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2 Ways to Stop an Unhealthy Cycle of Mental Distraction

Does your brain easily get turned on by irrelevant ideas? Here’s how to pause.

Key points

  • "Mental masturbation" describes following intellectual ideas that are borne out of novelty but offer little value to your real-life goals.
  • This phenomenon often occurs when we experience heightened life stress.
  • Practicing self-control and setting realistic goals can help limit this mental distraction.
Source: Mathilde Langevin/Unsplash
Source: Mathilde Langevin/Unsplash

Are you someone who frequently gets an "aha!" moment but never gets around to executing it? Do you often find your mind racing with a bunch of ideas that keep you up all night? Do you have lots of lofty goals, but find the action part boring and less stimulating?

"Mental masturbation" refers to the act of following intellectual ideas that are borne out of excitement and/or novelty, but offer little value to you and your real-life goals.

The "aha" moment that comes when engaging in such thoughts can be addictive. When you get an idea, you spend a lot of time finding the "missing piece" that will make everything fall into place. Remember, our brains are naturally attracted to symmetry, neatness, and finality—even when reality is, in fact, much messier.

Perhaps your life starts making a lot of sense when you imagine the success that a certain project will yield. All of this feels really good until the time actually comes to start the work. Then, the pleasure may vanish like an orgasm, which pushes you to pursue the next "aha" moment. The cycle becomes a form of self-satisfaction—a way to release feel-good neurotransmitters until the reality of the situation sets in.

We have all been victims of this phenomenon. It often flares up when we experience heightened life stress. It helps distract us from our real-world problems.

Here, I’ll talk about two ways to stop this excessive form of ideation and teach you one method that can help you implement your ideas realistically.

1. Practice self-control

Frequently engaging in mental masturbation can skew your self-awareness and can cause you to neglect important decision-making cues such as practicing patience, fact-checking your compulsive thoughts, and playing devil’s advocate.

To regain self-control, try to get into the habit of recording your ideas in your journal. Detail all of your thoughts as they cross your mind. Then, come back to it later on with a fresh set of eyes to determine whether your ideas are feasible and/or worth pursuing.

Another exercise that can help you separate worthwhile ideas from distractions is to engage in "would" and "should" thinking. One study published in the Journal of Research in Personality found that individuals who showed greater alignment between what they wanted to do versus what they thought they "should" do were more successful in pursuing their goals.

In other words, look for ideas that check both boxes: things you have an intrinsic interest in pursuing as well as something you feel you should be doing. Remember: No one has enough time to pursue every whim or fancy. You have to be hyper-selective with your goal pursuit or you will just end up spinning in circles.

2. Set realistic goals

Instead of ideating in your mind, sit down and calmly jot down all of the reasons why you want to pursue this idea/goal, how it will add value to your life, and what purpose it will serve. Then create a SMART goal that lines up with your answers. A SMART goal is one that is:

  • Specific.
  • Measurable.
  • Attainable.
  • Relevant.
  • Time-bound.

A classic study published in Psychological Bulletin revealed that setting specific and challenging goals can increase your chances of achieving your goals by motivating you to spend more of your mental bandwidth trying to achieve them. Specific and challenging goals are more likely to be achieved than goals that are too easy or ill-defined (i.e., "just do your best").

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