Getting off auto-pilot

Chartered psychologist Martyn Stewart stresses the importance of thinking productively Comments

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Chartered psychologist Martyn Stewart stresses the importance of thinking productively.

How many times have you misinterpreted something because you weren’t paying attention? I bet you can’t even count. Viral videos, blogs and news reports hurtle towards us at a relentless pace, demanding attention like a new-born baby. It’s extremely easy to miss what’s important amongst the masses of ‘worthless’ information.

In an information age, where our minds are bombarded with stimuli, we’re often forced to respond automatically. Even when somebody is trying to help us, we can sometimes miss the true intentions with our minds on auto-pilot. This might be epitomised by the Internet trend of sharing positive phrases meant to inspire optimistic thought and behaviour, but how often do they actually inspire our actions?

A force of habit

Whatever language you speak, we’re united by the fact that our thoughts activate and energise our behaviours. The way we use and perceive images, sounds and words profoundly impact upon how potent our actions become. How often do we say ‘I can’t’ when what we really meant was ‘I struggle to…’ or ‘I’m not the best at…’? Such habitual dialogue can unwittingly create harmful automatic responses which affect us in many ways, including a decrease in confidence and a feeling of helplessness. Nevertheless, humans still remain habitual by nature. We form habits to make our lives easier.

One such habit is that we’ve become desensitised to how we process information. We can’t possibly respond to everything we now have access to. We simply don’t have the time, or, more realistically, cannot be bothered to siphon the useful away from the trash, and herein lies the problem. A negative by-product of this is we regularly make decisions based on incorrect interpretations of information. Often, we take our minds for granted.

We don’t exercise our minds the same way as other body parts, which is a travesty because without it, you wouldn’t be able to achieve half of the things you don’t believe are possible. When faced with difficulty, a strong mind can save you! At some point, we’ve all been told to ‘think positively’ ­– or some colloquial derivative which implies the same thing – by someone trying to encourage us. Maybe they recognised you’re in a difficult place or picked up on negative language you’ve used. Essentially, they’re telling you that your mind isn’t right and to do something about it. However, in our desensitised, habitual way of making sense of things, we can perceive this incorrectly. It may be viewed as just kind words from a supportive voice when actually it was more akin to, ‘only you are responsible for your happiness, so what are you going to do?’ Meanings of words are lost in translation more often than you would think. It’s a perfect example of how we often process words, with obvious overlap, in a lazy fashion. A common instance is when people habitually use ‘jealousy’ and ‘envy’ interchangeably as if they mean the same thing when, in reality, they don’t. As a result, the intended message may be misinterpreted. Jealousy is related to the negative emotions experienced when you anticipate losing something of ‘great personal value,’ whereas envy is when you lack something that another person possesses (i.e. a quality, achievement or object) and you desire it for yourself (or wish they didn’t have it). This subtle difference is often missed.

Positive and productive thoughts

Often, when people say ‘think positively,’ they actually mean ‘think productively’.

Thinking positively means adopting ‘a mental and emotional attitude which focuses on the bright side of life,’ whereas thinking productively, on the other hand, is geared towards actively doing something – to make a constructive change which addresses your current circumstances.

Productive thinking is a solution-based strategy based on goals and options. It asks challenging questions of the individual, such as ‘what is the real problem?’ which can be very difficult for some people to face. The mind is encouraged to actively leave the habitual patterns of their comfort zone in order to make real progress. The individual visualises what success looks like to them and the path you will walk to get there. Productive thinking is more likely to produce results and is not difficult to acquire.

As a psychologist, teacher and relationship coach, I champion the use of productive thinking. With the appropriate level of support and guidance, you can become a more effective thinker with behaviour more in line with what you want. There’s nothing wrong with thinking positively; in fact, I encourage that too. However, you must regularly mix up your positive thoughts with productive ones; remember – a mind is a terrible thing to waste.
Martyn Stewart is a chartered psychologist and relationship coach. He has over 15 successful years assisting individuals internationally via teaching, mentoring and coaching. He is currently Head of Psychology at Doha College. He is also a published author and public speaker. Website:; email:; Twitter: @martynpsych.

By Time Out Doha staff
Time Out Doha,

User reviews:

Posted by: LISA SAMUEL on 11 Dec ' 14 at 16:04

I found this a very useful and informative article as a life coach and a youth worker by profession. My daily engagement and message is about increasing a positive mental attitude and encouraging a healthy mind and body to all clients, freinds and family.

Im a big fan of health and well -being and supporting people to develop themselves in a positive progressive way, which looks at barriers to success and identifys ways to improve and grow self, providing indivduals with the life skills and mind-set to believe and achieve adn offer tools and strategies to overcome any difficutlies or challenges in thier personal and professional lives.

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