Thinking about thinking about thinking... too much!

"The doer and the thinker, no allowance for the other" - Jethro Tull
Thinking is good.  Sometimes.
Previously, we discussed the concept of metacognition and defined the term as thinking about thinking.  We concluded that this was not some arcane philosophical exercise but, rather, a useful practice that allows us to identify detrimental thinking habits and correct or eliminate them.

Implied in this approach is a critical concept: that we can change the way we think over time.  Why is this notion so far-fetched? If we can improve in all manner of intellectual and physical domains, why couldn't we improve how we think? In fact, this strategy is being studied and applied in a number of contexts including during the treatment of depression and substance abuse (in these cases, cognitive-behavioral therapies often emphasize metacognitive approaches) and practice may also make perfect for positive thinking.

However, thinking too much isn't always a good thing and, eventually, we must convert thoughts into actions if we will ever accomplish anything. Thus, while thinking about thinking has a time and place, the default  metacognitive skill should be the opposite: not thinking. You hear me? Don't spend too much time thinking or you won't get anywhere!  Of course, feel free to think about the details of any project you're tackling, but avoid ruminating on your problems.

When in doubt, don't think. Do.

Practically, what are some strategies we can use to stop thinking? Here are some rough guidelines for emptying your head of all those annoying thoughts:

1. Be gentle with your brain - Inevitably, thoughts will sneak into your mind. Don't get mad! Don't be impatient with your rambunctious inner voice! Just let it happen and gently try to let the thoughts go. All we need is love, and getting angry with ourselves doesn't do any good. Along those lines, don't get angry with yourself if you get angry with yourself... I know that sounds silly, but it will happen! Just laugh at your brain and move on.

2. Focus on something outside your head - This is a strategy used in traditional meditation all the time: focus on something else. You could listen to your breathing, or do the dishes, or go for a walk, or watch a dog. That's right, a dog.  Hello, dog. Distract yourself from your own thoughts. I've found that focusing on a task that helps someone else is the best way to clear your brain: now you're accomplishing something and are helping another person. If any thoughts creep in, they are likely to be about that someone else, not about yourself, and that just feels good.

3. Censor yourself - There is a great discussion in this post about how our brains are structured to initiate actions (and thoughts). A strategy inspired by these concepts is to simply censor thoughts as they creep in. One could playfully quip "VETO!" when some unpleasant, troubling thought pops in. Just repeat "VETO!" every time until that Homunculus starts to learn! Any phrase will do, just remember guideline #1 above: be gentle (and have fun).

Finally, a little mental training challenge. Tomorrow, for the entire day, play around with not thinking. Use the guidelines above, or invent your own strategies. Just try not to think (warning: it's really hard!).  Instead, do a whole bunch of stuff.  You'll feel good and get a ton done during a day without a ton of useless, distracting thoughts.

Stay Happy!

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