Last time, in 'What do you use your brain for?', I invited you to take a tour round your brain, and for those of you who did there were probably a few revelations. There usually are when you take the time to step back from an experience you live with on a day to day basis and take a good look.
As we spend most of our waking hours inside our brains, you probably didn't have too much trouble working out what you spend your time thinking about. What may have been less easy was changing what you think about, in particular when you tried to think about something less. That's because, unfortunately, we can't stop thinking about things at will. If I said to you, please DO NOT think about sitting on a tropical beach, palm trees swaying gently in the breeze, a large cocktail in your hand and absolutely nothing you have to do, I'm guessing that you're finding it difficult to comply. You may not want to. So trying not to think about things simply doesn't work.
What you might have found more productive is making a concerted effort to to think about other things. You may have found that there are things that you spend very little time thinking about and that you would like to think about more. Like sitting on a tropical beach perhaps. Once you've raised your awareness of those things, the chances are that you will think about them more often, even without making an effort. What you are also likely to find, however, is that certain thoughts, usually the ones you don't want to have, keep butting in.
The thoughts that come back again and again may be to do with something (or someone) exciting that is going on in your life, or something that you are planning or looking forward to. Those thoughts are great because they are either useful or pleasant or both. Often, though, the thoughts you just can't get rid of are problems. Life is ever inventive when it comes to throwing up problems, but when I think of the most common things that people come to see me about, a surprising number of them can be found under three headings:
For example, a person might have trouble getting on with someone at work or at home; another might be offered a job or other opportunity that they don't know whether to take; another might have an impossible workload or something big and scary that they need or want to do.
You can't deal with these thoughts by banishing them, because they resolutely refuse to go. The best thing to do with them is to get them out on the table and have a look at them.
I'm going to cover some ways of handling the three main problem areas over the next few weeks, but for now.....
1. Take a problem that consumes a lot of your thinking time.
2. Write down all the recurrent thoughts you have about this problem (writing them down is much more effective than just thinking about them).
3. Take another piece of paper and draw an apple-sized circle in the centre. This is your circle of control. In it, write all the things that you control around this problem. If you're having problems at work, for example, in your circle will be things like what you do when you get to work, who you talk to, perhaps the way you order your tasks, how you handle challenges and irritations, and ultimately whether you stay or leave. In short, your behaviours.
4. Now write down all the things that you don't control. The jobs you're given to do, new management directives, organisational rules, the way people treat you, the economic climate. In short, other people's behaviours.
5. Look at your original list of thoughts. Are these thoughts predominantly concerned with the things you control, or the things you can't control? The easy route to stress is focussing on what you don't control.
6. Focussing now on what you do control, what are you currently choosing to do in relation to this problem? Are you happy with what you are doing, or is there something you would like to change?
7. When you've worked out what you want to keep doing, and what you want to do differently, that should clear some space to think about something else!