Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to build neural pathways based on our environment, including how and what we think. Significantly, neuroplasticity suggests that we have the power to change deep-seated patterns in our lives by actively working to change our thoughts. This enables us to transform our habits and behaviors so they’re more supportive of the type of life and quality of relationships we want to have.
The first step to being able to change your thoughts is, ironically, to stop thinking so much. In our everyday lives, our minds become crowded with worries, to-do lists, stories, and memories. And it’s not until we bring a greater awareness to our mental processes that we begin to recognize the congested state of mind we function in. Many of us have become so accustomed to living with a cluttered head that we may not be familiar with the sense of clear-mindedness and focus.
About six years ago, I had some significant health challenges that required me to slow down and examine my lifestyle more objectively. After so many years spent striving for perfectionism and chasing external goals, the change of pace felt really good.
One of the first things I noticed by practicing stillness in my physical body was that I developed a deeper awareness of my thoughts. As I learned how to regularly check in on my mental state, it soon became evident that I had a lot going on up there! I also recognized that I wasn’t ever really choosing my thoughts. Many of them were entering my mind uninvited and in rapid succession. Sometimes they were dark and overly critical of myself or others.
Not too long after making my lifestyle changes, I found myself edging into the empty nest with my husband. Because of that, I began sorting through the physical belongings of our house in preparation to usher our oldest into the next phase of his life and I was feeling the lightness of holding on to only those belongings that I really valued. I decided to do the same for my thoughts To declutter them by weeding out and removing what wasn’t necessary or helpful, decreasing the quantity and improving the quality of my thought life.
As a starting point, I began to draw my attention to times when I experienced fewer thoughts, fewer negative thoughts in particular. I reflected on what activities led me to what I called “be-ingness”: a letting go of effort, a sense of absorption, sometimes timelessness. If you’ve ever been lost in your favorite pastime or at work, you’ve probably experienced this as well. I noticed that I experience this mental state in some of my favorite everyday activities, simple things like exercising, quiet time, having a really great conversation with someone and reading a captivating book.
When I am engaged in these activities, the noise of the world and the clutter of my thoughts seem to fade into the background as I become absorbed in the task at hand. Athletes sometimes refer to this state as being in the zone, where there is a sense of integration of mind, body and the world around you. Positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi characterized it as the flow state. This is when our consciousness releases the compulsive need to narrate our actions, track time and grasp at possible outcomes can be incredibly nourishing. Csíkszentmihályi says that, when practiced regularly, the flow state can equate to more happiness, productivity and creativity.
With new understanding of this mindset, I chose to enter it more intentionally to clear my thoughts. As I separated myself from my brain more often, I began to notice when my mind was pulling me ahead into the future or back to the past, or when it was getting stuck in unhelpful circular thinking. I saw how these thought patterns were moving me away from my power to make healthy decisions.
It’s important to eliminate distractions and focus on the task at hand. Ongoing internal feedback on your performance increases your ability to maintain the state of flow. With these guidelines in hand, try some of the suggestions below to begin finding space in your mind.
Any activity or hobby that brings you into a focused state may have the power to tune you into the flow. This can include creative pursuits like drawing and singing, reading, socializing with family or friends, or playing a board game. If the activity is done without an end or purpose in mind, but simply for the sake of enjoyment, the flow state may be achieved even more readily.
Write it out.
Journaling can quickly generate a state of flow and is an efficient way to clear some of your mental clutter. By writing your thoughts out, especially first thing in the morning, you not only give them a healthy route to escape your mind, but you also position yourself to see them more clearly.
Awareness allows for further expansion of the mind and, with practice, the freedom to consciously choose your thoughts so they align with your goals and lifestyle. Try freewriting your thoughts out as they occur. Give yourself just five minutes to start, and do it without judgement.
Sleep it off.
This is a bit of an unusual suggestion but in my opinion, being asleep is the ultimate experience of flow. We lose complete sense of time, body and self as the conscious mind switches off completely. It also increases your capacity to integrate life experiences. Sleep is necessary for your brain to processes and store memories and emotions, freeing up space for other tasks during waking hours. When we are sleep deprived, even the smallest decision becomes difficult, which makes our brains work overtime and leads to disordered thinking and mind clutter.
Get into your body.
Settling into your physical body by engaging with physical experiences is one of the fastest ways to get into a flow state. By fully tuning into the senses of sound, taste, smell, touch and sight, we gently encourage our minds to join our bodies in the present moment. You may remember feeling the sense of suspended time and thought while playing sports, immersed in nature, during sex, or even while enjoying a delicious meal. These are all activities that involve the senses more than intellect. Practice entering this state of heightened sensory awareness by really listening to the vibrations of your favorite music, moving your body in a way that feels satisfying, spending time in a visually inspiring landscape or savoring your favorite meal.
Take a vacation to a new destination.
Travel offers an opportunity to enjoy several of the experiences above at the same time, including vivid sensory engagement, playfulness, and rest. Vacation time also provides a break from our everyday responsibilities which naturally releases the thoughts related to those tasks. Exploring a new place makes it possible to experience a sense of wonder at the world around you. This state of awe opens our mind and encourages learning which then can bring us into a flow state.
These suggestions are all practices that will help you enter the state of flow and create space in your mind. You may discover other ideas that help you find your flow or know how you’ve found it in the past. The great thing about seeking this state is that it will create a feedback loop; the more you practice it, the more the brain adapts. Mental activity is repatterned and the prefrontal cortex—the part of your brain responsible for awareness, concentration and decision-making—may grow, making it even easier to achieve a higher level of clear-headed, focused consciousness.
With greater awareness, we can begin to make some changes to the content of our thoughts and be more selective about which ones we will entertain. Though unhelpful thoughts still enter my mind on occasion, when I take time for flow in my life, I have a greater ability to release them. I don’t contemplate them for any longer than I’d like. I’m able switch my focus to other ideas that help me move forward constructively.
It takes effort to care for our lives and our minds are no exception. To be able to put forth the effort required to thrive, we must have the space and energy to do so. It’s much more challenging to nurture positive thoughts or to explore creative ideas when your thoughts are racing. Finding a state of flow on a regular basis will help you declutter your mind and enable you to give more mental space to what you value.