By: Brad Hoefs

Have you ever been intently focused on writing something when someone comes up behind you to ask you a question? Slightly startled, you answer the question and try to return to what you were writing, and because your train of thought was interrupted you can’t get your creative writing juices going again!  Staying focused is a necessary attribute when attempting to do many different types of things. And when our train of thought is interrupted, it is hard to continue to come back to that same focus.


Think about it, It would be next to impossible as a parent of small children if you were attempting to read the instructions and put together your latest purchase from Ikea.  Picture it, you’re sitting in the middle of the room with all of the latest parts laid out for a new dresser, and the kids are consistently asking you questions about what you were doing and demanding your attention!  It would try your patience. Chances are that you would give up because you wouldn’t be able to focus on the task. Most likely you would come to the conclusion that the assembly process would be a lot easier if you weren’t getting distracted by the kids.  


Being focused is essential for getting a lot of different types of tasks done in this life.  However, sometimes being intensely focused or “stuck” in our thinking about something is not good and we end up needing to be distracted from it.  We need to be interrupted! There are times we can become intensely focused, ruminating over and over on something negative. It’s at that point that we need to interrupt and distract our thinking.  Mastering the art of self-distraction is key to overcoming overthinking and negative ruminating. Lest our brain begins to get stuck like the needle of a record player within one of the groves of a vinyl record.  (For those of you who might be too young to know what I’m talking about, you’ll have to “Google-it.” 🙂 )

So, how does self-distraction work?  

The most important thing to do is to make a list of at least five to seven things that you like to do and refresh you, that requires you to focus on them that restores you.  For example, one of these things for me is to do artwork. I like to paint or make things out of mixed mediums. So, whenever I do that, my mind resets. It’s like a fresh reboot of my brain.  The same thing happens if I get up and take a walk or a drive. It’s these sorts of things you need to put on your list. What makes you happy? Baking? Art? Sports? A good movie? Reading? A walk? Helping someone else? Time with a friend? Crafts?

As part of your list, include three friends that you enjoy being with that you could call and ask to do any one of these activities along with you.


  1. When you recognize the need to interrupt your thinking, first make the decision that you need to interrupt your thinking, that you need to self-distract.
  2. Choose one of the things to do from your already established list of “brain reboots.”  (By the way, even if the activity doesn’t require you to change your location or space, think about doing that anyway.  A different room of the house, changing your physical space or position certainly helps disrupt your ruminating.)
  3. If the first one you choose to do, doesn’t do the trick, pick another one.
  4. If that does not work, then call a friend and ask them to do one of them with you.  If the first of the three friends aren’t home, then move to the next one on the list. Hopefully at least one of the three of them will be available. Don’t give up easily.  Keep trying to get ahold of them until one of them can do something with you. And in the meantime, do something that absolutely needs to be done that you don’t like to do. Maybe it’s laundry?  Yardwork?


What if what the thinking that you are focused on is painful but necessary to do?  Sometimes there is thinking that feels worse than ruminating, yet we need to process to move on in life.  An example of this might be the work of grief. If this is the case, then you might need to tell yourself you are going to focus on working on it for the next 45 minutes, set a timer and then when the timer goes off set a time to come back to it later in the day or the next day.  And then go to your list and refresh yourself with something you like to do that will reset your thinking.

By nature, I’m a ruminator.  I tend to over think, over process things and get my “stinkin’ thinkin'” stuck in deep ruts.  So, learning the art of self-distraction has been one of the most helpful recovery tools that I have mastered.  How about you? Do you know how to self-distract? Do you have a list of your favorite distractors? What would you add to those I’ve mentioned above?


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