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Thought Management Strategies

One conversation I frequently have with clients is related to thought management. Typically this conversation is met with surprise and even skepticism. “How can I control what’s going on inside my head?” “It’s not like there’s an “off” button.”

Let me share an analogy I give to my clients. Let’s compare our thoughts to door-to-door salesmen (sorry if you are a door-to-door salesman–I still get annoyed). My doorbell rings and I don’t know who is on my doorstep. I have to open my door to see who is standing there. Once I open my door and realize it’s someone trying to sell me something, I have two choices. Choice one: I can completely engage with them, give them all my time and attention, figuratively roll out the red carpet, and buy what they’re selling. Choice two: I can firmly say “not interested” and shut the door. Now if I say “not interested” and shut the door, that doesn’t mean they won’t keep trying. They may knock again or ring the doorbell. If they’re really persistent they may try to look into the windows to see if I’m still there and if they’ve still got my attention. If I hold firm and don’t open the door again, they’ll eventually move on. If I engage with them and give them all my time and attention and buy their stuff, they’ll keep coming back (or they’ll tell their friends and their friends will come sell me stuff). I’ll create this reputation of “the person who buys everything”. However, if I firmly and consistently say “not interested”, eventually they’ll realize they’re wasting their time and stop trying. And I’ll start to develop a reputation that it’s a waste of time to try and sell me things because I don’t engage with it. Now if I have developed a reputation of buying everything, and then suddenly try to set some limits, the sales person will likely try even harder because they know I’m vulnerable and they think if they can just wear me down enough, I’ll buy their stuff. They may be persistent for a time but eventually, if I hold my ground, I’ll start to develop that second reputation described above.

Now, let’s take that analogy and apply it to our thoughts. A thought comes (I don’t have any control over that), but once it comes I have two choices. Choice one: I can entertain the thought, give it all my time and attention, ruminate on it, follow it down the “rabbit hole”, and let it consume me. Choice two: I can figuratively say “thanks for the thought brain, but I’m not interested”. Now this second choice is where my clients really start to struggle. How do you do that? Here are 7 tips and strategies for thought management:

Tip 1: Have an action plan ahead of time. This is where coping skills come into play. I know thoughts are going to come to me. I know I’m going to have a hard time developing the skill of thought management. I need to have a game plan. Distraction is a great place to start. I need a variety of distraction skills that I can utilize as I’m strengthening my “thought management muscles”. Listening to my favorite song, watching a funny YouTube video, or calling a friend are a few strategies my clients have utilized to help them.

Tip 2: Set boundaries around your thoughts. Some thoughts do need some time and attention. I may have a decision to make or I may need to plan an activity. These items do require my time and attention. The problem comes when these thoughts leak into our other thoughts or other areas of our lives. Maybe I’m at work and I’m trying to concentrate but an upcoming decision keeps popping into my mind. Maybe I’m trying to fall asleep at night and a conversation with someone earlier that day keeps running through my mind. I recognize that these thoughts need time and attention but I need to be more proactive about when I give those thoughts my time and attention. The need for boundaries is prevalent in every area of our lives including our thoughts.

Tip 3: Keep a thought journal. I honestly believe that sometimes thoughts keep popping into our mind because our brain thinks we’re going to forget it somehow. Jotting those thoughts down in a thought journal can allow our brain to breathe and relax a bit because we’ve covered the job of “remembering” for it. I keep lots of different types of journals and lists in my phone because it’s with me all the time. This includes a thought journal. If it’s an idea I have for work, a tip for household management, or even an underlying worry I have, I jot it down in my phone.

Tip 4: Schedule a “worry hour”. You don’t necessarily need to call it a “worry hour” but schedule time to review your thought journal and give some attention to those thoughts. This allows you to reassure your brain that the thought will be addressed and that a specific time is scheduled to do so. This makes it a bit easier to dismiss an intrusive thought because your brain is reassured that it will be given the proper time and attention needed. Schedule regular time with yourself to review your thoughts, journal about them, discuss them with others, write pro/con lists, etc. By regularly scheduling time with yourself, you can develop stronger boundaries around your thoughts.

Tip 5: Start small. Some thoughts or worries are big and consuming and some are small. If I’m learning to play the piano I’m not going to start with a piece by Mozart in a concert hall. I’m going to begin by learning the notes and the keys associated with those notes. I’m going to start small and build up to the bigger pieces. Start with small thoughts or worries. Practice jotting down thoughts about what you’re going to make for dinner, or thoughts about that upcoming homework assignment in your thought journal and practice setting those thoughts aside. As you start to gain more control over the smaller thoughts, those “thought management muscles” will begin to develop and you can gradually start to utilize those skills for the bigger thoughts and worries.

Tip 6: Reframe your definition of success. This tip can apply to so many things but with regards to thought management just recognize that success just means trying again and again and again. There’s no way to “fail” with learning to manage your thoughts. If you can reframe what success means, you can learn from experiences that didn’t work as you had planned. When you begin to implement some of these strategies, and it feels like it’s more difficult than expected, review what went well and what improvements could be made. If you tried distraction and it didn’t work, use that “data” to your advantage and as a learning opportunity. Do you need a bigger variety of coping skills? Was this thought too big to start with? Were you able to manage the thought for 60 seconds longer than the day before? All of this gives you information to try again and again and again. You have nothing to lose and much to gain by slowly implementing these skills.

Tip 7: Find an accountability person to report to. This could be a friend, a family member, a life coach, or a therapist. Having an outside perspective can help you identify strengths, weaknesses, and barriers that you may not have considered. Having someone else to report to also helps motivate you to keep trying and to keep pushing. Research shows with any lifestyle change that those who have an accountability partner tend to make more lasting changes.

Remember that slow and steady wins the race. Any change that is too big or too overwhelming is not sustainable. Just like the person who typically gives all their attention to the salesman and then tries to set some boundaries feels vulnerable, you are going to feel vulnerable as you implement these changes. If you are looking for additional help we are always here to help you at Tranquility Counseling Services!

Sherrie Nebeker, MA, LMFT


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