Most Americans think too much. Or to put it more precisely, they think too many low-quality thoughts. There’s nothing wrong with having an active mind, but if we’re not aware of our thoughts, we can end up anxious and distracted. It’s not surprising that roughly 18 percent of people in the U.S. suffer from anxiety disorders.
Although everyone is different, I find that mindfulness helps calm my mind no matter what is happening around me. And a major component of mindfulness is improving the quality of my thoughts.
Think back to what’s been on your mind for the past five minutes. Chances are, there was a mix of worrying about work, mentally reviewing what time you need to pick up the kids, and fighting back nervousness over an upcoming date or a recent conflict with a friend. Now ask yourself: Did I choose to think those thoughts? Or was there just a torrent of ideas running wild?
The quality of your thoughts has less to do with content than with awareness. I’m not telling you not to worry about your friend’s anger or about finishing a big project. I’m suggesting that you be present while having those thoughts and that you be deliberate about where you spend your mental energy. Otherwise, you end up in a constant state of mental chatter — and that leads to negative, reactive behavior.
Why Your Thoughts Matter
How you think manifests in your actions. If your mind is always filled with jumbled, chaotic thoughts, that’s what your output will be. Instead of showing up to meetings prepared to contribute, you’ll rush in at the last minute, asking colleagues to catch you up. Instead of enjoying your evenings at home with your family, your thoughts will be a million miles away, and you’ll miss precious opportunities to bond with those you love.
My philosophy is that your thoughts reflect your values. When you’re clear on what is important to you — and on the type of person you want to be — it becomes easier to block out distracting mental noise. This belief has helped me become more present and effective in all areas of my life, and I try to model this behavior for my children and for my team at work.
For instance, I’ve noticed that people often come to meetings saddled with baggage from other projects or conversations. So I start the meeting by asking everyone to leave their other concerns at the door. We review our agenda so we’re united in purpose, and calling attention to our collective priorities helps us bring focused energy to the problems we’re trying to solve.
Establishing mindfulness habits creates a sense of internal peace and clarity in your day. If you’ve been struggling with unhelpful or runaway worries, here are some tactics to improve the quality of your thoughts:
1. Carve out time for calm.
Figure out a way to bring a sense of serenity to your days. You might meditate at home before you leave for work or do some deep breathing before returning to the office at lunchtime. Perhaps watering a small plant or going for a walk in nature centers you. Whatever helps you tap into that inner calm, honor it and return to it regularly. Doing so brings you back down to earth when your thoughts begin to spiral.
2. Focus on what you can control.
In so many areas, we get caught up in what’s happening outside of us. But we’re so much more powerful when we emphasize we can do and think less about what we can’t. You don’t get to decide whether your company lands a new client, but you can go the extra mile to support the team’s bid. You can’t force a cantankerous colleague to soften his attitude, but you can be kind and friendly in response.
3. Visualize the outcome.
Before going into any high-stress situation, I think about what I hope to achieve. Then I prepare myself accordingly, whether that’s organizing my thoughts into notes or rehearsing a presentation. Not only does this move me closer to my goal, it keeps my thoughts productive and proactive instead of tense and reactionary.
4. Tune in to other people’s needs.
Nothing gets you out of your own head like helping others. When I’m caught in a negative thought loop, I look for someone to help. In a professional setting, that might involve empathizing with a senior leader who is looking for a win in a client meeting. I think about what I can do to support her, and I devote myself to that purpose. Shifting your attention outward creates a sense of purpose and steers you away from unhelpful mental noise.
Improving the quality of your thoughts is immeasurably helpful for improving your life. No longer will you constantly be at the whim of your racing thoughts. Instead, you can focus on the people and goals that matter most.