“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” –Mahatma Gandhi
How often do thoughts, worries, or other mental distractions interfere with your ability to focus on the task at hand? Sometimes worrisome thought gets in the way of feeling alert, calm, and present. When your mind feels as if it is “somewhere else,” you just might be missing out on what’s happening right now… in this very moment. It’s completely natural for thoughts to pop into your mind in ways that feel random or out of the blue. This type of mental chatter may become problematic if you are struggling with maintaining attention, concentration, or efficiency.
It’s understandably difficult to be mindful of the present moment and achieve a “state of flow” when your mind is pulling your attention in all directions. Whether you find yourself stuck in a pattern of rumination or overwhelmed by what feels like an endless to-do list, the outcome may feel similar… frazzled, overwhelmed, or plagued by anxiety. A sure fire way to stay frazzled and anxious is to replay worrisome thoughts or feared scenarios over and over again in your mind. It’s a bit like pedaling faster and faster, trying to move forward, only to find out that you’re on a stationary bike… going nowhere… fast.
The realization that you’ve been getting yourself all worked up by watching an endless loop of worrisome thoughts flash through your mind might feel incredibly irritating, frustrating, or even depressing. It doesn’t have to stay that way… unless you want to stay unhappy and ineffective. What you can do – the very moment you notice that you’ve been spinning your wheels – is to get off the hamster wheel! The more time that you spend lamenting how you’ve wasted time and energy, the less time you have to do things differently.
Clear Mind Exercise
Dr. Jim Stone, an expert in the integration of philosophy with motivational psychology, suggests a simple five-step process for clearing the mind and increasing focus. If you believe you could benefit from clearing out some of your own mental cobwebs or distracting thoughts, give these five steps a try.
Don’t worry… this won’t take up much of your time. If anything, you are about to gain precious time as a natural result of eliminating mental clutter and focusing on the here-and-now. Take a few moments out of your day to practice this (adapted) experiential mindfulness exercise intended to increase focus and productivity, and decrease unnecessary suffering caused by maladaptive thoughts.
Take out a fresh notepad or piece of paper, your favourite pen or pencil, and choose to direct your full attention to the present moment. Pause to take a few deep breaths in… and out. Notice the way the pen or pencil feels in your hand… observe the way your body feels as it is supported by the chair, sofa, or ground… notice how clean and fresh the blank sheet of paper looks. Once you feel sufficiently tuned in to the present moment and ready to begin, start writing.
- Write down every single thought in your mind – big or small – onto the paper.
- Don’t stop writing until your mind feels empty.
Does that first sheet of paper look neat and tidy to you? Remember, you weren’t writing something that anyone else would ever read, and you certain weren’t expected to write down full sentences. Just thoughts. Do you notice how jumbled or random some of they may appear? Now take out a second sheet of paper… fresh and clean, just like the “thoughts”
paper was before the contents of your mind filled it up with mental chatter.
- Create three columns on the new sheet of paper… label them: (1) to be done, (2) maybe later, and (3) delete.
- Look at your thoughts from the first sheet of paper and decide which of these three categories fits best for each thought.
- Rewrite each thought under one of these three new columns.
Now that the contents of your mind have been released onto the first sheet and paper and then organized into one of three columns on the second sheet of paper, it’s time to tidy up a bit more. Notice how long your list of thoughts is in the “delete” column. The thoughts in your “delete” column may be the kind of thoughts that are especially irritating or distracting… they might be repetitive thoughts that are upsetting or worrisome… or they might even be song lyrics or poetry that pops into your mind for seemingly no reason. Whatever the case may be, thoughts that belong in the “delete” column tend to have a few things in common… they’re unproductive and/or maladaptive.
- Take out a pad of sticky notes. Write each thought in the “delete” column on its own sticky note.
- Spread them out and take a look…
- Pick up a sticky note. Read the thought aloud. Does it sound silly? Upsetting? Bizarre?
- Now… crumple it up and throw it away.
- Do this for each and every sticky note. Each time, say “goodbye” to that thought. Notice your mind becoming more and more clear.
(4) Maybe Later
What kinds of thoughts did you put under your “maybe later” column? Generally, these thoughts are about something you need to take care of in the future, something you wish you could do or do differently, or
thoughts that seem to be persistent or “eating away” at you. These “maybe later” thoughts can be productive or unproductive. For instance, a “maybe later” thought such as “I just know I’m going to screw up that presentation tomorrow” may not serve you well insofar as helping you feel confident and motivated. It’s up to you to decide which thoughts seem productive and likely inspire you to move closer to your goals, and which thoughts are unrealistically self-critical, exaggerated, or tend to lead toward a downward emotional spiral.
- Take out a third, fresh sheet of paper.
- Write “maybe later” at the top of this clean sheet of paper. Time to make a new list…
- Decide which thoughts are healthy and in alignment with your values and goals… hold onto those.
- Write down each productive or positive thought from your “maybe later” column onto your new “maybe later” list.
(5) To Be Done
These thoughts are typically task-oriented or behavioral in nature, but as you’ve probably noticed, they too may be positive or negative. For instance, a thought such as “Oh yeah, I need to pick up groceries” is probably a thought worth holding onto… if you feel like having food in the house! In contrast, a behaviorally-based thought such as, “There’s no way I’m eating at all today; I’m way too fat” is unhealthy for your physical and emotional well-being. You can begin to discern between adaptive / healthy thoughts and maladaptive / unhealthy thoughts by reflecting on how well those thoughts are in alignment with your core values and goals. For instance, if you highly value physical health and fitness, then the negative thought just mentioned is unlikely to serve you in the long-term.
- Take out a fourth (and final!) sheet of clean paper. Write “to be done” at the top.
- Decide which thoughts you want to keep, and which thoughts you want to release.
- Write down each adaptiveorhealthythought from your “to be done” list.
- Transform each thought into a S.M.A.R.T. goal.
- Give yourself (healthy!) rewards for staying on track with your commitments.
How was your experience engaging in this brief mindfulness exercise designed to enhance productivity and mental clarity? Maybe you feel more organized and aware of just how many thoughts you had swirling through your mind when you began writing them all down. Whatever experience you had with this exercise, pause to consider how you can integrate any insight that you gained into clearing out your mind and freeing yourself from mental clutter.
One easy way to carry the benefits of this exercise with you is to keep a small pad of sticky notes with you and pause briefly to write down one of those “delete” thoughts as soon as you notice it arise. By doing this, you are training yourself to take active steps toward letting go of thoughts that interfere with your daily life or well-being. You can choose which thoughts deserve your attention. As you begin to shift your attention toward different – more positive – thoughts, your emotions are likely to change for the better.