A 2010 study of over 2200 people found that about 47% of the time people are not thinking about what’s going on in the present. What’s more, the Harvard University researchers found that when our thoughts are focused in places other than the present moment, we are not as happy as when we’re in the here and now, even if those wandering thoughts are of pleasant memories or visions of the future.
The researchers used a smartphone app to ask people at random intervals throughout the day when they were thinking about. Psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert discovered that people’s level of happiness declined shortly after they reported that their minds had wandered, rather than a lower level of happiness preceding the mind wandering. This may imply that when we become distracted from our present circumstance, we contribute to our unhappiness.
How often are you truly entirely immersed in the current moment, letting your mind take a rest from overthinking? Or are you worrying about the past, anxious about the future, or caught up in a fantasy world?
Often we can find ourselves re-running a conversation we had earlier today, last week, or even last year. “Why did he say that? What a fool I made of myself! She must think I’m an idiot!”
Or perhaps we worry about what might happen in that meeting at work tomorrow, a party this weekend, or getting our taxes done. “How will my presentation go? What if my ex shows up at the party? What if I miss a deduction on my taxes?”
We spin our wheels, knowing in our gut that analysis can lead to paralysis, but still unable to stop our whirling thoughts.
Some suggestions to combat mental wandering and overthinking:
- Ask yourself: “Is this a productive thought?” Will yet another mental rehearsal of your upcoming meeting with your boss really help you? Or is it time to trust that you’re sufficiently prepared, and now your best bet is to trust your instincts? Keep in mind that when we can relax a bit that we can most easily access our intuition.
- Put things into perspective. Will this situation you’re turning over in your mind matter in five years? Or are you blowing things out of proportion?
- Know your body rhythm and schedule your activities accordingly. Some of us are morning larks, while others are night owls. Which are you? When do you tend to be at your best physically, emotionally, and mentally? (The time frames may vary for each of these three elements.) If you focus best in the morning, try to use this time to tackle challenging projects that might seem overwhelming later in the day. If you’re at the top of your game mentally in the evening, plan to take on important conversations or assignments at this time, when you’re mostly likely to be effective. One advantage to completing matters in the morning is that you can then go about the rest of your day with a sense of accomplishment (or relief), but you’ll need to balance this with what works best for your personal time clock.
- Focus on your five senses. What can you hear, see, taste, smell, and touch right now? Such attention can help bring you back into the present moment.
- Surrender the need to be perfect or omnipotent. There is no magical finish line which you will cross where you are “done” and have nothing more to learn. We are not meant to be perfect. We are continually growing and changing. We never know all of the facts – instead, we do the best we can with the information at hand. Just do your best each day, then let the matter go.
- Accept that you cannot change the past. Maybe things didn’t turn out the way you wanted them to, or maybe you made a mistake – extract what possible lesson you can learn from the experience, then move on. Don’t let your past crowd out the present in your mind.
- Accept that you cannot predict nor control the future. It’s a pretty safe bet, though, that worrying about the future will rob you of fully appreciating and living in the present moment.
- Exercise. Take a walk around the block or down the hall, go out for a run or a bike ride, or lift some weights. Moving your body will help to generate endorphins (feel-good hormones), work off any possible anxiety, and clear your mind.
- Accept that you don’t have to understand everything. You don’t always have to know why you have habitually done something in order to change your behavior. While a bit of contemplation can be helpful, overthinking can be an excuse not to take potentially uncomfortable (but effective) action.
- Repeat phrases to center and calm yourself, such as I can deal with this; Relax; Be here now; One moment at a time; I am safe. Or just mentally count to ten, exhaling “one”, “two”, “three”, etc.
- Do only one thing at a time. Multi-tasking can contribute to the flurry in our minds. Sitting and being mindful is not always possible. However, you can practice putting all of your attention on just one thing. This in itself would probably be a significant change, as most of us usually do several things at one time. How often have you simultaneously been on the phone while also racing down the freeway, preparing a meal, or surfing the Web? It’s impossible to focus 100% on one thing when you’re juggling various activities at the same time. Instead, you end up dividing your attention between multiple items, and this can result in information overload, which is a recipe for anxiety (and overthinking).
- Acknowledge the problem, but focus more on the solution. Consider, “What is the best thing that can happen?”, rather than worrying about what might go wrong.
- Consider what you’re depriving yourself of by fantasizing and overthinking. What ah-ha moments, synchronicities, or appreciation of the present are you missing out on? Is it worth it?
- Consider what you might have to feel if you stopped overthinking. Is it possible that your constant mental gymnastics distract you from uncomfortable feelings or realizations? If this is the case, understand that you’ve been trying to protect yourself, but also recognize that any possible benefits of using this method do not outweigh the drawbacks.
- Ask yourself, “What is within my control? What isn’t?” Focus on what you can influence. Items you can do something about include your attitudes, behavior, and choices. Yes, you can communicate your feelings and wishes regarding other people’s attitudes, behavior, and choices, but ultimately other people are free to do what they want. (You can choose to leave the relationship, though, if things don’t improve.) You can’t change the past, but you can learn from it. You can’t predict the future, but you can prepare for it in moderation, while spending the majority of your time staying mentally and emotionally in the present.
- Compartmentalize worry time. If you’ve determined that the situation you’ve been mulling over really deserves a lot of thought, make an appointment with yourself to worry. Set a timer at the scheduled time, say for 15 or 30 minutes. During this appointment, “worry” single-mindedly about the issue. Make notes, if that helps you. Tear up your notes, if you wish. When the timer goes off, your worry time is over. If need be, plan another appointment for the next day or week, but in the meanwhile, let the worry go. You’re likely to learn that the world won’t come to an end.
- Practice mindfulness, defined as nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. Such training can be offered in both group and individual settings. Practice observing your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations while maintaining the stance of an observer. In time, you will learn that stimuli from the outside world as well as from within you need not set you off into overthinking or mentally exiting the moment.
- Practice deep abdominal breathing. Doing so will promote a relaxation response while also anchoring you in the present moment.
- Take a class in improvisation. You don’t have to be a professional actor to benefit from the spontaneity and creativity that improv exercises can teach you. With improv, there is no such thing as failure, and you simply don’t have time to overthink something – your responses must be instantaneous.
- Help someone else. Turning our thoughts and attention to another person or cause can often be the most effective way of getting our mind off our own issues and back into the “now”.