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Your Brain Needs a Better Soundtrack. Here’s How to Turn it On.

Overthinking is a trap many of us get caught in. In his new book "Soundtracks," Jon Acuff explains how to escape — and think more positively.

Jonathan Muroya for Fatherly

As a parent, overthinking is almost second nature. Say you were working late for a week and missed bedtime every night. What a bummer, right? You didn’t intend to get caught up on whatever project kept you away, but it happened. If you’re an over thinker you’ll ruminate on the impact this has on your kids because, as you might tell yourself, “a good parent doesn’t miss bedtime.” This overthinking might lead you to spiral a bit and conclude “I’m a bad father.” These negative statements then live in your head until they gain heft and weigh you down like a stone.

Jon Acuff calls such phrases like this a broken “soundtrack” — that is, a symptom of overthinking that makes you ruminate, feel guilt or shame, and, ultimately, gets you nowhere. At the very least, they don’t lead to a positive action and therefore need to be adjusted. Otherwise, you’re just wasting resources on these dead-end thoughts. That’s why Acuff refers to overthinking as “the greatest thief of all.”

“It steals time, creativity, productivity, hope,” he says.

In his new book Soundtracks: The Surprising Solution to Overthinking, Acuff, who found himself guilty of overthinking and realized how common it is to become trapped in dead-end thoughts, plainly lays out the issue and provides a smart framework to help people regain control of their internal dialogues for the better. The concept: identify broken soundtracks, replace them with new ones that are tethered to an action, and then repeat the fresh ones so often that they become automatic.

Yes, this requires a good deal of self-awareness and, yes, at times catching yourself in the act of overthinking can be hard as hell. But by distilling the concept down into the barest terms, Acuff presents a so-simple-it-just-might-work system that is refreshing in its straightforwardness.

A parent himself, Acuff, a motivational speaker and bestselling author, knows all too well how easy it is for mothers and fathers to overthink and get caught up in a crippling cycle of negative self-talk. The advice he shares in Soundtracks is particularly resonant for parents. Because what he’s describing are mantras that lead to more forgiveness, more grace, more efficiency, and that set a better example for your kids.

Fatherly spoke to Acuff about overthinking, the power of changing your inner voice, how to identify and reframe a broken soundtrack, and how to pass this powerful tool down to your kids.

In Soundtracks you define overthinking in a specific way.

The way I define overthinking is when what you think gets in the way of what you want. So, if there’s something you want and you start to think about all the extra costs get in the way, that’s overthinking. I call overthinking the greatest thief of all because I really think it is. It steals time, creativity, productivity, hope.

Let’s say you make a mistake and start overthinking and tell yourself I’m the worst dad. This doesn’t make you want to do good dad things. It just spins you out in shame. So, you just overthink, repeating I’m the worst dad, I’m the worst dad, I’m the worst dad and it doesn’t lead to you finding, say, 10 ways to be a better dad. It’s likely to lead you to think Anything I try is going to make me the worst dad.

You refer to such negative thoughts as “soundtracks.” And the main idea you present is that people need to identify and replace “broken” soundtracks with new, more positive ones.

A soundtrack is just my phrase for a repetitive thought. They are these internal thoughts you hear and that have the power to change the entire moment. Often, we don’t even know the ones we are listening to.

In the simplest terms, what the book tries to do is help readers with three things: retire your broken soundtracks, replace them with new ones, and then repeat those new ones so often that they become as automatic as the old one. Each new soundtrack needs to be paired with an action so it leads somewhere. Because overthinking leads you nowhere.

Can you walk me through an example?

Sure. I meet a lot of parents during the pandemic had the soundtrack of “I’m terrible at virtual school.” I always say to them, “Well, yeah, you should be. You’ve never done it before.” Because the worst time to learn something new is during a global pandemic.

So, in this situation, I would give parents who are worrying about virtual school a new soundtrack which I would tell them to write down on a post-it near their computer: “This is my first global pandemic.”

This is a simple soundtrack that helps them realize, Why is this challenging? Oh right, this is my first global pandemic. It gives them the ability to say, “Okay, sorry, I’m a little bit of a hot mess.” Chances are, you’re probably terrible at hang gliding too. You’ve probably never done that, so I bet you’d be pretty bad at it.

It takes the pressure off.

In this case, yes. Parents put this pressure on themselves, so a new soundtrack where you remind yourself of the truth is really helpful. And from there you can make positive moves.

It’s a matter of recalibrating. Which is useful but also very difficult at times.

Absolutely. A lot of times creating soundtracks means retiring those you’ve been carrying around. I had a bunch of people post “Old soundtrack; New soundtrack” on a forum. This dad said that his old soundtrack was: “I can’t be a good dad because I didn’t have a good dad.”

Talk about a toxic soundtrack. He can’t fix that. He can’t fix that his dad sucked. And he’s believing that, because his dad was bad and didn’t teach him or whatever the case was, he can’t be a good dad? That’s not helping in any way.

But he rewrote his soundtrack into: “I can learn how to be a good dad.” In other words, this comes to: I get to learn how to be a good dad. Just that sentiment will change how he interacts with his kids. That new soundtrack is powerful. And so often it’s just sitting down and going, Okay? What do I do to change my mindset?

It’s using a positive affirmation to replace the negative self-talk cycle that it can be so easy to get caught up in.

Exactly. But the whole goal of it is that new thoughts lead to new actions, which then lead to new results. So, the goal isn’t just to feel better; ultimately, the goal is to perform better. I know that I’ll take different actions when I have different thoughts and I’ll get different results.

Here’s an example from my life: I got a new job, and it increased my travel. I went from traveling zero days a year to about 80 days a year. I felt terrible. I felt so guilty. Whenever I’d leave for a trip, I’d do this big dramatic exit and say things like “I’m so sorry kids. I’ll be home in four sleeps.”

Finally, my wife pulled me aside and said: “We don’t feel ashamed that you’re traveling — you do. You’re asking the kids to hold that. They don’t even know to feel sad; you’re teaching them how to feel sad.”

She just said, “Go do your job. We’re so excited, you’re going to do your job. We’re supporting that. We’re not saying the opposite. You’re saying the opposite. Go do your job.”

That’s a great support system to have. But how did you reshape the soundtrack?

Well, I had to stop and ask myself, Why do I feel that I’m a bad dad if I travel? And when I pulled that thread, I realized I had a dad who didn’t travel and a mom who didn’t travel, and they were good parents. So, I’d convinced myself that good parents don’t travel and that when I travel, I am therefore a bad parent. I had to stop and tell myself that that’s not true; I’m not going to believe that.

I had to come up with a new soundtrack, which ended up being: “no room for shame in my suitcase.”

The action to this new soundtrack is that I celebrate the exit with my kids. I say “Hey, I’m going to go do a job that I love.” I turned on that soundtrack.  And later, when we’re out having fun as a family, I say, “Hey, remember, when I was out of town in Oklahoma? My job helped us have this amazing experience.”

I added this last part because I realized a big problem many parents have is that they criticize work for 18 years and then they’re surprised that their kid doesn’t want to get a job after college. I knew that if I humanized work for 18 years, my kids would maybe not have that perspective. That was another action to my soundtrack.

And what you said about living up to prior expectations set by your family is very true. For parents who had good childhoods, it’s easy to want to recreate what their parents did but it’s nearly impossible to do so in the same way. This is an easy way to create a negative soundtrack.   

And your brain isn’t even telling you the truth. Your brain is kind of a jerk. It distorts your memories. You could’ve gone to the beach twice as a kid with your dad. But in your memory, it feels like you went 100 times and that, every summer your dad was wildly available. Eventually, you start to think If I’m not wildly available as a dad, I must be a failure. But you’re not even remembering it correctly.

And with cognitive bias, you want to believe the things you already believe. So, if you believe you’re a bad parent, you’re going to continue to see examples of that. You have to actively work against that.

A phrase I come back to again and again is, “Fear comes free; hope comes with work.” Negative emotions will find you on their own. You must work to find the positive ones.

How do you recognize a broken soundtrack?

Here’s a really simple way to figure out one: Write down something you want to do. It doesn’t have to be massive. It can be small, like “I want to take my kid to their first baseball game” or “I want to write a book”. Then, listen to the first thought you have. A reaction is an education, so listen to your reaction. If before you’ve even asked, you’re telling yourself things like We don’t have the money for this, we’ll never be able to go, or who are you to think you could do that? then you’re overthinking and that’s a bad soundtrack.

When that happens, you ask that thought three simple questions: Number one: Is it true? Number two: Is it helpful — that is, does it move me forward or hold me back? And number three: Is it kind? — that is, If I said it to a friend would they still want to be my friend?

And if you ask your thoughts those thoughts — not every thought, but the loud ones, the glaring ones — these three questions, you’re going to be surprised how many broken soundtracks you’re listening to.

The way we’ve discussed soundtracks is that they’re largely internal. But I imagine they can also be used as, say, a more positive family motto or just a means of expressing values.  

Yeah. Every family has soundtracks. But they’re often accidental, not intentional. So, I think parents should ask What are the soundtracks of our family? What do we want them to be? What’s the actual right now, what’s the aspirational and how do we get there? What does that look like?

They can be serious things, or they can be silly things. One of our family soundtracks that we talk about a lot is “early is on time.” We try to get places early. That’s just something we’re teaching our kids. Another is “We don’t show up hungry”. If we go on a road trip to see friends, and unless we’re supposed to have dinner there, we’ll grab something to eat along the way so that we don’t show up a sweaty hot mess and expect them to serve us dinner. That’s the action that makes the soundtrack work.

The ultimate soundtrack to each of these is “be considerate of others; don’t be entitled.” That’s the subtext of both examples.

But thinking about soundtracks is crucial to families. If a kid says, I’ll never make the baseball team. That’s a broken soundtrack. Parents can say, “Okay, let’s work on a new one. What does that look like?”

If a kid says, “All my friends hate me.” Okay, whoa whoa whoa, let’s hold on there. Is that true? Is it helpful? Is it kind? And then work from there to create a new one.

It offers a really simple language to use with kids.

To wrap up, is there a soundtrack you find useful or that is a particular favorite?

I think one that we talk about a lot in our family is: “Go through, not over.” People will often say, how do I get over imposter syndrome? Or how do I get over fear? But the word “over” makes a broken soundtrack because it is a word of perfectionism. It means that you climbed over a wall and now you’re done with something.

So, in our family we teach that, no, you go through it. Every level you do something new, there’s some fear there. You go through it, and you work on it, and you get past it. But you don’t have to get over it because the next time you feel afraid, you feel like you failed. That’s why we say go through, not over. You actively work on it.

And another one we say is “Fear gets a voice, not a vote.”  Fear is there. Let’s admit it. But it does not get a say in what you do or don’t do. It doesn’t get to sit at the head of the table.

I’m going to steal both of those.

I think parents need to know that most people can choose what they think. People think a thought is just something that shows up on its own and you have no power. But once you say to yourself, I have the permission and the ability to choose what I think during the day, to lead to me to action I will take? That’s where it becomes really fun.

And when parents start to tell this stuff to their kids? It’s great. Kids adopt it faster than adults because adults have 20 years of broken soundtracks to unlearn. A kid doesn’t. When you tell a kid the truth, they just run with it.