If you're anything like me, the private, quiet, analog time in the shower is prime time to do the kind of focused thinking often made impossible by the tumult of everyday life.
Knowing I had a newsletter to write that evening, my mind drifted to what this week's topic should be.
I returned to a thought I'd had earlier in the week -- "Get it out of your head" -- and how it could provide a nice tie-in to the app upgrade we're in the final stages of prepping for release.
But then the other thought came.
This wandering mind
Spurred by a passage I had read the night prior in the book How to Think by Alan Jacobs, I started thinking about a potential future edition of the THINKERS Roundup centered around fundamental attribution error, and how relevant that would be with the election coming up.
It would give me an analytical, apolitical way to discuss this remarkably polarized election.
I began to get excited about this idea.
WAIT A MINUTE!
The other idea was screaming at me.
My internal dialogue was now at war with itself.
I knew I needed to focus on the first idea. It would fit best for this week. But damn if my mind didn't keep wandering back the second idea.
And with that, my precious shower thinking time began to swirl around the drain of my distracted mind.
What's a thinker to do?
Get it out of my head.
So I finished my shower, toweled off, and opened up the beta version of the THINKERS App on my phone to record an audio note.
Future idea for THINKERS Roundup: fundamental attribution error cognitive bias and how it relates to 2020 election. Maybe it can serve as a subtle reminder to everyone during this polarized time that we should seek to understand each other first, before we condemn.
(Note: you can even listen to the actual audio note here, if you want to.)
The impact of getting it out of your head
An incredible thing happened once I recorded the idea: I found that my mind was instantly more willing to let it go.
I could now get back to the job at hand: planning how I wanted to approach this week's newsletter.
It's almost like my subconscious mind was so worried about possibly losing or forgetting the idea, that it was adamantly thrusting and rethrusting it into my train of thought to ensure that it stuck.
With the audio note there to catalog the idea in my THINKERS Roundup Ideas folder, it had stuck. It was safe. Now I'd have the idea easily accessible, and instantly transcribed, right there in my app when it became time to work on that essay.
A clear, focused, present mind is a wonderful thing.
How to help tame a wandering mind
What I described above is a common experience for me. I'm betting it is for you too, because we know that the human mind wanders a lot.
- I'll be reading ... and my mind will suddenly fixate on the fact that we need more grated parmesan cheese and that I really should add it to a grocery list somewhere so I don't forget.
- I'll be listening to a podcast about a topic I'm really interested in ... and my mind will suddenly fixate on the four urgent to-dos I need to make sure I accomplish tomorrow.
- I'll be playing with my daughter ... and my mind will turn to the call or email I forgot to return.
This is what it means to be human. Our minds wander, and it's up to us to figure how to manage it.
Certainly meditation is helpful.
I'm an on-and-off meditator who aspires to do it more. I can attest to its positive benefits. But I also know that many of us struggle to make it a consistent part of our daily routines.
And meditation is a long-term solution. Its benefits compound as you practice more and more and get better and better. So if you have a life goal of becoming consistently adept at taming your wandering mind, then committing to a meditation practice is absolutely the way to go.
But sometimes we just need a short-term solution that works now and delivers immediate benefits.
This is it:
Get it out of your head.
Until you get better at the meditative practice of noticing a thought wander uninvited into your consciousness and then wander right back out without hijacking your attention, go with a strategy like Get it out of your head -- which is a little more forceful and urgent.
You give the uninvited but interesting though a gentle push out of your conscious mind by giving it a physical spot in the real world to reside.
- Tomorrow's to-dos on your mind before bed? Write them down real quick. Your mind will relax so you can fall asleep easier.
- Driving your car when that perfect sentence pops into your head for the email you need to write that afternoon? Record it on your phone real quick. You can focus on driving with your mind unburdened from trying to remember it word for word.
- Out for a walk trying to think through a issue when you see someone's landscaping that you love? Snap a quick picture of it. The inspiration will be captured, but your mind will go back to the issue you were thinking through.
Our best ideas don't always wait for the most opportune time to pop into our heads, so we have to be ready with a system we trust.
You can't lose the great idea, but you also can't lose your original train of thought.
Get the idea out of your head.
It will be safely stored for later when you're ready to do something with it. And after the brief pause to record the idea, your attention will be right back into the present moment ... which is a proven path to increased happiness.
Next up, a quick update from the THINKERS Workshop and then this week's links.
First, we'll have our next virtual happy hour on Thursday, September 24th at 6:00 p.m. ET.
Then we'll have two events will be centered around the book How to Think, by Alan Jacobs.
First, Mr. Jacobs will be joining me for a webinar on Wednesday, September 30th at 3:00 p.m. ET. We'll be discussing his book and his thoughts on how we can all think better in these polarized times we're living through.
Then the following week, we'll have our third meeting of the THINKERS Book Club to discuss How to Think. The first two have produced fun, insightful discussions, and I'm sure this will be no different.
Want to join the THINKERS Workshop?
There's one other big takeaway. We should focus less on what we're doing and more on how we are being. This study also found that mind wandering has more to do with unhappiness than the activities we engage in. This isn't the way we normally think. We generally think that doing pleasant things makes us happy. But these researchers found that activities account for 4.6 percent of our happiness. Being fully here, instead of time travelling through the mind, accounts for around 10.8 percent.
So how can you shift from mind wandering to focus? Enter Notice-Shift-Rewire -- a tool that you can use to radically change your mental state, anytime, anywhere.
Read: Harvard Psychologists Reveal the Real Reason We're All So Distracted (Inc.)
The cognitive and emotional benefits of increased focus are worth pursuing.
Looking at activity in these brain networks this way suggests that when you catch your mind wandering, you are going through a process of recognizing, and shifting out of, default mode processing by engaging numerous attention networks. Understanding the way the brain alternates between focused and distracted states has implications for a wide variety of everyday tasks.
For example, when your mind wandered off in that meeting, it might help to know you’re slipping into default mode—and you can deliberately bring yourself back to the moment. That’s an ability that can improve with training.
Watch: How to Focus a Wandering Mind (Greater Good Magazine)
Clear your mind for higher-level thinking.
David Allen, productivity speaker and author of Getting Things Done, recommends doing what he calls a “core dump”. This involves writing down every task, activity, and project you need to address. This could range from picking up milk on the way home, to a multi-person project at work. Writing down every “to-do” item you can think of clears space in your head for more important topics.
You can also use a technique called “morning pages”, which was pioneered by Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. Morning pages involves completing three pages (around 750 words) of stream-of-consciousness writing. Through doing this first thing each morning, you clear your head in preparation for the day’s most important thinking.
Read: How Writing Things Down Can Change Your Life (Lifehack)
“I don’t care how much power, brilliance or energy you have, if you don’t harness it and focus it on a specific target, and hold it there you’re never going to accomplish as much as your ability warrants.”
-- Zig Ziglar