3 Bad Mental Habits and How to Eliminate Them

Last week, I thought I would try something fun and new. I posted a Twitter poll asking my followers what kind of topic they wanted me to talk about this week. The options were as follows:

Before we jump in, let’s take a look at how the brain works, and why habits form in the first place.

As powerful as modern computers are today in 2018, they don’t even come close to comparing to the processing power and speed of the human brain. The mind is an information processing super-machine. It’s biologically designed to process as much information as fast as possible in the most efficient way. And the numbers are mind-boggling (pun intended).

It is estimated that the human brain operates at a speed of around one exaflop per second, or in other words, one billion billion calculations per second. Yes, you read that correctly. I didn’t accidentally write the word “billion” twice. The brain is able to process one billion billion calculations per second. It is able to hold around 3.5 quadrillion bytes of information, or in other words, 3,500 trillion bytes. To help process such an enormous amount of information so quickly, the brain is filled with around 100 billion neurons, or brain cells, to process that information.

To process every thought you have, emotion you feel, and action you want to do, your brain cells need to spread that information to other brain cells so that those thoughts, emotions, and actions can be carried to different areas of the brain and body. That way, they can be acted out physically. In order for your brain cells to communicate information with one another, they create what’s called “neural pathways.” Think of these pathways as roads or lanes that your brain cells use to link themselves together and send information to your brain and body.

So how do mental habits form? It all starts with the neural pathways I just mentioned. In simple terms, every time you think a specific thought, feel a specific emotion, or decide on a certain action, a neural pathway is formed between neurons to send that thought, emotion, or action to your brain and body. And the more you do it, the bigger and thicker that specific neural pathway gets. The bigger and thicker a neural pathway gets, the more your brain is going to automatically use that neural pathway in the future.

In other words, the more you think something, feel something, and do something, the more those thoughts, emotions, and actions literally become physically hard-wired in your brain. You are training and teaching your brain to think that way, react that way emotionally, and act that way automatically. If every time you play badly, you say to yourself that you’re no good, then you’re hard-wiring your brain to think that way every time you play poorly. If every time you lose a game you allow yourself to get angry, you’re hard-wiring your brain to react that way every time you lose. If every time you sit down to play you shuffle and flick the cards in your hand 1,000 mph the entire game, you’re hard-wiring your brain to do that every match.

So that’s how the brain works and that’s how mental habits form. Having said all of that, let’s talk about three bad mental habits you want to avoid, and how you can either eliminate them or prevent yourself from adopting them to begin with.

1) Thinking too much about everything that can go wrong.

Theoretically, when you go to compete, one of two outcomes is going to happen. You’re either going to get the results you want, or you’re not going to get the results you want. You’re either going to play well, or you’re going to play poorly. Which outcome you focus on most is going to majorly influence which outcome you get.

Is it possible you could play really badly? Sure, it’s possible. Is it possible you could lose all of your matches or miss the Day 2 cut? Yep, that could happen. But that’s not the important question to ask. The important question to ask is this: “Does focusing on everything that can go wrong make it easier to play my best, or does it make it more difficult?” That’s the question that counts. Failure is always possible, but focusing on it and stressing over it will only make it much more likely to occur.

While it’s true there’s a possibility things could go wrong, there’s also every possibility things could go right. You could play to your maximum level. You could find most of the right lines, make most of the right decisions, and make most of the right plays. In the end, you have the power to decide whether you focus on what can go wrong or focus on what can go right when you play. Always focus on how things could go right, and the great things that could happen.

2) Thinking about bad results for too long.

It’s not just possible that things can go wrong sometimes. It’s inevitable that things will go wrong sometimes. If you choose to play tournament Magic, losing, failure, and bad results are an unavoidable part of the game. There’s nothing you can do about that.

I know you’ve experienced this before. You’re at an important tournament where you have spent a good chunk of time preparing to do well, and the first few rounds don’t go the way you wanted at all. You just couldn’t string anything together, and you lost both matches. As you wait for the next round to start, you can’t shake those losses from your mind. Those results are still hanging over your head. As you head to the table for round 3, those losses are still weighing on your mind and it inevitably has a negative effect on that round as well.

Just like how you have the power to choose whether you focus on what can go wrong or what can go right, you also have the power to choose whether you continue to dwell on your bad results or let them go. This goes beyond just one individual tournament as well. Are you still dwelling on that bad tournament you had last month? Are you still dwelling on that bad season you had two years ago? Endlessly dwelling on the past isn’t going to be meaningful or positively benefit you in the present. Learn from bad results, then let them go. Carry forward the lessons you learn from failure, but banish the memory of the failure itself from your mind.

3) Thinking too far ahead.

Just as dwelling on the past isn’t beneficial, neither is constantly day-dreaming about the future and allowing your thoughts to get too far ahead. This is especially important at tournaments, as thinking too far ahead takes you out of the present moment and keeps you from channeling your complete focus, concentration, and attention on the match that’s directly in front of you.

Once again, I’m sure you’ve experienced this before as well. You’re in a position to Top 8 a tournament, and all you have to do is get two wins out of your next three rounds. Because you’re thinking so far ahead and focusing on how many more wins you need to get in the future, you’re not keeping yourself in the present moment. You don’t focus or concentrate properly on the match you’re about to play, so you end up playing poorly as a consequence and lose the match because of that.

It’s fine to know what’s ahead, but focusing on the future when it doesn’t exist yet, and especially when you have something important you need to focus on in the immediate present moment, is a bad habit to fall into. When you play in tournaments, the most important round of your tournament is the one in front of you. It’s not round 13, round 14, or round 15. It’s not the final. It’s the match you’re about to play at that moment. Always take things one game, one match, and one tournament at a time. Maximum focus breeds maximum performance, which often breeds maximum results.

Habits can be such a complex topic, and I wrote an entire book related to the mental aspects of playing Magic where I talk about them more in-depth. If you’re interested in this kind of stuff and want to learn more, you can pick up a copy here.

Also, I host a weekly podcast where I invite some of the game’s best players to have a conversation with me about various topics related to improving at the mental side of the game. We’ve had players such as Seth Manfield, Gabriel Nassif, Ben Stark, and many more. You can check that out here as well.

Have any other bad habits players tend to adopt that you think I should have talked about in the article? There’s a bunch! Sound off in the comments section and let me know what you think.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week!

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