Make Distracting Thoughts Work for You

If a car alarm is blasting right outside your window or your cat is climbing up your leg to remind you that it’s dinner time you would be, quite obviously, distracted. And justifiably so.

Photo of a gray squirrel eating an acornMy friend and colleague, Nancy, and I joke all the time about seeing squirrels. In fact, we do a lot of Skype messaging with each other, and often punctuate our thoughts with the little image of the squirrel, to indicate that we’ve gone off track. Or are going off track.

But these are usually outside distractions that tend to pull me off my game and you likely experience those kinds of distractions all the time, too. Those distractions are usually a little easier to manage.

On the other hand, some of your biggest intrusions don’t come from outside sources, but rather from deep within your own mind.

They’re those wayward thoughts that usually may be just curious but can sometimes be disturbing. You might remember a child who bullied you in the third grade or you suddenly start hearing and singing a song from an old TV commercial.

It’s those kind of thoughts that can be a bit more challenging to overcome.

The good news is that whatever their nature, no matter where they come from, you can learn how to make these internal interruptions work to your advantage.

Benefits of Distracting Thoughts

1. Feel connected. Remember that we all experience strange ideas and images at times. Reassure yourself that your imagination is natural and useful.

2. Distinguish between thinking and reality. It’s also comforting to keep in mind that your thoughts can be separated from your actions. Instead of feeling embarrassed about being irritated with a friend who talks too much, you may decide to show her more compassion.

3. Identify underlying issues. On the other hand, recurring thoughts could be trying to tell you something. If you’ve been wondering how your parents are getting along in their new house, it may be time to pay them a visit.

4.  Prioritize your time for cherished activities. You probably find it easy to focus on activities you love. The absence of distracting thoughts can be a clue that points out your strengths and interests.

5. Guide your thoughts. With practice, you can choose your thoughts. Meditation is one proven technique for gaining more control over your mind. You can measure your progress as distracting thoughts become less frequent and easier to put aside.

Managing Intrusive Thoughts

1. Forget about suppression. You may have played the childhood game where you try to stop thinking about polar bears. Pretty soon polar bears wind up being the only thing on your mind. You’re going to need a different strategy.

2. Let go of judgments. Similarly, accepting your thoughts makes it easier to deal with them. You can still be a kind person even if you sometimes perceive something unflattering about your mother-in-law or the crazy people in line at the grocery.

3. Balance your load. Studies show that we can minimize distracting thoughts by working at the maximum efficiency for our abilities. Our minds tend to wander during tasks that are very easy or very difficult.

4. Stick to your work. You can also train yourself to fulfill your responsibilities even when you’re tempted to drop the ball. If you suddenly feel like calling a friend, wait until after you finish the laundry or writing that email. Set a timer if it helps.

5. Still your mind. Many people find it difficult to quiet their minds. Bringing your attention to your breath or an inspiring phrase can help you to clear your mind of distractions and live more mindfully.

6. Talk it over. Sharing your thoughts with others can be mutually beneficial. Your friendships deepen as you disclose personal information. Feedback from others helps us spot issues we may overlook. At the very least, your friends may find your imagination entertaining. (Which is the big reason that Nancy and I stay connected via Skype just about all the time.)

7. See your doctor. While wayward thoughts are natural, there are remedies available if you feel like you need additional help. If your thoughts bother you or you engage in repetitive activities that are difficult to control, your doctor may recommend therapy or medication that can provide relief.

We all have thoughts that become stuck in our head. What matters is how you deal with them. Devote your time to meaningful activities that absorb your attention, and work through sensitive issues until you feel at peace with them. You’ll gradually achieve greater control over your mind, and become more skillful at handling distractions.

What do you think? If I’m full of it, tell me, if you have insights, please share in the comments section below.