Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Find Focus by Reversing Negative Thought Patterns

The case for grounded wonder as a daily practice.

Key points

  • The modern workday is filled with disruption, and one of the biggest culprits is our own psyche.
  • When our default downer patterns are triggered, it can distract us from our focus.
  • A practice of grounded wonder can help reshape those default downer patterns into something more creative.

Digital ethicist Tristan Harris once noted the following:

We check our phones more than 150 times per day. Knowledge workers spend a third of their day in email. Teenagers (aged 14–17) send 4,000 texts/month, or every six minutes awake. The more we live by our screens and spend time there, the more we live by their design choices.

And Harris cited this research before the pandemic—before the new world of work trended to work from home, and education trended on Zoom.

The modern workday is filled with disruption. Coworkers, children, delivery drivers, managers, and social media all ping for our attention. But, the truth is, you could eliminate all of those external interruptions and still have one key driver of distraction: your psyche.

Your inner world of emotions, moods, and thought patterns all influence your capacity to focus.

Our data at Tracking Wonder is showing illuminating patterns of our minds at work. Our Wonder@Work assessment focuses on 20 self-assessment statements, and one insightful pattern is this: The lowest rating is in response to this statement: “I rarely feel depressed or anxious.”

With a score of 1 being “Totally disagree” and 10 being “Totally agree,” the total average for this statement is 4.6. More than 50 percent of respondents rate this statement as 4 or lower.

In our more recent survey on Focus at Work, respondents are asked, “In your opinion, what is the most common source of distraction and interruption to your capacity to focus on work?” Among the choices given, respondents equally weigh “work-related texts and email” with “disturbing thought patterns,” “inability to organize and prioritize,” and “lack of drive, purpose, and enthusiasm.”

This suggests our psyches are just as much a distraction at work as external technology and incoming messages.

Normalize Instead of Pathologize the Human Mind

The human mind is complex. Part of that complexity is that it naturally generates negative and judgmental thought patterns, what we might call “downer patterns.” Such emotions can be useful. Fret helps us foresee danger. Regret helps us do better. Judgment helps us discern.

The warning is when such emotions chronically drive and distort our sense of reality, crushing our capacity to focus on what matters. Our downer thought patterns get caught in an unchecked loop.

Part of my work has involved finding evidence-based ways to help people disrupt these default downer patterns and to work with them, not against them.

We need a way to reshape them, so to speak, without allowing them to shape us.

That’s where a practice of grounded wonder can come in.

The Power of the Default Mode Network

Several decades ago, most neuroscientists assumed that when we’re not focused on something intentionally, our brains are at rest with very little relevant activity occurring.

True, the prefrontal cortex is at rest when we’re not intentionally focused on tasks at hand. But they were wrong about the rest of the brain’s activity.

Although the research is still inconclusive, neurologist Marcus E. Raichle discovered that, even while we’re dawdling, waiting for a doctor, or distracted and ruminating about that stupid email we sent, a whole other network of the brain comes alive.

This network, which Raichle named the default mode network (DMN), sheds fascinating light on our complexity.

The DMN is actually a group of different regions that produce a steady stream of cognitive activity, even when we’re not consciously thinking or acting. It is activated in two specific instances that can lead to distracting and even debilitating downer patterns when our aim is to focus on achieving goals or moving important work or ideas forward: fretting about the future or regretting the past.

Note: The flip side of the DMN is that it’s also engaged in highly imaginative and creative activity, but that is the subject of other articles.

When Default Downer Patterns Disrupt Attention

Obsessive fretting and regretting thoughts can come into play when a colleague takes longer than usual to answer an email (Did I say something wrong?) or when you’re working on an important project (I’m going to crash and burn in this presentation!). Left unchecked, these thought patterns can be a debilitating source of distraction.

It can feel as if the default mode network hijacks our attention—and in some cases that is true. Researchers have found that our ability to switch between the DMN and the more focus-oriented central executive system degrades the more we multitask.

Conversely, mindfulness practices can enhance our ability to switch between the two, allowing us to put aside distraction and spend more time in sustained focus. Mindfulness interventions in sixth graders, for example, led to fewer lapses in attention and a stronger barrier between the DMN and executive systems.

Reshaping Downer Into Wonder

We don’t have to be at the mercy of our DMN. One beautiful fact of being human is that we can trip our own wiring.

The first step to do so is awareness. Define and write down one of your common distracting downer patterns. You might hear a thought pattern of self-criticism. Maybe you have a catastrophic thought pattern about the future.

The second step is to open up to feeling that pattern when it arises versus ignoring it. When you pause long enough to observe and feel it, two things happen. One, you’ve just made the thought pattern conscious. It’s like shining a flashlight from your prefrontal cortex into the pit of your vast DMN. Two, if you take time to feel it, then you build somatic muscle memory to recognize it in the future.

Such conscious and somatic awareness decreases the chance that this pattern will override your whole sense of reality and could calm your emotional reactivity.

If you’re up for it, the third step is to seek wonder. That is, to consciously shift your outlook, perception, or even your physical position.

There are two simple ways to track wonder in such moments.

First, let yourself get curious.

For instance, a client has been conducting a series of formula experiments on a health product that her company is developing. When the first set of experiments didn’t go as planned, her downer patterns kicked into overdrive: I’m in over my head. We don’t know what we’re doing. This isn’t going to work.

With some gentle questioning, she quickly remembered that they were conducting experiments, which do not at first go as expected. She then realized that if she and her team allowed more dedicated time to focus methodically on the next set of experiments, that focus might positively influence the outcome.

She wrote down a set of questions she was curious about pursuing in the next round, and her attention shifted away from a me-centeredness to an idea-centeredness.

Another simple tracking wonder practice that disrupts your default downer patterns is "pause–gaze–praise."

For a minute or less, try this. When you feel a downer pattern trying to drive your reality and hijack your attention, shift your gaze (usually away from a screen these days). Let your gaze fall on an object, however ordinary and familiar. Soften your eyes. Instead of trying to “grasp” the object with your eyes, let your eyes receive the object’s outer form and shape—as if you were an artist who admires forms.

Observe color, hue, line. Perhaps you’ll notice a new leaf on one of your desk plants. Perhaps you’ll spot a new type of bird outside your office window. Then, appreciate the object. Wonder about its function or its origin in a new way. Appreciate its place or placement. Express the words in your mind or write them down.

In this way, the ordinary world around you becomes animated with your perception.

With this renewed attention, return to the work or task you want to focus on and advance.

Finally, if a downer pattern keeps rising, your unconscious mind might be signaling for you to pay attention to something important. Reserve space for those negative thought patterns later.

When my frontal cortex is asleep, but I am awake in the early morning, my worry mind can come alive. Sometimes I will walk into another room where I keep a notepad and just note the “worry headlines” to tend to in daylight when I can think more clearly.

Maybe you do need to spend time with that worry or regret or talk with a peer or friend about it. But it doesn’t need to happen while you’re trying to focus on your work.

It is possible to up our wonder ratio by reshaping downer patterns into wonder patterns.


Raichle, M. E.; MacLeod, A. M.; Snyder, A. Z.; Powers, W. J.; Gusnard, D. A.; Shulman, G. L. (2001). "Inaugural Article: A default mode of brain function". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 98 (2): 676–82. Bibcode:2001PNAS...98..676R. doi:10.1073/pnas.98.2.676. PMC 14647. PMID 11209064.

Mohapel P. The neurobiology of focus and distraction: The case for incorporating mindfulness into leadership. Healthcare Management Forum. 2018;31(3):87-91. doi:10.1177/0840470417746414

Bauer, CCC, Rozenkrantz, L, Caballero, C, et al. Mindfulness training preserves sustained attention and resting state anticorrelation between default-mode network and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: A randomized controlled trial. Hum Brain Mapp. 2020; 41: 5356– 5369.

More from Jeffrey Davis M.A.
More from Psychology Today