We all do it: you walk into the kitchen and then stop in your tracks realizing you have no idea why you are there. Or you get in the car only to realize you’ve left your wallet inside. My friends will tell you I am chronically guilty of this flighty behavior. Many of us are, and mostly we just chuckle and move on with our lives. Sometimes absent mindedness can have more serious implications, because it can be a sign that you’re not focused enough to fully participate in your life.
Well, of course your mind is elsewhere, right?
You’re making mental shopping lists, reliving that tense conversation you had yesterday with your mother, planning your weekend, or worrying about your fitness. We all do that.
As a matter of fact, our brains constantly feed us a stream of information, and we become experts at letting it run without paying it too much attention. How else could we carry on with our lives if we didn’t ignore it?
And we do carry on despite that relentless stream of thoughts, sometimes really well. The problem is that other times that chatty voice inside tells or shows us something troubling. It may or may not be true, correct, or important, but it’s definitely there. And, if we’re not paying careful attention, we might respond to that troubling thought as though it’s completely true, correct or important. In those cases, we can get hooked, becoming focused on that thing and responding to it emotionally. Then we forget our keys, our wallets, and everything else that’s going on right in front of us. We become much less effective.
Actually, it turns out that most thoughts aren’t there for accuracy so much as seeking out threats. So, if the brain mistakes a daddy long legs for a deadly wolf spider half the time or more, it’s still protecting you from a threat well. We survived as a species because of this wary, watchful feature of our brains. So thank you, brain!
Evolution is slow, though. Our brains keep protecting us against imminent death even though we’re much safer in modern times. Instead of bears or lions, our brains defend us against such terrifying threats as gripes at work, jealousy in relationships, and our roommates not putting the TP on the roll the right way. Um… thanks brain?
One thing we can clearly conclude is that our ongoing stream of thoughts and images is definitely not full of our most wise, well-reasoned thoughts. Nope. It’s chock full of distracting, sometimes needlessly troubling nonsense. Sure, your brain comes up with a true and correct thought now and again. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, right? Mostly, the stream is full of imagined threats that lead to misinterpretations and over-reactions.
So let’s see. The human brain feeds us an unending stream of potential dangers even though modern culture is not very dangerous. You’ve had that stream running all your life, and you’re probably not paying very much attention to it. However, sometimes, maybe often, you get hooked by one of those stories in your brain, and you react to it like it’s real. When you’re hooked on these mental diversions, it takes you away from doing the things that are most important to you. Sometimes it even stops you from knowing what those important things are.
Okay… Now what?
At this point, many a self-help guru would tell you to think positively! Work on eradicating those stressful thoughts. Push them down! Put them out! Replace them with positivity. Makes sense, right? It does, and it would be the perfect thing to do if we had control over these “helpful” brain emissions. The thing is, we don’t have that power over our brains. Go ahead and try to stop your stream right now. I’ll wait.
If you pulled it off for 30 seconds, I applaud you. You’ve probably been practicing for years. Sadly, the moment you stop paying attention and get on with your life, it’s coming right back. In the meantime, let’s focus on what we can control: our attention and our willingness to choose whether to engage with those thoughts or not. This is your life, and I’m here to help you make it the best it can be. I’ll be back here with more thoughts about how to harness your attention and willingness so that you can really focus on that bucket list, your family, or whatever it is that’s truly important to you. Sign up to receive articles and other free resources by email: