How to cure thought hiccups (without running around the house not thinking of elephants)

By Christopher Peck

A few years ago I wrote an article titled “Become Wealthy by Controlling Your Thought Hiccups!” in which I described a “thought hiccup” and promised to provide suggestions about how to cure these mental twitches that create financial distress. Well, some other issues have intervened since then (Great Recession anyone?), but I’m finally back with the promised article. 

What are these things called thought hiccups?
Back then I defined a “thought hiccup” as the ”thought or mini-story that pops up in our minds at certain times.” I would add that it “relieves pressure but isn’t actually helpful.” You know the situation: you’re in the store, the quadaddle looks so cool, and necessary, and it’s on sale, and you know you don’t need it and it’s certainly not on your budget, but a voice pops into your head and says “I’ve been working so hard, it’s time for a treat.” Or maybe the voice says, “It’ll never be on sale like this again,” or perhaps something more like, “My mother was always mean, I deserve to have something nice.” That’s what I call a thought hiccup. It just emerges without premeditation; it’s an autonomic process that initially we don’t have much control over. And we all know how sudden and powerful some hiccups can be, especially when they arise at the wrong time!

Why should we want to cure ourselves of thought hiccups?
Curing thought hiccups falls in the category of reducing expenses, of regaining control over one’s spending. If you have a goal to live within a certain budget, controlling your expenses – for big purchases and small – is essential. Thought hiccups, as I’m defining them, deter you from following through on your plans. I also start from an underlying presumption that having conscious control of what you’re doing is desirable; it’s more free, it creates options. If we’re living solely out of our emotional reactivity, well, that’s no fun, and it certainly doesn’t help build a high quality of life.

So, to the point: how does one control one’s thought hiccups?
Let me give you a little test. 

WaldoDoes your mind more resemble a Where’s Waldo picture or a Chinese brush painting? Take a look at the pictures, where do you fall between the two? If you’re more Waldo than raven, you might need a contemplative or meditative practice. Meditation can help slow down the busy-ness of the mind, and relieve what we sometimes call the “monkey mind.” Maybe we ought to call it the “Waldo mind”? Having the ability to slow one’s mental process down a little, and clear some of the clutter and chatter, improves the chances of seeing what we’re doing. When your mind is more at rest, thought hiccups come roaring through with much more clarity—burp! Clarity doesn’t mean we can eliminate them straight away, but seeing them is the first step in reducing their impact; it gives us options. Of course there is much more to say about such mindfulness, and many more benefits that flow from it; rightfully so, it holds the premier position in any life practice.

Another strategy that works well is having numbers and being able to reflect on them and their meaning. The old phrase, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” persists because it’s true. You need to measure and then you need to take the time to manage as well. Vicki Robin & Joe Dominquez share this strategy in Your Money of Your Life. Reviewing expenses monthly with reflective questions like “is this worth all of the life energy that went into it?” can have a transformative effect on your spending. When you know you’ll be reviewing expenses later, thought hiccups arise but subdue themselves pretty quickly. 

Some folks like having physical reminders: a talisman in their wallet or purse, or a sticker on their credit card, or some additional built in step that forces them to pause, be mindful, and consider if the expense is really needed. Bari Tessler of Conscious Bookkeeping has clients purchase a lovely container for their receipts, a potent symbol of capturing and recording expenses that serves as both a reminder and a useful organizing tool. If you had an “Is this necessary?” sticker on your credit card, do you think it would shift some of your spending habits? 

Cash is a useful physical reminder. I find that if I only have cash I spend less money. There’s a strange mental illusion that happens with credit cards, a kind of meta-thought hiccup, that deludes us into thinking we have more money than we do, or worse, to kind-of-believe we’re not actually spending money. When you’re paying with actual physical money, it seems more real, and it’s harder to fall for the thought hiccup. 

If after all these strategies you’re still needing some help, find a support group. It could be family, your spouse or partner, or perhaps friends or other motivated folks. Sharing strategies with others, particularly about subtle internal dynamics and challenges and how to overcome them, is one of the best ways to make change. Online communities abound: www.suddenlyfrugal.com and www.frugaldad.com are blogs with regular posts and an active community that comments often and shares tips and support.

What happens when you’ve cured your thought hiccups? What’s that state of mind like? David Allen of Getting Things Done productivity fame describes a “mind like water” like this:

Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or under react. Anything that causes you to overreact or under react can control you, and often does…. Most people give either more or less attention to things than they deserve, simply because they don’t operate with a “mind like water.”

From hiccups to a mind like water: sounds nice, doesn’t it? 

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Christopher Peck

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