Do you ever find your thoughts drift in the wrong direction? You are out taking a morning stroll, you want to be out enjoying the sunshine. But, your thoughts keep taking you off course. You keep thinking about whether you turned off the oven, whether the fast-approaching clouds will break into a sudden downpour of rain and ruin your hair and clothes (and you didn't even think to get an umbrella!). Maybe you worry about the business trip that you have to take next week.

What if you could notice when your thoughts are drifting off course? What if you could gently guide your thoughts back to the present?

In the following exercise we will take our first step to developing our mindfulness muscles. We will focus on a single object, and notice when our thoughts drift off course, and practice bringing them back.

DBT Mindfulness: Observing is your first lesson in developing you mindfulness muscles.
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Focus on an object for 5 minutes.
Do this exercise three times a week.

Step One: Find a Comfortable Space

Find a comfortable and quiet place where you wouldn't be interrupted. Breathe several times slowly, breathe in and exhale so that the muscles in your body release their tension and you feel relaxed. Get comfortable.

Step Two: Pick an Object and Focus Your Attention

Pick a small every-day object. It can be anything - a book, an apple, a notebook, a coffee mug, or a toy. Try to pick an object that would be emotionally neutral to you and that doesn't hold a significant emotional meaning for you. For example, don't pick an object that strongly reminds you of a situation that made you feel angry or sad.

Start to observe the object with all of your senses. Spend about 5 minutes on this. Start by looking at it. How does it look? Does it look smooth, does it have edges or is it round? Is it very small or medium-sized? What color is it? Is it shiny or dull? Pick it up with your hands and feel the weight of it. Is it light or heavy? How does the texture feel on your fingertips? Does the object make any sound or is it silent? Does it perhaps have any certain smell to it?

Don't worry if your mind starts wandering around, this is normal. Perhaps you will start thinking about something that happened during the day or some plan that you have for later in the day. When you notice this, without judgment gently turn your attention back to experiencing the object.

Step 3: Notice and Accept Any Experience That Arises Inside You

While you are doing the exercise you may have different reactions to it. Maybe you will realize that you are tired and you will start noticing that your body needs rest. That is okay, just accept that physical sensation and without judging it go back to concentrating on the object until the end of the exercise. Another common reaction is that you might feel like you are bored with the experience. Again, just acknowledge that feeling, non-judgmentally accept it and gently return mentally to the object. Notice any different thought, emotion or physical sensation that you may have and gently shift your focus to the object again.

Step 4: Write Down Your Progress

After you finish doing the exercise, use the worksheet to write down how the experience went for you. This is useful because as you return to the exercise you have a record of your progress. On the first column write the date and in the second - the object that you picked to observe. In the column named Qualities of the Object write the qualities that you described the object with, i.e. the adjectives or descriptions (for e.g. small, smooth, light, makes no sound). In the last column write down any thought, emotion or physical experience that may occurred in you while you were doing the exercise.

Date Object Qualities of the Object Thoughts, Emotions, or Sensations
15 March An apple Medium-sized, red, smooth, shiny, smells fresh, makes a small sound when I touch it. I realized that I was a little bit hungry and tired. Also, I became a little relaxed.
17 March A ring Small, shiny..
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Studies show that writing things down while you do the exercises deepens their impact. Since this is the first exercise, lets get off to a good start. Print out the worksheet and grab a pencil and lets get going. If you don't have a printer, just grab a piece or paper and start writing!

DBT Mindfulness: Observation Worksheet

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How is this exercise going to help me be more focused?

Our minds very often wander from one thing to the next in a fast and disorganized way. Being more focused is a skill that needs practice and that can be learned and evolved. If you spend five minutes every day focusing on an object while noticing any thought, emotion or physical sensation that may arise in you and gently turning the attention back to the object, the brain will slowly start to do this with other things during the day as well. Thus, you will be able to focus more easily when you need to, and be more relaxed, happier and more productive.

I feel impatient while I am doing the exercise.

This is probably a sign that you feel like rushing through the exercise and go onto doing other things that you planned for the day. Just gently accept the feeling that may arise and keep observing and focusing on the object.

Is the point of the exercise to become more aware of when you are getting distracted, or to not get distracted? Or both?

As you practice mindfulness, gradually you will start noticing that the number of negative or distracting thoughts and emotions will start to decrease. This is because you will be more present into whatever you are doing at the moment and you will not worry about the past or the future. You will also become more skilled in noticing when you are distracted with a negative thought or emotion which will allow you to choose to gently redirect your attention to something neutral or positive, such as an every-day activity, a pleasurable hobby, or something else.

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Comments About Observing

  1. This exercise has been a huge help in beginning me start my new journey. Thanks for making this. Great worksheet!

  2. I did a 6 month live in DBT program as a teen. It genuinely saved my life. Now I’m in my 20s and teaching my family and friends these skills. This is the way to a happy life and healthy relationships

  3. 15th Sep, 2020
    It was my first exercise. I have this habit of abandoning a work started without completing due to anxiety / depression. So I really don’t know how this can change my life. But I’m positive about the outcome. Hence, for a start, I observed a pen and felt better within those 5 minutes.

  4. On my first worksheet today observing a single worksheet this seems interesting & definitely worth it. Looking forward to completing first work sheet & doing the rest of the exercises. Here’s to a good start.

  5. How long should I be doing each exercise for before starting the next. Like should I practice each one for a certain amount of time, until I feel like I mastered it, or should I just do them and move on to the next thing?

    1. I would keep returning to the exercises that you find useful until you feel like you have mastered them. You might find yourself dropping an exercise for a while, then returning to it when you feel like you need more practice.

      You can also move onto the next exercise, even if you haven’t mastered the previous one. But, I try to work on no more than 3 new skills at a time.

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