Have you ever tried to follow your thoughts, to catch your thoughts in sequence as they arise? It isn’t easy, but doing this can bring you an awareness about what really is going on inside your mind. The result can be not just surprising. It can change everything.
Current studies say that our minds get distracted every three minutes. We respond to our shifting thoughts the way we respond to our cell phones (which also interrupt us every three minutes, or less). How? We answer the new thoughts, letting our minds move on to the next shiny new thing.
Some say our short attention span is derived from the invasion of modern technology that besets us in all directions. Others say we have always been this way, right from the time we stayed alert for any noise or footfall while we were out hunting back in the Ice Age, in case a woolly mammoth or sabre-toothed tiger showed up. (As an aside, we’ve discovered both men and women did the hunting back then, so neither gender escapes this one.)
What a short attention span does not do is allow us to focus for an extended period of time on things that might be good for us to focus on. Try this:
Think of something you know would be good for you to do that will take at least an hour of your time. You know it is worthwhile, and you already intend to do it, anyway. Now, focus on that idea. And see how long it takes before an unrelated thought pops in.
For example, let’s say your focus is on how to set up a timeline for a conference for a five-member panel. You think about the title of the project — you might even type a few possible titles into your computer or phone. One title option might be “Exploring the Psychology of Meetups.” Good start. But the words trigger a memory of a really unfortunate meetup you attended. That could be a good discussion idea for the conference but you’ve already moved on to thinking about someone in that old group who did you an injustice, and from there you could go off in many directions, from the current state of politics to the philosophy of injustice. Eventually you get back to thinking about your conference. You may by then have forgotten that good idea about meetups, or lost momentum for doing any more work on it with the same enthusiasm.
Try this exercise with several topics and just see if your mind wanders away from that subject, and if so, how soon. Can you catch the second that happens?
Of course, some people have no problem attending to the idea at hand, and for hours at a time, at that. Artists and classical musicians are usually immersed in what they are doing to the exclusion of everything else. That’s what focus is. Scientists conducting sensitive experiments with volatile substances let their attention wander at their own risk. Actors on stage must attend to their lines, where their markers are, the cues for their dialogue, the director’s requirements, and the music, if there is any — and do these things all at once.
Mind Chatter Saps Energy
Most of us, however, experience life more casually. No problem, except when it exhausts us — and that is what mind chatter does — it pulls at our energy, and stops our progress, our ability to absorb information, and our skill in knowing what needs our attention and what doesn’t. Not everything needs to be attended to, no more than every Facebook post has to be seen or every cell phone call to be answered. We can choose what we attend to — deliberately.
But most of the time we let the chatter rule, even though it is distracting, irrelevant, or even toxic and self-defeating.
So what to do to quiet this incessant mind chatter? To hush that stream of consciousness that interrupts us constantly? Here are 7 ways that just might give you a respite and time to dwell on what matters to you and makes you feel good instead of what matters to everyone and everything else.
- This exercise takes 30 seconds. Keep your eyes open. Choose a small object in the room in front of you, about five feet away. Now don’t look at the object, but at the empty space on one side of the object. Hold that look for 30 seconds without saying any words to yourself. You’ll know if you did it without thought— you’ll feel more balanced.
- Think of something that is not pleasant for you — it is likely you have been doing this often during the day already, but choose just one thought of that ilk. Our tendency to dwell on negative thoughts causes stress. A technique called rapid eye movement can calm the stress in seconds. Doing this short exercise can be effective. It reduces the tension behind the thought. Hold your index finger vertically on level with your eyes about five inches away. Slowly move your finger in a horizontal line from the left side of the face to the right side and back again, making sure your eyes follow your motions completely. Do this a few times. Check in with that stressful thought. Very likely, it is not so strong any more.
- Now, think of a thought you keep going back to, something that worries at you because you don’t have an answer for it. It might be what another person said, or a reaction you didn’t expect when you did something, or perhaps a question you have about someone’s motives. Write the thought down three times. Then say the thought out loud, whatever it is, and repeat the thought at least five times out loud, or as often as you are inclined. Next, recall the worrying thought in your mind — does it have the same effect on you?
- What if you have so much to do that you can’t figure out where to start? So your thoughts are in a spin? If you have a pet nearby, spend five minutes doing nothing but paying attention to your pet. Don’t allow yourself to think of anything else. Your pet’s happy response will make that easy. If you don’t have a pet, watch this one-minute video of golden retrievers at a lake (with thanks to Kim Sirett), and this short video of ducks who’d never seen water before.
- Still feel your head is in a spin after those videos? Maybe not so much? 🙂 Another way to calm the negative chatter is to choose a scene in your life when you were very happy, truly, completely, happy. It might be from childhood, or talking with friends at sunset, or a place you visited, or a moment that felt perfect. Anything you want. Every time something enters your mind that is negative, fill your mind with that positive image. Really fill it, out to all corners of thought, leaving no room for anything else. You might have to do this often at first — we do hold on to those negative ideas a lot — but after a while many of them will begin to fade. And the benefit of the positive image is that we are able to move into our work and the things we love with more focus. The old worrying thoughts gradually lose their power.
- Music can still our negative or too-busy thoughts. Certain kinds of music, that is. Chanting is one of them, and it has been used for centuries, perhaps millennia, to induce a peaceful state. If you listen to the chanting even while you are carrying on with your normal day’s activities, you will notice there is a lessening of negative mind chatter. There are many such recordings, in every culture. Here is one: Allegri’s Miserere Mei as sung by King’s College Choir. Here is another from a series on Native American Healing Chants. Listening to chanting erases stress and brings a restful state to our minds.
- Most of us have difficulty listening at all — to each other, to what is going on, to what we hear around us. Spend a few minutes during the day listening to someone else without planning the next thing you want to say to them. Just listen to their words. Keep eye contact with them. Let go of your own need to say something. Your mind chatter will vanish. And when you feel inclined to speak, it will be attuned to what you have just heard instead of being unrelated or self-serving. This can change worlds.
In the end, mind chatter does us no service if it is repetitive and saps our energy and distracts us constantly from what really matters. Far better that we think and dwell in our minds on what we love and care about, most of all.
All Rights Reserved for Regina Clarke