The ability to be aware of--and influence--what we're thinking about is a critical self-coaching skill. We need to focus our attention on what's important and devote less of it to what's irrelevant, a task that's more difficult when we're stressed or distracted. And yet efforts to actively suppress thoughts can actually be counterproductive--so what CAN we do?
Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner is known for his work on mental control, among other topics, and in response to the question, "How do people control their own minds?" he writes:
The simple strategy of directing attention can often be helpful, as people can stop thoughts, concentrate, improve their moods, relax, fall asleep, and otherwise control their mental states just by trying to direct their thoughts. These strategies of mental control can sometimes backfire, however, producing not only the failure of control but the very mental states we are trying to avoid. [Emphasis mine]
Wegner's insights on mental control emerged from his research on thought suppression, a concept he illustrates with the image of a white bear, inspired by a line from Dostoyevsky: "Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute." Wegner writes:
People who are prompted to try not to think about a white bear while they are thinking out loud will tend to mention it about once a minute... It seems that many of us are drawn into what seems a simple task, to stop a thought, when we want to stop thinking of something because it is frightening, disgusting, odd, inconvenient, or just annoying. And when we succumb to that initial impulse to stop, the snowballing begins. We try and fail, and try again, and find that the thought is ever more insistent for all our trying.
Why does this matter so much? Neuroscientist and psychologist Ian Robertson offers one very practical reason in his book Mind Sculpture:
We have to inhibit the billions of bits of irrelevant information assailing our senses in order to concentrate on the fragments of information which are crucial for us at a particular point in time.
This difficulty in suppressing the irrelevant causes particular problems with driving in older people. Whereas older people are more vigilant, careful and generally less error prone, they tend to make more mistakes at busy road junctions. At such complicated traffic intersections, everyone--young and old--is faced with a barrage of lights, signals and speeding streams of traffic. Some of this information is critically important for deciding when and what to do next, while much of it is irrelevant. For instance, the roaring trucks on the motorway overhead may be noisy and intimidating, but they...are quite irrelevant to the taks of managing to turn here. A young driver will be much better able to "screen out" this irrelevant distraction than an older driver, and so will be better able to focus attention on the lights and traffic which are important for surviving this particular turn. [pp 114-15]
My goal here isn't to promote safer driving among the aged (although as a 45-year-old who logs more than 300 miles most weeks, perhaps it should be). These issues have relevance in a much broader context: All of us, young and old, drivers and pedestrians, face the interpersonal equivalent of a busy intersection at work almost every day.
We're in a fast-paced meeting, for example, with a full agenda, allies and adversaries around the table, and massive amounts of information (both literal data and emotional signals) flying around the room. How do we focus our attention in order to achieve our goals most effectively?
As Robertson notes, inhibition is crucial here--wasting attention on the equivalent of a noisy but irrelevant truck roaring overhead could result in an ill-timed turn. However, as Wegner notes, we can't simply compel ourselves to ignore such distractions, or we actually risk becoming fixated on them. And if we're stressed, or tired (or just getting older), it'll be even more difficult to focus our attention where it's needed most.
So what do we do? In October 2011 health journalist Lea Winerman covered a presentation by Wegner at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, in which he described several effective strategies for mental control.
In-the-moment, Wegner recommends that we 1) minimize multi-tasking, which diminishes our cognitive load, frees up finite working memory and increases our ability to focus, or 2) identify an "absorbing distractor" that will prevent us from becoming fixated on a more problematic focal point.
Over time, Wegner recommends that we build our capacity to resist distraction in the following ways: 1) commit to address unwanted thoughts at some designated time--as Winerman notes, chronic worriers who set aside 30 minutes a day during which they were free to worry experienced less anxiety during the rest of their day, or 2) practice meditation and mindfulness techniques.
A personal note on that last strategy: Although I've found meditation difficult at times, I persist in the practice because my own experience is consistent with Wegner's recommendation. For me meditation isn't a means to some sort of blissed-out, stress-free state--it's a workout, and a very hard one some days. My (utterly simple) practice is inspired by Jon Kabat-Zinn: Get still, notice what I'm thinking about (and how it makes me feel), let go of that thought (and those emotions) and bring my attention back to what it feels like to breathe. Within seconds, I'm thinking about something else again, and the cycle repeats itself over and over for 15 minutes. Not easy, and not particularly fun--as I said, it's a workout--but I'm exercising my capacity for self-awareness and my ability to direct attention, and after nearly two years of ongoing practice I do feel more able to focus on what matters and minimize distractions--fairly important tasks if I want to finish a book on this stuff.
Thanks to Oliver Burkeman's The Antidote for (among other things) introducing me to Daniel Wegner's work on mental control.
Photo by David Wall. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.