Why it’s good to remember you can only think one thing at a time

Although we may sometimes believe otherwise, psychologists who know about these things tell us that our brains are only capable of holding one single thought at a time.

When you’ve ‘a lot on your mind’, you almost certainly have a series of thoughts tumbling over themselves in your head, one after the other.

But at any one moment, your attention can only be focused on any one thing.


Think of it like a public transport journey across a big city.

The entire trip could involve you taking two different trains, three buses and a tram – but stop the clock at one particular moment and you’ll see that you can’t be on a bus and train at the same time.

It’s an effect you may be aware of if you manage to become engrossed in a movie during a period when you’re going through a rough patch.

It doesn’t always happen, of course, but now and then you may just surprise yourself by realising that you’ve gone through a brief spell when you’ve not thought about the stuff that’s troubling you.

Is this ‘cheating’ somehow?

Are you in some way managing to deceive yourself?

I don’t think so.

Negative thoughts can be all-consuming, meaning that when things are bad for you, all you seem to do is focus on the gloom.

So think of the brief respite you get when your mind is distracted as a little vacation, or like having a snooze.

The trouble is, it’s not always possible to engage with a movie or TV show when you’re feeling under the weather, and I think that it’s at times like these that it can help to properly notice the world around you as you go about your day.

Instead of mooching along, ruminating about all that’s wrong with your world (I speak from experience), really focus on your surroundings: a good tip can be to imagine you are about to draw or paint whatever it is you see.

Deeply study colours and shapes.

Intently follow movements.

Thoroughly observe textures and contrasts.

True, the relief from undesirable thoughts may only be short-lived, but when a wave of all-pervasive glumness is threatening to engulf you, every little opportunity to breathe can help.

4 thoughts on “Why it’s good to remember you can only think one thing at a time

  1. Another good way to get your mind off of anxiety-causing thoughts is to do complicated math problems, preferably with pencil and paper. If you must do them on a computer, make sure they’re really complicated, like writing conditional formulas in Excel. For me, something like meditation does not help me when I’m anxious or depressed. Going inward is my worst enemy. I need to focus my attention on something other than myself, and doing math problems, or getting really engrossed in my work, is a great way for that to happen. It drives my attention to the immediate moment, but away from the inner workings of my mind.

  2. My perfect break on my everyday journey is to pull over into the ‘lay-by of life’ and enjoy a movie. This is a great treat and also often a short time when I can like you say escape the ‘rough patch’ that you might be struggling with.
    I highly recommend this as for me at least, it really helps me to re-gather my thoughts, and restart my journey with a more positive focus. Thank heaven for Hollywood!

  3. A very timely nudge for me Jon, thank you. I am sitting having a coffee in town and have just read your post. I like many others probably really do not find this period “the most wonderful time if the year” I find it particularly stressful and have to be careful of the level of stress, lack of sleep etc that I endure trying to make everything go well. My need for perfection doesn’t help. Your nudge today made me stop, take a breath and look at my surroundings far more simply, the little things that get lost in the hustle and bustle……..and relax . Thanks again x

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *