• A new approach to handling intrusive thoughts.

Acknowledge & Plan

A new approach to handling intrusive thoughts.

One very different approach for handling interruptions in your attention is to assume that at the root of every intrusion, no matter how seductive or soul-crushing, there may be an unanswered need of great importance to us. Interruptions show up at any time of day or night. They arise when you're relaxing on the beach, in friendly conversations and routine meetings. They arise in the middle of hard tasks and tough exercise. They arise at four o'clock in the morning.

If you're free and energized when an intrusion arises, by all means, engage if you choose. If, as happens sooner or later, you find yourself interrupted at a less opportune moment, it helps to know that you need not be at the mercy of whatever arises, regardless of where you are or what you're doing. While it’s not necessarily advantageous to routinely avoid unexpected interruptions, you don't want to let interruptions continually distract you from what you're doing. You want immediate activities and responsibilities to take precedence. 

When it comes to our own thoughts - particularly harsh recurring thoughts - getting in the way, most of us tend to assume that they concern issues we have to resolve right away. Things we must complete in order to end their incessant nagging. For more than a century, most psychologists have shared this assumption. Recent research has turned that assumption on its head. 

Social psychologists E.J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister tell us a very different story. Persistent thoughts, they say, are not our unconscious mind's way of nagging us to complete a task. They are our unconscious mind's way of getting us to make a plan. In experiment after experiment, their results were consistent. The harassing thoughts stopped once participants completed a plan to manage the task – not the task itself.

When you find yourself pestered by a recurring thought, take a moment to make a simple plan to address it. Chances are you'll have put that thought to rest. Try it for yourself. When you think about it, this is how you want to deal with anyone who interrupts you at an inconvenient time. “Thank you for bringing that up. This is not a good time for me to speak with you right now. Let's take care of it at 5:00 this afternoon.”

Proposing a plan of action can make all the difference for keeping a clear, focused mind. It puts you, not your thoughts, in charge of setting your immediate priorities.

A variation on this approach can help when thoughts keep you awake at night. Keep a pen and pad at your bedside. This lets you jot thoughts down when they surface. As you close your eyes. Throughout the night. Sleep time is not a good time to try and solve problems. Sleep time is not a good time to struggle with your thoughts. You want to make a quick note of the thought and commit to looking at it in the morning. Then you can get on with what matters most – sleeping.

One quick note to keep in mind. Keeping a digital device by your bed to capture thoughts is not a good idea. As you're probably already aware, the light from the screen shining in your eyes comes with its own litany of sleep issues.

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