Do you ever find yourself passively thinking about the same thing over and over again in your head? Do you ever find yourself having an internal dialogue with others, going through previous situations in your mind, and thinking about what you would have done differently? Do you think about a certain situation from your past on repeat (and feel overwhelmed or even stressed)?
It’s been said we mostly live in our past, but the question is – why? Why do we live in our past when there is nothing we can do to change it? Why do we keep running the same tape in our heads? Why don’t we get closure and move on?
Here’s what I think. One reason is we haven’t fully accepted it nor have we done anything about it. As a result, we find ourselves stuck in between, which is the last place we want to be.
Apart from that, we think mindlessly most of the time. We are using our attention in sub-optimal ways, much less doing anything useful with it. Our mind will keep gnawing at us unless we actively acknowledge it. When we keep thinking about something, it undermines our attention, uses valuable space, and affects our ability to stay in the moment. Besides, indecision can be a source of friction in our everyday lives.
Nothing stresses us more than not following through on our commitments. Most of us do not even know the totality of our commitments, month-to-month and week-to-week, let alone think about them logically, and much less do anything about them.
We think we can keep everything in our heads hoping it’ll all work out, but it never does. That only results in more stress and more incomplete thinking. The problem isn’t in the doing of the things you have to do, but about finishing the thinking required in order to do those things.
For instance, I know when I have skipped my weekly review on the weekend, I always end up passively reviewing things intermittently during the week, which is the last thing I want to be doing – mostly because it undermines my attention, meaning I struggle to focus on the present. When we don’t review our week proactively, we always end up reviewing our week reactively and passively.
Here are some ideas for finishing your thinking.
While we may not be in control of the thoughts that arise, how we respond to those thoughts is surely in our control. We can classify our thoughts as positive, negative, or wasteful. We can train ourselves to be mindful of negative and wasteful thoughts, so we can keep those to a minimum.
We need to make a conscious choice about whatever we are thinking. It’s only when we choose to acknowledge things that we can truly let go of them. It’s the thinking that’s the hard part. When we do that, the doing (if warranted) takes care of itself. Here’s what I shared earlier:
Build some thinking time in your work day to give yourself some space. It’s never about having more time; it’s about having more clear space and what that space allows you to do. By giving yourself pockets of time during the day to think about your work, it helps you take a step back and reflect on what you’re doing and where you’re headed.
We need to think about what has our attention more than we realize, but less than we think. The other thing is, we have to do the thinking sooner or later. The question is if we will do it upfront proactively or whether we will wait to think over these things until we’re in crisis mode, where we’re more likely to react.
Just because something is on our mind doesn’t mean we need to do anything about it. When we think about something more than once, we need to ask ourselves if it’s potentially meaningful. If so, we capture it now and decide later what to do with it.
The problem isn’t in not doing the things on our mind, but finishing our thinking about them. Thinking about your work, for instance, doesn’t mean we have to finish doing the work there and then. Once we’ve summarized what we need to do, we need to park the results of that thinking outside of our head in a system we trust, which we can train ourselves to review at least on a weekly basis. The key question we need to ask ourselves as part of this process is what do we need to do to get it off our mind.
So when it’s time to do the work, we’re not thinking about the work anymore, we’re simply doing it. That’s how we separate the two. When we’re thinking about our work, all we’re doing is the thinking; when we’re doing the work, that is all we’re doing. This sounds rather obvious, but when it comes to practice, it’s less common than we might think.
One of the activities I do every morning is write morning pages. It helps me find out what has my attention that morning, so I can move on with my day without letting it hold me back. This way, I capture ideas that might be meaningful and think about them later to potentially act on them. Similarly, I will take some time in the evening to reflect on my day, so I can get closure on the day.
You don’t have to wait till morning or evening to find out what has your attention. You can do it anytime. Here’s what I wrote earlier:
When you feel like you have too many things on your mind, do a “brain dump” of all the things that have your attention in your list manager. Focus on capturing those things first, and only after you’ve captured them all, go through that list one by one to clarify what each of those things mean to you.
It’s best to capture what has our attention when it has our attention.
Nothing is worth thinking of twice unless of course, we like thinking about it. We need to finish our thinking about what’s on our mind. We need to acknowledge it and decide what we want to do with it – now or later. Unless we do so, it will take more of our attention than it deserves.