There are days (like, a lot of them) when focusing can feel basically impossible—and everything from not-enough-sleep to too-much-coffee can make your brain short-circuit even more, putting your productivity on lockdown until you can get a grip on your feels.
Jessica MacDonald, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and telebehavioral health specialist at Soho CBT + Mindfulness Center in New York, says, “Frequently, our focus is interrupted by ruminating thoughts, fears, or worries,” (Think: “If I don’t meet this deadline, I’m so fired.”) Getting caught up in this thought spiral takes our attention away from accomplishing the very things that would make us feel better, and instead leaves us, well… spiraling.
One way to do damage control, MacDonald says, is through the use of focus-focused visualizations, which can help you hit the brakes on the worrying that’s keeping you from getting down to business.
We’ve rounded up seven expert-recommended visualizations to take for a spin the next time your brain is in “peace-out” mode:
1. Turn Off the TVs
Visualize your mind as a room full of televisions, each on a different channel. Some are extremely loud, some are whisper-quiet, but all of them together are distracting and chaotic. Your job is to find the TV that’s playing your favorite show and turn off the rest so that you can sit down and watch it, undistracted.
“When I need to focus, I picture each of my thoughts as one of these TVs, and I turn them off, one by one, until my show is the only one that’s playing,” says Sal Raichbach, Psy.D., chief of clinical compliance for Ambrosia Treatment Center. “Every time I hit the power button, it gets a little easier to concentrate—and eventually, I’m focusing only on what I want to be.”
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2. Zoom In
Imagine a distant mountain landscape, focusing your attention on the snowy peak. Slowly zoom in on it—allow your attention to become increasingly directed at the mountaintop. Next, imagine a hiker, bear, tree, anything you’d like, atop the mountain. Get up close to it. Notice the details, colors, and textures. “The more you focus on the details in this microscopic way, the more you train the brain into focused calmness,” says California-based clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D.
Of course, the mountain can be traded in for a lush island, forest, or other natural space—what matters is that you “start big” and then slowly become more focused on the finer details of the scene. The next time you feel scattered, you can apply this same technique to the project that you’re working on: Start with the big picture, then continue to zoom in until your attention is on the micro-detail you need to focus on next.
3. Hit the Beach
Imagine yourself on a serene beach with a basket in your hand. Let the ocean air and sounds soothe you. Feel the warm sand under your feet. Notice the pebbles and shells strewn across the sand—these are your thoughts. Begin to walk along the beach, carefully collecting the pebbles and shells, Manly says. Inspect each of them thoughtfully before placing them in the basket.
When you’re done, set the basket down and sit in the sand next to it. Draw the pebble or shell from the basket that represents the task you need to focus on. As you study its color, shape, size, texture—even smell—picture yourself holding onto it as you get back to work. If you become unfocused again, keep studying the shell in your hand until you feel grounded.
4. Count Down
Picture a large blackboard. On the board, imagine drawing a large white circle with chalk. In the circle, write the letter “x.” Then pick up your eraser and carefully erase the “x,” making sure not to erase the circle. On the other side of the board, write “deeper,” while repeating “deeper and deeper” to yourself. Next, write the number “10” in the circle and then erase it without erasing the circle. Head back to the other side of the board and trace the letters of “deeper,” saying to yourself, “deeper and deeper.” Continue this process by counting down from 10 to 0.
“This particular visualization requires someone to engage in a singular, repetitive process,” says New York-based psychologist Kim Lehnert, Ph.D. Not only does this promote relaxation, it also interrupts the rollercoaster of thoughts that have been messing with your productivity.
5. Light a Candle
Picture yourself in a darkened room. You notice a soft flickering of light and see a candle sitting next to you. Focus on the light as it flickers and sways. Imagine that as the wax in the candle begins to melt, so do your worries and stresses—and as the candle softens, so does your body, MacDonald says. Feel yourself becoming more relaxed as you watch the candle’s flame. When you’re ready, take that singular focus you have on the flame and transition it over to the task you need to accomplish. After several deep breaths, open your eyes and pick up where you left off.
6. Sit By a Stream
Picture yourself sitting on the bank of a river on a warm, sunny day. There’s a gentle breeze. Next to you is a large tree. You notice that the breeze has blown some of the leaves from the tree into the water. Watch one of the leaves as it dances in the current and slowly drifts down the river until out of sight.
Next, bring your attention to any thoughts, worries, feelings, or concerns you might have that are distracting you. Without judgment, pick one of these thoughts and imagine yourself placing it on one of the leaves, and watch it float away in the current until out of sight. Continue to do this with the rest of the thoughts that are distracting you, one at a time, MacDonald says, until the only thought left is the one you need to focus on. When you’re ready, bring your attention away from the riverbank and back to the task at hand.
7. Be Kind, Rewind
Visualize yourself working toward your goal. Now see yourself getting distracted. As you start doing something else, press the “pause” button in your mind and see yourself stopping the activity. Ask yourself, “Is this action getting me to my goal?” The answer: “No.” Next, define what you need to do to get back on track, then hit the “rewind” button and take yourself back to where you were before you got distracted. Watch yourself getting back on track and successfully reaching your goal.
As you catch yourself getting distracted IRL, simply hit “rewind” to wipe the slate clean and pick up where you left off. When you see yourself achieving your goal on the inside, it creates the sense of possibility and achievement possible for you to achieve it on the outside, says California-based performance psychologist Ben Bernstein, Ph.D.
Krissy Brady is so out of shape, it’s like she has the innards of an 80-year-old—so naturally, she became a women’s health + wellness writer. (No, but seriously.) Her latest shenanigans can be found at writtenbykrissy.com.