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5 Ways to Stop Overthinking and Get Things Done

When you're spinning your wheels, try these thoughts.

In a recent post about learning to be more spontaneous, I suggested that you not overthink a decision. All well and good, one reader commented, with a plaintive note detectable in his typing—but how? How do you stop overthinking?

Good question.

At one time, I might have scoffed at the very suggestion that it was possible to think too much. Thinking is good! It is wise! It is what smart people do!

Yeah, well, sometimes...

Thinking things through is good. But thinking things through over and over and over until you've sunk your brain into a rut that you can't climb out of is neither productive nor healthy. There is a proven connection between rumination and depression, and another word for rumination is overthinking—the kind of thinking that doesn't move you forward. Imagine a car stuck in the mud, the wheels spinning and spinning, sinking the car deeper into the mire.

Stopping overthinking isn't easy; I'm not able to do it all the time. Sometimes resisting feels too difficult and allowing my spinning brain to take control is a lot easier than trying to fight it. Sometimes giving in to overthinking feels like sinking into a comfy chair after a long, hard day: Fine. Go ahead, brain. Have your way with me.

The urge to overthink is powerful, and so pushing back against it is a discipline in which you have to train yourself and then practice consistently. It's directly related to mindfulness, which is so widely discussed these days it has practically been reduced to a tired buzzword, but which really is as powerful as proponents insist.

Here are a few thoughts I think to short-circuit overthinking.

  1. "Thinking." Just one word, and I use it often, particularly when I'm meditating and feel my thoughts gaining traction. This is a mindfulness technique. Sometimes our minds run away with us before we even know it's happening. But with practice, I can now usually feel that starting, and when I do, I just note it by saying, "Thinking," to myself, and then try to let go of the thoughts like releasing a balloon. Or, to employ different imagery, sometimes overthinking feels like a runaway train and by thinking, "Thinking," I can derail it. (No imaginary passengers were injured in the making of this visualization.)
  2. "Thoughts aren't reality." I use this mantra when I'm spiraling into overthinking some sort of difficult situation, perceived slight, or self-judgment. It reminds me that just because I am thinking something doesn't make it real. For example, if I fear that I have offended a friend, I may start imagining this friend sitting around having dark thoughts about me, enumerating my many faults, and plotting to end the friendship. But just because I think it don't make it real: While this friend might be annoyed and the situation might need handling, it's equally possible the friend is simply sitting at home eating an egg-salad sandwich and wondering when the next season of Mad Men starts. Thoughts aren't reality. They're just thoughts, and you can choose not to torture yourself with them. (By the way, many times when I have gone back to someone and said, "You know, I've been thinking about this thing I did and feel terrible about it," they've said, "I didn’t even notice.")
  3. "Next time I'll do [this]." Torturing yourself over something you feel you didn't handle well? Rather than chewing and chewing and chewing the memory like a bitter cud, decide how you wish you had handled it, make a plan, and vow that if the situation ever arises again, you won't be blindsided and will do better. Then try to let it go. You've squeezed the lesson out of it and there's nothing more to gain from letting it hijack your brain. Oh, and if you really did do something out of line, making an apology can be remarkably soothing to a fevered mind.
  4. "I can always leave." This is good when I'm trying to decide whether I want to attend this or that event. Rather than burrowing into my brain and ruminating about all the ways I may or may not enjoy it, I tell myself that if it's not fun, I can leave. I remind myself that if I don't go, I might kick myself the next day for missing something fun, while if I do go and it's not fun, I can just slip out the back or make my excuses and walk away. The couch ain't goin' nowhere.
  5. "Do something." I think this, and then I do something. Anything, as long as it takes my mind off whatever I'm overthinking. Distraction can be powerful.

Those are a few of my techniques and mantras. Do you have any that work for you?

Check out my books, Introverts in Love: The Quiet Way to Happily Ever After; The Introverts Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World; and 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go. Support your local independent bookstore; click here to find an indie near you.

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