If I’m not paying attention, I tend to be an over-thinker — I ruminate and play out various scenarios in my head past the point of it being productive.
This bad habit can make me agitated and anxious, especially when an answer or solution doesn’t emerge from all of my thinking. In the past, I’d just plunge back in, believing I hadn’t given enough thought to the situation.
Of course, cogitating beyond what’s necessary for analysis and good judgment doesn’t usually offer enlightenment or peace of mind.
Over-thinking zaps your energy, spontaneity, and creativity. It traps your mind on an endlessly spinning gerbil wheel, leaving you exhausted and stressed.
In his bestselling book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer reminds:
“While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to relentlessly focus, this clenched state of mind comes with a hidden cost: it inhibits the sort of creative connections that lead to breakthroughs. We suppress the very type of brain activity that should be encouraged.”
But over-thinking isn’t the only reason for a tired mind. Just the demands of life alone are enough to ignite multiple signals in your brain, leading to burn-out, stress, and anxiety. You have to be “on” and focused at work all day. You have obligations and responsibilities outside of work that require your attention and brain power.
If you get too little sleep, too little exercise, and poor nutrition, your brain is starved for the nutrients and chemical connections that make it function at peak performance. Even the constant access to our computers and phones exhaust our minds. As Daniel J. Levitan writes in an article for The New York Times:
Every day we’re assaulted with facts, pseudofacts, news feeds and jibber-jabber, coming from all directions. According to a 2011 study, on a typical day, we take in the equivalent of about 174 newspapers’ worth of information, five times as much as we did in 1986.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed, there’s a good reason. The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited. You have two networks in your brain — one for task processing and the other for daydreaming. You can toggle between these two networks, but they operate separately. You need a balance between both networks during your day in order to function optimally.
Most of us spend far too much time in the task processing network of our brains. We don’t allow ourselves the time and freedom to relax our minds so we can be more productive, creative, and rested.
Here are 10 ways to relax your mind during the day:
1. Partition your day.
List the projects you want to accomplish during the day, and identify one hour to 90 minute time segments to work on those projects. Don’t allow email and social networking to interrupt these project boxes.
Instead, create a project box for email and networking as well, and only attend to these during the designated time. By switching back and forth between tasks, you are sapping mental resources that could be applied to useful projects or brainstorming.
2. Focus on one task at a time.
In addition to creating project boxes of time, avoid multitasking altogether. Focus intently on one task at a time. Turn off distractions on your phone and computer. Close the door and clear your desk. You will save mental energy when your mind isn’t trying to focus on multiple input.
Even though multitasking seems efficient, juggling tasks actually divides your attention. It increases the time you spend refocusing on important tasks which obviously makes you less productive.
3. Walk in nature while listening to music.
Studies have shown that walking in nature triggers mind-wandering and daydreaming. A growing number of studies reveal how walking in nature reduces stress and puts the walker into a meditative state of mind.
Music also reinforces contemplation and is a proven method for improving attention, boosting confidence and social skills, and affording a sense of engagement.
A study by researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science tells us that daydreaming is a sign of an active and engaged mind.
The study reveals that daydreaming is associated with higher degrees of working memory. This type of memory allows the brain to retain and recall information in the face of distractions.
Daydreaming has also been shown to boost your mood, make you more empathetic, reduce stress and depression, and enhance creativity.
5. Take a short nap.
Taking a short nap in the middle of the day can help relax your mind and restore mental energy, especially if you take the nap before around 2:00 pm and don’t allow it go beyond 25-30 minutes.
Several studies suggest a nap of even 10 minutes improved cognitive function and vigor, and decreased sleepiness and fatigue during the day.
6. Take a vacation.
Remove yourself entirely from you work schedule and daily activities for several days or a week. If you truly use your vacation to relax (not as another work locale), then you are giving your brain a much needed, extended break.
Research by Gregory Hickok of the University of California Irvine found that vacations can help reset your mental energy, as our brains don’t have a reserve pool to gather and store energy.
If we had a well-spring of reserve brain power, vacations might not be so necessary for relaxing the mind. But since we don’t have those reserves, time away is essential to allow the brain to restore itself.
7. Meditate for short periods.
Meditation provides a deep relaxation that stills the mind and quiets the constant chatter in your head. When you stop this internal dialogue, your mind settles and relaxes. Your mental relaxation response also calms and relaxes the body.
After a mentally intense task, take ten minutes to close your eyes and practice a mindfulness meditation. Or use meditation as a way of interrupting your looping thoughts of worry or anxiety. It may take most of the ten minutes to quiet the mental chatter, but once you experience a few minutes of mental calm, you’ll see how restorative it is.
8. Get in sync with your ultradian rhythm.
Nathan Kleitman, a groundbreaking sleep researcher, discovered the 90-minute cycles you progress through during the five stages of sleep. He also found that the 90-minute pattern occurs in our days as well, as we shift from higher to lower levels of alertness. This pattern is called the ultradian rhythm.
This rhythm means we operate at our best when we cycle through periods of mental activity followed by periods of rest, so we can renew our mental energy. When we try to push through the low alertness periods, we rely on our stress hormones to see us through — which ultimately causes burn-out, anxiety, and adrenaline addiction.
If you want to be more productive, creative, and mentally calm, take a break from tasks and work every 90 minutes to completely relax and renew your mind.
9. Practice visualization.
Another technique for relaxing your mind is visualization — or mental imagery. Close your eyes, take a few deep breathes, and then imagine in your mind’s eye a scene or event that is completely calming and relaxing.
It could be a beautiful setting in nature, a healing white light, or a vision of yourself peacefully floating on water. Allow yourself to feel and sense everything about the scene you’re visualizing — the warm sun, the sound of birds, the feeling of the breeze. Make it as real as your mind will allow.
Visualization is something you can easily practice during your breaks between 90-minute tasks. You can find guided imagery audios or videos online if you’d prefer to be led through the visualization. Wear headphones when you use guided visualization so the images go directly into your head.
When you get stuck in over-thinking, as I tend to do, one of the best ways to release your thoughts and calm your mind is by writing. By writing down your worries or thoughts, you “trap” them on paper, freeing you to think about other things or simply relax your mind.
This brain dump alone, especially if it’s done first thing in the morning, can free your mind to focus on more productive, positive thoughts. Also, when you write down your fear and anxieties, they become less scary and overwhelming, because you see them for what they are. Writing them down helps ground you.
Be sure you write in longhand, rather than using a computer, as writing by hand is slower and forces you to process information and feelings. The slowness also helps connect you to your emotional life.
I like to write in stream of consciousness, just allowing thoughts and ideas to float on to the paper without judging them. After I write, I close the journal and try not to review what I’ve written for a few days. When I go back to read it, I always discover some new insight I hadn’t expected.
It’s almost impossible to live in the world today without feeling overwhelmed by thoughts and information. Our minds are constantly stimulated, and we feel driven to produce, connect, and stay informed.
Over time, however, your body and mind will begin to revolt in the form of anxiety, stress, depression, and even illness. Pay attention to the signals your mind and body are sending you, and practice one or more of these methods for relaxing your mind. You’ll ultimately be more productive, creative, and calm in everything you pursue.