What are you thinking about? A recent study estimates that the average human being has over 6000 thoughts a day, a feat that was achieved by studying ‘thought worms’, or the points where our brains jump from one thought to another.
The research inevitably makes the point that those thoughts range from the incredibly profound to the woefully mundane. As we are having thoughts all the time, it is inevitable that they can have a distractive effect.
Idle thoughts can be positive – daydreaming has been shown to be good for creativity – but ruminating on thoughts can often have a negative impact on mental health. You know the type of thing – that conversation you had with a work colleague or a client that gets worse the more you replay it in your head (and because you keep pressing the play button, it keeps on playing).
These conversations are rarely as bad as you think. Unless you were incredibly rude, incentive or just displayed astonishing incompetence chances are that person hasn’t given it more than a passing thought. Everyone has their own stuff going on, professional and personal, and will be worrying about their own lives rather than analysing your conversation in great detail. It’s easy to fixate on our own view of being at the centre of everyone’s universe, but it’s always worth a pinch to remind ourselves that we’re really not.
With our 6000 thoughts, it is inevitable that some of them will pop up in one of the 27 conversations the Brits are supposed to have per day. As these can last for several minutes at a time, it is inevitable that random thoughts will filter into the brain at some point.
They could be more of those professional kernels – oh no, they look bored / they’ve misinterpreted what I’ve said/ I really wish they’d shut up, I have a report to write…. Or perhaps they are personal kernels – why haven’t they texted me? / must remember milk on the way home / did I put the bins out this morning?.
Now they won’t cause you an existential crisis, but they do cause small ripples of anxiety and distraction. That means you’re not focused on the communication you are presently having. And while 11.61 of those 27 conversations are pointless (same study), 15.39 actually do have a point. If you’re not in focus, you may well miss it!
So, my off the cuff, no need to even take a deep breath solution to this is simple. As I’m talking to someone or at an event and one of those random thoughts pops up, I simply acknowledge it as being what it is. It’s something I have no control over whatsoever because it’s coming from a different part of the brain, like computer popups. I could stop to read them, but I don’t. I just click close.
Like many things it is a habit you have to train your brain to do, but do it enough and does make a difference. The truth is, our thoughts are as unstoppable as the tide. You don’t have to shut them down – you can’t – you just have to find a way to manage them so that you can focus on the ones which really count.