As if focusing isn’t already hard enough.
You’re sitting at your desk, reading the project specifications. Your eyes are moving left to right, but your mind isn’t registering any of the words. The inside of your head is preoccupied by that thought.
You know which thought I’m talking about.
The thought that keeps grabbing at your attention no matter how hard you try to suppress it. It’s like a fly that won’t go away no matter how hard you shoo it.
That thought is haunting you. You can’t stop thinking about it. It doesn’t let you work. It doesn’t let you sleep. Trying to keep it at bay is a physical effort causing you to cinch your eyebrows and break into a sweat.
You can’t deal with the issue now. What you need to be doing now is the work that is on your desk, so you don’t get fired. Yet, that one pesky little thought doesn’t care. It will not let you read or focus on the client demands. It wants all your attention, and it wants it now.
What’s the thought?
It’s different for everyone.
It could be the party you’re planning this weekend, a divorce you’re going through, an undying crush on the guy in the next cubicle, or the apartment rent.
7 Tips for When Your Brain Won’t Let It Go
When your mind is holding on to an issue, it’s impossible to get any work done, especially work that requires cognitive abilities, like focus or memory.
You don’t do your best when multitasking. Stressing over one thing while trying to do another is like multitasking or even worse. You don’t give your full attention to either task, and nothing gets done.
Luckily, you don’t have to be a victim to the whims of your mind.
With these 7 techniques, you keep up your performance when going through life challenges.
1. Get It Out of Your Head
Our brains don’t like unfinished tasks.
Leave a project incomplete and your brain will toss it around, reminding you about it at random times. It thinks it’s helping you out by making sure you don’t forget the activity.
Marketers know about this stunt your brain plays, so they use it to their benefit. They cut through your TV show to display commercials. While your brain is tossing around the incomplete show plot, you’re susceptible to their messages.
I can hear you screaming internally, “HOW DO I TURN IT OFF?!”
Don’t worry. There is a way.
The secret is to get it out of your head and on to paper.
That’s right. Write down whatever is bothering you.
Once you write it down and there’s no fear of forgetting, your brain can let go. In fact, writing things down actually improves your cognitive abilities.
A Michigan State University study showed that expressive writing calms your brain when you’re stressed. With more of your brain available, you do better.
If it’s a task, add it to your to-do list. If it’s about an argument with your partner, write what you want to tell them when you see them next (then shred it because you don’t want anyone reading that).
2. Plan It
Now that the thought is on paper, your brain doesn’t have to hold it anymore. Yet, it will still worry about how you’ll solve the issue and when you’ll get to it.
The thoughts that gnaw at your brain are usually complex. They involve many components and have emotional aspects.
It’s overwhelming. Many times, you feel powerless while a wave of troubles crashes over you.
To put order in your life, add all your tasks to a schedule. Dump everything that’s worrying you on a paper. Plan all the little details and assign a time for each activity.
(Have trouble sticking to your plans? Use these strategies to boost your self-control.)
Whenever a related thought pops into your head, remind yourself that you’ll get to it when the allocated time comes. Now isn’t the time to address it.
3. Schedule Thinking
Trying to suppress a thought is like trying to hold a beach ball under water.
Instead of focusing on what’s in front of you, you’re fighting an internal battle. You lose each time because you didn’t solve the problem nor get work done.
For example, say you can’t stop thinking about a close friend who’s going through chemotherapy. You want to do something to cheer them up.
They’re in a hospital going through such trying times and you’re stuck at work, not able to do a single thing to help.
The thought keeps coming back. Instead of trying to bury it under the more pressing work you should be doing, postpone it.
Set a time during the day to think about what you’re going through and what you’re going to do about it. Clear up time in your schedule when you’ll be free to think. It could be before you go to bed or on your commute. Even better, take a walk after work.
4. Don’t Remember
You applied the previous three tips. Your mind is clear. Terrific. You can get back to work and disregard that thought that has been bothering you for the past two weeks.
At least until you get a reminder, that is. In a second, your mental walls are infiltrated, and the thought domineers your awareness once again.
Facebook tells you your ex is engaged. You get an email titled ‘9 things you must do before signing a lease’. Your phone buzzes with a message from your business partner.
As soon as your eyes fall upon these reminders, your mind starts churning once again. “What do you mean engaged? We broke up last week!”, “9 things to do before signing! I only did 3. What did I miss? I sure hope it’s not important.”
All your efforts to eradicate the thought are futile if you are surrounded by reminders that bring your attention back to the issue.
5. Practice Mindfulness
It is so easy to talk and preach about mindfulness, but putting it into practice is a challenge.
Nonetheless, even a little bit of mindfulness each day can take you a long way.
Mindfulness means to give all your attention to the present moment. You focus all your senses on what’s right in front of you.
When that pesky thought pops into your head for the 50 billionth time, focus on your breath for a few minutes, bring yourself back to the moment, and get back to work.
If you get stuck on how you can apply mindfulness in your daily life, check out these methods by Hey Sigmund.
6. Distract Yourself
I can never focus if the room is quiet.
I do my work for two minutes before getting distracted by anything within reach. I’ll scribble on a paper, play with the desk drawers, or pick up my phone.
This all changes when I play music or white noise in the background.
The addition of an external sensory stimulus silences my mind and helps me focus.
This doesn’t apply to just me. A study by Stanford found that listening to music improves your focus and improves brain function.
When you find yourself unable to focus, turn on your favorite tunes or use white noise. Block out the thoughts that are troubling you.
7. Get It Out of the Way
The definitive treatment of an occupied mind is to deal with whatever it is that’s bothering you.
This isn’t always possible, but even if you have to take a few days off of work to get it taken care of, so be it. It will positively affect your work in the long run.
Afraid what will happen if you go with your gut? Do the research, make the best decision you can, and move on.
Worried about how your spouse will react when she finds out about your transfer? Only one way to figure out, tell her.
Contemplate what you can do to get the matter off your mind, then go do that. Remember, worrying just makes you suffer twice.
Control Your Thoughts or They Control You
Work-life balance isn’t real. You are one person. You can’t have two different lives that are separate from each other. Thoughts, emotions, and situations from your personal life will inevitably bleed into your work life.
At the same time, you aren’t helpless in front of the wave of thoughts that consume your mind. You can still keep up your performance and maintain your sanity while dealing with these issues.
Each of these tips will help silence your mind, so that you can control your thoughts before they control you. Life won’t always go smoothly. But that doesn’t mean all your life aspects have to suffer.
Remember you are in control. Silence your thoughts and get to work.