By learning to follow the flow of your thoughts, you can quickly reduce stress, control your emotions, avoid distractions and get things done. The process is simple – make one small mindset change and use one simple mental exercise for a few minutes a day, and you’ll develop a clear and focused mind in record time.
Our thoughts derail us. We’re not even aware of most of the thoughts that race through our heads. Various experts estimate that we think anywhere from 12,000 to 80,000 thoughts a day.
Although there may not be a consensus on the exact number, we can agree that we all think thousands of thoughts a day. A lot of thoughts. Most of which we’re not aware of – and that’s the problem.
Those negative thoughts that go right by us, those self-defeating thoughts, those condemnatory thoughts – they each affect us whether we notice them or not. They affect our emotions, our moods, and ultimately our actions.
We can talk ourselves out of doing something we need to do (but don’t want to) by having a whole conversation in our head that practically escapes our notice. But the bottom line is that we procrastinate yet again without realizing that putting off that important task until tomorrow is the end result of a series of thoughts – thoughts that could have been stopped in their tracks if only we knew how.
In the previous article, I described a three-minute exercise that can help you quickly gain control over your thoughts. I will briefly recount the exercise here, but you can read the article for a full set of instructions.
Simply notice an object in the room or an object or thought in your mind. Close your eyes and let your thoughts drift, watching the thought chain as it drifts from one thought to another. Then mentally reach in and stop the chain, focusing for a good 10 seconds on the thought or object that was in your mind when you stopped. Then let your thoughts roam again, observing them as they do. Stop the thought chain again after some time, then resume. Do this for a few cycles.
As I described last week, this deceptively simple exercise takes only a few minutes, but can quickly transform your ability to focus if practiced consistently. By realizing that you can be aware of your thoughts as they unfold, and then practicing affirmatively stopping and starting them at will, you can gain control over your thoughts.
If you’ve been practicing this exercise for a week since the previous article came out, you’ve likely already seen a difference in your ability to focus at will (and if you’re reading about this exercise for the first time, consider trying it for a week before proceeding).
Once you can start and stop your thoughts, new possibilities open up. You become more aware of the thoughts that are derailing you and can much more easily redirect your mind to thoughts that actually are helpful.
But there’s another level still, an extension of this exercise that will give you even greater mental control. Practiced regularly, you will be able to sustain your attention for far longer, and block out or redirect distractions. This will in turn bring your mental clarity to a whole new level. Instead of wondering where your day went as you bounced from one distraction to another, you’ll be keenly aware of what you are doing, deeply engaged in your work, and ultimately far more productive with far less effort.
So once you’ve learned to start and stop the flow of your thoughts at will, you can next learn to deliberately control the flow of your thoughts. This obviously can greatly enhance your ability to concentrate, to choose on what and where you will focus your attention, and to remove distracting or emotionally derailing thoughts. Once you can control your thoughts, both your emotional regulation and your productivity will skyrocket.
Start with one object. As with the previous exercise, start with an object either in the room around you or an object or thought in your awareness. As before, close your eyes and watch your thoughts as they drift from one to another. But this time, instead of stopping and then starting again, simply stop after about 30 seconds.
Retrace your steps. Notice both the object that was in your awareness when you began the exercise and the object or thought in your awareness 30 seconds later. Next, see if you can recall the objects and thoughts in between – in other words, the exact chain of your thoughts as they unfolded.
Write them down. Don’t worry if you can’t remember every thought you had. Write down as many as you can remember. The main value of the exercise is in making the effort to recall your thoughts, and you will remember more of them the longer and more consistently you do the exercise.
For example, you may have started the exercise by imagining a tree, and ended 30 seconds later with a thought that you need to pick up your suit from the dry cleaners. As you recall and write down your chain of thought from one to the other, it may look like this:
Tree – the oak tree on the lawn of your childhood home – the swing hanging from a branch of the tree – the swing on the playground at school – the teacher you had in high school who inspired you to pursue the career you did – the office where you work now – the meeting you have tomorrow – you need to pick up your suit from the dry cleaners for that meeting.
This might seem like a strange juxtaposition of thoughts, but it’s actually pretty mild in terms of the far lengths our minds can sometimes travel. Again, the point is to become aware of this chain of thought, wherever it happens to go, rather than continuing to allow your thoughts to do whatever they want.
Rehearse. Now that you have your list with as many of your thoughts as you can remember in the order they occurred, review the list a couple of times noticing what connects each thought with the next. Then, close your eyes and see if you can deliberately recreate the chain of thoughts. When you first thought these thoughts, they just happened. This time, you are consciously making your thoughts happen. See if you can go through the chain of thoughts in your mind both forward and backward.
Repeat. The entire process will take about 5 minutes. If you complete this process once or twice a day, you will rapidly become better at observing and recalling your thoughts, and at recreating them. This, in turn, will greatly improve your ability to direct your thoughts at will in whatever direction best serves you, and to quickly notice when your thoughts are going in an unhelpful or distracting direction. Once you become aware of your unproductive thoughts, you can move beyond them and focus calmly and productively on the task at hand.
As I described in the previous article, these are wonderful exercises if you are someone who doesn't have the time or inclination to engage in regular meditation or mindfulness practices. And if you already meditate, these exercises will make your meditation sessions much deeper and more productive.
Try the first exercise – the start and stop your thoughts exercise – for a week. Then try this second exercise – retracing your thoughts – for another week or two. If you do the exercises consistently, expect a big boost in your focus and mental clarity.