The human mind is perhaps our most powerful asset when it comes to innovation and productivity. On average, it churns out 70,000 thoughts per day! When thoughts are focused and directed toward accomplishing a task, that’s a lot of mental muscle working to our advantage. But, when the majority of the mind’s output is random or causes us to lose concentration, it can feel like our brain is our worst enemy.
This nonstop flow of thoughts can also be disturbing. Anxiety sufferers know this firsthand. Negative thoughts and what-if scenarios run continuously in a circular pattern, driving the thinker to distraction, and also to varying states of misery that include symptoms of nervousness, restlessness and a host of other physical feelings.
While everyone experiences some states of anxiety at times, general intrusive thoughts are what most all of us deal with daily. When life events occur or when work demands increase, stress levels can rise and impact efficiency. Since life is a continuum of change with constant new challenges and stressors, the effect is more within our control than the cause.
Regardless of what happens to us or around us, the real experience of a situation takes place in the mind. When it comes to experiencing stress and distractions, our brain becomes command central for handling and for freeing ourselves from those effects.
When something happens that interferes with our state of equilibrium, throwing us off balance or robbing us of a single-minded approach to what needs to be done in the now, there's one approach you can take to get your mind back on track:
The Triple A Approach — Awareness, Acceptance, Action
1. Awareness means we acknowledge what is happening without affixing a judgment to it. That means we don’t label it as good or bad, right or wrong. It also means not assuming our anxious thoughts are facts. Withholding judgment nips stress in the bud. It allows us to write the story in our mind that is based on facts without all of the emotion-inducing adjectives.
2. Acceptance enables us to not waste energy fighting or reacting negatively to a happening. Without acceptance, we can easily make ourselves a victim, which is always a position of weakness, not strength. Recognize that you cannot control everything, but that doesn't make you weak. Taking on the role of helpless prey opens up the floodgate of debilitating “poor me” thoughts.
3. Action is made more possible with a mental foundation of awareness and acceptance to build upon. Free of excess mental activity normally spent on judging or resisting, we can faster analyze a situation without bias and make a decision on what to do next. There could be a need for immediate action, later action or no action. True emergencies make the first category. Later action gets moved to a to-do list.
Most of our distractions are less critical and stem from the constant stream of thoughts and flow of activities throughout the day. There are strategies for managing both.
Awareness still plays a part in keeping the ordinary roll of thoughts from becoming full-blown intruders, but there are other steps we can take to liberate our minds. Meditators and followers of mindfulness practices learn quickly how to stay present. They don’t stop thoughts. They learn how to quit noticing them. Thinking appears to be involuntary for humans. Trying to put the brakes on it can be more stress-inducing. Instead, we can practice how to let thoughts drift by without giving them unnecessary attention—simply accepting them as they come and go, allow us to focus on the present rather than worrying about the future.
Creating more thoughts or stories about the thought can add more stress. To-do lists by themselves aren’t stressors, but repeated thoughts about all that has to be done are. Attending to what needs to be done right here and right now (while letting thoughts come and go of their own accord) cuts tension and worry.
Another technique involves using all of your senses to engage with the moment. This method may take a little practice at first, but becomes easier over time.
Start by sitting comfortably in a chair and visually noticing with awareness and without judgment all that is around you. Notice the shapes, colors, patterns, movement, lightness and darkness of what you see. Your thoughts will already begin to move to the background with this step.
Next, and while continuing the first part, add in your sense of hearing and take note of all of the sounds you hear along with all that you see. You may find yourself noticing new sounds.
Continue this exercise by adding your other sense perceptions one at a time, while still including the ones you have already employed. Repeating this practice, that you can do anywhere, will help you form the habit of paying attention while letting thoughts and distractions pass. You can use it more deliberately to pull yourself out of any thought or anxiety tailspin.
But what about preventing distractions and unwelcome stress to begin with?
Careful planning and organization can help. The irony is that many people don’t utilize time management strategies or the tools to schedule work, projects and to-dos. Not doing so makes us vulnerable to interruption and a sense of being overwhelmed.
Mapping out goals and projects by year, month, week and day helps you get a handle on the big picture. Reviewing the week and month ahead every Friday allows you to have a solid game plan for the week ahead. Making sure to glance at the next day’s schedule every evening keeps you on track. Daily planners aren’t out of vogue; they’re just underused.
Get granular with your daily calendar. Schedule time for activities that need to take place to move projects along. Otherwise, work will be left to chance and may go undone until the last minute, adding more pressure. Stick to the schedule like glue, unless you can’t avoid doing so.
Watch out for the meeting matrix. Plan meetings sparingly and only when necessary, and make sure to run them effectively to save time. Coordinate work and communication as much as possible using tools like Slack, Trello and Asana.
Put away your cell phone and get out of the inbox. Learn how to use email in a way that doesn’t take you away from what needs to get done. It’s tempting to read every message at the sound of its arrival. Have hard and fast rules about when to read and answer them.
Mandy Long, millennial mother of three children, entrepreneur and CEO of Patronus Health, shuns email. “It’s the biggest time drain and doesn’t provide a way to organize communication and collaborate on work,” said Long. “I avoid it as much as possible.” Slack is Long’s go-to for internal communication and staying organized.
Learn to say no. If something doesn’t fit your short or long-term goals and heightens anxiety, gracefully decline. Women are prone to biting off more than they can chew simply because they don’t want to offend or show any sign of not being able to do it all.
Applying tactics to reduce distractions and added work can mean fewer menacing, time-sucking thoughts running through your mind. But when they do creep in and you feel the stress building, bring yourself back to awareness.