How to Think Clearly
4 Strategies to Clear Your Mind and Find Focus
Originally published by Stephen Guise on his personal website.
Sometimes the problem isn’t that we’re not thinking through life, it’s that we’re thinking about so many things that our brains get stuck in an endless loop of unresolved ideas. We need clarity.
To clear your thinking, you need to direct the flow of your thinking. Think of your thoughts as individual streams. At times, the streams are numerous and flowing in every direction — a chaotic web of ideas that will only serve to paralyze your brain like a spider’s web paralyzes an insect. In this example, we want to free the insect from the… actually, let’s drop that analogy. It had a good run, but I don’t want to talk about insects anymore.
The point remains! We have this web of disjointed questions and ideas such as…
- Who am I? Is my self-perception accurate? Am I a monster when I think I’m a saint??
- What am I doing with my life? It seems like I might be doing everything wrong. It feels like that right now.
- I drank too much. That was embarrassing. What should my response be?
- Am I really that bad at Scrabble or was she joking?
- Why am I so tired today? Is it the first sign of a fatal disease?
- Should I play tennis later? It would be good exercise, but I don’t feel like it.
- I haven’t looked at my IRA in several months. Maybe I should get on that?
- Why are bald men so sexy? It’s fascinating.
- I love guacamole!
- I should eat a salad for lunch.
- What should I do for a living?
- I want a cat. I don’t want to clean the litter though. Hmm…
These are thoughts we all have (yes, these exact ones). And when all of these thoughts are active in your mind, it means you are sitting down with your hand on your chin… doing nothing… accomplishing nothing… for hours. It’s not realistic for you to resolve all of these loose ends in a timely and organized manner when they come in and out of your mind like Kramer from Seinfeld.
Cranial overload is the downside to having such an awesome, powerful brain. We are capable of juggling too many thoughts, but we’re not capable of being successful this way. So what do we do?
Context Is Your Friend
I’ve been known to badmouth context, or at least, badmouth what it can do to us. Context is usually the evil devil on our shoulder that says, “Yeah, I know you promised not to eat cake, but this is a special occasion and my sources say this cake contains chocolate. It would be rude to say no!” Suddenly, your primal war cry against cake three days ago has become a sheepish “no cake if, you know, it’s exactly 74 degrees outside. Otherwise, we’ll see.”
But in the war against thoughtmageddon, context is the tiebreaker. Our thoughts can travel to different times and places, and even outside of reality into concepts (you can imagine a swimming pool full of bluish-metallic mercury, which only exists in your mind). But our physical existence consists of very specific moments, in specific places, surrounded by specific people, with specific internal moods and conditions, and with other specific external factors.
Thus, we have something without restraint (our thoughts) in a life with many natural restraints. Can you see how this is already solving our problem? We need to restrain the wild mess of looping thoughts or we’ll go from thinking about taxes to daydreaming about swimming in pools of mercury (cool visual, but bad for your health).
We’re going to begin to reign in our thoughts by asking pointed questions to ourselves. These pointed questions serve to eliminate some thoughts and ideas, and help us to figure out the most important thing we want to be thinking about or doing.
Step 1: Block Off Some Time
Before you ask yourself any questions, you need to block off some time. This is the first restraint! If you have unlimited time to do unlimited things, then you can (and will) dilly dally all you want. Of course, we don’t have unlimited time, so the first step is to look at your available time.
How much time do you have before something is scheduled? If you have a large chunk of free time, then think in terms of the next hour. It’s important to limit your time frame because otherwise, all of the stuff you’re not thinking about is going to scream at you — ”Hey! You can’t ignore me forever! I’m important, too!” Yes, yes, everything is important, but there is also a time and a place for everything, and we’re just concerned with the very near future. If you block off an hour, all of the thoughts that don’t get the limelight right now won’t freak out because they know there’s an ending point.
Step 2: Decide if You’re Going to Think About One Topic or Take Action
To help you narrow down your objective for the next hour (or whatever your chosen block of time), ask yourself if you want to do something or if you want to mentally resolve something.
In 95% of cases, the right choice is action. Action is the only thing that moves your life story forward. Thinking can sometimes help to adjust your perspective or deal with emotions, but action can do that too, and usually do it better. Even if the answer is obvious, it’s extremely powerful to think, “I’m going to do something.”
At this point, we’ve applied two restrictions to our thinking — we’re only thinking about the next hour and we’re going to think about an action (or thought).
Step 3: Let Context Be Your Guide
At this point, you want to look at your surroundings. Are you at home? Is your gym nearby and your car ready to go? Is it quiet or loud in the house? Are you out and about? Your context needn’t always define what you do, but it can be a very helpful tool to narrow down your options when your mind is overflowing. Use context to decide between close options.
It’s important to note that you can always change your context by moving. For example, if your house is rowdy, you can take your laptop to a quiet coffee shop to work or plan your trip to Germany. So again, don’t let context be your master, just use it situationally when it helps.
Step 4: An Hour From Now, Would I Be Happy if I Had ____?
At this point, you need to prioritize your wiser, future self. Imagine that you’re one hour in the future. What would you be most happy about doing for that hour?Whatever fits best (or anything that fits well, it doesn’t have to be perfect!) is your focal point. Congratulations, you now have clarity of mind!