What is holding people back from the life that they truly want to live?
I’d say that one very common and destructive thing is that they don't know how to stop overthinking.
They overthink every little problem until it becomes bigger and scarier than it actually is. They overthink positive things until they don’t look so positive anymore (and as the anxiety starts to build).
Or overanalyze and deconstruct things and so the happiness that comes from just enjoying something in the moment disappears.
Now, thinking things through can be a great thing of course.
But getting lost in a sort of overthinking disorder – where you too often draw up worst-case scenarios in your mind or try to see all the possible outcomes – can result in you becoming someone who stands still in life.
I know. I used to spend too much time on overthinking things and it held me back in ways that weren’t fun at all.
But in the past 10 years or so I've learned how to make this issue so small that it very rarely pops up anymore. And if it does then I know what to do to overcome it.
In this article I'd like to share 20+ tips that have helped me in a big, big way to become a simpler and smarter thinker and to live a happier and less fearful life.
I hope it will be of help for any other chronic overthinkers out there too to spend less time on those repetitive thoughts.
Bonus: Download a free step-by-step checklist that will show you how to stop overthinking. It’s easy to save as a PDF or print out for whenever you need it during your day or week.
1. Put things into a wider perspective.
It's very easy to fall into the trap of overthinking minor things in life.
So when you are thinking and thinking about something the first step is to ask yourself:
Will this matter in 5 years? Or even in 5 weeks?
I've found that widening the perspective by using this simple question can quickly snap me out of overthinking and catastrophic predictions and help me to let go of that situation.
It allows me to finally stop thinking about something and to focus my time and energy on something else that actually does matter to me.
2. Set a short time limit for a decision.
If you do not have a time limit for when you must make a decision and take action then you can just keep turning your thoughts around and around and view them from all angles in your mind for a very long time.
So learn to become better at making decisions and to spring into action by setting deadlines in your daily life. No matter if it's a small or bigger decision.
Here’s what has worked for me:
- For small decisions like if should go and do the dishes, respond to an email or work out I usually give myself 30 seconds or less to make a decision.
- For a somewhat larger or difficult decision that would have taken me days or weeks to think through in the past I use a deadline for 30 minutes or for the end of the workday.
3. Stop setting your day up for stress and overthinking.
You can’t totally avoid overwhelming or very stressful days.
But you can minimize the number of them in your month and year by getting a good start to your day and by not setting yourself up for unnecessary stress, overthinking and suffering.
Three things that help me with that are:
Get a good start.
I’ve mentioned this many times by now. And with good reason.
This is perhaps the best way to influence your day. Because how you start your day tends to often set the tone for your day.
A stressed morning leads to stressed day. Consuming negative information as you ride the bus to your job tends to lead to more pessimistic thoughts during the rest of your day.
While for example reading something uplifting over breakfast, getting some exercise and then getting started with your most important task right now sets a good tone for the day and will help you to stay positive.
Single-task and take regular breaks.
This will help you to keep a sharp focus during your day and to get what’s most important done while also allowing you to rest and recharge so you don’t start to run on fumes.
And this somewhat relaxed mindset but with the narrow focus will help you to think clearly and decisively and avoid winding up in a stressed and overthinking headspace.
Minimize your daily input.
Too much information, too many times of just taking a few minutes to check your inbox, Facebook or Twitter account or how your blog or website is doing leads to more input and clutter in your mind as your day progresses.
And so it becomes harder to think in a simple and clear way and easier to lapse back into that familiar overthinking habit.
4. Become a person of action.
When you know how to get started with taking action consistently each day then you’ll procrastinate less by overthinking.
Setting deadlines and a good tone for the day are two things that have helped me to become much more of person of action.
Taking small steps forward and only focusing on getting one small step done at a time is another habit that have worked really well.
It works so well because you do not feel overwhelmed and so you do not want flee into procrastination or lazy inaction.
And even though you may be afraid, taking just a step is such a small thing that you do not get paralyzed in fear.
5. Realize that you cannot control everything.
Trying to think things through 50 times can be a way to try to control everything. To cover every eventuality so you don't risk making a mistake, fail or looking like a fool.
But those things are a part of living a life where you truly stretch your comfort zone. Everyone who you may admire and have lived a life that inspires you has failed. They have made mistakes.
But in most cases they've also seen these things as valuable feedback to learn from.
Those things that may look negative have taught them a lot and have been invaluable to help them to grow.
So stop trying to control everything. Trying to do so simply doesn’t work because no one can see all possible scenarios in advance.
This is of course easier said than done. So do it in small steps if you like.
6. Say stop in a situation where you know you cannot think straight.
Sometimes when I'm hungry or when I'm lying in bed and are about to go to sleep negative emotions and thoughts start buzzing around in my mind.
In the past they could do quite a bit of damage. Nowadays I've become good at catching them quickly and to say to myself:
No, no, we are not going to think about this now.
I know that when I'm hungry or sleepy then my mind sometimes tend to be vulnerable to not thinking clearly and to negativity.
So I follow up my “no, no…” phrase and I say to myself that I will think this situation or issue through when I know that my mind will work much better.
For example, after I've eaten something or in the morning after I have gotten my hours of sleep.
It took a bit of practice to get this to work but I've gotten pretty good at postponing thinking in this way. And I know from experience that when I revisit a situation with some level-headed thinking then in 80% of the cases the issue is very small to nonexistent.
And if there is a real issue then my mind is prepared to deal with it in much better and more constructive way.
7. Don't get lost in vague fears.
Another trap I've fallen into many times that have spurred on overthinking is that I've gotten lost in vague fears about a situation in my life.
And so my mind running wild has created disaster scenarios about what could happen if I do something.
So I've learned a better way to break out of such a vicious cycle and that is to first ask myself:
Honestly, what is the worst that could happen?
And when I've figured out what the worst that could happen actually is then I can also spend a little time to think about what I can do if that often pretty unlikely thing happens.
I've found that the worst that could realistically happen is usually something that is not as scary as what my mind running wild with vague fear could produce.
Finding a different perspective and clarity in this way usually only takes a few minutes and bit of energy and it can save you a lot of time and suffering.
8. Work out.
Working out can really help with letting go of inner tensions, worries and to reduce my stress levels. This is also supported by studies like this one on exercise and mental health.
Exercise makes me feel more decisive after I’m done with my work out and when I was more of an overthinker then it was often my go-to method for changing the headspace I was in into a more constructive one.
My current favorite way to use exercise to improve my thoughts and outlook is to get my heart rate up quite a bit for about 10 minutes a couple of times a week. I usually do this by running.
I also lift free weights two times a week and that helps, but I’ve found that the cardio sessions are even more effective.
9. Get plenty of good quality sleep.
I think this is one of the most commonly neglected factors when it comes to keeping a positive mindset and not get lost in negative thought habits.
Because when you haven’t slept enough then you become more vulnerable.
Vulnerable to worrying and pessimism. To not thinking as clearly as you usually do. And to getting lost in thoughts going around and around in your mind as you overthink.
So let me share a couple of my favorite tips from my daily routine that help me to sleep better:
Keep it cool.
It can feel nice at first to get into a warm bedroom. But I’ve found that I sleep better and more calmly with fewer scary or negative dreams if I keep the bedroom cool.
Keep the earplugs nearby.
If you, like me, are easily awoken by noises then a pair simple earplugs can be a life-saver.
These inexpensive items have helped me to get a good night’s sleep and sleep through snorers, noisy cats and other disturbances more times than I can remember.
Don’t try to force yourself to go to sleep.
If you don’t feel sleepy then don’t get into bed and try to force yourself to go to sleep.
That, at least in my experience, only leads to tossing and turning in my bed for an hour or more.
A better solution in these situations is to wind down for an extra 20-30 minutes on the couch with, for example, some reading. This helps me to go to sleep faster and, in the end, get more sleep.
10. Spend more of your time in the present moment.
By being in the present moment in your everyday life rather than in past mistakes and life experiences or a possible future in your mind you can replace more and more of the time you usually spend on overthinking things with just being here right now instead.
Three ways that I often use to reconnect with the present moment and to practice mindfulness are:
Slow down how you do whatever you are doing right now. Move slower, talk slower or ride your bicycle more slowly. Take slow and deep breaths.
By doing so you become more aware of how you use your body and what is happening all around you right now.
Tell yourself: Now I am…
I often tell myself this: Now I am X. And X could be brushing my teeth. Taking a walk in the woods. Or doing the dishes.
This simple reminder helps my mind to stop wandering and brings my focus back to what is happening in this moment.
Disrupt and reconnect.
If you feel you are getting lost in overthinking then one of my favorite mindfulness practices is to disrupt that thought by – in your mind – shouting this to yourself : STOP!
Then reconnect with the present moment by taking just 1-2 minutes to focus fully on what is going on around you. Take it all in with all your senses. Feel it, hear it, smell it, see it and sense it on your skin.
11. Spend more of your time with people who do not overthink things.
Your social environment is an important thing to think about if you want to break destructive thought patterns and move out of the cycle of overthinking in the long term.
And this is not just about the people and groups close to you in real life. But also about what you read, listen to and watch. The blogs, books, forums, movies, podcasts and music in your life.
So think about if there are any sources in your life – close by or further away – that encourages and tends create more overthinking in your mind. And think about what people or sources that has the opposite effect on you.
Find ways to spend more of your time and attention with the people and input that have a positive effect on your thinking and less on the influences that tends to strengthen your overthinking habit.
12. Be aware of the issue (and remind yourself throughout your day)
Being aware of your challenge is important to break the habit of overthinking.
But if you’re thinking that you’ll just remember to stop overthinking during your normal day – and in stressful situations such as an upcoming date or job interview – then you’re likely just fooling yourself.
At least if you’re anything like me.
Because I needed help. It wasn’t hard to get it though. I just created a few reminders.
My main one was a note on the whiteboard I had on one of my walls at the time. It said “Keep things extremely simple”.
Seeing this many times during my day helped me to snap out of overthinking faster and to over time greatly minimize this negative habit.
Two other kinds of reminders that you can use are:
A small written note.
Simply use a post-it note or something similar and write down my whiteboard phrase, a question like “Am I overcomplicating this?” or some other reminder that appeals to you.
Put that note where you cannot avoid seeing it like for example on your bedside table, your bathroom mirror or beside your computer screen.
A reminder on your smart phone.
Write down one of the phrases above or one of you own choosing in a reminder app on your smart phone.
I for example use my Android phone and the free app called Google Keep to do this.
13. Let it out into the light.
Simply talk to someone close to you about the situation you’re thinking about.
Just venting for 5-10 minutes as a friend or family member listens can help you to release inner pressure and to figure things out for yourself.
Or the other person can ground you and bring you back to earth again if you’re getting lost in nightmare scenarios. And then the two of you can come up with a plan – or at least the start of one – for how to actually improve upon the situation you’ve been overthinking.
14. Journal about it.
If you cannot find someone to talk to about your issue right now then a good alternative is to journal about it, as explored in this study.
Write out your challenge, your fears and thoughts in a paper journal or in a document on your laptop or smartphone.
Letting it out will let you vent in a similar way that you would do with a close friend. And seeing it all laid out on paper or on the screen will make it easier to get an overview of your situation and to find ways to improve things.
I also recommend applying tip #16 and the questions you’ll find there to what you’ve written down to help you find solutions to your challenge.
15. Journal about what you’re grateful for.
Another way to use a journal to direct your thoughts in a helpful and positive way is to do some gratitude journaling.
Here’s one way to go about it. Set off 3-5 minutes in the morning or evening and answer questions that help you to focus your mind on the good things you have in your life. Like for example:
- What are 3 things I can be grateful for in my life today?
- Who are 3 people that I can be grateful to have in my life and why?
- What are 3 things I can be grateful for about myself?
This will give you a great start to your day – or ending before you go to bed – and it will over time help you to naturally focus more on the positive things in your life and less on the negative things (or the ones that could go wrong).
Try to be specific with your answers to make it more engaging and easier – and not boring or repetitive – to continue with this practice over a longer time period. For example, write that you're grateful for specific joke your friend told you rather than just writing that she's funny.
16. Just breathe.
Release the stress and calm your mind and body down by fully focusing on your breathing.
Close your eyes. Breathe with your belly for 2 minutes and focus only on the air you’re breathing in and out. Nothing else.
This is one of the most fast acting tips in this article.
17. Set a time during your day to focus on solutions.
One thing that kept me in the overthinking trap was that I believed that if I thought a lot about an issue then I could avoid mistakes and pain and come up with perfect solutions.
But thinking and thinking in an unstructured way just made me more anxious and worried and so I took very little action. It didn’t help in the way I thought it would.
So these days when I start to overthink a challenge I say: “Stop, we’re not going down that road again! What we are going to do is to set off 20 minutes tomorrow morning to work on this challenge in a structured way.”
And then the next morning I sit down with a pen and paper or my laptop and focus on this situation in my life. Depending on the challenge I ask myself questions like:
- How can I remove this challenge from my life? Or how can I at least reduce the impact it has on my life?
- How can I turn this challenge into something positive or what can I learn from it?
- What is the worst that could realistically happen in this situation? How can I prevent that from happening? And, if it still happens then what can I do to quickly bounce back from that?
Making a plan for how to deal with this situation in my life and spending 20 minutes on that and on problem solving helps a lot more than randomly thinking about it throughout my day and week.
When I’ve got at least the start of a plan for how to deal with it then I stop worrying so much and most of my overthinking about the situation simply goes away. Because now I know what to likely expect and what I can do to improve upon this part of my life.
18. Reduce the screen time and scrolling.
If I use my phone too much and scroll various websites and social media channels for too long then my mind can easily become overactive.
If I read a lot of news or check for example Twitter too frequently then it’s easy to get dragged into the fear or doom that is often used to get more clicks.
And research shows that too much screen time can worsen one’s mental health.
So how do you scroll less in a day or week and stop triggering your own overthinking so often?
I’ve found that the most effective way is the simplest one. Keep the phone far away from yourself. Put it at the other side of the room – or in another room – and keep it in silent mode while working or having dinner. Set it to show no notifications (or as few as possible).
Then check the phone from time to time. Or keep the sound and notifications on for just phone calls and text messages but off for everything else.
19. Put some downtime into your schedule.
If you’re always on and don’t take any or few breaks then your mind keeps going far into the evening about all kinds of things and it can be difficult to go to sleep or get a good night’s rest.
So scheduling some downtime where you may just watch some TV, play a video game, go out for a walk or read a mystery novel is essential to keep your mind from going into overdrive (and into the overthinking that often accompanies that kind of stressed headspace).
I schedule at least an hour of downtime to watch something with my wife or read a book at the end of the day to relax my mind and prepare to go to sleep.
And I also put in several 10-15 minute breaks throughout my workday and about 1 hour for lunch.
If you have a busy life, then don’t ignore this part. Schedule one to a few hours in, just like anything else during your day and week to make sure you actually take the time to recharge.
20. Go out in nature.
Few things are so relaxing as just being out in nature. So go for a walk in the woods, take a stroll on the beach if you live near the ocean or go out camping or fishing for a day or two during the weekend.
This can help you to reset your headspace, reduce stress and slow down from the tempo of your daily life and get a drastic change in scenery.
21. Be kind and patient with yourself.
You will fall. Have setbacks. Not reach your perhaps unrealistic goals about overthinking sometimes.
That’s OK. It’s normal. Progress is a straight line only in movies and myths.
Real life is more messy. Know that. Don’t let that mess dissuade you. Because then you won’t make any progress towards healthier thought habits.
One quote I love and that reminds me of this when it comes to any challenge in my own life is this one by Anne Marie Radmacher:
“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”
22. Seek professional help.
If these tips don't work as well as is needed for you, then consider finding professional help from for example a therapist or someone who specializes in mental health conditions.
One on one help over time may be what is needed to learn how to handle negative and anxious thoughts and sometimes incessant worrying in a better and healthier way.
Here’s the next step…
Now, you may think to yourself:
“This is really helpful information. But what’s the easiest way to put this into practice and actually make a real change with my overthinking?”.
Well, I’ve got something special for you…
A free step-by-step checklist that includes the best and most helpful steps in this article. Save it or print it out so you have it for the next time when you get stuck in overthinking.
Download it now by entering your email below.