Wisdom//

Monkey Mind: Shifting the Habit of Feeling Distracted Throughout the Day

It's time to focus.

3Baboons / Shutterstock
3Baboons / Shutterstock

Most people feel busy and distracted throughout the day — calm and focus and a feeling of purpose are fairly rare for most of us.

We’re jumping from messages to social media to email to quick work tasks to a search for something we’re curious about, from dozens of messages to dozens of posts to a couple doze browser tabs. All day long, one quick thing to the next, putting off anything that requires much more focus than that.

The term “monkey mind” captures this fairly well — our minds swinging from one branch to the next, jumping around without pause. It’s not quite accurate (monkeys rests a lot of the time, and it’s apes that swing from branches, not monkeys) … but the image is vivid enough.

This is actually how our minds are much of the time, but it can feel stressful and unfocused. Many of us would like a calmer, more focused way of being, at least some of the time.

How do we develop this kind of focused mind, able to come to rest?

This is one of the biggest problems for many people.

Let’s look at a few important ideas.

4 Ideas for Befriending & Calming the Monkey Mind

The first idea is that the monkey mind’s activeness isn’t an enemy to be slayed. We might not like the feeling of constant distractedness, but if we sit with the mind in meditation, we can see that this is just how the mind likes to behave. It’s a habit, but also a big part of the nature of our mind.

So we can start to accept this jumping around nature of the mind, not as something to be battled, but as something to be befriended. Making friends with the monkey mind is bringing a sense of friendliness and warmth to our mind’s nature. Being calm with it and not judging it. Gently encouraging it to come back to the matter at hand, not smacking it on the nose with a newspaper.

The second idea is that if we create a calm space for the monkey mind to jump around in, it will eventually settle down. Meditation is a good example of this — and in fact, providing a regular space for meditation is a good practice for being more settled and focused during the day. In meditation, we create a calm space — we sit still for a number of minutes, and let the mind settle down in the present moment. Of course, the mind jumps around in this space, but we don’t necessarily engage it too much, and eventually it might settle down. Maybe not, but it tends to slow down a bit at least.

It’s like a toddler throwing a tantrum — you can smack the baby on the butt, but that won’t end the tantrum, it will only make it worse. If instead, we provide a calm, loving space for the toddler to scream and express their fears and pain, they will calm down and eventually just want a hug.

In our daily lives, outside of meditation, we can create spaces like this … a space to write, a space to consider a complex problem, a space to dive deep into a project. Our minds will want to run, want to jump around, but we can just let the mind settle down within this space, giving it room to run around but nowhere to go. It will likely calm down after a bit.

The third idea is that the fewer bright shiny things we give our monkey minds, the less jumpy the mind will be. Most of us feed into the jumpy habit of the monkey mind by giving it all kinds of shiny things to be distracted by:

  • Email, text messages, messaging apps like Slack, WhatsApp, Messenger, Snapchat
  • Videos on Youtube, Netflix, etc.
  • Social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, etc.
  • News sites, blogs, other interesting websites we like to visit
  • Games, phone apps, doing searches for things
  • Jumping around to small, easy work tasks

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any of these. But you can see that we’re giving our mind’s jumpy nature so many things to be interested in. The modern world, and technology in particular, is designed to distract and engage the monkey mind.

The more of that we can hide, the better. The mind doesn’t need all of that in front of it, all the time. So just putting the phone out of sight, closing tabs, not having notifications on … these simple things can help calm things down.

The last idea is that we can slow down, and pause more often. That might seem like a simple idea, but how often do we do it? Go slower, not faster. Breathe and let your nervous system relax. Un-tense your muscles, soften the front of your body, soften the jaw and temples.

Pause in between doing things — in between messages and emails, in between tasks, in between appointments and errands. Pause, breathe, and think about what matters right now.

With that in mind, let’s finish with a short prescription.

A Prescription for Taming the Distracted Mind

So let’s put all of those ideas together into a simple prescription — you don’t have to do all of these, but consider them:

1. Meditate in the morning. It doesn’t have to be for long — start with 2 minutes at first, just trying to be present with the breath and coming back when the mind wanders, without any harshness or judgment. Just keep coming back. Eventually you can expand it by a couple minutes a week. Give your mind space to settle down. It’s training for the rest of the day.

2. Create intentional spaces to do things. Intentional means you plan ahead for them (ex: I’m going to write at 9am) or you set the intention just before you start (ex: OK, now I’ll start my writing for the next 60 minutes). A space means you are going to do this and nothing else — block distractions, stop yourself from following the urge to go do something else. It’s best to block off those intentional spaces as you start the day — what do you want to focus on, and when? Then use this space similar to meditation: let your mind relax into this space, and eventually it will settle into it. It can help to meditate for a minute at the beginning.

3. Remove distractions when you can. You don’t have to be a monk, but see if you can turn off as many notifications as possible, put your phone away when you’re doing something else, block websites that you tend to go to mindlessly. Let your mind rest by not having too many shiny things to distract it. This is a continual process, so keep bringing awareness back to this as distractions creep back in.

4. Accept and befriend the mind. Notice how the mind acts, but don’t judge it. See if you can accept that this is just a normal state of mind, and be friendly and compassionate towards it. Let it do its thing, and be curious what might happen if you are calmer towards how the mind is acting.

5. Slow down. Many of us have a tendency to rush between things constantly, which only agitates the mind. What would it be like to slow down, let your nervous system relax? Relax your muscles, breathe down the front of your body, and deepen into the moment.

6. Add pauses between. Between each task, message, appointment, errand … pause and take a breath. Check in with how you’re feeling. Ask yourself what’s important right now, what life is calling you to do. Check in with the things above and see if there’s anything you need to shift. Let this be a natural place of rest, the space between things.

Practice with all of this and see if it helps! Our minds will feel constantly distracted, but it’s something we can mindfully work with. See what happens when you bring curiosity to this space.

This article was originally published on Zen Habits.

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.