Nurses: Get Rid of Unwanted Thoughts Easier

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Brain Burn?
Brain Burn?

We nurses have it tough mentally. So much to know! So much to keep track of!

So many worries and distractions…

We can function at our best ONLY when we’re able to focus on the work in front of us. Distraction means slower, clumsier, work and more errors.

Yet our work and lives are cluttered with demands. The other thousand and one things going on around us at work. Regrets from the past. Worries about the future. What to do?

In this post I offer you mental trick to help you dismiss unwanted thoughts more easily, based on some brain science.

To get rid of an unwanted thought, most people use brute force. They try to dismiss it by pure willpower: force it out. Does it work? Let me show you with a quick exercise. 

Picture your parents, naked.

Now, forget about them. Force them out of your mind!

How’s it going?

All that vaunted willpower doesn’t offer us much in this task. Here’s why:

One: Human brains don’t handle absence well: it’s a weak spot we all have.

You can imagine something far more easily than you can imagine the lack of the same thing. When teachers take attendance, they note who’s present, not the far fewer people who aren’t there. Why? It’s easy to notice the people present; it’s far harder to notice those missing. We work best with IS, not IS NOT.

Two: We’re usually lazy, we humans, when it comes to thinking. We use lots of mental shortcuts to save work. We often replace a hard question with an easier one, for example, usually without you even noticing it. Say I ask you if Candidate Bobby Bob would make a good President. That’s a hard question: you have to consider everything you know about Bobby, everything you DON’T know, what future challenges Bobby might have to address and what he’d do… Yikes! Yet people answer questions like this all the time. How? It’s simple, really: they usually replace the hard question with a far easier one like “Do I like Bobby?” When you answer me “Yes” or “No,” we both may think you answered my tough question. It seems like it, but you actually answered your own question, and saved yourself an awful lot of thinking. We do this kind of thing all the time. It’s lazy, it’s not especially rational, and it risks mistakes, but it gets us through the day and we usually survive the results just fine. That’s why we keep doing it: it works for us.

So we’re weak on negatives, and we tend to replace hard questions with easy ones. So what happens when I tell you, “Forget about your naked parents?” Your human brain tends to take the hard task – willfully forgetting them – and replace it with the easy task: thinking about them. Voila! I’ve set you up for failure, and an awkward failure at that. If you don’t take my ill-considered advice, whose fault is that? In health care, we would usually blame you. I “educated” you to forget and you failed to do it: noncompliant! You failed, not me.

In reality, of course, I’ve just shown how the fault is all mine. I set you up.

I’ve been working on my book about Golden Rule Care. Much of it relies on such points. Happily, most of them are far simpler to explain.

You learn a bit about human thinking, and learn to use what you learn to communicate more effectively.

But what about dismissing unwanted thoughts? I did promise…

We need to review one quick point to understand how. Picture your conscious mind – all the stuff you’re aware of in the moment – as a little stage behind your eyeballs. Research shows that your little stage really is little: far smaller than you might think. You can fit perhaps 6 to 8 things on stage at once, when you’re at your best. Not many! You’re consciously aware of no more than 6 or 8 things at a time, no more.

No worries! We’re all like that. Then how do we manage so much great stuff with such a tiny stages?

Our brains’ backstage capacity is truly massive: effectively limitless. We also have a crew of remarkably talented stage hands who can switch items on and off stage extremely quickly. They’re so quick, it feels like lots more items fit on stage at once than just 6 or 8. Neat trick, yes? 

It turns out that we can use our little brain stage to solve our problem. We’ve shown we can’t push an idea offstage: it make it cling to the stage all the more. What can we do? We can invite more items onstage and crowd out the unwanted ones. They fall off stage for lack of space. Problem solved! They come back, of course, but we can crowd them out as often as needed. With practice, it gets easier to manage our thoughts this way.

So don’t push out unwanted thoughts: that only encourages them to stay. Focus elsewhere, and you can neglect them into oblivion.

Even if you’re not great at it at first – likely – it’s still far better than knocking yourself out encouraging them to stay…


  1. I love this article. My younger sister is a nurse in a government hospital. And I know she tried hard to cope with her physical and mental strength challenges. She had a hard time at first, but she is getting better. and you are right about we can function at our best only we are able to focus on the work in front of us. I think not just a nurse but also apply to all types of work. thanks a lot for this article. I have been busy lately so didn’t post anything in my blog. But I am back now and glad to see a lot of your new postings

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The best techniques, the ones I focus on, apply to all people. All patients, all nurses, all everyone else. Plus, these are the insights health care education ignores. Tremendous opportunities! I’ve been working on a book lately on this stuff, so I’m offering bits as I go. I appreciate your kind feedback and story. Such things are the zest of bloggng! Thanks – Greg


  2. I believe that distractions are the biggest reason for medication errors. Some hospitals do a little, the rest I’ve seen do nothing . Work at a hospital where a big sign is over the pyxis, and a large mat on the floor says, QUIET ZONE, meaning you have no conversations in the quiet zone. A great idea.
    The VA has a med cart , on all four sides big letters, DO NOT TALK TO THE MED NURSE, another great idea.
    Now work at a polite hospital, then go to one, that doesnt care , and have people coming up to you all day interupting you, distractions, and its very shocking at first. The interupter doesnt even know what they did . !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Distractions are huge, I agree. We could do far better reducing the consequences of errors though. I find lots of warnings for trivia, and no help for seriously dangerous transactions. We need to coerce or convince managers to improve systems the way they all pretend they do, and stop blaming nurses set up by circumstances in ways that have been obvious for years. If airlines operated like hospitals, there would be multiple crashes every day. It’s arguably criminal how hospitals do so much worse work than airlines when it comes to errors. Managers kill thousands of Americans every week avoiding systems approaches to save money and effort. Unacceptable. Thanks so much for your input – Greg


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