Think about a desk stacked high with bits and pieces of different projects, memos, and important papers. When you need to find a specific piece of information, this clutter might make your job pretty difficult.
Similarly, when unnecessary or troubling thoughts pile up in your brain, you might end up cycling through the same unwanted mental data.
A fruitless search for a memory or other important thought can leave you feeling foggy and overwhelmed. Not to worry, though — when it seems your mind isn’t operating as smoothly as it could, the eight tips below might do the trick.
Training yourself to become more mindful can benefit you in a number of ways.
For one, it can help you to stay present and focused on what’s happening around you.
Being present means, among other things, you can give your co-worker your full attention as they explain how to perform a complicated task, instead of getting waylaid by:
- things you need to add to your to-do list
- the dinner ingredients you need to pick up later
- the ever-expanding list of potential reasons your recent date never texted you back
Learning to mindfully direct your attention to one task at a time can help you gently let go of those background thoughts. They’re still there, but they’re resting more quietly under the surface instead of clamoring for your attention.
This helps free up mental bandwidth, making experiences more enjoyable and less rushed.
But even if meditation doesn’t work out, you can still use mindfulness to increase your awareness as you go about your day.
- Focus on sensations. Use your five senses to fully tune in to the experiences of daily life, however mundane they might seem. Scrubbing the shower? Pay attention to the rhythm of the sponge, the scent of the cleaner, the smooth texture of the tub. Cycling to work? Notice the wind on your face, the different scents in different areas you pass, the tightening and loosening of your muscles as you pedal.
- Focus on your breath. If you start to feel overwhelmed, intentionally slowing your breathing can help you ground yourself and return to the present. Breathe in slowly, hold the breath for a few seconds, then breathe out again. Repeat 10 times.
- Stay curious. Fully opening your mind to what you can learn from a given situation can help you maintain your concentration. When feelings come up, ask yourself what triggered them and why. If you center on the same distracting thought, trace it back to the source to learn more about what causes it.
You’ll probably notice your thoughts continue to drift occasionally. This is normal, so try not to criticize yourself for not being mindful enough. Instead, just return your thoughts to whatever you want to focus on. It can take time to pick up this skill, but eventually your mind will grow accustomed to staying present.
When your mind brims over with stressful thoughts, it’s not always easy to sort through them and determine what’s causing the most distress.
If you’ve ever kept a journal, you might already know that putting your thoughts down in writing often makes it easier to explore them.
Research supports the idea that journaling can help decrease intrusive thoughts and other mental “clutter.” As a result, working memory and other cognitive functions can operate more smoothly and potentially relieve stress at the same time.
The ability to read over your thoughts after you’ve written them down can make patterns or problems stand out. After a freewriting session, you might even realize you weren’t all that aware of some of the worries you jotted down. Now that they’ve entered your consciousness, you can begin addressing them for lasting relief.
What’s more, writing out your feelings can seem almost like a symbolic act. When you put them on paper, you’re transferring them out of your mind, in a sense.
Try these journaling tips:
- Be consistent. Dedicate at least 15 minutes to writing each day. Tip: Try writing in the evening as part of your pre-bedtime ritual.
- Go with the flow. Write about anything that comes to mind. Instead of crossing things out or censoring yourself, simply let your thoughts flow.
- Keep it close. Keep your journal with you to keep track of any difficult or recurring thoughts during the day.
- Take time to reflect. Look back on what you’ve written and note how things have changed or remained the same over time. Use these clues to help explore areas for future growth.
Plenty of people enjoy listening to music, but music offers more than a pleasant auditory experience.
- help relieve stress and improve mood
- improve concentration and memory
- motivate learning
- promote neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to adapt
If you listen to music regularly, you may have already noticed it makes it easier to keep your attention on your work and complete it successfully.
Maybe you even have a few choice songs that help you refresh between tasks and switch your focus, or a playlist that provides a sense of calm when you feel bombarded by anxious thoughts.
You probably aren’t imagining those effects, so keep listening — music has plenty of benefits.
A good night’s sleep can refresh you when you feel physically tired. What you might not know, though, is that getting enough sleep can also help safeguard against mental fatigue and emotional distress.
Insufficient or poor sleep can
Feeling overly tired can also lead to mental overwhelm, making it more difficult to detach from your jumbled thoughts and concentrate on what you need to do.
To reset your brain for optimal daytime performance, aim to get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night.
Falling asleep is often easier said than done, particularly when anxiety and looping thoughts run an endless track in your brain. If that sounds familiar, check out these 17 tips for better sleep.
Changing your environment and getting outside for a walk offers a great opportunity to clear your head and refocus.
Improved creativity is just one of the benefits of a good walk, 2014 research suggests. Walking also helps promote more freely flowing ideas, so a regular daily walk can help you “reset” when the same thoughts keep popping back up to distract you.
Exercising for 20 or 30 minutes can help improve decision-making and reaction time just before a cognitive task, but walking also offers long-term benefits, too.
For better overall brain health and reduced stress into the bargain, try adding a brisk walk, or any other exercise, to your regular routine.
As procrastinators the world over know, an intense cleaning session offers the perfect escape from a difficult or unpleasant task. There may be more to this particular approach than simply putting off your work, though.
Consider your reasons for procrastination. Perhaps you feel stuck or unsure how to get started.
You may not realize it, but your surrounding environment can have a big impact on your mental environment. When your brain feels just as cluttered as your desk, you might have trouble concentrating or grasping the ideas you’re searching for. As a result, you end up finding ways to distract yourself from your lack of productivity.
Putting your work area back into order can help you refresh your thinking process, but it could also take up a lot of time — not good when you’re on a tight deadline. Instead, try making a regular effort to maintain the tidiness of your workspace to boost cognitive function and improve workflow.
Struggling to concentrate? Sometimes, the best way to solve this problem is to simply stop trying.
Think of it in terms of physical exercise. Your body would have a pretty tough time jogging all day without a break, right? Well, your brain needs downtime, too.
Letting yourself unfocus by briefly zoning out activates the default mode network in your brain, giving it a chance to take a rest. Just as sleep benefits you, this rest period benefits your brain. Unfocusing can help promote creativity, sharpen thought processes, and improve memory and learning.
A few key ways to unfocus:
Ever felt energized and completely renewed after a long talk with someone you trust?
Most likely, that wasn’t just a fluke. Expressing bothersome feelings out loud often helps lighten any tension they’ve generated. When thoughts weigh on your mind less heavily, they might naturally clear out of your immediate consciousness, leaving you feeling refreshed.
Discussing your problems can help you lay them out more logically, since you have to explain what’s troubling you in a way that others understand. This often enables you to get some new perspective on the situation and arrive at potential solutions you might not have considered before.
Talking to family and friends can help you to start working through frustrations and clearing out your mind. If you can’t seem to break out of the mental fog on your own, though, a professional can offer a little extra support.
A therapist can help you:
- explore reasons behind concentration difficulties
- identify and address patterns of looping thoughts
- learn coping skills and techniques to refresh your mind
- address any underlying mental health symptoms factoring into mental clutter
Your brain may not actually have a restart button, but there are plenty of things you can do to reboot.
If the strategies above fail to help clear your mind and improve your focus, talking to a therapist is a good next step.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.