How to keep your mind in one place at a time

It’s easy to feel guilty and distracted when juggling work and kids.
It’s easy to feel guilty and distracted when juggling work and kids.
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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When I went back to work after my second maternity leave, I was a mess.

I worked at a giant company—the kind that has meetings all day, every day. Which means, all the actual work that you need to do gets pushed into the cracks of your day. Or, after your work day is supposed to end.

I had two very young kids at home. I have always loved the intellectual stimulation of work, so I was happy to be back, but I also wanted to be with my kids. As I sat in meetings all day, I thought about them. I wondered what they were doing. I thought about the time I should spend with them. And then I went home. But when I was with my kids, I thought about all the work I wasn’t doing. How was I ever going to get it all done?

Like I said, I was a mess. I felt like I was failing at everything.

That phase of life is very specific. It’s tough to find your footing and get the rhythm of life when you have a new baby. However, I found that as my kids got older, my mind kept doing the same thing, like a habit that I couldn’t break. Think about kids at work, think about work at home. I felt guilty and distracted all the time, which made me even less productive at work, and short-tempered at home.

Things have changed a lot since those years. I still hear those thoughts in my head from time to time. The thoughts that wander away from the present, to thoughts about what I should be doing or someplace else I should be. But I’ve learned how to manage my thoughts a lot more since then. Here are some of the most important tools that I use, whenever I find myself back in that space.

Get rid of the guilt

Some guilt serves a purpose. It’s a way of policing our own behavior—of keeping us from doing socially or morally inappropriate things. But guilt can become addictive, in a way. According to Alex Korb, PhD, in his book The Upward Spiral, guilt and shame literally activate the brain’s reward centers.

So the next time you feel guilty, ask yourself, is that guilt serving you? Is it spurring you on to do better, to be better? Or are you addicted to the feeling? Are you spinning your wheels, trapped in the mud of guilt?

If it’s the latter, find some self-compassion for yourself. Pinpoint exactly what is making you feel guilty. For example, I had two guilty thoughts running on autopilot in the back of my mind:

I should be with my kids.

I should be working.

But these thoughts imply that whatever I was actually doing at that moment was wrong, instead of accepting the reality of where I was.

At that moment in time, I had young kids and a full-time corporate job. I wanted both of those, which meant sometimes I had to be at work, and sometimes I had to be at home. There was no other way. So, telling myself that it was wrong to be in either place didn’t help anything. Those thoughts kept me spinning.

Over time, I learned to redirect my thoughts. To stop thinking about what I should do and tell myself, this is where I am. This is what I’m doing right now. There is no right or wrong. There is no perfect parent or a perfect worker. I am doing the best I can. And leave it at that.

Make a plan in advance for when the distracting thoughts come up

I am a planner by nature, but it didn’t occur to me to make a plan in advance about how to keep my mind on the task at hand. I’d never had my thoughts split in two places like that before. I spent a lot of time, in the beginning, reacting to each thought as it came up.

Peter Gollwitzer, PhD, is a psychology professor at NYU. One of his greatest research findings (in my mind) is the profound impact of what he calls “if-then” plans. (“If situation X arises, then I’ll do Y.”)

According to Gollwitzer:

Intrusive thoughts that elicit a strong affective reaction…[are] given processing priority in your mind and undermine the ability to reach your primary goal.

In other words, when you have upsetting thoughts, your brain spends a lot of time focusing on them. It undermines your ability to focus on the task at hand.

This is what keeps you from being more efficient at work when you are thinking about what’s going on at home. It keeps you from engaging at home when you are thinking about work.

His solution is to create a plan, in advance. To choose a specific way to think ahead of time, when you start hearing that same negative voice in your head.

For example, instead of simply waiting until the inevitable thought “I should be with my kids” came up at work, I could make a plan. I could tell myself,

When I start thinking that I should be with my kids, I will remind myself: it is possible to be a good parent and also enjoy work.

I will consciously redirect my negative thought toward a specific positive one, which will make me feel less upset, and help bring my mind back to the task at hand.

“If-then” plans have been shown to have several significant benefits. According to Gollwitzer (from the book Affective Determinants of Health-Related Behaviors):

Forming implementation intentions [if-then plans] is…effective…in up-regulating mood, down-regulating distress, and… reducing clinical levels of anxiety.

So think about what your two or three “go-to” negative thoughts are and make a plan for what to think instead. Write your chosen thoughts down on a post-it note on your desk. Put them as a reminder on your phone and intentionally think about them when your mind wanders away from the present.

Allow yourself “worry time”

One other action that I found very helpful was to block off time. Sometimes my distracting thoughts would take on a more specific shape. Thoughts like, what will I do if my kid doesn’t get into that preschool?

Often those thoughts aren’t productive, but it’s hard to completely get rid of them. They can be very distracting.

So instead, I’d block off “worry time.” Instead of thinking about preschool at the same time as working on a presentation, I’d make a plan. I’d tell myself, I need to focus on this presentation for 25 minutes. I will write down all my worries on a piece of paper and then in 25 minutes, I can think about my worries for 5 or 10 minutes. I will write down anything else that comes up in that time. If I need to, I will think about it again during the next work break.

Telling myself that the worrisome thoughts were “allowed” was very freeing, and knowing that I had a specific time to think about them helped me focus on the meeting or presentation at hand. The reverse would work as well. I knew that I was “allowed” from 3–3:45 pm on a Sunday afternoon to catch up on email, so I’d spend less time worrying about work while I was with my kids. I knew that I had a plan, so I could focus on one thing at a time.

There is no perfect level of attention either at work or at home. But if we let go of guilt, make a plan for what to think, and block off “worry time” we will all get better at focusing on work when we’re at work, and home when we’re at home. More focus means we are more present, which means less time working on one thing and a better connection with our loved ones at home.

We could all use a little more mindfulness and intention. But remember, all you can do is your best, at any given moment. Let go of the rest.

This story was originally published on Medium.