Cimone Safilian-Hanif, PhD Profile Photo
Medically Reviewed by
Cimone Safilian-Hanif, PhD in International Psychology, on January 24, 2024

Introduction

Do you ever find your thoughts drift in the wrong direction? For instance, you are out taking a morning stroll, you want to be out enjoying the sunshine. Instead, your thoughts keep taking you off course. Your mind keeps wandering to 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 bring 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 nudge your thoughts back to the present moment?

In the following exercise we will take our first step to developing our mindfulness skills. We will focus on a single object, and recognize when your thoughts are straying, and practice bringing them back.

DBT Mindfulness: Observing is your first lesson in developing your mindfulness muscles.
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Instructions

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. In 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, such as 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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Worksheet & Virtual Coach

Studies show that writing things down while you do the exercises deepens their impact. Since this is the first exercise, let's get off to a good start! 


You can type your answers using the online worksheet, print out the worksheet and handwrite your answers, or try our new experimental virtual coach (BETA).

DBT Virtual Coach

Do the Mindfulness exercise with our new virtual coach.

GET STARTED
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FAQs

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

Our minds 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. Research has shown that regularly practicing mindfulness techniques can help improve focus (Hölzel et al., 2011). Additionally, practicing mindfulness can help you to have more control over your thoughts, creating more space for learning new things, remembering something you have just read, and increasing long-term memory (Hölzel et al., 2011).

I feel impatient while I am doing the exercise.

That is okay! Many people feel this way at first. Just gently accept the feelings 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?

The point of the exercise is to become more mindful. As you become more mindful, you will be more present in the moment and less likely to worry about the past or future (Shankland et al., 2021). This will help you to gradually reduce the number of negative or distracting thoughts and emotions. You will also become more skilled in noticing when you are distracted and redirecting your attention to something neutral or positive, such as an everyday activity, a pleasurable hobby, or something else.

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Disclaimer

If you have any behavioral health questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare or mental healthcare provider. This article is supported by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from behavioral health societies and governmental agencies. However, it is not a substitute for professional behavioral health advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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References

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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.

  6. OMG, this site is doing wonders for me. I am grateful that I found this site which is the solution to my BPD! Each and every word holds positivity and when implemented helps alot.

  7. My object was an ink pen that was laying on the table next to me. During my analysis of the pen I felt calm. I think that by focusing on the pen and only the pen, that forced concentration aloud my mind to be free of distractions or negative thought that I have had anxiety about prior.

  8. Focusing in these sessions was easier than my usual scenarios. When doing tests, exams, puzzles, IQ tests, crosswords I stay focused on the relevant problem. But without the challenge of sucess or drive to excel, my brain is free to run amok. With orientated goals like these, I can focus easily.

  9. Amazing information, I shall definitely come back to refresh my memory and keep practicing mindfulness. I found this very useful.

  10. Just starting this. I’ve heard of DBT before but never known what it was about as it’s never been suggested by a therapist before or if it has no one has followed through with it including me.

  11. I had never heard of DBT even though I have been in therapy a few times over my 55 years. Just researching and doing the very first exercise this morning, I know that I am finally on the right course to assist in me. Thank you to my psychologist for suggesting this to me and for the website too.

  12. Struggling with BPO right now, this is something that I really need… Besides the harmful consequences brought by BPO(borderline personality organizationn), I also always have difficulties in concentrating and focusing, it seems like that my thoughts were always wondering around, Thanks!

  13. I was distracted by the cat walking across my desk, as well as my insulin pump buzzing. I kept checking the time, and couldn’t relax. Maybe another time without the distractions will go better.

  14. This exercise make me to focus on object , observe emotion see things in different prospective

  15. I found it hard to focus for the five minutes on this object, but was surprised the amount about it I was able to write down.

  16. I rushed through the process and ran out of things to observe. I need to focus on slowing down and being in the moment.

  17. I put this comment to commit myself to start and finish all the 10 modules.
    Let’s get it started!
    Nov 7, 2022, Amir

  18. I am looking forward to practice this every day and see the benefits. Might even try getting my friends/ family involved to help them become more mindful.

  19. Thank you for sharing the DBT techniques. I believe these types of therapy are priceless to operating at our optimal, and they should be available to all people or all incomes.

  20. Thank for teaching how to put forth this behavior therapy technique. It’s great for personal use and clinical use. I’m really excited to use DBT in practice.

  21. This online resource for DBT is absolute gold! We have 6-12 month waiting lists for this course in our local services. Thank you so much for eliminating the barriers to providing people access to this much needed therapy.

  22. Grateful I was directed to this site by my therapist! Honestly I’m always running on a 7 track mind, looking forward to becoming more mindful and self aware in my everyday routines!

  23. Thank you for this. Is there an in person class who can teach this? Another commenter had said they had attended a six month program as a teen that taught DBT. Is it possible to get the information if this program? The comment was submitted on 7/23/2020 by the name of Haley Miller. Thank you.

  24. Recommitting myself to mindfulness. It helps to remember that it works even when I struggle. Five minutes seemed like a long time but I persisted and am consciously being kind to myself. It is okay that I got bored and impatient. I did the exercise anyway.

  25. What if you have no problem being in the moment becasue that is how you cope with life? You don’t think of things that you need to deal with, or that hurt you. But then you just feel like a failure because everything is crubling around you.

  26. I noticed how smooth the folder was and that it had sharp edges, i thought about how shiny it was almost enough to see my reflection.

  27. Now I realize how many thoughts and distractions I had while I’m watching an object.
    Thanks for the great explanation!

  28. This is probably a silly question…but are the modules intended to be done in order, one right after the other? Or can they be done in any order?

  29. I come from a visual arts background. I chose to spend the five minutes of observation by drawing the object. When it came time to write down descriptors , I found myself perceiving the object in even more detail. I also see parallels with meditation practices.

  30. Do you have to do a full 5 minutes, or can you just stop when you feel you have completely observed the object. I set a timer, and then had to use calming methods to deal with the anxiety of being trapped in inactivity for 5 minutes. Can you interact with the object (i.e. drink out of)?

  31. I think I did this wrong. Your observation sample had 15 words, but I had come up with 200 in about 30 seconds. I felt so unpleasant, with SH urges, that I am too afraid to practice, or try the next two observation exercises. I’m not good at being still and quiet.

  32. I am interested in taking a dbt class and also sign my granddaughter up. She will be 16 and has issues.

  33. I did this and was like “why does this seem so familiar?” then realized I’m a geology major and I literally do this exact thing to rocks several days a week for an hour or two at a time lol. I think I might have to try this when I’m in a worse mood and actually have to deal with negative thoughts.

  34. I have found myself thinking about how the object is like me in different ways. Is this normal? Beneficial?

    ADMIN – Hi Sondra,

    That is perfectly normal. It’s great you noticed your thoughts drifting in that direction. Now try and gently guide them back to just the object.

    The exercise is about learning to notice when your thoughts drift, and being able to guide them back. Hope that helps!

  35. I focused on a candle and was surprised at all of the different things that came to mind about the object: its scent, the warmth when it burns, memories of lighting candles at special occasions, and the comfort that the light can give you.

  36. I just completed a mindfulness course so am familiar with this type of activity. Yet I found myself much more able to do this exercise than the ones in that program, because the directions were so friendly and there was no narration DURING the activity to distract. So glad I found this site!

  37. When you obtain the ability to stop the world in your own orbit and focus and breathe, you are golden. While nothing is 100% DBT is a great start to put into your mental arsenal.

  38. I’ve been doing this exercise in video 1 and it’s not work once. I am suffering from complex PTSD, Boarder line personality Disorder and Boarder line Paranoia Disorder, So far it’s been a waist of my pc power, time and energy.

  39. I have gone all the way through DBT and I love your website to stay in practice. It is so user friendly. I like how everything is broken down into short modules. I would like to share with my friends and family but know they are never going to log on to the website. They might open a link to a module.

  40. A great exercise! I was able to concentrate on my object for approximately 2.5 minutes and then I felt emotional like I was going to cry. Is this normal? The object was neutral. I was able to go back to focusing on the object but I could definitely feel that I was sad.

  41. I’m a therapist certified in DBT and this website is absolutely phenomenal. I send it to my patients and it’s making a huge difference in their lives. Well done and a million thanks!

  42. I was frustrated that the object I chose was upside down and I couldn’t see the main top part. I got bored after 2 mins and was obsessing over the same features of the object. It felt unhealthy to me and I became quite upset with myself, so I stopped the task after 3 minutes.

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