Word file is long enough, I send it off to my e-reader. This often takes just a few minutes. I can then enjoy reading it at my leisure – away from my work screen!

I also use social media apps minimally. I maintain an active presence on Twitter (for English here and for German here), whereas I just lurk on LinkedIn. I’ve never felt the need to own a tablet, but I have Twitter installed on my phone. However, I don’t have LinkedIn or Facebook (or WhatsApp, for that matter) on my phone.

Efficient and proper reading of online content

Reading on my e-reader makes sure I am shielded from the myriad of online distractions and can block out interruptions. That way, I can properly absorb the content (AND appreciate the way in which it’s written). If you’ve ever received a response from me to one of your social media contributions one week or so later, now you know why! It does sometimes take me that long to send stuff to my e-reader and read it.

Sounds like this is not for you? Yes, I do realise this approach may not work for most people; yet it works for me. Although my English is getting better, in the end, I'm still a language learner, and this is the best way for me to pick up new words and phrases, including colloquial ones. What's more, as a translator I’m by nature a text-oriented person. I am therefore perfectly happy in the black-and-white, text-only world which my e-reader provides me with.

This is my current approach to social media use. Watch this space as it's likely I'm going to tweak and further optimise it in the not-too-distant future once I've finished my current book, “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport. (Cal Newport's books were recommended to me by Sean Reid from Aye Run, who introduced me to the beautiful city of Glasgow on a sightseeing run last year.)

As I'm usually short of time, I use a dedicated approach to minimise the actual time spent on news sites or social media, while maximising what I get out of it. This approach involves sending online content in a Word file to my e-reader so that I can indulge in interruption-free reading.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

The unfortunate thing humans do in conversation

How often do we say something to others, only to regret it afterwards? This often happens because we didn’t take enough time to think. How often do we allow ourselves the luxury of a pause in a conversation to think?

The astoundingly short gap between spoken turns

My friend Kasia last year tweeted an article about a (rarely thought-about) phenomenon that is typical of conversations between humans: the astoundingly short gap between spoken turns. This gap is usually just 200 milliseconds in duration (although there are slight variations across different cultures). 200 milliseconds is, for example, the time that runners take to respond to a starting pistol. So it indeed is not very long! Read the article here.

It means that when we’re engaged in a conversation, we are pressed for time (which never is a nice state to be in). We are forced to think about and form our responses while we’re still listening to what the other person is saying, to be able to reply at the earliest possible opportunity. It’s a culturally imposed conversation pattern: we minimise the gap of silence between turns in a conversation because it’s expected of us.

A culturally imposed phenomenon:
when we’re engaged in a conversation, we're pressed for time
(Image source: Mohamed Hassan on Pixabay)

The lasting effect of childhood experiences

The article reminded me of how as a child I was once mocked (first by a stranger, then by a relative) for not replying quickly enough. It wasn't the first time it was suggested to me something was wrong with me in that respect. In some odd way, certain experiences from our childhoods tend to have a lasting effect on us, although the human mind is also good at simply shoving such memories away. But the memory of being mocked for not replying quickly enough stuck with me subconsciously: I henceforth believed conversations were supposed to be a quick exchange of spoken turns. 

As children we tend to believe what the grown-ups tell us; as grown-ups we’re free to think our own thoughts. As a grown-up, I now think it should really be the other way around: conversations should not be of a rapid-fire nature, but ideally should be deep, perhaps even slow. And pauses for thinking, by all means, should be allowed.

The benefits of pauses in conversation

Pauses for thinking may be necessary for various reasons: so that we don’t offend the other person; so that we’re able to come up with something better than the usual platitudes that mark a lot of our conversations; so that we can give our full, undivided attention to what the other person is saying.

What does it take to have a really good conversation? To take one step in the right direction, let’s prolong what Stephen Levinson from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the article terms “the minimum human response time” at least a bit. Time in our day and age is a luxury and should be employed wisely, not least in conversations!

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Why translators don’t fear the machines

The takeover of translations by machines is impending (or so we've been told).Why then don’t human translators fear the much talked-about rise of the machines?

As I see it, it all boils down to one simple answer: translators don’t fear the machines because a translation is created in a series of stages.

Most translations require human input

Machine translation is sometimes helpful in the first stage of creating a translation, but it then cannot contribute to what happens in subsequent stages. And where machine translation is no longer helpful, a human translator’s input will be required. 

Why don't human translators fear the rise of the machines?
(Image source: Peggy and Marco Lachmann-Anke on Pixabay)

The translation stages where machine translation is not helpful include, for example:

- Researching terminology in the particular field of the text

- Identifying and pointing out issues in the source text to the client, using appropriate grammatical terminology to describe and explain those issues, suggesting improvements

- Discussing the approach to “untranslatable” terms with the client

- Finding workaround solutions to tricky terms and phrases

- Applying client style guidelines to the translation

- Creating coherence between the individual parts of the text

- Improving the first draft of a translation (also known as “rough translation”)

- Improving the translation further

- Checking that correct punctuation has been used

- Formatting the file

- Eradicating errors (including errors potentially introduced by machine translation!)

- Printing off the translation and checking it on paper

- Double-checking that correct numbers and/or reference numerals (in patents) have been used

- Rewriting the translation (where required) so that it reads like a text that is idiomatically phrased in the target language

- Ensuring that the underlying meaning of the original text has been accurately conveyed (as we know, language is full of ambiguities!)

- Checking that technical terms have been used consistently throughout the translation

- Editing, fine-tuning and polishing the translated text

- Putting a human touch to the translation

Anyone who believes that a translation can be produced by the simple push of a button is unaware that a translation is created in stages. Machine translation may be useful during the first of those stages, but creating a fit-for-purpose translation is a long, drawn-out and intricate process.

A good translation cannot be produced by the simple push of a button
(Image source: Gerd Altmann on Pixabay)

Afterthought: Nobody knows, of course, what's still going to happen on the AI front, and some of the tasks above will maybe be taken over by robots one day. Right now, we're still very far away from it. I also personally believe that we will never get to a stage where robots will be like humans.

(A German translation of this blog article is available here.) 

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Why negative thoughts exist and how to counter them

For a long time, I thought it was just me: vortices of negative thought, with negative thoughts occupying my mind. Then I realised it wasn’t just me. I found out: negative thoughts are a “by-product” of evolution!

Negative thinking is a primordial instinct that helped our ancestors survive millions of years ago
(Image source: drawing by Hannah Heisler)

Survival of the fittest

Our brains are more receptive to bad than positive news. As John Cacioppo demonstrated, our brains react more strongly to stimuli that it deems negative. There is a greater surge in electrical activity.

The negative thoughts pestering us today have derived from a primordial instinct that originally was designed to protect. So today we are still heavily influenced by the brain’s same negativity bias which millions of years ago helped our ancestors be alert to potential dangers around them and which helped them survive.

A primordial instinct: alertness to dangers

Whenever the mind perceives a threat (of whatever nature), it attends to it very quickly. This has implications: negative information is prioritised over positive information; criticism has greater influence on us than praise; worries about our jobs, health, families, the future of the country that we live in can all easily drag us down (Brexit-related thoughts are a notable example!).

So even when a string of good things happens to you, it will be enough for one (possibly trivial!) negative thing to happen, which will then become the only thing occupying your mind. Suddenly, all your attention is drawn to that one negative thing and will stick with it (while the many good things will suddenly be erased from your mind). It’s an evolutionary reaction.

Techniques for amplifying positive emotions

As I’ve already noticed in a previous blog post, negative thinking is the default mode of our brains, but the good news is once we’re aware of it, we can learn to switch to a different mode of thought. We can learn to control our thinking, even amplify positive emotions! Of the techniques I’ve adopted to keep my primordial gloomy thoughts at bay, these are my favourites:

1. Affirmations

I have a set of ‘customized’ affirmations that I tend to repeat to myself whenever I find my thoughts are drifting into negative territory. They’re statements that are both positive and powerful. I have found that diverting thoughts to affirmations is hugely effective. I often also switch to my “affirmations mode” whenever I don’t quite know what to think of in particular (e.g. during a run).

2. The morning gratefulness exercise

This is an easy and popular exercise: it involves calling up in your mind 3 things that you’re grateful for right before getting up in the morning. They can be ordinary things that we maybe take for granted: the health of our children, our own health, having a job, being able to afford so many things. Also life circumstances in general. (Tip: I’ve heard you can increase the effect if you stay with each thing in your mind for at least 20 seconds.)

3. The engagement in flow activities

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues we can learn to control our consciousness by engaging in so-called flow activities, which strengthen our sense of purpose. Flow is defined as a blissful mental state in which you are totally absorbed in an activity, unaware of how the time goes by. While we’re engaged in flow activities (I’ve described mine here), we don’t waste time on worrying.

4. Living in the moment

Life can take unexpected turns from one minute to the next. We all know that. What’s more, wandering thoughts frequently are negative thoughts. I’ve found that therefore one of the best techniques to counter negative thinking really is “living in the moment”, living in the here and now.

At first I thought it was just me, then realised it wasn’t: negative thinking grips us easily, but is really just a primordial instinct that helped our ancestors survive millions of years ago. Once we’re aware of this mechanism, we can aim to control our thoughts – even amplify positive emotions – by using specific thinking techniques.

We can learn to control our thinking, even amplify positive emotions