1. Acknowledge negative thinking.
Breaking harmful thought cycles begins with awareness. Unless you acknowledge that you’re ruminating, you’ll never be able to curtail it. What’s more, spending so much mental energy in your interior world renders you less proactive in the exterior.
“The more we are engaged in overthinking, the less [we’re] actually doing things in the physical environment,” explains clinical psychologist David Carbonell
Everyone overthinks sometimes, but if you find yourself obsessing over a negative idea or experience, take a step back and pay attention to what’s happening in your head. Be an observer for a second. Try to identify the content of your negative thoughts. Then, you can work on addressing them.
2. Switch into problem-solving mode and have a goal-setting session.
Oftentimes, we ruminate on things outside of our present control. That’s why it’s important to consider whether you can do anything right now to resolve what you’re ruminating about.
If you can, make a list of steps to work towards ameliorating the situation. Say, for example, I made a snafu during a presentation. My list would include: email attendees a clarification email, schedule extra time to prepare for my next presentation, etc. Goal-setting is key.
Or, if you can’t deal with the issue now, set a time to focus on it later. “Chances are it won’t bother you very much when you meet up with it — and you will be able to enjoy your life during the rest of the day,” writes Robert Leahy, Director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy.
3. Break a sweat.
Because nothing settles an overactive mind like some stress-reducing endorphins, exercise is one of the best anecdotes for ruminating. When you exercise, you’re also more engaged in your current activity — i.e., more mindful, which leaves mental less space to ruminate.
Whether it’s biking, jogging, boxing or yoga — do whichever form of exercise you enjoy. Even a brisk walk during your lunch hour can help clear the head. Or, depending on the length of your commute, you can walk to work like Jack Dorsey. The Twitter and Square CEO has said that taking the time to walk the five miles to work every day is the most worthwhile investment he’s ever made.
In his words: “It’s a very clearing time. I want to put as much unexpected potential in front of me because I think something that you don’t plan will always make you think differently.”
4. Treat yourself to some empathy.
Oftentimes, we’re harsher on ourselves than we are with others. For example, if a colleague had a presentation blip, you probably wouldn’t condemn them as a terrible orator. You’d likely think they were just having an off-day.
Make an effort to be objective. Consider the advice you’d give to a friend or loved one in your situation, then try to take that same empathetic tone with yourself. If your ruminating continues, visualize how you’ll feel in a few weeks from now. That’s how you’ll feel soon enough.
And remember, even the most successful people suffer occasional setbacks. What defines them is not letting those setbacks throw them off track.