Thoughts are like emails…

I have a confession:

I once had 22,496 emails in my inbox that were marked “unread”.

One day at lunch, I casually passed my phone over to a friend to show her an app and she almost fell over in her seat when she saw my inattentiveness to a clean inbox. This used to really bother me as well, but as I’ve gotten busier I have found I have less time to give to clearing it.

Occasionally, I have a few moments to scroll through the list, deleting what is obviously trash and saving what I might find useful later.  It’s a huge relief to know that I don’t have to open up every email I receive. Internet mail services thoughtfully provide a little peek into the contents of the email: a subject line and maybe a few words of the email itself are all I need to know that the ones marked “Attention! You may be eligible for a home loan…” can be quickly relegated to the trash without actually requiring attention. This saves time and brain power, and this helps me thin the never ending stream of emails that seems to flow to my inbox.

We have a similar (but much busier) stream inside our heads. As human beings, we have somewhere around 50,000 thoughts per day. PER. DAY. Everything from the half formed internal grunts of “coffee” early in the morning, to judgements like “ooh, I love this song!”, to more complex internal dialogue, which runs incessantly like the ticker tape at the bottom of almost every news channel and also inside our minds.

Thoughts are almost exactly like emails: they come incessantly, we can’t control the content of them, and not all of them are useful.

“Breaking news! You have a meeting in ten minutes! Alert! Someone sprayed too much perfume and it’s hard to breathe! Warning! Your morning coffee is wearing off and you still have a long afternoon to go!”

Sometimes this ticker tape in our heads screams so loudly and so incessantly, it can drown out what we can sense and what we know. It can make us feel overwhelmed and exhausted, and put us on a path of emotional chaos and create real life turmoil. Luckily, we can apply the same email cleaning process to our internal ticker tape. When you notice a thought that looks a bit crazy, you can send it to the junk pile. If you catch yourself thinking something that is unhelpful, you can divert your attention and mental resources away from it by not giving it any more attention. And when you feel yourself spiraling down a Level 5 High Alert Crisis news report, you can slow the stream by pulling back and observing where that ticker tape is coming from.

Just like you don’t have to open, read, scrutinize, and take to heart every email you receive, you can take the same attitude with your personal stream of thinking. Some thoughts are useful, motivating, and healthy for your personal being. Others are more like spam or trash. Identifying which ones to give more attention to and which ones to scroll through is more than an exercise in clearing your mental inbox, it actually trains your brain what you find important and what you can safely ignore. As you clear away the trash or things you aren’t interested in pursuing, your brain learns to automatically mark those as spam and not even bother you!

What thought emails are you answering right now? Which could be safely marked as spam and deleted from your inbox of attention?