How to tame the monkey mind

You need to find a calm, focused state before you can truly work to the best of your ability. This isn’t easy, but it is a trainable skill.

It feels horrible if the effort you put into your work doesn’t produce the outcomes you want, so it seems reasonable to think that a lack of productivity is the source of your stress.

But what if it’s the other way round? What if it’s your mental state that’s affecting your ability to work, and the resulting lack of productivity is just making things worse? If that’s the case, then you need to get your head in the right place before you try to be productive. You need to find a calm, focused state before you can truly work to the best of your ability.

This is easier said than done.

If you’re anything like me, your mind will jump around like a caffeinated monkey after every little thought…

I should finish that blog post on literature reviews… but maybe I’ve got a reply to that email… I wonder if I should set up a new email address… Is Gmail encrypted..? I like the font on this secure email provider’s website, what is that? Let’s change the font on the blog…  actually, maybe I should get rid of all the images and simplify the design to improve load times… I’m hungry… I wonder how you make sourdough bread?

Or maybe you get caught up in worry, the same thought going round and round in your head so much that you can’t sleep.

You can’t expect to be productive if your brain is working this way, so finding a way to calm these distracting thoughts is key.

It’s difficult to control your own brain, but it is a trainable skill. It really is possible to develop a calm state of mind and train yourself to focus.

An exercise

This is just a basic exercise to start with. As with any skill, you have to start with something simple and gradually build from there. The idea is to focus on a simple task and just notice when you get distracted.

  1. Set a timer for 5 minutes
  2. In your head, count backwards from 100 to zero in steps of 2: 100, 98, 96, 94…
  3. If you lose count or get distracted or skip a number, start again from 100
  4. Try to keep the same rhythm as you count. If you hesitate, start again.
  5. Keep trying until you reach zero or the timer runs out

It doesn’t matter if you run out of time: the task itself doesn’t matter because it’s about training yourself to notice and bring your focus back to a specific point when you get distracted.

Thoughts will still arise, but you won’t get carried away by them as they disappear as soon as you notice and reset to 100.

Try it out and let me know how it goes in the comments section below. When I last did this while preparing this post, the closest I got to zero was 28.

There’s more work to be done…

Obviously there’s a lot more we need to do, but I don’t want to overload a blog post with too much. I’ll be posting more on this subject later, and I’ll also be running an online course in September taking these ideas much further. Click below for more details!

How to manage the stress of a PhD, 13th-27th September 2017

See also:
Productivity comes last
PhD stress: don’t ignore the warning signs

1 thought on “How to tame the monkey mind”

  1. Hi Dr James,

    I tried the exercise. I reached 60 quickly in less than 5 minutes. Then, I hesitated and jumped to 50. I started thinking about just getting my summary and 1st-year differentiation report done and present it to the panel. I am already working on a tight timescale, only August left to do differentiation. But it helped me focus as you said, on the immediate, rather than the future. I sometimes daydream that I am presenting some poster on the 20th September or emailing some researchers about something. I need to get a firm footing first before daydreaming. I get excited too easily sometimes. Hopefully, all goes well.


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