How to Break Free From the Cycle of Overthinking and Master Your Mind


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Picture this scenario. You’re about to present the company’s latest objectives and how they connect to the greater vision, but you’ve just spent the better part of the morning trapped — not physically, but in a negative thought loop. Maybe it’s about a less-than-flattering user review or an uncomfortable exchange at a recent networking event. The point is that you’re ruminating and worsening your ability to lead your team effectively — for more reasons than you might imagine.

Most obviously, rumination is distracting. It removes you from the present and prevents you from doing work that requires deep focus, like preparing for an important speech. Negative thought loops worsen your mood and research has shown that they lengthen depressive bouts. You can’t put your best foot forward when you’re not feeling your best. But even more importantly, people who tend to ruminate aren’t just experiencing momentary sadness — they’re internalizing negative feedback into their sense of self. That negative thought loop isn’t just altering your mood; it’s changing how you see yourself as a leader.

I regularly write about my experiences as CEO and founder of Jotform. I share challenges and points of vulnerability. I don’t try to present myself as flawless. The problem with rumination, as opposed to being vulnerable, is that it’s often inaccurate. For example, you have one awkward interaction and spiral into believing you’re socially inept. The truth is more nuanced.

Self-reflection is important. Self-awareness is an important trait in a leader. But rumination — which the APA defines as obsessional thinking involving excessive, repetitive thoughts or themes that interfere with other forms of mental activity — doesn’t serve you as an individual or your organization, as its leader. Entrepreneurs are often obsessed with their businesses down to the last detail, and perfectionists are more likely to ruminate. If you’re caught in negative thinking patterns, here are some strategies to help break the cycle.

Related: How to Stop Overthinking and Calm Your Buzzing Mind

Try a different spin

Once, when we released a product update, the user reception was surprisingly lukewarm. The team thought the new version was a vast improvement. Judging by the numbers, our users did not agree. I was stumped. I found myself obsessing about what the ordeal said about me as a leader. I launched a company with a vision of making our users’ lives easier. But if I couldn’t anticipate how to do that — the tools and services to execute that vision — then what was I doing?

At a certain point, I remembered something I had recently read: You are not your thoughts. These ideas were living in my head, but that didn’t mean they were reality.

When you’re caught in a similarly destructive thought pattern, first, identify and observe those thoughts objectively. As Harvard Business Review notes, “Rather than allowing negative ideas to feel like dictators in your life, gain some perspective by observing them from a distance and reminding yourself that they’re just thoughts.”

Researchers from the University of California Davis Center for Mind and Brain, proposed that reframing a negative experience may be one way to stop rumination and its mood-worsening effects. In my case, I might switch the narrative from “I can’t anticipate user needs,” to, “This update was a misfire, let’s get back to the drawing board and figure out why.”

Like a news team, run through different spins you might take on the same situation. Recent research using resting-state fMRI, a method of functional magnetic resonance imaging that captures brain activity while the brain is at rest, concluded that rumination might be verbal or language-based. That means that changing the narrative — literally, spelling out a different way to frame your thoughts — can help disentangle you from negative loops and positively impact your mood.

Related: Want to Be Successful? Quit Overthinking.

Carve out (productive) worry time

I’ve written about being a meta-scheduler (hat tip Cal Newport). Everything I do is blocked into my e-calendar, even time for scheduling. When Greg Siegle, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who studies rumination, told the New York Times that setting aside dedicated “worry or rumination time” could relieve some incessant thinking, I was immediately on board.

But following the technique from sleep expert Lisa Strauss, I take the practice of carving out “worry time” one step further. If pervasive thoughts distract me from work or keep me up at night, I grab a pen and a notepad and draw four columns. In the first column, I jot down whatever is stressing me. In the second, I write: Can I do anything about these stressors in the next two weeks? If the answer is no, I remind myself there’s nothing I can do anytime the thought pops up — at least not for now. If yes, I describe what I can do in the third column. In the fourth column, I give myself a deadline.

Why do I find this technique effective?

Because simply telling yourself not to think something is not effective. (Don’t think about a pink elephant.) Giving yourself an assignment, turning obsessive thoughts into actionable steps, is. As Strauss told the Washington Post, “[W]e don’t need to accomplish these things anything close to perfectly for them to be helpful.” Even if there are no solutions, taking a step back from my thoughts and taking time to draw the chart has a calming effect.

They say, “The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.” The above strategies help me to regain control. I can return to work with a lighter mind, with more bandwidth to focus and more attention to dedicate to my colleagues.

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