Does it ever happen, that you want to concentrate on some activity, but the cloud of thoughts buzzes around your head and distracts you? They seem to be right here, but when you try to catch one, they scatter away at once. When you decide to leave them and not to pay attention to them, they come back again and annoy you “we are back, we are back”.
Or when you try to make a decision and to think about it a bit, your thoughts instead of making everything simple only complicates it even more. It is usually called overthinking.
If you have any of similar problems – this article is for you. Here I summarize my results of three years experience in dealing with thoughts in my head and share the most effective way to do this.
I will start explaining with illusions.
Illusions which do not help
It seems that if you need to find a solution to a problem, you must think about it. But thoughts have such a feature – they attract similar, related thoughts.
Imagine you want to buy paint for your house. The color is an important decision because this will affect how your house will look like for a long time, you should consider it well. What color is the best for you? Maybe orange? Orange reminds of the fruit. I like fresh orange juice. But Coca-Cola is much better. But Coca-Cola harms my health because it has lots of sugar. I put too much sugar in my tea. That’s all, I will drink tea without sugar, starting from tomorrow! But now I should buy some oranges. How many decisions made! But the house is still colorless…
Instead of resolving a question, the mind makes itself crowded and complicated.
It seems, that we cannot make decisions without analyzing all possible information. But we never have all the information. If we did – the decision would be obvious.
Since we do not have all the information, we try to estimate it: what if? Then we have optimistic, realistic and pessimistic forecasts. Then we begin to doubt our forecasts, maybe producing more forecasts. The more forecasts we have, the less reliable they are. Then we are get lost because we cannot make decision suitable for all forecasts.
We create an illusion, that we must consider all the information, but then we get lost because we cannot get all the information.
It seems that we must consider everything down to the tiniest details. We start digging deeper and deeper, but details are never ending. Someone should define the limit – beyond this limit, no considerations are needed. While there is no limit we are still digging to the abyss of meaningless details.
In pursuit of the perfect decision, our mind is lost in the sea of details and unable to reach any decision.
It seems that conscious intellect is the same as mind. If the decision is not consciously analyzed, it is not a firm decision, not reliable. However, the unconscious mind is capable of dealing with information much more quickly than conscious (something like quarter million times quicker). If conscious intellect gets involved – everything slows down and gets complicated.
Because of these illusions, we got used to thinking a lot. To think, to consider, to estimate, to analyze and only after that to make a decision. It’s a habit. That means we start doing it unconsciously.
Before introducing practical steps to stop overthinking, I will share the underlying ideas of the technique.
First of all, we must get rid of illusions. Then we must change the habit. That’s the way.
The best way to get rid of illusions is to replace them with other illusions. I consider that everything is an illusion, we can know nothing except what we feel. You may agree or you may not, but my offer is to replace negative, limiting beliefs with positive, empowering.
Let everything happen naturally, spontaneously. Let’s have such an illusion, that there is a balance in the world and everything happens the right way. (I believe this because I have studied economics – there are balances in the world of money and people, and if humans start doing their nonsense, then we have crises, recessions, bubbles and everything gets back to natural balances)
Trust the intuition. Let’s have such an illusion, that unconscious mind is able to make decisions quarter million times better that conscious (except shopping decisions) because it is able to process more information at once.
Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Matters of small concern should be treated seriously. – Hagakure.
Let’s believe our new illusions as firmly as we believed the old ones.
Now let’s see what can we do with the habit? Actually similar thing.
First, we need to learn to notice it, then learn not to let it happen unconsciously. Then it is time to create a new habit of overpowering the old one.
It is not that obvious how to do this. Oh yes, I will think that thoughts are like a cloud of flies and then I shoot a laser from my eyes and burn ’em all!! You may try, maybe it will work for you. But if not – give it a try to my technique.
A technique how to stop overthinking
This is a daily practice. You think every day and you have some thinking habits that you relied upon for many years. That means we must practice daily to change our minds.
The first part is prevention. We want the cloud of thoughts not to arise – that is the aim of this practice.
The second part is reaction. If the cloud of thoughts has arisen – we practice dealing with it.
This is the ultimate prevention technique. (A long article about it is here)
Meditation is the training of the mind to keep it calm. The mind is trained not to react to distractions and remain focused. How can you wish for calm thoughts in your mind, if you have never experienced calm thoughts? If you try to meditate, you will see: “Wow it was so calm in my head and I felt so great! Wanna be always like this!”
2) Monotonous actions
This is also some kind of meditation. Jogging, bicycling, knitting, ironing – all these are monotonous, mechanical activities. The body performs an action without the aid of mind, so the mind has nothing to do and begins generating lots of random thoughts, but these thoughts do not affect actions of the body. If you notice these thoughts, then your mind will get the point: “I have lots of thoughts in my head, but they do not affect my actions. So, these thoughts are unnecessary.”
3) Retreat from distractions
If you can let yourself a weekend without computer and phone – you will see, that you don’t think about them, and… nothing happens. (Most of the times really nothing happens) Then your mind gets the point: “There was something I did not think about, and nothing happened. So, It is OK not to think about things.”
You can retreat from other kinds of distractions – people, work, media and all other things that make your life cluttered and unclear.
4) Formalize the thinking
If you would try to think with a pencil in your hand – write your thoughts, sketch, connect, strike, divide, group – you would see how your thinking looks like. Wow, what a mess! At least is mine. But to know if it is a mess or not you should try some formalized method. Consider mind maps, fishbones, brainstorms, const-benefit analysis, SWOTs, diagrams, graphs, hierarchies, study some logic. If you consistently try to apply these in your thinking, it will be more neat and smooth. You will see this on a sheet of paper first, and after that, you will feel this in your head.
X) Practice acting upon intuition
Some people will argue that practicing random spontaneous actions is the answer. But I am not sure because you cannot hear intuition if your mind is cluttered. (This is an article about intuition where I explain everything in detail) You cannot learn algebra without learning arithmetics. I suggest clearing the mind first.
If you practice prevention, you will start noticing when the noise in your head arises. The longer you practice the quicker you will see. When you see the noise, it is time to do something about it.
1) Think in writing
This is a killer technique. (More about writing a diary in this article)
Whenever you notice that there are too many thoughts in your mind, it is time to take a pencil, a notebook and start writing. You will not be able to draw a structured diagram if you are only a beginner. Just start writing: “I think …”. This will slow down the process of thinking VERY MUCH and will clean unnecessary repetitive thoughts. You will just notice: hey, but I already wrote this! As for me, it was usually 4 to 5 thoughts that occurred again and again and made the whole noise.
2) Think specific things
There is a formula that helps your mind to deal with unnecessary disturbing and distracting thoughts. If you notice them, say: “May those thoughts stay in my head, but I want to think about …” What do you want to think about?
Imagine yourself jogging outside. If you have thoughts like: “I cannot do this anymore”, “so hard”, “so much tired” – what would you like to think instead? “When I finish I will let myself indulge in X”, “I like fresh air so much!”, “I want to think about nothing”, “I like the sea and the beach”, “Chocolate!” and similar ideas are a good choice.
Important thing is to choose a topic you really enjoy thinking about. If you try to force yourself, negative thoughts will come back easily. Also, it is a bad idea to try to get rid of bad thoughts. If you will think about how to get rid of them, you will actually think about them. The point of the technique is to overpower the naturally occurring negative thoughts by pleasant ones.
3) Think negative intentionally
If you have one particular negative thought, you can catch it and torture. If it comes into your head again and again – take it and think it.
Imagine that you have lost your wallet – you are probably frustrated and thinking all kinds of negative things. Try to think intentionally: “I have lost my wallet. I feel like shit because of that. All my money are gone. etc.”. You will not like this, soon your mind will find something more interesting to think about and you will fail to think this negative thought as you fail to concentrate on all other things.
Imagine that you are preparing for an exam, but suddenly there is a distracting thought, that does not allow you to concentrate. Try to dedicate 5 minutes for that thought. Maybe after 3 minutes, you will be able to get back to work. If this particular technique is not working, then the problem is motivation, not some distracting thought.
This is the ultimate reaction technique. If you master this one, you don’t need others anymore.
Pay attention to your breath. If you pay attention to your breath it will suddenly change. It is already a physical change, this will attract the attention of your mind. What kind of breath do you have? Maybe you are nervous and it is quick and shallow? Try to slow it down and deepen. Your organism will slow down so will do thoughts.
5) Concentrate on feelings
Pay attention to physical feelings. Is it hot? Is it warm? Does it hurt? How fast is your heart beat? Are you hungry? This will help to overcome thoughts coming from those feelings. You might think negative things because you are hurt or hungry. You might think too much because your heart beats fast. If you shift your focus from your head to your body, your head will disturb you less. Sometimes it is easy to shift attention to feelings because they are intense, but they might be unpleasant as well.
I recommend combining this technique with 2nd prevention technique – to do monotonous actions and concentrate on the feelings at the same time. Works great with hiking, ironing, and toothbrushing.
By “feelings” I mean physical feelings in the body, not emotions or other things of the mind.
6) Make a break
The reason why one cannot concentrate might be that he or she is tired. There are reasons why classes in school or university are limited to a specific amount of time, why productivity techniques talk about making breaks. It’s about the brain – it works like a muscle and needs to take rest.
Instead to fighting thoughts that do not allow to concentrate, try to give your brain some rest. Get up, do some exercises (e.g. few push-ups). Go to have a snack. Close your eyes and breath a bit (my favorite). Check your body feelings. Go to talk with someone (however, you might disturb them). But never check the news, because checking the news is another brain activity and does not help you to recover.
When you come back, distracting thoughts might be gone.
This one is extreme, suitable to very complicated big issues of wide scope. If you got lost in your mind and cannot follow anymore, try to postpone the decision to the next day. At night your unconscious mind will process the gathered information, and in the morning, many things that were unclear might seem quite obvious.
Of course, often we do not have the opportunity to postpone the decision. But sometimes it is possible to postpone even for longer time – one week (what is the color of paint for your house), six months (quit the job or not). It is important to make the decision when the time comes up because once postponed you might feel a temptation to do this again, and then again and again and again…
Here we have our 8 steps to stop overthinking. They will not make your mind clear today. But they might make it clearer in next 365 days if you start practicing today. Right now. Do you feel the pressure of the chair on your ass? Are your eyes burning? Is your breath fast?
- Block some time for meditation in your daily schedule. 15 minutes is OK. (A quick guide to meditation is here)
- Block some time for a retreat in your weekly or monthly schedule. A half day a week without internet and phone, or one weekend a month is OK.
- Set up a “book for thinking” or a simple diary. Use it whenever you need to clean your mind from thoughts or make a decision.
- Learn about formalized ways of thinking. Try to use them whenever you face a problem.(One formalized thinking technique is here)
- Whenever you do a monotonous action try to be aware of what you do, think about what you do and observe your feelings.
- Whenever you notice too many unnecessary thoughts, say to yourself: “May those thoughts stay in my head, but I want to think about …”, or try to concentrate on your breath, or on feelings.
- Whenever you notice one particular disturbing negative thought, try to concentrate on it.
- Whenever you are lost in your thoughts while trying to make a decision try concentrating on your breath, or making a break, or even postponing if the problem is really complicated.
Don’t be surprised if after implementing these actions, you will notice things you have never noticed before, you will see the opportunities you did not see before, and also you will see unpleasant things that you did not notice before. You might even doubt why you do what you do. This is because your mind will become clearer.
But don’t have the illusion you can get rid of thoughts, they will always be there, just you will pay less attention to them.
Good luck dealing with your mind!
You might meet people like I did, who will tell you that overthinking problem is nonsense and it is not serious. But if something disturbs me, I call it a problem and do something to overcome it.
Also, they may say that you are too much in your head, and too much emphasize your mind. But they will not give you any solution. I met such people too and needed to find solutions myself.
Feel free to share other methods to stop overthinking in comments.