As human beings, we are very good at solving problems with very few variables. Completing basic tasks like doing laundry, preparing a meal or driving to the store are examples of this. We are also very good at solving problems with countless variables. Complex music, intricate works of art, architecture or software are examples of this.
However, we are very poor at solving problems with anything in between. For example, most of us struggle to solve a problem with more than three variables without a pencil in our hand!
This is where much of the angst of an overactive mind arises. Our minds work extra hard to try to solve a problem with many different variables, that is sufficiently complex to be confusing and frustrating, but not so utterly complex as to allow our minds to tap into our full creative potential to cope with the complexity by breaking it down into parts or just trusting that the outcome will be OK as long as our focus remains on the work required and not the outcome.
In the business world, the term analysis paralysis is commonly used to describe this tendency to overthink things. In our everyday lives, it’s witnessed as mental tension, stress, and laziness.
At the most basic level, overthinking everything is simply unpleasant and keeps you (and I!) from moving forward and making progress. At the most extreme level, overthinking can utterly and completely shut you down and cause severe anxiety and feelings of futility.
It is super important to understand that if you have a tendency to overthink things, you are simply being human. There is nothing wrong with it. We are hard-wired to constantly seek solutions to problems. We also must understand that we can use our own intellect and mental function to identify when we are “spinning our mental wheels” in vain and get out of this thought pattern.
There are tangible and simple ways to stop overthinking everything. Review the list below and the next time you find yourself caught up in your thoughts, apply just one of the techniques below to free yourself from the chains of overthinking. You are bound to find relief from stress and just might discover a creative solution to your problem in the process.
- 1) Let go of the results, focus only on what you can control
- 2) Cultivate positive emotions
- 3) Mindfully complete simple tasks
- 4) Meditate
- 5) Consciously overthink things
- 6) Get some exercise
- 7) Breathe calmly (Pranayma)
- 8) Practice fixing your gaze on one point
- 9) Write out your thoughts
- 10) Take a nap
- 11) Change your environment
1) Let go of the results, focus only on what you can control
An underpinning of a spiritual text that has greatly impacted my life, The Bhagavad Gita, is that we can find happiness and live our duty (“dharma”) in life by focusing solely on our required labor, not on the fruits of our labor. Focusing on results can create stress based upon the uncertainty of the outcome. On the other hand, focusing on our work instantly puts us in the realm of something we can control. The result is less mental tension and improved ability to work through complex problems.
2) Cultivate positive emotions
Overthinking and the negative emotions that result from it can be hard to neutralize. A while ago I witnessed this first hand, as I struggled to cope with the loss of my beloved dog and best friend, Spike. After he passed, I was in pain for many days. I literally felt broken inside and my mind was spinning, thinking of all the things I could have done to have kept him healthy longer.
Speaking with my mom, she told me something that completely changed how I felt. She reminded me that as I am grieving, I need to not forget that there is someone else in my life that needs my care and attention.
You see, I have another dog, Duke, who was also surely missing his big brother, but couldn’t express his sadness the way humans do. I focused my attention on making sure Duke got plenty of love. Whenever I felt sad about Spike and witnessed my mind racing and overthinking his passing, I shifted my focus to Duke. I focused on giving him all the care in the world. With that shift in focus, my grief lifted and my mind stopped overthinking and feeling guilty about doing more to take care of his health earlier in his life. I was able to think clearly and find peace.
3) Mindfully complete simple tasks
When I am in the middle of complex tasks and find myself overthinking things, I often shift to small and simple tasks that require less mental horsepower. For example, I will do the laundry, mow the lawn, pay some bills, walk my dog (his name is Duke and he is always up for walks!).
Doing a bunch of simple tasks gives me a feeling of success. I feel like I’ve accomplished something. It also teaches my brain to solve and finish problems. When I return to the complex task (e.g. creating a presentation, preparing for a coaching client meeting or writing on this blog), I find that I am able to stay focused without any mental stress. My brain is primed and ready to finish the task, complex or not!
There are so many reasons why you should meditate. Below are just a few of the scientifically proven benefits:
- Decreased anxiety
- Decreased depression
- Increased pain tolerance
- Increased memory and learning capacity
- Increased self-awareness
- Better capacity to set goals
- More pronounced empathy
- Higher “alpha” waves – resulting in less tension, sadness, anger
- Decreased blood pressure
- Increased oxygen and CO2 processing capacity
- Better immune system function
- Cellular and DNA protection
- Potential anti-cancer, anti-diabetes, anti-heart disease benefits
Sitting to meditate for even 10 minutes will stop overthinking in its tracks. Meditation is like a mirror that lets you look deep down into who you are and how things are going. With even a short meditation session you can witness the overthinking mind. With this awareness, any negativity associated with it will drop away.
If you don’t know how to meditate, no worries, I have some super simple instructions right here.
5) Consciously overthink things
This is a technique that I learned from Tony Robbins. It is used to break up old mental patterns and replace them with new and empowering ones. In my application of the technique, I simplify things to just allow you to see the humor in overthinking everything. You see, it is when we are calm and at peace (on the inside, I’m talking about your mental state not physical state) that we are able to tap into our greatest inner genius.
Let’s say you are trying to prepare a presentation and getting caught up in how to lay out your slides and what stories to tell for maximum impact. Take a few minutes to consciously and proactively overthink the scenario. What are all the ways you could arrange your slides? What are all the different stories you could tell? What are all the different things you could be doing right now to keep yourself from focusing on building your presentation? What are all the different objections that people in your audience could have for you?
Really go overboard with this. Find the humor in it. Imagine yourself with 10 arms, all flailing around creating thousands of slides to cover all the bases. Imagine you are typing so fast the keyboard is smoking and about to light on fire! Really make the scene ridiculous in your mind’s eye.
Now, take a deep breath and look at your presentation. Realize that overthinking doesn’t help you get your work done. It just stands in your way.
Now imagine yourself methodically and deliberately creating your presentation. Imagine yourself just doing your work and not worrying about the result, one step at a time.
Go back to your presentation, and start working with a renewed sense of focus and a calm mind.
6) Get some exercise
Exercise, like sleep, is like pushing the reboot button on your mind. You cannot go out for a run (or yoga or skateboard or whatever exercise you like) and not come back to your work in a different state of mind. I find that many times, my overthinking tendency is worst when I have tons of energy that I haven’t burned off.
Get outside for some exercise and you will find that mental tension and overthinking is no longer an issue when you return home.
7) Breathe calmly (Pranayma)
The tone and tenor of your breathing is a direct representation of your mental state. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and take 5 deep breaths in and out through your nose. You will notice a difference in how you think and feel, guaranteed.
Yogis have known this secret for years, and it is why Pranayama has been a long-standing practice and pre-requisite for those wishing to explore higher states of consciousness. It is just as important as physical exercise and mental-meditation.
A particularly powerful technique is called Nadi Shodhana. Practice it for a few minutes and your mind will laser-focused, like the Death Star, but in a good way 🙂
8) Practice fixing your gaze on one point
Just like the breath, the eyes say a lot about the state of your mind (and some believe, your soul itself!). Many yogis deep in their spiritual work will avoid eye contact for this very reason, it is a gateway to your inner being.
Whether you believe this or not, it is should be widely understood that just like the eyes and their erratic movement indicates overactivity in the mind, that fixing your gaze (without staring!) can in turn provide a calming and focusing effect on the mind!
To reduce overthinking and calm yourself down, practice gazing at one fixed point for a few minutes. I prefer to do this exercise in nature. I look at a tree, a patch of grass, a cloud, or even an animal (like my dog, Duke when he sleeping!).
Take notice that you are not straining your eyes. Blink normally and keep a calm and relaxed gaze. The calmer your eyes become, the calmer (and focused!) your mind will become!
9) Write out your thoughts
Have you heard of “Morning Pages”. This is a practice of writing three pages, completely unfiltered, each and every morning. Popularized by Julia Cameron, she calls Morning Pages “the bedrock of creative recovery”.
Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages – they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.
I find that writing out thoughts, at any time of day, can unload the overthinking mind and help with focus and stress relief. What’s cool about building up a habit of writing in the morning is that is can pre-empt the overthinking mind from ever rearing its ugly head later in the day!
10) Take a nap
Naps are underrated! Just like exercise, a 20-minute nap works wonders. I like to take my naps in the afternoon, around 3 pm, after going for a run and drinking a healthy smoothie. I don’t need to say much more about naps, just give it a try!
11) Change your environment
It is said that Albert Einstein, in struggling to formulate his theory of relativity, achieved his biggest breakthrough while taking a break from working on his problem to relax by a fire and daydream.
Changes of environment can work wonders to encourage new ways of thinking. Just like when you try to look at the night-time stars in the sky, they disappear when looked at directly, but emerge when seen from peripheral vision – you can find creative solutions when you allow yourself to examine problems indirectly.
If you find yourself overthinking, change your environment. Go to a coffee shop, park or library. Switch from using a computer to pencil and paper. Surround yourself with different people and talk about new things. Stop actively working on the problem and just daydream.
These 11 simple ways to stop overthinking are powerful in their simplicity. Apply one of them (or several if you like) next time you find yourself caught up in your thoughts. You are bound to find relief from your mental strain and might even discover a creative solution to your problem in the process.
Have an idea for another way to stop overthinking everything? Let me know in the comments!