Stop thinking and more doing. How?
September 11, 2010 9:24 PM   Subscribe

I am a thinker. I want to stop thinking too much (over-analyzing) and start doing more. Any how to or tips?

My habit of over-thinking/over-analyzing things has become a barrier in my life. It slows my progress down in life. It has been keeping me from graduating, implementing work plans, etc. When I think, I go on and on, covering all the bases... often worrying about eventual problems that never come. Thinking often sucks my energy and change my mood for the worse.

I want to stop this habit. So if you've experienced something like this and managed to change it... my question is, what have you done to eliminate this habit? What worked? What didn't?
posted by bbxx to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 73 users marked this as a favorite
This is a problem I have extensive experience with. I have a few questions:

-Are you prone to depression?
-How would you rate your self-esteem?
-Were your parents or siblings alcoholics?
-Have you ever taken any SSRIs or like medication?

There could be any number of ways to address this, so a little background would help.
posted by mediocritease at 9:29 PM on September 11, 2010

Keeping my hands busy helps. That could be with craft projects or just with housework. Exercise helps if it's really strenuous (running, mountain hiking, mountain biking, swimming). Playing board games helps. Team sports would probably be great, I've never tried them though.

What didn't work (for me): meditation, exercise that is more relaxed, such as yoga or going on walks. Everything that involves staring at a screen for hours definitely makes the problem worse for me. Reading self-help books doesn't help either.
posted by The Toad at 9:39 PM on September 11, 2010

What didn't work (for me): meditation, exercise that is more relaxed, such as yoga or going on walks. Everything that involves staring at a screen for hours definitely makes the problem worse for me. Reading self-help books doesn't help either.

I imagine that, as with all things, it varies from person to person. Meditation has helped me, even if only for a few minutes at a time. I'm not much the exercise type, but anytime I've driven my body (safely) to the point of exhaustion, I've been able to stop thinking for a time. Reading self-help books doesn't help, it's true, but doing exercises that are included in many of those books can help. Thought-stopping techniques, for instance: When you've got a runaway thought, imagine pulling up to a railway crossing. The lights are flashing, the guard lowered. You have to stop. And really try to connect the visual image of the car coming to a stop with the anxiety and awareness of the runaway thought. Then immediately replace it with another, less combustible thought. It sounds ridiculous, I know. I've been skeptical, too. But don't underestimate the efficacy of visualization.

It also pays to be aware of just what kinds of things you overthink. The quicker you can identify it when it starts to happen, the easier it will be to stop it.
posted by mediocritease at 9:52 PM on September 11, 2010

I'm a thinker too. A few years back I realized (rationalized?) that I simply have a lot of mental energy. If I don't work out my brain every day, I ruminate and my head goes all crazy like a laptop with a whirring fan causing a heat problem. Fortunately, I was able to find a topic that my mind endlessly puzzles on, and some tools (training in that topic) with which to crunch 'data'.

I try to embrace my overthinking mind. I invent mini-games everywhere. I create and tell jokes in my head (they're not funny, but I've explicitly mapped out why). I run scenarios. Play out conversations and events. Whatever I need to do, wherever I need to do it. When my silly mind is tired of thinking at the end of the day, I'm happy. And if I do mini thought exercises throughout the day, I'm free for longer periods to do other daydream, listen to others, and just be in my body.

Don't know if that perspective helps you, but I hope that I can offer the possibility that this isn't something you necessarily need to rid yourself of. You may just need to find a way to make it work for you. Right now you know you're capable of intense, focused thought for long periods of time, but the data you're processing and the manner in which you're chugging on it isn't doing you favors. Maybe try changing those two factors and see what happens?
posted by iamkimiam at 9:55 PM on September 11, 2010 [15 favorites]

Have you tried writing it down? I find journaling to be really effective. My brain can spin on things over and over again, but when I commit it to a piece of paper the finality of seeing it in writing seems to be a cue to stop.

For when that doesn't work, may I suggest what Thich Nhat Hanh outlined in The Miracle of Mindfulness? It's a not challenging read, but the gist of it is this: you don't have to do much of the traditional sit down style meditation to get it's benefits, but you do have to be mindful of what's going on. Going out for a walk? Halt the analytical part of your brain by paying attention to the way your feet go up and down on the ground. Note what else comes to your mind, label it, and let it go.
posted by ayerarcturus at 9:56 PM on September 11, 2010

Oh, and, seconding iamkimiam! I just remembered that what really works well in periods of over-analyzing is "exercising" my brain:

- making up poems in my head (Limericks are great for that!)
- crosswords (the hard ones)
- and especially, playing chess against the computer, or solving chess puzzles.

These things seem to exhaust my brain and stop the overthinking. I can literally feel my brain relaxing in a soft warm puddle of non-thinking after a "workout" of chess puzzles...
posted by The Toad at 10:00 PM on September 11, 2010

Oh, and, seconding iamkimiam!

Bearing in mind that it is ultimately a positive thing is also a great point.
posted by mediocritease at 10:03 PM on September 11, 2010

I don't even know how I did it -- or even if I did it, could be I was just worn down to it is all -- but one day in the not to distant past I just stopped doing it, stopped seeking out every. possible. angle. imaginable. and just started living easier in my skin. Could be something to do with welbutrin, which absolutely cut deeply into the depression I'd suffered my entire life up until I put it into my body, could be but I'm not certain. Could be just worn down from it all finally, as noted above, could be that in my fifties I've quit circling and circling to no avail, maybe some wisdom has finally caught up with me.

I still get caught in my head some but by social stuff, mostly, and not so much by analysis paralysis. By which I mean, if I feel someone is angry at me, or I'm concerned that this person doesn't like me or that one, I can surely get awfully obsessed behind all of that foolishness and circle and twirl around, until I finally let it go and walk on through.

And I've got friends that I trust, that I can tell them about things, and they are free to tell me if I'm jerking myself round in circles; I trust their judgement, they know me well and they know my patterns and I respect their objective viewpoints and act upon what they show me. I've a sister who I also let in very close, and same with my therapist. And I pray, too, and ask for help in this matter, and I do get help in it; it's subtle, it's not some parting of the seas miracle or whatever, more just that I can sometimes be free of the bonds of ego. Clearly, you can see I'm a person who wants to let it go, and I'm willing to ask for help; maybe that's part of it, right? No telling.

Last. I've an old friend who is still completely bogged into her head, she can write for hours, or days, twisting her mind this way and that, and sending me emails about it -- it's really painful. I can't read it, not often, she's grinding herself to dust, she's spinning around in a tight circle, one foot nailed to the floor. These past few days I've gotten about two emails a day from her, mostly I skim them, give what I can give, let her be on her way.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:27 PM on September 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

What worked for me was turning my overactive brain to the question "how can I be satisfied with myself/my life?"

To some degree this meant rationalizing. It also meant understanding how overanalysis colours my perspective and skews things. It meant thinking hard about how to defeat my brain's tendency to highlight negative outcomes.

In other words, turn your brain's excess energy against itself. You can't stop an overactive brain, but you can direct it.
posted by fatbird at 10:30 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you need meditation.

The over-thinking/over-analyzing is really just lack of focus. People who are "thinkers" are usually just scattered.

Meditation can focus and simplify your life. But meditation is harder than you might think!
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 10:52 PM on September 11, 2010

Over-thinking is absolutely a healthy thing, if you know how to use it. Effective planning gives you a sense of security, especially when everything goes the right way.

The problem lies in improvisation. What if things don't go the right way? How do you avoid falling instantly into anxious despair? "It's a simple matter," as Elijah Wood says in the Oxford Murders, "of going with the flow." You have to train yourself to recognize patterns in behavior, among yourself and among others, and learn to alter your outward behavior to best benefit you in any situation, no matter how unpredictable it may turn out.

This style of perspective is easier said than done. Every human is an enigma. Some are easy to figure out, and some are harder. The beauty of it is that every human can be solved. That catch is that it takes a hyper-active prefrontal cortex to do that kind of computing. Set yours to work the right way!
posted by Aba_Sababa at 10:53 PM on September 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I got a job as a dishy. I like to do the best I can at things and ironically being the best at dishying is to remove your brain from the exercise. It's an entirely physical process where you body/mind becomes a machine, that is if you want to keep up with the dishes. You can think about other things if you want, but you'll miss your dish>tray>sort timing. It also helps to make friends with people who do not overthink things.

Do something that requires a tough mental attitude but thinking itself is not a part of the activity. Make sure it's something with a strong motivation (job/self improvement/passion/hobby). I tend to carry that attitude across to real life or my personal goals if I want to get stuff done without the thought, but when I get lazy it creeps back in. Computers do not help. Good luck, have fun :)
posted by Submiqent at 1:59 AM on September 12, 2010

Response by poster: Wow! Thank you. Great responses, this is more that what I expected. I can really relate to some of the things you guys experienced.

My mood has been going up and down for the last 10 years or so. In the bad periods I was just a useless human being, locking myself up in my room for weeks. I did not know that I have been having the problem, I thought mood swings are normal and I am just to lazy to force myself to be productive. Then I learned about bipolarity. I thought I am bipolar so I went to seek help. I am seeing psychiatrist and psychologist now to determine what the problem is, but their assessments are inconclusive.

But yesterday, somehow I realized that my over-thinking could be the cause of my mood swings. It has been draining my energy for years and keeping me from becoming more productive. Often I wake up fresh in the morning, start something and get myself caught in the the thinking circle, abandon what I am working on that moment, looking for distractions while thinking (Such as endlessly surfing popular sites; this one and others), become tired mentally and psychically, then I will need sleep. And ended up not doing what I am supposed to be doing. At times, thinking about irrelevant things kept me awake at night. Then I will be waking up tired and when I am tired often my mind turns negative. Which after a while will worsen my mood. It is a snowballing effect.

So what I am going to do to stop this habit is... I am going to remind myself constantly to "stop thinking and start doing", putting this reminder everywhere. I am going to (learn to) meditate to keep my head clear and I am going to do brain exercises like you guys suggested.

To mediocritease:

-Are you prone to depression?
Yes at times

-How would you rate your self-esteem?
8 on normal days, 6 when depressed

-Were your parents or siblings alcoholics?

-Have you ever taken any SSRIs or like medication?
posted by bbxx at 2:52 AM on September 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I didn't think I had anything to add, but Kathleen Norris wrote a book called The Quotidian Mysteries, which is in part about using repetitive housework -- laundry, dishes, etc. -- as a form of meditation. I have difficulty with silent meditation; I do much better with active meditation that goes with a repetitive task (such as embroidery, housework, or the video game Zuma). In case that helps at all.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:35 AM on September 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

I know this problem.

When I feel this way, I pick up (or sit down at) an instrument and play.

You cannot think, at least in the way you're talking about, when playing music. Your mind will travel other paths to other places.

After some time, be it 10 minutes or 2 hours, the music will lead you down a road out of the overgrown forest of your mind.

I guess it's a form of meditation, playing music like this. Anyway, it works for me.

Good luck!
posted by jet_manifesto at 6:02 AM on September 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hello bbxx, we are kindred spirits.

My therapist says, for ME*, this habit of over-analyzing everything to the point of paralysis is my defense mechanism for avoiding failure. Apparently I have a very strong perfectionist streak, and I often subconsciously deal with this by never actually starting anything. Hey, if I never DO anything, then I won't FAIL at it, or it won't ever be less than perfect!

So, she says I need to give myself permission to screw up, or to do something in a way that's "good enough" and not necessarily perfect. And I also need to give myself credit for any part of a project I DO complete, even if the whole project remains unfinished.

For example, this summer I've been trying to clean out my basement, which is filled with years of accumulated crap that needs to be dealt with already. Rather than creating a nice color-coded Excel spreadsheet of every small thing that needs to be done down there (which I've done several times ::rolls eyes::), I should just spend 15 minutes DOING one thing, even if all I do is decide to throw out one old college notebook. Better some success no matter how minuscule, than no forward movement at all.

If any of this rings true for you, you might consider just giving yourself permission to do a half-assed job, if it means the difference between getting something done vs. nothing at all done.

posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:06 AM on September 12, 2010 [16 favorites]

The path to doing lies in good planning, though. It's hard to do what you haven't planned to do, if that's how your brain works. I would recommend religiously using a tool like Google Calendars, or iCal - both of these programs have simple checklists that you can use to structure your day. Once you get good at translating your day into a Google calendarized, task-based checklist, you effectively let the program do your thinking. You cease to waste mental resources trying to remember what else it is you have to do.

Once get really good at constructing and adhering to your checklist, you can do funky things like planning stress time for hard decisions, or planning thinking time for a certain, specific problem. It takes a bit of discipline, but believe you me, it's well worth it.
posted by Aba_Sababa at 7:37 AM on September 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sounds like ADD to me. Overthinking might be just another name for being easily distracted--your brain is constantly whirring. I'd ditch the shrinks and go for a neurologist. Adderall changed my life.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:18 AM on September 12, 2010

-Are you prone to depression?
Yes at times

-How would you rate your self-esteem?
8 on normal days, 6 when depressed

-Were your parents or siblings alcoholics?

-Have you ever taken any SSRIs or like medication?

Our shared problem likely differs in origin. Sometimes there are underlying problems that contribute to obsessing. If you're not prone to depression in general, came from a relatively happy home and your self-esteem is at a healthy level then I would agree that the your overthinking is likely the cause of your mood swings. Mindfulness is a key strategy, I think. As I said previously, you need to be aware of what kinds of things trigger your tendency to think in circles. The better you are at identifying those things, the more success you'll have in coping with your thoughts. You should also bear in mind that the longer you run in those circles, the more momentum the thoughts generate and the harder it is to stop them.

Years ago, when I first realized that this was becoming a problem for me, my strategy was two-fold: I started Paxil, which gave me a little more control over what I did and did not dwell on, and I made it a point to note when the thought train began. If I noticed that I was starting to obsess, I would immediately force myself to stop and do something else. Anything else. It takes practice, but it can be effective. Remember that you don't have a choice regarding what thoughts pop into your head, but you do have a choice in what thoughts you pay the most attention to. Really examine whether or not your overthinking is helping you in any way - does it lead you to any profound insights? Does it provide you with some kind of closure when confronting problems? If it's not positive in any way, then you can learn to be okay with just walking away from the thought, whatever it is. This is just my experience, and it is comparatively narrow. All of the above suggestions, minus maybe the adderall, are excellent. And as so many others have mentioned, it is ultimately a positive thing, and you shouldn't beat yourself up over it. Learn to harness it. Best of luck.
posted by mediocritease at 11:58 AM on September 12, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for the great responses. I know much more now how to handle my over-thinking problem than two days ago. I also sympathize with many of you with the same problem as I, especially SuperSquirrel. There are two books that I know that might help: Self Discipline in 10 Days and 4 Hour Workweek.
posted by bbxx at 12:08 AM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've found 'The Cult of Done Manifesto' helpful when trying to adopt a mindset suitable for actually getting stuff done rather than pondering every aspect of the thing I wish to do.
posted by Ask Ives at 5:24 AM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Deciding for yourself can be a waste of time and effort.

When deciding things that aren't the end of the world -- when choosing ice cream, chocolate or strawberry? when picking a vacation destination, Greece or Italy? on a casual walk, turn left or right? -- choose randomly and act on the result. If the dice say Italy, fuck Greece, Italy is your destination.

When deciding things that may really matter, ask people who should know better than you do and act on their advice without hesitation. If you can't make up your mind whether to get a Windows or Macintosh machine, ask some knowledgeable people and do what they tell you to do.
posted by pracowity at 11:23 AM on September 13, 2010

My thinking was a learned trait that i developed when i was bored with a lot of time on my hands. It just became a sort of habit. Then I too got tired of myself, like others that have posted. For many things, I decided to commit myself to choosing the 1st thing that comes up be it toothpaste, plans for a wednesday night, dinner etc. of course, you can't do this with everything but in my off times and in scenarios where the decision isn't super serious...i make an effort to go with the flow w/o turning over every possible outcome. it forces me to not over think and get active in whatever the outcome is. it's been a richer experience. good luck!
posted by UltraD at 1:43 PM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I favorited your question because it resonated with me, and then last Saturday I ran into a copy of Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong which made me realize that thoughts are just thoughts, sometimes. Sometimes it really is just drivel. The book also points out that we can't really "control" our negative thoughts and emotions--in fact, we're genetically selected to have those thoughts. (Think: Caveman Ogg goes around every corner and thinks: "Is there a bear? Is there a bear? Oh, my god, what if there's a bear?" is probably less likely to get eaten than Bogg, who goes "I am at peace and zen, I am at peace and Zen" and is eaten before he can procreate.) This is where I've gone wrong in the past: I've been thinking I could transform myself to some higher sphere of Happy, Positive Thoughts.

But you can't control them, but you can control your reaction to those thoughts. It's only been a couple of days, but sometimes when I hear the internal chatter and anxiety that makes me clam up (x is going to go wrong, etc.) I just realize that it's chatter. It's not anything I'm actively thinking about, it's just my mind being my mind. This book really cleared up meditation for me, too, when I realized it wasn't about "being free of thought and focusing on the present moment" so much as realizing that thoughts are just the tide washing over the beach of my mind.
posted by Dukat at 9:14 AM on September 14, 2010

I had this problem. Long story short, I finally found a job (freelance writing) where I get paid to basically over-think the shit out of things.

Now I over-analyze, brood, pick apart, contemplate, and over-think the shit out of things all day long. Then I mash those overcooked thoughts into 2,500 words a day, and cash the check. It's pretty much the best thing ever, from that perspective.

(From the perspective of trifling considerations like health insurance and a livable wage, maybe not so great. But seriously, so what?)
posted by ErikaB at 7:25 PM on September 15, 2010

Deadlines. Tie/lock/rope yourself into a situation where the jobs just have to be done, and by a certain time. It won't stop you from the initial over-thinking, but at some point, you see the train headed down the track coming towards you, and with bills to be paid, etc. etc. that works wonderfully for clearing the mind and spurring you into actual action. This has worked for me (in my professional life) for over twenty years now. (My personal life is a different story ...! )
posted by woodblock100 at 4:03 AM on September 18, 2010

« Older How do I break up with someone who is depressed   |   Cooky Cookies Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.