Thought Monitoring

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It is often said in business that what gets measured gets done, and if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it.

I have found the same to be true personally.  Setting a goal for myself requires some baseline, some way to measure progress, and some target to strive for.  For example, a health related goal demands this information.  Let’s say you have a simple goal of losing 5 lbs.  You’ll first need to know what you currently weigh, you’ll want to experiment with new ways of eating or exercising, and then you’ll want to continue to weigh yourself until the 5 lbs is lost.

For outwardly facing, tangible, materialistic goals, this approach seems fairly well accepted.  However, for the inner journey of self-discovery and growth, many people abandon this methodology and leave their development to chance.  In my experience, inner growth requires the same level of measuring, testing, and measuring again.

Why is this very simple and time-tested approach so important?  I must say this 3 times/week to clients, family, and friends:  with awareness comes choice.

When you have the ability to measure where you currently are, you now have information that gives you the opportunity to make a choice.  What’s the choice?  It’s simple:  stay the same, or change.

Going back to my weight goal, let’s think about it more broadly.  Many people want a consistent goal, not just a situational goal.  Every once in a while, you may want to strive for a new level (lose 5 lbs), but I think most of us just want to maintain our ideal weight consistently (I want to be under 185 lbs all the time).  This kind of goal requires frequent monitoring so that you have the information necessary to make adjustments if needed.  And once you have information that indicates you have exceeded that weight, you now have a choice to make:  do nothing or do something.

As I also say a lot, a bell cannot be un-rung.  What has been heard cannot be unheard.  What has been seen cannot be unseen.  You are forced to make a decision.  Taking no action is definitely a decision, by the way.

When we think about the inner goals we have such as to be happier, to have more balanced, or to have more meaning in our lives, it requires the same level of measuring as any outer goal would.

This brings me to thought monitoring.  While it always amazes me when I speak with clients (or friends) that have no awareness around their thought stream (all of the daily chatter going on in your mind), I have to remind myself that it took me 33 years to even open my eyes to the concept, and yet another 2 years of deliberate focus to get to a place of barely scratching the surface of understanding.

Try this little exercise in what is known as mindfulness meditation or mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR).  Find a quiet, dimly lit, comfortable place to sit.  Sit upright, feet on the floor, hands in your lap and take 5 deep breaths, slowly, and hold the inhale for 3 seconds each time.  Take your time with this, close your eyes and then begin breathing normally.  Try to focus only on your inhale and exhale, noticing the nuance of how you breathe.  Stay with your breath for as long as possible.  When a random, stray, or otherwise invited thought enters your mind, stop. 

How long did you last?  If you’re like most people, you probably didn’t make it past 10 seconds.  Congratulations, you’re normal!

But what this tells us is that these thoughts are flashing through our mind, without awareness or intention, all day, every day, 24-7.  If we are not directing those thoughts, then we are at the whim of whatever subconscious messages our mind is fabricating. 

Why not just trust our mind and our subconscious thinking?  Well, unfortunately that part of our mind is not the logical, educated philosopher that we might be hoping for.  Instead it is akin to a 4-year old on Halloween all hopped up on sugar.  If left unchecked, our mind will run rampant and oftentimes unintentionally sabotage our dreams.  Other experts in the fields of psychology and meditation have called this our “monkey mind,” and one author went so far as to say that our mind is like a “mad, drunk, jumping monkey that has just been bit by a scorpion.”

Hopefully that visual paints a picture of the severity of the issue.  But what can you do about it?

Digital ticker-tape banner in Times Square

Digital ticker-tape banner in Times Square

Try this similar MBSR technique.  Same instructions as before but instead of focusing on the breath, I want you to focus on the thoughts running through you mind.  I do not want you to judge them, debate them, or otherwise analyze them.  I simple want you to recognize and acknowledge them.  Because your thoughts will come fast and furious at first, think of it like watching that digital ticker-tape display banner that scrolls rapidly in Times Square  (or tune into C-NBC and take a look at the bottom of the TV screen).  Say the thoughts out loud (or internally to yourself) as they come and the release them.  In fact, you’ll have to release them because the next one will be coming.  That’s the point.  Do this for as long as feels comfortable, but remember to not dwell on a thought and go down a rabbit hole with that thought.  If you find yourself entertaining a particular thought, just acknowledge that as another thought and move on.

After some patience and some practice, you may begin to notice your thoughts slowing down.  They won’t come as rapidly.  You may even get to a place where you can actually be singularly present with your breath for much more than 10 seconds. 

What’s the next step?  Replacing your unintentional thought stream with intentional thoughts that allow you to choose your own path.  This is an empowering and inspirational place to operate from.  Stay tuned for more…

 

2 thoughts on “Thought Monitoring

  1. I am interested in training people to monitor their thoughts and identify those of specific types such as angry thoughts or fearful thoughts. Know of any research on this topic?

  2. Hi Ken – thanks for the question. A great place to start to learn more about MBSR in general (which involves thought monitoring) is the author Jon Kabat-Zinn. I read his book “Coming to our Senses” and was hooked. You can learn more about him here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon_Kabat-Zinn (you’ll see a list of his works at the bottom).

    Hope that helps!
    -Matt

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