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It’s important to clean away negative thoughts to reduce stress.Shane White/Getty Images/iStockphoto

This is part of a series looking at microskills – changes that employees can make to help improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Register your company now at

When you lie down to go to sleep at night, is your mind clear and ready to rest?

It takes 10 to 20 minutes for most of us to fall asleep. For people struggling, there are sleep best practices a person can develop that can help them a better night's sleep such as designing a bedtime routine to shift gears at the end of the day to help them settle down and turn off their mind.

Cognitive hygiene – basically a way of positively managing your thoughts – is a microskill that focuses on the daily action of cleaning out unhelpful thoughts. This skill supports both mental health and sleep.

The average person has 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day; that's around 35 to 48 per minute. With this much mental activity, it's normal to have moments where you feel overwhelmed and distracted.

More problematic are negative thoughts about ourselves. When these thoughts are left unchecked and become repetitive and ingrained, they can negatively impact our perceptions, decisions and actions both at work and at home.

Here are three steps to clean out unwanted thoughts and practice better cognitive hygiene.


Be clear of the value and reason that it's in your best interest to practice cognitive hygiene every day. Did you have any negative thoughts about yourself today, such as, "I'm weak; I'm a failure; I'm no good; no one likes me"? Sadly, these kinds of automatic thoughts are quite normal. It's what we do with them that's important. Negative thoughts can grow and when left unchecked can hurt our total health, which includes our physical and mental health.


We own our mental health, which can be influenced by genetics, life and work experiences and daily thoughts. Cognitive hygiene is the daily action of cleaning out thoughts that are not helpful.

Similar to brushing your teeth each day, it's much easier to deal with one day's worth of bacteria than ignoring it and dealing with the consequences six months down the road.

Accountability is owning what you can directly control: your thinking. Begin by flagging negative thoughts and acknowledging that they are not helpful.

Once you do this, practice making the self-statement, "This thought is not helpful to my health and happiness so it can go." Many unwanted thoughts are automatic and with practice they can be removed as quickly as they form. Owning your thoughts puts you in a position to move from being an observer to the driver of what you think.


The more you practice cognitive hygiene daily, the better you will be at dismissing unwanted thoughts. If you struggle with negative thoughts, you may benefit from taking a course in coping skills that focuses on managing negative thinking.

The following approach may help you get on track to turn off stubborn, unwanted thoughts:

1. Write out the thought on a piece of paper.

2. Ask why you are having this thought now (such as someone said it to you; it's based on personal or work experience, or you're not sure).

3. In a safe and quiet spot, read the thought out loud.

4. Write out the emotions that are associated with this thought.

5. On a scale of one (low) to 10 (high), how true do you believe this thought is?

6. Try to understand how the thought is impacting you.

7. Is there anything stopping you from turning off this thought and accepting that it's not in your best interest?

8. For stubborn thoughts that you believe you can't simply turn off, repeat the above process for three days, using a coping journal.

9. If after three days you can't remove the unwanted thought and it's causing you stress, anxiety or depression, you may benefit from professional support. It's normal to feel apprehensive or to feel the stigma related to these thoughts. One in five Canadians are at mental health risk. Of the individuals at risk, only one out of three seeks professional help. Bring the work you've done to your professional counsellor to help him or her understand your experience and challenge.

The ultimate goal of daily cognitive hygiene is proactively challenging negative thoughts to reduce their impact on your total health.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto. He is also the president of Howatt HR Consulting and founder of TalOp, in Kentville, N.S.

This series supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell's Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

This award recognizes employers who have the healthiest, most engaged and most productive employees. It promotes a two-way accountability model where an employer can support employees to have a positive workplace experience.

You can find all the stories in this series at this link:

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