Focus Means Being a Better “Thought Manager”
“There is a saying, “When you are in your own mind you are in enemy territory” and I believe this to be true, not only for myself but from what so many clients have told me.”
Written By Noah Cohen: Published Jan 15th, 2020 | Updated Jan 15th, 2020.
Noah Cohen is the driving force behind Humanic.Tech, a habit tracking app and life dashboard designed to help people reach their most ambitious goals. 🚀
20 Minute Read
“The more we understand ourselves the more likely we will be to self-actualise.”
Today Humanic had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Mandy Kloppers, a Psychologist, Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and the blogger behind Thoughts on Life and Love. She’s here today to chat with us about the power of focus and the dangers of not managing your thoughts. This interview is full of actionable insights and will undoubtedly change the course of your day. Let’s jump in!
First of all, thank you for joining us today Mandy to speak about your involvement in the mental health and emotional wellbeing space. You cover many different topics on your blog but today we want to narrow our discussion the topic of “focus”. However, before we do that, can you kick off the interview by telling us a little bit more about your background and how you got started in this space?
Thank you for this opportunity to share! I come from an atypical family and the issues I was exposed to made me question what made people behave in dysfunctional ways.
I have always had a great interest in mental health and wanted to understand how to maximise our potential to be content despite the regular challenges life throws at all of us.
I grew up in South Africa and have had numerous serious health issues too. This helped to hone my focus as well. There’s nothing like a life threatening illness to help you prioritise and ignore the superfluous stuff that distracts many of us.
I studied for a Bachelor of Arts Degree with Majors in Psychology and Sociology, in South Africa and moved to the UK in 2001, continuing further studies there. I recently completed a Post-Graduate qualification in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Currently, I run a private practice and write a daily blog on mental health and emotional wellbeing.
You create a lot of great content on the importance of “focus” on your blog. For example, you have a post about the importance of fine tuning your focus where you say that “research has shown that we experience around 80 000 thoughts per day and 80% of those thoughts are just random nonsense that serve no real value. What we focus on becomes our reality and affects our emotions and behaviour. Have you thought about your own ‘mental diet’?” I love the comment about “mental diet”. It makes the concept of thoughts a little less abstract by comparing them to food. In your experience, what things can we do to reduce the clutter upstairs?
There are many ways to reduce the clutter in our minds although it can take some practise. I have been doing this for over ten years and I am still a work in progress!
Imagine your thoughts as leaves on a stream: See yourself sitting next to a stream and watching leaves float by. You can’t stop them coming but you can decide if you want to pick any of the leaves up and focus on one in particular. The moment you give a thought focus, it takes up your headspace and inevitably an emotional reaction ensues. Focusing on thoughts that are useful or helpful is the trick. If the thoughts are problem solving in nature then go ahead. If the thoughts are just rumination (going round and round without any direction) then it’s best to distract yourself. Get out of your head by focusing back on your surroundings.
Learning more about the common errors in thinking is useful too as it helps you to know which thoughts to dismiss. Errors in thinking involve thoughts that have no evidence yet we believe them and act on them. We all make unhelpful assumptions about life.
Catastrophising: This is when you imagine the worst case scenario. For example: Your boss refuses to give you a raise and from that event you start to think it must be because they think you aren’t good at your job. This then leads to a downward spiral of thinking – I will probably be fired, then lose my home. Catastrophising – there is no real evidence.
Mind Reading: This is where we assume we know what others are thinking. Imagine that a friend seems to be ignoring you, you may assume that you have done something wrong and think: “They must be angry with me”. If they haven’t actually told you they are angry, there could be another explanation. Dismiss mind reading thoughts.
Predicting the future: This involves “what if” thinking. No one can accurately predict the future so don’t focus on these thoughts, let them go. They are only suppositions and therefore wasted mental energy.
Negative mental filter: Only focusing on what isn’t going well. This isn’t a fair representation and will lead to anxiety. Remind yourself that a balanced focus is far more helpful.
Black and white thinking: Thinking in absolutes – I am a success or a failure. In reality, life is never that rigid – there are many grey areas. Thinking rigidly about life will create unhappiness Rigid thinking involves rules and the more rules we have about the life, the more they are likely to be broken.
Compare and despair: This happens a lot on social media. We see other people’s highlights and assume their lives are so much better than ours. This comparison is inaccurate with a lot of missing information. Don’t indulge this type of thinking.
Self criticism: We all tend to be quite self critical and negative emotions attach to these thoughts. Being self critical is a sure-fire way to feel miserable and the thoughts aren’t facts. They are just your negative thoughts/insecurities. Recognise them as unhelpful thoughts and focus elsewhere. Don’t waste energy on errors in thinking. They are not based in reality yet make us anxious and stressed.
Mindfulness is another great way to reduce the clutter in our minds. If you find it hard to dismiss the thoughts, force your focus back onto your surroundings. Look for five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste (if possible – say, if you are in a restaurant). Engaging your five senses makes it harder for the brain to focus on the ‘nonsense clutter’. Focus on the physical reality to pull you back to what is real. A lot of what we think is made up, designed by our insecurities and fears. Don’t buy into them. Just because you think it doesn’t mean you have to believe it.
Summary: Top tips to minimise mental clutter
Mindfulness – focus on your physical surroundings. Stay in the present moment.
Distraction – keep busy. Focus on a useful app that absorbs your attention, watch a movie, be creative. Keep that mind busy. As they say – a wandering mind is a dangerous mind.
Mental clutter also often results in us feeling like we need to multitask. We all feel like we have so many things to do and a limited amount of time to do them in. However, as you mentioned on your blog “according to a study at the University of Sussex, constant multitasking actually damages your brain. They found out that people who regularly multitask have lower brain density in the region of their brain responsible for empathy, cognitive control and emotional control.” You continue by saying that this can leave people feeling lost and directionless as they flit between ideas, jobs and relationships. What advice do you give to people who have more responsibilities than time, or responsibilities who compete for attention?
Multitasking involves surface actions. I have found in my work that people who try to do too much instead of trying to really succeed at fewer things often possess an underlying fear of failure. They often have the attitude: “I’d rather do a little and then console myself that I didn’t put everything into it than really work hard at it and still fail.” Changing our attitude to failure/rejection can make a huge difference to outcomes.
For those who feel they have too much to do and too little time, chunking is a good strategy. This involves breaking down the overwhelming tasks into manageable chunks. Apply the SMART goal strategy to the smaller chunks. That is, make the tasks – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound.
Prioritising is a good strategy too. Know exactly what it is that you are trying to achieve and create specific steps to reach the targets.
One final thought – I have also found that perfectionism is growing. I come across many clients whose self worth is inextricably linked to their achievements and they feel they are worthless without achievements. Perfectionists tend to possess black and white thinking (ie. I am a success or a failure, nothing inbetween).
Perfectionism leads to immense self induced pressure which often then leads to procrastination. Perfectionists procrastinate because they fear failure and end up in a vicious unproductive cycle.
You also talk about the idea of keeping a thought diary. As you mention this is a useful way of monitoring our ‘mental diets’. Can you tell us a little bit more about the idea of a thought journal and what maintaining one entails?
It’s a good idea to draw a few columns and fill out certain things related to thoughts to identify patterns and triggers. The more insightful and self aware we are, the easier it is to be a better ‘thought manager’ and understand ourselves. The more we understand ourselves the more likely we will be to self-actualise.
An example of an indepth thought record:
First column: Situation. Where are you? In bed, in the car etc
Second column: Feeling associated with the thought and rate it out of 100%.
Example: Anger 70% intensity
Third column: Thoughts. What were you thinking? Often you may notice you are feeling anger, sadness etc and then you need to backtrack to what you were thinking that led to that feeling. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is based on the premise that thoughts lead to emotions and emotions lead to behaviour. All three are interlinked. Breaking it down can illuminate why we behave the way we do. Changing the way we think can alter behaviour in a positive way.
Fourth column: evidence supporting the thought. For example. If you had a thought: “My partner doesn’t love me”. You would write down evidence supporting that thought in this column: He avoids me. He doesn’t put me first.
Fifth column: Evidence that does not support the thought: He cooks me dinners. He is very affectionate and he tells me he loves me.
Sixth column: Alternative viewpoints. In this column we consider the evidence for and against: Whilst my partner does make me feel unloved in some ways, he is also very loving in many ways. No one will make me feel loved 100% percent of the time.
Seventh column: Rerate the emotion. Initially if it was 70% anger, you may find after this process your anger will have reduced, hopefully to lower than 70%
The above is a process that a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist might cover with you in therapy sessions to better understand your “mental diet”. Some thoughts are so automatic and have been around for so long that we accept them as the truth and this process helps us to review the thoughts and beliefs we live by.
We all hold “rules for living” and they take the format of “if this…then that”. For example: “If I let people know the real me they won’t like me”. Rules for living can always be challenged. They can control the direction of our lives far more than we realise and they may not even be true!
A thought diary can help us to uncover core beliefs that no longer work for us as well as outdated rules for living.
In your experience, what are three of the most common areas of negative focus and what can people do to shift their thinking away from the negative and into the positive?
The three most common areas of negative focus I have come across are:
1) Self criticism – not feeling good enough. Feeling inadequate. Too old, too fat, too thin, etc. We tend to be our own worst critics yet being self critical does us more harm than good. Self criticism activates the amygdala in the brain signifying threat. Individuals who are highly self-critical or shame-prone tend to have difficulty accessing their social safety system (connecting and confiding in others) and spend little time in that system’s “tend and befriend” functions. Self soothing methods are often underdeveloped and there is a lack of gratitude, acceptance and self care.
The opposite of self criticism is self compassion. This involves treating yourself as you would a dear friend. You wouldn’t tell them that they were useless. Instead you would be supportive and kind and this is exactly how you should talk to yourself. Self compassion offers a solid foundation or platform from which to venture out into the world. You make this ten times more challenging by being hard on yourself. The world is harsh enough without you adding to it.
Some think it helps to be harsh (motivates you) but research has shown the OPPOSITE. Research at the University of Austin in Texas showed people with self compassion didn’t get hung up on failure – they looked at what they could learn and how they could improve instead of berating themselves or taking it out on themselves in a self critical manner.
On the other hand, people with low self compassion distracted themselves more and tried to do too many things at once. People more inclined towards self compassion coped better physically with stress too. My advice: Drop the “I can do it all” act and stop holding yourself to impossible standards.
2) Focusing on others and comparing yourself negatively
This has become more a problem due to social media. We are constantly bombarded with images of perfection on Instagram as well as the ‘perfect’ lives of others on Facebook, to name a few.
This leaves many of us comparing our ‘behind-the-scenes-footage’ to other people’s ‘highlight reels’. It’s inaccurate and leads us to feeling despondent and inadequate.
Understand the negative impact of comparing and despairing and instead focus on your own progress. Where are you now compared to five (or even two) years ago? How is that working for you? This is a far more effective way to motivate yourself.
3) Fears and overthinking
Too many of us allow fear to rule us. We engage in errors in thinking and imagine all sorts of wild scenarios that may befall us. We engage in “what if” thinking and talk ourselves out of things before we’ve even begun.
Anticipatory thinking is almost always worse than the actual event and this proves to me that our thinking can hold us prisoner.
Learn to take action with overthinking it. Do a risk assessment by all means but then go for it!
Can you tell us a little bit more about the ‘paradox of choice’ and how it negatively impacts people?
Too much choice isn’t a good thing. It leaves us feeling deprived and restless. We worry that we have missed out (FOMO) and might feel as if we aren’t living out the true potential of our lives. This creates a dangerous mindset.
Too much choice makes us more fickle when it comes to dating, when buying consumer goods or choosing holidays. A general feeling exists that there is always something better out there.
This can lead to commitment phobic behaviour or as relationship expert, Esther Perel, puts it – “stable ambiguity”.
She refers to this term when it comes to people dating. People want to meet someone but they also don’t want to commit. They want companionship and all the good aspects of a relationship but they also want to be able to remain free and keep their options open. You would think that more choice would lead to greater level of happiness but in fact, it does the opposite.
Meditation is a powerful tool to help people increase their ability to focus. What advice would you give to people who have busy minds that want to give meditation a try. What are the main benefits of meditation as it relates to helping with focus? In your experience, how long does it generally take before people start seeing improvements with their focus after starting a meditation routine?
Meditation is different to mindfulness. Both are excellent for focus training.
Focus training involves taking 5 minutes 3 times per day. Focus on song lyrics or traffic noises etc, then switch after 5 mins. Get into the habit of fine tuning your focus rather than being a hapless submissive repository for random thoughts. I find it difficult to focus for longer than 15-20 minutes on one thing and with the constant onslaught of information all around us, staying focused takes even more effort and discipline.
Meditation is a great way to train the mind to focus and to ignore the constant interruptions. It is possible to see differences in your attention and focus within a few days of beginning meditation. The main benefits include a clearer calmer mind, less anxiety and higher levels of contentment. The quality of your sleep can be improved too.
In a separate blog post you talk about different forms of meditation. The forms of meditation include mindfulness, visualization, focused, movement, and spiritual. Do you find one form of mediation works better for people with busier minds than others? If so, why?
I find mindfulness one of the most effective ways to ‘get out of my mind’. This is because it can be done anywhere, at any time. It’s easy to practise and the more you do it the easier it becomes. I particularly like the 5-4-3-2-1 method (mentioned above).
There is a saying, “When you are in your own mind you are in enemy territory” and I believe this to be true, not only for myself but from what so many clients have told me.
It’s when we have time on our hands that the anxiety and problematic thinking gains hold. When our brains are busy, we don’t have the mental capacity to overthink or worry. As I mentioned before, anticipatory thinking is often worse than the actual event. In a crisis or stressful event, we aren’t thinking first and then acting, we are acting in the moment without too much time to stop and think, “This is so stressful, I can’t cope”.
Lastly, what three parting piece of advice would you give to people who struggle with focus?
Practise every day. Be more aware of what you focus on. Use a timer and increase duration of time spent focusing – either on reading a book, watching a movie, studying, meditating etc
Initially, regularly check in with yourself at three predetermined times each day. Use a timer and write down at that moment what you were focused on. This will give you an idea of what you are focusing on and how relevant that is to your overall life plan. It’s not that you must spend every waking moment focused on your goals but if you find that a large part of your time is spent watching television or stuck on random thoughts in your head, you can begin to adjust accordingly.
Finally, when you realise that what you focus on creates the quality of your life, you can endeavour to focus on people and situations that bring more joy to you. Spend time around people who inspire you rather than toxic draining people. Spend more time in nature if that is what appeals to you. Watch the news less if it upsets you. Some people don’t help themselves by focusing extensively on the things that upset them the most, such as political newscasts or the increased crime in their area. Sure, it may need to be part of your focus but balance it out with other equally important, soul nourishing topics instead. There are important tweaks that we can all make without too much effort to allow our focus in life to be more along the lines of what’s important to us.
Learning to focus on what really matters to us will improve our emotional well being and allow us to align with our values and live our best possible lives.
Thank you greatly for taking the time to speak with Humanic today Mandy. This has been a truly inspiring interview. I know with certainty that our blog audience will walk away from this interview with actionable insights that have the capacity to change their lives for the better. To our readers, if you’d like to learn more about Mandy and the work she does you can follow her on Twitter or head over to her website here.
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