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Taming the Thought Tornado

This is hysterical.
I’ve just settled in at Borders for a rainy afternoon. I’ve just opened my sandwich wrapper, taken my first sip of a grande extra hot Starbucks mocha, and opened a word document in which to pour and compose my thoughts. The only thing on my mind about which to write today is a question of how to balance the myriad voices barraging our minds in our everyday, how to quiet the unwanted ones and hear the profound ones. And the only sound filling my ears is the rather loud conversation- in Spanish, no less- at a nearby table. I just can’t tune it out. Unbelievable.

So I’ll take that as a much-needed sign that I’m on the right track today. Funny, that; because I spent the last hour listing all the reasons I feel so off-track, doubting I have anything to say that will cause anyone to think. Not a good place for a writer to find herself. And that started me thinking: Of all the voices abuzz in the universe, including our own internal dialogue, how do we think? I mean really, HOW do we spend our time in thought? We can try to quiet the external voices, wear earbuds or ear plugs or plunge ourselves into solitude in a sound-proof room. But even when we do, our minds are already brimming with internal voices, with words, with thoughts, with collected information. So whether we turn off the volume on the life around us or crank it up and enjoy the frenzy, how do we choose what to listen to? To ruminate on? Or do we choose?

And that begs a host of questions: Is it important to be that mentally disciplined? To be conscious of how we think? (Look over your shoulder first, then answer). But why is it so important? Is it that the level of our life success is directly proportional to how careful we are with our thoughts? Perhaps so. But where’s the user guide on how to do this? How much time should we spend filling our minds the voices of others vs following our own inner dialogue? How much time should we spend on entertainment vs. ideas that promote our own well-being or success? Is there some magic percentage of time a successful adult spends thinking about his or her specialized field? Or a healthy percentage of time to spend mulling over great song lyrics for sheer pleasure? And I wonder, do other people consciously choose? Are truly successful people more cognizant of how they spend their thought-time than those who either flounder through life or are satisfied with limited personal success? Of course, the measurement of success is relative, and I wouldn’t dare tackle that here.

Let’s talk about success where it involves our thinking. In order to achieve a high level of skill or expertise, I assume that one’s thought-life needs to be highly focused enough on a particular subject or issue. Think Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein. I’ll bet Einstein didn’t squander a substantial proportion of his thinking time thinking on gossip, the merits of FaceBook, or his emotional well-being. I’d ask Hawking, but he’s a little busy being brilliant. Here are two clear and stellar examples of people who focus/ed their power of concentration on a single subject for a sustained period of time. And what of it? They achieved not only personal success but also made incredible contributions to mankind. I’m wondering how I’ll ever achieve a life characterized by business success and contribution to others with the way my thoughts and focus ramble from one thing to another, rarely lingering on one subject long enough to move me past a level of “mild interest.”

And this is my struggle. The world is overflowing with sensory input or “voices” that range from brilliantly worthwhile to useless. Every day, moment by moment, we choose albeit subconsciously what to tune out and what to tune into: from news, banter, ads, opinion, fiction, poetry, music, or anything else external, to our own inner dialogue. I have ADHD. If consciously controlling the voices in life is a hard task for everyone, it is near impossible for people like me. Simply put, my brain receives all stimuli at the same weight of importance, making the task of prioritizing my thoughts extremely difficult. Just now, though the cursor was blinking before my eyes, awaiting the next word, my attention was on the “Please Pay Here” sign which seemed to be screaming at me from across the room. I could ask why, but the more important question here is “what matters?” And though you’d think it’d be clear, most days deciding what matters is difficult and time-consuming, rendering my time and motivation to actually think on those things that matter very limited.

Take a typical day devoted to my desk job. Having learned to be quite organized, I always print my agenda for the day on the prior evening so I can jump right in in the morning when I turn on my computer. Enter the Inbox. Kaboom! Suddenly there are voices. Other people, other ideas, other tasks. It may take me an hour to sort out the urgent from what can wait or be tossed. So by the time I need to settle into a task that requires critical or creative thinking, my brain is tired. It feels blank. I get up to grab coffee for that stimulant kick which I hope will rev up my mental juices. Someone stops me in the breakroom for a brief chat. Now it’s 9:30. Walking back to my office I’m dwelling on the guy I wish were my boyfriend. Back at my desk, I have thirty minutes to be brilliant and I’m not the slightest bit motivated. This is what people do, I’m thinking. But surely this is not how people become successful. My day is fat with mental laziness and dull with cognitive down-time. This can’t be the life of Einstein, Hawking, or even my pastor’s wife who has written several books, paints canvases, and leads a church with beauty and grace. I may not wish to emulate a brilliant scientist, but I’d like, just as my pastor’s wife, to take my renaissance life and make something of it that lasts and helps feed me in retirement. Being jack of all trades and master of none is neither satisfying nor profitable, I’ve decided.

Besides external distractions, there is the ever-present inner dialogue. For me as a writer my inner dialogue is more like a continuous narration of sensory input. It’s as if my mind is set to present, in story form, what I see, hear, taste and feel to someone else. But who cares? Who is the “someone else” who would benefit from my voice when there are so many other voices all talking simultaneously? But then, here I sit in a bookstore overflowing with myriad voices on every imaginable subject, and there is, in fact, a line at the cash register. People are buying into other people’s voices. So when is my inner dialogue a distracting annoyance and when is it a valuable asset for myself and others? If I were to capture my thoughts on paper and share them with the public, would it benefit anyone? Likewise, are my thoughts benefiting me?

Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, has this to say: “What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on my first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. Quieting these voices is at least half the battle I fight daily. Left to its own devices, my mind spends much of its time having conversations with people who aren’t there. I walk along, defending myself to people, or exchanging repartee with them, or rationalizing my behavior, or seducing them with gossip, or pretending I’m on their talk show or whatever.” So how do we quiet these voices in our own heads, our “inner dialogue?” Lamott recommends imagining each voice as the voice of a mouse, and, one by one, picking each mouse up by the tail and dropping it in a jar, then turning down the imaginary volume control on the imaginary jar, thereby silencing all the annoying mouse voices. I like the sound of this exercise; I’ll have to let you know if it works for me.

Then there’s self-fulfilling prophecy approach. I won’t rehash the tenets of this popular mindset, because you’ve heard it. It starts with “I think, therefore I am,” takes a run through the biblical “As a man thinks, so is he,” and ends with “Think and Grow Rich.” The idea here is to focus your thoughts on an outcome, using imagery to support the thoughts. Want to be a published writer? Imagine yourself signing copies of your first book. Want an expensive sports car? Picture yourself driving one. I won’t argue with the concept that we become what we dwell on. We humans tend to perform in cooperation with where we set our sights, just as when riding a bike, we tend to turn the handlebars in the direction our eyes are looking. However, in my opinion, the call to focus on what you want to obtain can easily lead to narcissism and greed if not balanced. I agree that peppering my thoughts with positivism makes my outlook sunnier, but how much time should I spend thinking about advancing myself and obtaining goods anyway? And a word of caution: there are many whose thoughts are already so overly consumed with the needs of others that they neglect their own needs and boundaries. We’ve all known a codependent or abused person. So a blanket suggestion to “think less about yourself” isn’t appropriate for everyone either. Perhaps more than a few of us need to find balance in our inner dialogue. But how?

Admittedly, I have few answers to share with you today. I merely wanted to open up the discussion, ask the questions, and focus my own thinking on unfocused thinking. I’m left with the sense that I could be more cognizant of the percentage of time I spend on ruminating over non-essentials, and hold myself accountable to focusing my thoughts on matters that will increase my business success and leave a lasting contribution to others. As for others with ADHD, I feel your pain. We could certainly band together and commiserate, but I propose our time is spent more wisely learning how others have successfully been able to increase focus in their thought-life. But to do so we must open ourselves to more outside voices.

Perhaps the best way to start taming our thoughts is to be aware. We are masters of our own dominion if only in this one place: our minds. And quite often we aren’t masters there. Making yourself aware of your thoughts is the beginning of gaining or regaining that control. Check in with yourself throughout the day. Is what you’re thinking on true? Productive? Uplifting? Supporting your passions? And in those moments in which you’re simply relaxing or being entertained, just be aware of the percentage of time you’re spending there. Does it meet your goals? Are you truly relaxed or energized?

Finally, there are a host of other tips and tricks out there that might be useful to you in taming your thoughts and ensuring they support the life you want to lead. I will be doing a little research and posting on what I find in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, I would love your feedback here in the comments section. Would you like to change the amount of time you spend thinking on certain topics? If you feel you’re successfully mastering your thought-life, how do you accomplish that? I look forward to hearing from you!

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