The Ironic Process of Mental Control

Have you ever noticed that when you try to block something out of your mind, it just seems to keep coming back? It sometimes seems that no matter how hard we try to control our minds; we are often met with an inordinate amount of failure.  Whether we want to stop a worry, concentrate on a task, go to sleep, escape a bad mood or distract ourselves from pain; it seems we end up focusing on it even more than before we tried to suppress the thoughts in the first place!  Harvard researcher Dan Wegner calls this The Ironic Process of Mental Control.  Over the 25 years he spent researching this phenomenon, he found that when we try not to think of something, one part of our mind does avoid the thought, but another, more powerful part “checks in” occasionally, to make sure the thought is not coming up—therefore, ironically bringing that thought to mind.  A trick to avoid this process is to develop an absorbing thought and focus on that instead.  I like to use the acronym W.I.N. (What’s Important Now) as a tool to help identify and focus on the one or two relevant aspects or performance and pair them with cue words that keep my focus where it belongs.

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