Switch to mobile version

How to Stop Thinking Too Much

Post image for How to Stop Thinking Too Much

I appreciate Sam Harris’s apt analogy about inner monologues — being caught up in your own thinking is like having been kidnapped and held hostage by the most boring person on earth. You’re forced to listen, as though at gunpoint, to an internal commentator who insists on telling you its impressions of everything it notices or thinks about.

Nothing is too petty, too repetitive, or too obvious for the boring kidnapper’s ongoing monologue: Susan was wrong to criticize people who wear Crocs to the grocery store; a certain politician is the worst person alive and here’s why; your ex-partner was definitely out of line when he accused you of wasting dish detergent that time; the two halves of this Oreo don’t line up, but it would be so much nicer if they did.

If you’re ever able to step back from your own mental chatter, and listen to it with some critical distance, perhaps after a long meditation, or in one of those tired but insightful moments near the end of the day, you might find it indeed exhibits many of the characteristics of an extremely boring and self-absorbed person. It’s not that you yourself are this way — surely you don’t say everything that comes to mind. But the mind does.

Like the most boring person on earth, your inner orator repeats itself tirelessly, recounting its political convictions at every opportunity, or relating facts and stories it knows you already know. It believes everything it says is of riveting importance, just because it thought of it. It also sings. It sings haphazard bits of songs like Wake Me Up Before you Go-Go, or Never Gonna Give You Up, without provocation. And it never believes it has said enough, happily filling any gap that might otherwise be used to silently appreciate the moment as it is.

I’m aware not everyone’s inner voice is quite like that, and I don’t mean to paint idle thinking as being all bad all the time. Even the most incessant and reactive stream of mental talk can occasionally be helpful (although how it helps, exactly, is a bigger discussion).

In any case, mental talk does seem to vary immensely between individuals, in style and tone. For some people, their mental talk mostly sounds like their own voice, offering commentary and non-sequiturs as life unfolds. For others, it resembles the voice of a parent, or a celebrity, or a bickering Italian couple. Some people insist they have no inner monologue at all, and are astonished to hear that others experience such a thing.

It’s also possible, I suppose, that some people have mental chatter that only comes up with fascinating and original observations. It think it’s safe to say though that (a) most of us do experience some sort of mental talk, which habitually voices our impressions of the world, and (b) it sometimes dominates our experience in a very unpleasant way, especially when we’re feeling worry or anxiety. Those are the occasions when the kidnapper goes from verbose and boring to verbose and extremely pessimistic, and it’s hard not to start believing his paranoid theories.

This explains why people sometimes say they wish they could turn their chattering minds off for a while. This can be done, under certain circumstances — if you don’t mind exposing yourself to the downsides of hard drugs, death sports, or other drastic pursuits. Otherwise, the overly talkative mind is just a condition of reality we must learn to manage.

There are lots of ways to help manage mental talk, but here’s one that takes twenty seconds and gives you a little of that precious critical distance from what your mind is saying. It allows you, at least, to turn the boring kidnapper into something more akin to a boring television show playing in the other room.

The person who taught me this didn’t give it a name, but I call it Corner Glimpsing. It involves glimpsing briefly at the corners of the room you’re in, or the corners of any physical thing really (a desk, a monitor, etc). By doing this, you recapture attention that had been previously occupied by mental talk — attention the boring kidnapper depends on to continue his diatribes — and bring it to visual experience.

You do it like this:

1. Notice that you’ve been caught up in thinking (i.e. held hostage by the boring kidnapper)

2. Don’t worry about halting the thinking. Instead, direct your attention to any physical corner — of the room, a window frame, a shelf, any place where two or more lines converge. Spend a few seconds looking at the corner, noticing its simple shape and color.

3. Turn your gaze to a different corner, and look at it for a few seconds.

4. Move your gaze like this to eight or ten different corners, spending a few seconds glimpsing at each one. When you switch corners, turn your whole head, not just your eyes.

(Some of you who have taken Mindfulness for Relaxation might already know this trick from the included “Anxiety Kit” booklet.)

You might discover that this simple act of looking, if you do it sincerely, loosens the grip of idle thought. The mental chatter may continue, but it has to drop into the background for you to really look at something.

You use corners for this exercise because they’re just bare convergences of lines, so they don’t give the mind much to analyze or opine on. If you looked at the contents of your bookshelf instead, the boring kidnapper would be right at your ear again, telling you how she once read the first fifty pages of Moby Dick and should really get back to it, or that bright orange has become a strangely common color choice for book spines in recent years.

After a half-minute or so of Corner Glimpsing, the small release from captivity it affords gives you a chance to put your attention where you actually want it: on the task at hand, or somewhere else where it can be more useful.

Corner Glimpsing also shows you that whether you’re stuck in your thoughts is really a question of where your attention is pointing, not whether there are thoughts occurring. The would-be kidnapper never runs out of stuff to say, but you’re the one who ultimately decides where the attention goes.

***

Photo by Mauro Mora

{ 35 Comments }

DiscoveredJoys November 8, 2022 at 2:58 am

My best guess is that the undirected chatter is a way of the brain priming your cognitive filters to react swiftly to events, particularly social events.

For example, you are at a cocktail party (do people still have cocktail parties?) and your internal chatter has weighed up the appearance of the people you might be attracted to, or assessed the risk of some dominant person, so that *if* they come over and speak to you already have some appropriate reply ready to go.

If the internal chatter has a genetic component then you would expect there to be some variation between people (but that doesn’t mean you have to accept the default patterns of thought). It would explain a great deal though.

{ Reply }

David Cain November 8, 2022 at 8:59 am

Mental talk definitely offers some useful abilities. My understanding is that the main advantage of abstract thought is so that we can test out scenarios in our heads rather than in real life, where the consequences are greater. Alfred North Whitehead famously said that the reason we have ideas is so that we can let our ideas die instead of ourselves. The kind of social rehearsal you describe is one form of that.

However, it easily becomes dysfunctional, especially in a world that’s way more complex, with way more information to process than the environments our brains evolved in. I know I leaned WAY too hard on rehearsal as a way of responding to social anxiety — I would be flow-charting entire phone calls because I felt I couldn’t take the risk of coming off badly. Meanwhile, taking those risks would have taught me social skills that offer better protection than incessant rehearsal.

{ Reply }

Bob November 15, 2022 at 9:32 am

It is so nice to know that I’m not the only one that has a voice in my head narrating my life as it happens. And sharing the same stories over and over again

{ Reply }

Nick Seary November 8, 2022 at 4:44 am

Thank you, David. This worked for me, providing immediate relief.

I purchased Camp Calm Relax awhile ago, but had completely forgotten this exercise. Time for me to revisit Camp.

{ Reply }

David Cain November 8, 2022 at 9:15 am

Same here! I haven’t done the Breathing With practice in a while.

{ Reply }

jon November 8, 2022 at 5:45 am

So true David, and thanks for that. Engaging our rather boring kidnapper, the mind, can lead to much wasted time, and even create a deal of chaos in our lives if we do not stop to corner gaze. Sometimes the simplest advice, if you will, is the most effective, but, I suspect, the most difficult part of this exercise is realizing just how boring this kidnapper has become. That takes a little more consideration and introspection. Loved this blog. Keep it simple.

{ Reply }

David Cain November 8, 2022 at 9:25 am

On meditation retreats, when thoughts have really slowed down, I have seen how boring and vapid the kidnapper really is. When you refrain from engaging the monologue for hours or days (as one does on retreat), you can see thoughts actually get “born,” i.e. you see the individual words arise from nothing.

When you give the subject matter of the thoughts no attention, they just peter out after a word or two, or even half a word. Watching them emerge felt like watching bubbles coming out of a fish tank filter. They are just a process happening on its own, not “you” at all.

It makes it clear that all this ambient thought is totally automatic when it emerges — there’s no real “intelligence” behind the appearance thoughts. The mind is just generating words, in response to subtle ripples of emotion, and if they’re given attention, they may form into semi-coherent thoughts and monologues. But at the source they’re just semi-verbal blobs of emotional energy. There’s nothing pointed or intentional about them.

{ Reply }

Simon Stanford November 8, 2022 at 5:58 am

It was really surprising to learn about all the different forms of inner “voice”. Especially the fact it might not be the same as the person’s own voice.

I just tried the Corner Glimpsing technique for the first time. It did help reduce the volume of the voice though of course it had to chime in with “hey this technique is helping”.

I love the fact that Dan Harris author of the excellent 10% Happier wanted to call his book “My inner voice is an ass hole”

{ Reply }

David Cain November 8, 2022 at 9:34 am

If the inner monologue jumps in during the glimpsing itself, that’s okay. The point isn’t to silence it, only to break the spell of believing that the mental talk needs to be given all the attention it demands. Just return to looking.

{ Reply }

Tim November 8, 2022 at 1:00 pm

I haven’t read 10% Happier yet, it is somewhere in my endless list of books to read. But even just the concept–meditation can make you 10% happier–has been useful for me and applicable across many different life habits.

{ Reply }

Annie November 8, 2022 at 6:08 am

Hilarious description of my mind off the chain! Thanks so much for the technique. I’m going to need it a lot on election day today. Everybody stay sane.

{ Reply }

Hanna November 8, 2022 at 7:00 am

Sounds like a classic pattern interrupt technique. I just tried it. Brilliantly simple and effective. Thank you.

{ Reply }

Jacky November 8, 2022 at 7:00 am

I laughed out loud at least three times. Will definitely give Corner Glimpsing a go when my mental chatter is just time-wasting (as it often is). Oreo halves not lining up ….. hahaha

{ Reply }

Eric November 8, 2022 at 7:10 am

You always seem to post about subjects I’m thinking about in the moment. I will most definitely try this today. I don’t know always know how to ignore my thoughts and this seems great. This week I had been trying to find the space between my thoughts when I noticed I was too engaged. This has helped a bit.

Do you have any advice about how to go about it at night? Sometimes I’ll wake up at 2-3 am and the thoughts are just too frequent.

{ Reply }

David Cain November 8, 2022 at 9:38 am

The key is noticing that you can direct your attention on purpose, even though it gets dragged elsewhere while you’re not looking.

At night, instead of using the visual sense (if that’s not practical) you can move your attention around places in your body. Notice how your face feels in contact with the pillow, then check in with a foot, then a hip, etc.

You always have this ability to move your attention to somewhere, and keep it there for a few seconds. Use this to break the spell of the thinking. The more you get used to dropping thought in favor of some other object of attention, the less you’ll feel like you have to “think through” any given train of thought, and the less momentum they will tend to have.

{ Reply }

Ashley November 8, 2022 at 7:27 am

Michael Singer had a similar way of pointing out the absurdity of the mind’s incessant chatter by having you imagine that it’s a separate person in the same room with you, saying all of that stuff out loud to you. It’s not the kind of person you would want to hang out with for very long, or invite anywhere, and certainly you wouldn’t just blindly believe everything they have to say about everything. But that’s how we treat our minds!

Something that also helps me is seeing that there’s a difference between having a thought, and thinking about that thought. Thoughts will always pop up, but you don’t have to go down the rabbit hole with every single one. When I notice this I can sometimes let them drift on by. Like you say, these thoughts seem of the utmost importance when they come up! But when I just decide not to actively think about a thought and let it go away, it’s literally forgotten within seconds and replaced by some other thought. Over and over. Funny to watch sometimes.

{ Reply }

David Cain November 8, 2022 at 9:43 am

Absolutely. Harris has pointed this out too — if we were to say out loud everything our mind says (and which we often take quite seriously) we would be carted off to an asylum. We need to learn to regard our thoughts as reflexive mental activity, a radio station broadcasting a hodgepodge of sentiments, not a reliable source of good information.

There is a difference between having a thought, and actively thinking it through. That’s when we fuel the thought, and give it momentum. Practicing “dropping” thoughts is one of the simplest and most helpful things a person can do IMHO. Like you say, they just go away, and there are always more, which suggests the absurdity of taking them all seriously.

{ Reply }

Pam November 8, 2022 at 8:16 am

Just tried it and it works!
How do I use this at night when the room is too dark to see the corners?

{ Reply }

David Cain November 8, 2022 at 9:45 am

See my reply to Eric above for one possibility.

If there are no corners visible, you could visually glimpse at anything with any distinction to it — shapes in the shadows, etc.

{ Reply }

Tara November 8, 2022 at 8:59 am

I gave my monkey mind a job: practicing French. What I do is when the inane chatter gets bothersome, I make it translate what it’s saying into French, pondering correct vocabulary and syntax. I also remind myself that thoughts are just like radio static, arising from emptiness and if we don’t latch on to them, they dissolve into emptiness. When I feel sadness or anxiety creeping up, I remind myself it’s no different from a muscle twinge or headache and will go away of its own accord if I don’t attend to it and fixate on it. For those middle of the night ruminations which are the worst, I tell myself to let go of the attachment to the thoughts and remind myself they are not real. Sometimes repeating mantras or visualizing helps too.

{ Reply }

David Cain November 8, 2022 at 9:49 am

Wow, that is so creative. Making it turn its attention to translation shifts the focus from the emotionally-laden subject matter to the level of syntax.

I think you really have the right mentality towards thought — the mind is reflexive and constantly moving and spasming in small ways in the same way the body is. No big deal, just the ongoing movements of the system.

{ Reply }

Ecoteri November 16, 2022 at 7:11 pm

@Tara, I just burst out laughing! And I agree with @David Cain – how very creative to practice French. My French might suddenly improve enormously! HA!

{ Reply }

Rich November 8, 2022 at 9:46 am

No amount of Corner Glimpsing is going to get Rick Astley out my head! Just kidding; thanks for teaching this technique. It works!

{ Reply }

David Cain November 8, 2022 at 9:50 am

Rick Astley’s presence is too strong to be forgotten. He will live on in our minds for thousands of years. He is the world’s first true immortal.

{ Reply }

Nancy Ferguson November 8, 2022 at 11:00 am

Thank you!!!!

{ Reply }

Ann November 8, 2022 at 3:43 pm

Thank you David. What a simple useful tool to have in the kit. I’m going to practise this today as an antidote to thinking about myself too much.

{ Reply }

David Cain November 9, 2022 at 8:54 am

Also note that the reason this works is simply that you’ve moved your attention elsewhere. Thoughts crave attention, but you don’t need to give it to them. You can unhook the fuel supply simply putting your attention on something else. After corner glimpsing, which breaks the spell, get busy on something else that requires attention, something more productive.

{ Reply }

AnnieD November 8, 2022 at 4:35 pm

Thank you! When carried away, it’s hard to wrench my brain back under control. Corner Glimpsing — what a neat tool! Simple, no assembly required. This one will go on my in-case-of-emergency board of reminders to STOP. Breathing helps too. And Sam Harris, Waking Up creator, has a sublime way of reminding me it’s a good thing to ignore my internal drivel, usually. Thank you for Raptitude!

{ Reply }

Shannon D November 8, 2022 at 5:21 pm

This post was very timely. Mind was very active with work stress chatter today, and sending it to the corner helped immensely!

{ Reply }

john linstrom November 8, 2022 at 5:40 pm

I find the same ‘distraction in another room’ by doing the opposite of crossing one’s eyes. Don’t know what it is called, but I usually hold on to something (e.g., a railing; it works best gazing longer distances) when trying it because the effect is ‘floating in space while space drifts away.’
Hard for me to do, pleasant, calming and distracting – not quite a flow state since I’m not doing anything but watching.

{ Reply }

David Cain November 9, 2022 at 8:57 am

I have done something similar. It works for the same reason, if I understand you correctly — your attention is required by something else, so the thoughts don’t receive the attention they need to keep proliferating, so they lose momentum and drift off into the background.

{ Reply }

Jt November 8, 2022 at 7:58 pm

Thank you.

{ Reply }

Hilary Spain November 11, 2022 at 2:26 am

An excellent tool for quietening the voices..and for night one that I find very helpful is to choose a starting point on your body (eg. toe or ear) then trace an imaginary outline around your own body. No movement needed, just concentrate and mentally draw a line. Bonus of this is it often sends me to sleep.

{ Reply }

Bob Clancy November 11, 2022 at 8:48 pm

So relevant! I call it the 4 o’clocks, as I usually wake up at 4am, and my inner voice starts telling stories (to some other people). Hard to get back to sleep. Relaxing from the toes on up sometimes works, tonight I won’t be able to see any corners, but I can focus on my warm fuzzy blankey. I’ll try that. Yeah, I have a really strong inner voice that pops up whenever I stop actively doing stuff. Thanks!

{ Reply }

Ann G. November 25, 2022 at 3:05 am

Sometimes I type my words in my head to slow them down. I see myself spelling them out on a keyboard. Or I take basic words and spell them backwards in my head– D A E H. That said, I found the Corner Glimpsing to be a more immediate solution to shut down some of the chatter or at least give it a break. Thanks!

{ Reply }

Leave a Comment

Desktop version

Raptitude is an independent blog by . Some links on this page may be affiliate links, which means I might earn a commission if you buy certain things I link to. In such cases the cost to the visitor remains the same.