Clearing mind chatter

When you get home from work, is it hard to turn off your mind: The spilling-over-list of to-dos, the important meeting that’s coming up tomorrow, project A-1 that’s due on Friday, and oh, you forgot to attend the team meeting today?

Worse yet is when you’re winding down to go to sleep and your mind switch stays ON. The more you worry about the missed meeting and how you’ll pull off the project, the more your mind keeps spinning around, obsessing on things you can’t control at 11:00 at night.

What to do?

Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman offers these simple “thought-stopping techniques” in his book Learned Optimism.

Put a Halt to Your Thoughts

If someone was shouting loudly into their cell phone right next to your cube, you’d tell them to stop, right? That’s what Seligman says to do to your own mind, too. Make the command urgent and firm. You can say it aloud, in your head, or write “STOP” in large letters on a sticky note and post it on the edge of your computer screen. Print out a stop sign and tape it to your ceiling at night when you’re trying to catch some rest. If you prefer a more intense approach to behavioral modification, Seligman recommends that you put a rubber band on your wrist. He says to give it a good SNAP when your mind chatter races.

Switch Channels

Has someone ever said a joke in the middle of a heated debate and you laughed so hard you forgot what you were arguing about? Interrupting your train of thought also works for clearing mind clutter. As soon as the chatter fires up, give your mind something else to focus on, such as returning an important phone call. If that still spins you into obsessing, look out the window and focus on the orange leaves blowing in the wind. You’re not going to sit there and day dream, it’s just a quick diversion to switch gears and then re-focus your mind in a more productive way. Moving around can snap you out of it, too. Jog over to the water cooler for a cold drink. Check off a fast action that’s not related to your mind chatter.

Reschedule to Another Time

Be the aikido master of your own mind: turn the force of the mind chatter against itself. It has a survival purpose, after all. Your mind knows instinctively to repeat things over and over to fend off danger. (“Turn off the stove, turn off the stove, turn off the stove”) But in mind chatter’s effort of self-preservation, it’s too lizard-like to know when it’s no longer serving a survival purpose and is making you edgy in the process. The solution? Seligman says to reschedule with yourself. If your mind ruminates on stopping by your boss’ office on your way out, reschedule that thought. Say to yourself, “I’ll think about you at 4:55 p.m.” Of course, be sure to enter it into your calendar and set a reminder. Then your mind is free.

Try these mind tricks to unlock chatter mind’s grip and get back to what’s important.

Sue Brenner is a regular contributor to Unclutterer and also can be found on her personal blog Action Symphony.

21 Comments for “Clearing mind chatter”

  1. posted by Ginger on

    My husband and I used to work at the same company, and if we weren’t careful, we found we could rehash work business all evening. We developed a rule that after a certain landmark on our commute, we weren’t allowed to talk about work. We could talk about anything else, but work was turned off.

    It not only kept our minds free of work clutter (and helped us develop good ticker habits so we could get back to our last items the next morning), it was also good for our moods, because by the time we got home, any work upsets had been banished by talking about something else for 20 minutes.

  2. posted by Shanel Yang on

    I had this problem just last night and it kept me up for 30 minutes when I usually fall right to sleep. Usually I try to switch my mind to pleasant images such as puppies scrambling all over each other in a basket or in the grass, etc., but this time I decided to just let my mind go. It resulted in 30 more minutes of my tossing and turning, but I had some amazingly fantastic dreams and awoke full of fresh ideas for my blog! I don’t recommend this for every night, of course. It just happened to work for me b/c I usually resort to happy thoughts to halt my work thoughts and this is what happened when I did the reverse for one night. : )

  3. posted by L on

    I also recommend keeping a pen and paper on your nightstand. If I have a “I’m going to forget to do X tomorrow” freak-out as I’m falling asleep and write down “do X tomorrow” on the paper, I feel much more relaxed knowing that I’m sure to see the paper in the morning. Also sometimes just writing down what you’re worrying about frees your mind to think about other things.

  4. posted by Jeff Janer on

    My work-related mind chatter usually kicks in when I wake up in the middle of the night – and it keeps me from falling back asleep. I’ll first try to switch channels, but if I’m still tossing and turning (about 50% of the time), I’ll invariably try to “solve” the work issue. I’ll even get up to write something down in an effort to clear the work clutter.

    Putting a halt to my thoughts or rescheduling to another time doesn’t seem to work for me. Aside from falling back asleep due to sheer exhaustion – any other suggestions for what I might try?

  5. posted by penguinlady on

    To keep my mind from turning over subjects that I keep me up, I listen to audio books (with the digital books from the library, no clutter!). That gives me a focus and keeps the thoughts from racing through my head. Just a tip: don’t listen to a very funny or very tense book.

    Because I work from home, the boundaries between work and home are very blurred. I try to not go into my office when I’m done, but if I think of something important, I will come back in here and work for a half hour at 10 at night. (There were several days last month where I was checking things at 3 in the morning.) However, it also blurs the other way: I’ve been known to do laundry in between work tasks.

  6. posted by Sheryl on

    This is a timely post; I’ve laid awake for the last few nights, unable to shut off my brain. I would be just about ready to drift off, when Hubs would start snoring like a buzz saw and there I would be, wide awake again.

    Maybe some of these ideas, along with some good earplugs, will help.

  7. posted by lucille on

    Losing sleep over something won’t get you any closer to solving it and the lost sleep will leave you less equipped to deal with it the next day.

    I spend the last 15 minutes of work writing a list of what I need to do the next morning when I get back. That helps considerably to leave work at work and keep work from creeping back into your head that evening. Keeping to do lists and putting just about everything into my calendar also helps remove those things from your thoughts. If I find myself worrying or repeatedly thinking about something I put a reminder of some sort or even a post it note somewhere so I won’t forget and then purge it from my head.

  8. posted by Julie on

    The first suggestion is a good one, with caveats:

    If you use “STOP!” to stop repetitive/negative thoughts, you have to do it consistently. Using this method *will* cause the thoughts to multiply (since now you’re actively aware of them and doing something about them) so you have to be sure to repeat it often. After the burst of thoughts, they start dying down.

    I was taught this technique back in the 80’s when I suffered from constant “tapes” in my head that were negative and sending me into depressions. The warnings about using it were true. It relies on conditioning yourself to stop a particular behavior–but you have to stick with it if you start. Or, like a rat with intermittant conditioning, it (the tape playing constant chatter or negative thoughts) *will* get worse.

  9. posted by Fit Bottomed Girls on

    Before I go to bed I’ll sometimes jot down notes in my planner. That way I can sleep knowing that I can’t forget anything — it’s all written down. 🙂

  10. posted by Katharine on

    I count my blessings. I usually start by taking the main crazy thing on my mind and turning it into a positive, then continue on with my “list”. This works when trying to calm the thoughts at bedtime, or when I wake up in the middle of the night with something (if it’s a “to do”, I also write it down, so I can drop the thought). Maybe a little easy, but it almost always works.

  11. posted by Jessica on

    I’ve tried these tips before and they didn’t work for me, although I know they are sound advice that does work for most people.
    What I have to do is re-evaluate my priorities. This sounds like a big job, but practically what I do is read philosophy books. They help me remember what is truly important in life and help me fall asleep (since they are usually very dry). Bernard Russell’s autobiography, “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill, etc.
    I would imagine that for a spiritual person, religious or devotional books could work as well.

  12. posted by Ann at One Bag Nation on

    I do something sort of meditative when the chatter won’t let me sleep. I force myself to concentrate fully on the quiet (or the noise) inside and/or outside the house; I find it’s impossible to keep the chatter going when I’m completely focused on listening.

  13. posted by Peter on

    Any suggestions on if you work from home? I can never seem to turn off my mind for more than a few minutes. I have to literally stay away from my computer, and remember that just b/c I am home does not mean I have to work.

  14. posted by Suzyn on

    I find that _writing_things_down_ get them out of my head. I try to write a To Do list for the following day at the end of each workday. For more emotional/existential obsessing, I pull out my journal and write and write and write until my head quiets down.

  15. posted by MoStags on

    I agree with many of the suggestions posted: dry reading, audiobooks/podcasts (mp3 players are great if you’re sharing a bed). I also jot thoughts down and try to tell myself that sleep is more important and that I can trust myself that I’ll deal with the conflict/issue competently tomorrow. I also always take a couple deep breaths when my minds racing with issues. It helps keep cluttered thoughs at bay.

  16. posted by [email protected] Awareness * Connection on

    Very nice post. As a therapist, I can attest to all of these being road tested helpful strategies. My take on this stuff is that human beings are infinitely better at doing something else, than at stopping anything. Jeffery Schwartz successful approach to treating OCD is based on this. And OCD is a good model as it is essentially the inability to shut off the fear system and the accompanying compulsion to ruminate.

    @Jessica: That is another great one that comes at it from a totally different angle, shifting perspective altogether. I think it’s a great one for those who have interests in those directions. I’m a big fan of Evolutionary Psychology. Sometimes reminding myself of our origins and the odd if not poor match to our current environment seems to lighten the load for me. The problems we have we come by very honestly. They have a lot to do with how our minds are built.

    I wrote a feature piece over at GTDtimes about how our mind functions and how that ties into some of the challenges we face. The Big Kahuna, David Allen actually stopped by to comment and share some thoughts.

  17. posted by Dream Mom DBA on

    I have found three things to be really effective at shutting out chatter for me.

    1) A good “To Do” list. I write everything down and then I don’t have lie awake worrying about what needs to be done. This eliminates 80% of the chatter.

    2) A clean, serene and organized home. It is important when I come home, that I see a clean, serene home when I walk in the door. It sets the tone for the rest of the day and instantly relaxes me. There are no shoes at the door, nothing that is not decorative on any surface, etc.

    3) The last thing is taking a few minutes each day to be peaceful. I try to sit and relax, some days it is only one minute, and just do nothing. It calms my mind and releases the stress of the day. I combine deep breathing with it. It helps to connect with nature as well but even if I can’t do that, just carving out a few minutes is huge.

  18. posted by Deb on

    This seems too easy but a massage therapist once told me to “learn to breathe, it’ll change your life”.

    I laughed it off but have found that in stressful situations, I can concentrate on each breath and it takes my mind off of things. I calm down and begin to allow more relaxing images and sensations to carry me off.

    Another trick I have in times when I want to get something out of my mind is to do mental arithmatic problems. Just start adding or multiplying and follow a progression until you fall asleep.

  19. posted by Pieter on

    Good article, the STOP method has helped me on many occasions to push down some of the worries going around in my head. Another method that has helped me a lot is the RET (or REBT) method.

  20. posted by Jane on

    One technique I’ve used that works is palm drawing. If found it online and its been working for me. Here it is from the other website. Good luck with it.

    “First, get a peice of paper and a pencil.

    Second, stare at the creases in your hand, and without looking, start to draw all the little contours.

    Now at this point this, your logical brain, will try and see shapes and name them, and try to tell you just how stupid this actually is, and that its a huge waste of time, and youll never get it, this is expected, ignore that and try not to think any words, humming helps if you dont name the notes, or hearing soft music in your head, i generally put on a classical station, just keep drawing the contours of your hand, without looking at the paper, redraw some if necessary, go back over the same lines, just really study the curves and try and record them with the pencil in your other hand without looking.

    After a while (can be up to 10 minutes of you feeling like an idiot) a shift will happen, you will actually start to get interested in the curves, you will feel a kind of timelessness, and if you snap yourself out of it (which happens sometimes) you will generally feel pretty refreshed, like you took in a good breath, but while in that state, just let your mind wander some and it will gladly, and try and remember what that state of mind feels like, with practice you can actually cultivate that right brain dominant way of thinking.”

  21. posted by Charlotte on

    I know that this is never recommended, but I go to sleep with the TV on and leave it on all night. This has worked for me for years. When I’m ready to go to sleep, I change the channel to PBS Create — or some other similar “gentle” channel. If I wake up during the night, I can focus on what I’m hearing externally and go back to sleep right away. Without the TV, my mind starts to race and — well, sleep is over for the night or at least for 2-3 hours. I don’t have to even open my eyes to watch; the gentle talking lulls me back to sleep. Even the home shopping channels will work for me. The talking stays at the same level and I’m never tempted to buy anything. It’s just something light on which to focus my brain.

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