How to calm your wandering mind

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If you spend too much time daydreaming — whether happily or unhappily — you’ll lose time to write. Here’s how to calm your wandering mind.

When we sit down to write, our minds often pick precisely that moment to go for a little wander. In fact, we human beings spend about half of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we’re doing right now. A Harvard study not only illustrated this principal, it also found that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. 

Anxiety is a typical reason why people allow their minds to wander.  Some of this anxiety — understandably — comes from events, perhaps an important sales presentation or a nerve-racking performance review with our boss. Other anxiety is non-specific but in any given year, roughly 18 percent of people in the  U.S. deal with clinical or near-clinical levels of anxiety.

Rumination is a typical symptom of anxiety. If you’re ruminating, it means you’re thinking continuously about the same thoughts, which tend to be sad or dark. And, as you might imagine, rumination is not good for you either as a human being or a writer.

Here are 11 ways to stop ruminating and to calm your wandering mind:

1-Schedule your writing for your most productive time: We all have different “high energy” times, depending on the time we naturally go to sleep and wake up. (This is known as your chronotype.) Make sure you understand how your body works and figure out the best time to write — for you. The “for you” part is important because the ideal time will be slightly different for every person. But if you can identify this time and use it for writing, you’re going to be better able to shut down ruminative thoughts. Just be aware that for most (although not all!) people, some time in the morning will work best

2-Make sure you’re getting enough sleep: The vast majority of people don’t get nearly enough sleep, which is considered to be seven to nine hours per night. If you aren’t sleeping enough, you are not doing yourself any favours. Sleep deprivation makes us moody, irritable and less creative. It also makes us more prone to negative, ruminative thinking. With more people working from home right now, I’m hoping the coronavirus has had the tiny benefit of reducing commute time and thereby allowing more people to sleep a bit more. Sleep is important. More important than just about anything else you can do. This is such an easy fix! Set a go-to-bed alarm for yourself each night and make sure you heed it.

3-Don’t allow yourself to multi-task: The stress of multi-tasking may feel exciting but it will also amp up your anxiety, making your heart beat faster and your mind start to race. Writers tend to multi-task in one of two slightly non-traditional ways — they either edit while they write or they research while they write. (Some even do both.) Break yourself of these bad habits as soon as you can. (In particular, see my advice on how to stop editing while you write.) This action will not only make you a much faster writer, it will also help calm your overactive mind. 

4-Meditate or do breathing exercises: Just a few minutes spent focusing your mind will help calm it. Scientists have found that meditation will quiet the areas of your brain responsible for rumination. See here for simple instructions on how to begin meditating. One area of the brain will especially benefit from your help. It’s the medial prefrontal cortex, which is related to thoughts that lead to mind-wandering. Calm this part of your brain and you’re going to be more successful at getting rid of distracting thoughts. But if the idea of meditation gives you the heebie-jeebies, then just do some straightforward breathing exercises. Simply breathing s-l-o-w-l-y will help calm your mind.

5-Get some exercise: I don’t believe exercise is a panacea for everything, but it is a panacea for many things — particularly anxiety and depression. Going for a walk or run (or swim or bike ride or a game of tennis) will not only help your body, it will also help your mind. In the book Exercise for Mood and Anxiety, researchers Michael Otto and Jasper Smits explain their strategy for managing the low mood and stress that is an everyday part of life. They put a particular emphasis on understanding the relationship between mood and motivation.

6-Take yourself into nature: And when you’re getting your exercise, try to do it outside, in nature. This will elevate your mood, increase your sense of well-being, and reduce your stress. Even if you aren’t lucky enough to have a park or forest nearby, understand that a relatively small interaction with nature can have a big impact on mental health, according to a recent study.

7-Deal with distractions in your environment: Many of us need to write in places that are less than perfect: too noisy, poorly lit, the wrong temperature, not enough room etc. etc. Do whatever you can to address these barriers as quickly as possible. To deal with noise, be sure to get yourself a pair of noise-blocking headphones (gun-muffs are the most effective, least-expensive option.) To deal with other concerns, identify them and look for a common-sense solution. For example, a fan and a spray bottle of ice water will help you in a room that’s too hot; a sweater and a blanket will work in a room that’s too cold. And, above all, make sure your space is ergonomically smart.

8-Schedule your mind wandering: Telling yourself not to do something is often a sure-fire way to cause yourself to do it. Research known as the “white bear problem” (from a scientific experiment that told subjects not to think of white bearssuggests that meditation is a useful tool for preventing rumination. But if you don’t want to meditate, at least consider restricting your mind-wandering time to certain specific times of the day. For example, you might allow yourself 15 minutes of rumination right after lunch. Just be sure to set a timer so you’ll know when your time is up.

9-Separate yourself from your thoughts: Take the same attitude toward your own thoughts as you would to a speech delivered by a salesperson: You can hear what he has to say, and sometimes something relevant will grab your attention, but mostly it’s just a sales pitch that you can tune out. In other words, adjust how you relate to your own thoughts. You might even say something like,  “Silly mind. There it goes again.” If you approach your thinking in this way, you’ll be much better equipped to shutting down rumination.

10-Take more breaks: You are a human being, not a machine. Therefore, you need to take breaks. Maya Angelou once said, “Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.  Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” Without enough breaks, your cortisol (a stress hormone) will rise and make you feel lousy. People who take short, frequent breaks, have higher levels of job satisfaction and reduced exhaustion. If you are ruminating, it’s a sign you need time to recharge. So, set aside daily time for doing nothing. And don’t feel guilty about it.

11-Accept your frustration: We all have certain crosses to bear; no one escapes this life without challenges. Rather than be angry at the ‘unfairness’ of your situation, describe what you have to deal with (in writing!), acknowledge its painfulness and accept the weight of what you have to handle. I know this might sound crazy but accepting your unpleasant situation and describing it will help defuse it and will make you feel better.

Having a wandering mind can be both frustrating and painful. Rather than see it as an oppressive inevitability, take these simple steps to stop it from wandering too far in an unhealthy and unproductive direction.

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Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. If you already know you want to apply, go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 

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My video podcast last week addressed how to find more time to writeOr, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How do you calm your wandering mind? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by July 31/20 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!