What if You Could Simply Forget How to Waste Your Time?


What if You Could Simply Forget How to Waste Your Time?

Derren Brown, a master hypnotist and illusionist, is one of the world’s greatest experts in understanding – and playing with – the human mind. On one video, titled Trains of thought, you see him get on a London Underground and ask random strangers the question, “Can I ask you what stop are you getting off at?” It’s an easy question of course, and so the passengers can answer straight away.

But after Brown throws some hypnotic phrases at them and makes some seemingly random hand gestures in front of their faces, many of his poor subjects simply forget where they are supposed to get off. Their mind goes blank. They are sitting on a train with absolutely no idea which station they are heading to.

Could this happen to us?

It’s difficult to believe that something like this could happen to us. How could we forget something as simple as our travel destination? But remember, the mind is an intricate and mysterious instrument; not only can we play games with it, but it can also play games with us.

I’m sure you know the feeling when you decide to pick up something from another room and by the time you get there you’ve forgotten what that thing was. Or when your mind goes blank in mid-conversation after you’ve been interrupted.

What these experiences show is that our trains of thoughts play a significant part in how we think and behave. It would be too exhausting for us to make well-considered, conscious decisions in every moment of our lives about what to think or do next, and so instead we employ ‘prefabricated’ chains of thoughts. In the language of neuro-linguistic programming, these are called ‘strategies’.

A ‘strategy’ is a sequence of small snippets of feelings and thoughts, which might be, for example, images in our minds, memories of sounds, sensations in our bodies, and words we tell ourselves. One thought triggers the next one, and that triggers the next one, and so on. Sometimes it all happens so rapidly that we run through half a dozen to a dozen thoughts within just a fraction a second.

We construct these ‘strategies’ through our life experiences, usually unconsciously, and these ‘strategies’ then start to show up and start controlling our behaviour, usually without us even noticing them.

We have ‘strategies’ for everything.

We have ‘strategies’ for pretty much everything – getting out of bed, shaking hands properly, speaking our native language (or a foreign one), becoming terrified of whatever terrifies us (whether it be heights, spiders or sea monsters), and even falling in love.

We also have our own ‘strategy’ for remembering things, and this is what Derren Brown interrupted with his out-of-place words and gestures when talking to those passengers you probably wouldn’t want to switch place with.

My experience is that we also run ‘strategies’ for being on a roll and getting things done like there’s no tomorrow. When we hit one goal, even a tiny one, we feel compelled to keep going and hit the next one. Inertia propels us forward.

Similarly, we run ‘strategies’ for wasting our time, sabotaging our productivity. One time-wasting decision leads to the next, until we find that an hour has disappeared, or several hours, or perhaps the entire day.

As you see, starting on the right track (or ‘train’) is a good idea; it really helps us gain momentum. But this doesn’t mean that we cannot change direction any time we wish.

Switching ‘trains’ is easy.

We all know how easy it is to jump off the ‘productivity train’ – to get distracted and lose focus on the task at hand. The entire digitally connected world competes for our attention, enticing us to drop what we are doing. And sometimes our monkey-brain just cannot resist that bait.

The good news is that we can also jump from the ‘wrong train’ to the right one at any time. Derren Brown has taught us that abandoning a routine thought pattern is very possible.

How can we do this? The method is simple:

  1. Notice when you’re caught up in an unproductive pattern. For example, if you have sat down at your desk with the intention to get some work done and after 10-15 minutes you haven’t even started yet, you’re on the wrong train.
  2. Make the conscious decision to stop what you’re doing immediately. Checking out ‘just one more thing’ will keep you in the loop for who knows how long.
  3. Reset your physical, mental and emotional state. Your options are endless. Stand up. Move your body. Go for a walk. Listen to music. Sing. Jump. Dance. Laugh. Have a shower … do whatever helps you think and feel different.
  4. When you get back to work, you don’t want your attention to be hijacked again, and changing your environment will help to avoid this. Perhaps reorganise your desk, or move to a different spot. Open the windows and switch to different lighting if possible. Use a different device from the one you originally started to use. Change your posture; perhaps work standing up.

Follow these four steps, and you might find that you’ve simply forgotten how to continue wasting your time. You can recall and then forget this useless skill as often as you wish.

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