If you have ever read a Faulkner novel, you are probably acquainted with the term "stream of consciousness," which is a narrative style that gives the reader access to the flow of the many, diverse, and often competing thoughts and perceptions that pass through the character's mind in her interior monologue. You probably know somebody in your life whose speaking style is not dissimilar from this-diahrea of the mouth might be the more coarse way to describe it.
The word "stream" is a rather apt metaphor for the human consciousness. I am constantly experiencing a flow of thoughts through my mind, some positive, some negative, some neutral. If you are like me, when you are alone and without the distractions of a phone or computer, the stream widens. More thoughts pass through. The wider the stream, the higher the probability of negative thoughts making their way into the channel. This is likely one of the driving reasons behind our device addictions: our devices create miniature consciousness dams that keep out thoughts.
Of course these dams are not discriminating between positive and negative thoughts, but are rather just reducing the overall flow. While avoiding thinking about that painful breakup or looming conversation with your business partner, you may also be depriving yourself of joyful memories, thoughts of gratitude, and awareness of beauty. Distraction is a sword that cuts both ways. As an entrepreneur, a creator, or anybody who is performing more than robotic functions in life, the cultivation of your mental stream is the first and most fundamental thing you must do. Without understanding what is going on in the complex system of your mind, you will be a worse decision maker, you will be mis-calibrated in your interpersonal relationships, and you will more likely suffer from mental fatigue. All of this will inevitably spill over into your physical health, too, but that is a subject for another day.
The best solution to the stream management is not to try and eliminate negative, harmful, or unproductive thoughts, but to understand how to deal with them when they pass through the stream. For this reason, I like to think of such thoughts as snakes swimming through the stream of my consciousness. Like real snakes, these mental snakes come in different sizes and kinds. Some are merely nuisance, like thinking about your friend's annoying comment from the night before or the fact that you might be having a bad hair day. Some can bite you, but you'll likely recover from it with relative ease. Others, though, are poisonous, and some are gigantic constrictors that will strangle you to death and swallow you whole.
Replaying the breakup conversation with your ex. Reliving the disastrous failure of your startup. Playing the recording of your deepest self-doubts over and over. Going down the rabbit hole of your worst-case scenario fears. Worrying about any of the things beyond your control.
All of these are the dangerous snakes swimming through your stream of consciousness.
If you were sitting on the bank of a river and a literal snake swam into your field of view, what would you do? Would you grab it?
Unless you are Steve Irwin, your answer to this question is probably "no." Better to just let the snake keep swimming, right? If you grab it, you guarantee that it's going to cause you a problem. The faster the water is flowing, the more quickly it's likely to be gone, anyway. So just observe the snake, see where it's going, and leave it alone.
The same is true with the snakes in our brains. When they appear in our mental streams, the answer is to do nothing. Don't try to empty yourself. Don't try to distract yourself. Just do nothing. Let it pass. But whatever you do, don't grab it.
These snakes may come in the form of what deceptively appear to be positive thoughts too. That daydream about the future that keeps you from doing the work of the day in order to achieve it is just as poisonous as the memory of your ex trashing you in your last conversation. Anything that is standing in the way of you taking action to improve your circumstances, anything slowing you down, anything distracting you from your mission, anything sapping your energy or focus, to you is a snake. And it's always advantageous just to leave it alone.
If overthinking trips you up, that's a snake for you. If prematurely optimizing is preventing you from calling something "finished," that's a snake for you.
The most important practice I have cultivated in my life is journaling every morning. I journal prospectively, not retrospectively. It is not an account of the events of my day. I don't write about what I ate and I rarely record things that happened to me. The minutiae of my life is rather ordinary, as I think it is for most people. The reason I keep a journal is instead as a form of written mental accounting. I want to assess my mental states before I start my day. That way if there are things that are tripping me up or holding me back, I can deal with them before I dig into my work or leisure.
Yes, mental accounting before leisure is important, too. At least for me. I'm the kind of person who often has a difficult time enjoying what most people consider to be fun activities if I'm preoccupied with some thought or problem. My journal is an outlet for me to externalize these thoughts and problems so that they are memorialized on a hard drive but not using up RAM, so to speak.
One of the most effective uses of my journal, I have found, has been the cataloguing of my snakes. Mental ophidiology, if you will. What are the species of these snakes? What are their markings and colorations? What are their habitats? Reproduction patterns? Are they passive or aggressive? How long do I have after getting bitten by one to get help before I spiral toward death?
Unlike the snakes themselves, the metaphor really has legs the more you think about it.
The better you understand the ecosystem of your mind, the closer you will get to the achievement of your hopes and dreams, the healthier your relationships will be, the faster you can adapt yourself to the changing world around you. It's just about taking the time to do the accounting, and to have the discipline to not grab the snakes.
As the Buddha says in the opening verses of the Dhammapada, "Our life is shaped by our mind. We become what we think."
Skinner Layne shares more thoughts on this topic and more on Twitter: Follow along and let him know what you thought about this post: @skinnerlayne