Stop this brain... I want to get off!
Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Has your brain been in overdrive lately? Mine certainly has. If you’re like me, you’ve been both blessed and cursed with a brain that never stops. While this may be fantastic when your brain is focused on the matter at hand and you’re really cranking things out, it can be excruciating when your thoughts become racecars looping around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in your head.
I realized last week that I often experience decision fatigue—that sense of mental exhaustion that comes from weighing options and making decisions—before I’ve even gotten out of bed in the morning. I lie there thinking of all the things I need to do and mentally running through the countless options as to how and when I might do them. The questions dancing in my head are frequently of little real consequence, like... When should I shower today given that I want to exercise and don’t want to shower twice but need to be showered before that video conference call and also need to make sure that I get some writing done this morning? Even when the questions are of more significance (e.g., Should I restructure that paper to include the new findings or put them in a separate study?) my thinking quickly devolves into a seemingly infinite stream of minutiae.
To say that this tendency ramps up in November and December is an understatement. From holiday menus and gifts to the 50 different ways of arriving at the perfect final exam or the desired grade distribution, the decisions and options seem endless. And while having a work schedule that allows some flexibility is wonderful, it often results in even more decisions to be made.
This habit of carefully considering (and often reconsidering) each and every option is referred to as “maximizing” in the behavioral economics and psychology literature. Maximizers are always trying to make the best possible choice. (Interestingly, maximizing is correlated with, but distinct from, perfectionism.) In contrast, satisficers are simply trying to find an option that is good enough, and tend to ignore other options once they’ve found one. It won’t surprise anyone who’s experienced the dark side of maximizing to learn that this behavior is negatively correlated with happiness, optimism, and life satisfaction. Not exactly the optimal outcome my fellow maximizers and I seek.
So what are we maximizers to do?
In his book Do One Thing Different, Bill O’Hanlon recommends the following “solution-oriented approach.” Rather than delving into the complex reasons behind your behavior, simply observe the pattern and then change anything you can about it. As a starting point, he suggests thinking about how you’d instruct someone to “do” your problem—here, how you’d teach them to maximize. For example, you might tell them to come up with as many initial options as possible and then to continue considering more and more ideas until they were certain that they’d landed on the optimal choice. If it were me, I might also tell them that they should lie in bed thinking for as long as possible after waking up and that they should do a lot of online shopping for gifts. Once you’ve identified your own personal “maximizing recipe,” you can go about changing one or more of the ingredients. Maybe whenever you catch yourself starting to wade through options in an unproductive loop, you immediately stop what you’re doing and spend 3 minutes listening to a favorite song. Or instead of lying in bed in the morning, you physically get up as soon as you’re awake, thus avoiding that maximizing-friendly environment.
Another set of strategies involves shifting the tenor of your mental chatter, an approach that can be especially helpful if your internal dialog consists not just of the weighing of options, but also of some harsh or critical commentary. If you’ve never paid close attention, you might be shocked by how frequently the play-by-play in your head fuels stress rather than relieving it.
There are many techniques for changing our self-talk from negative to positive. As I shared in an earlier post, the first step is always cultivating awareness. Try to work towards noticing your internal dialog with curiosity and without judgment. You may want to try STOP, a helpful mindfulness-based technique that can be used throughout the day to get a better sense of how your thoughts and experiences interact:
Stop whatever you are doing
Take a deep breath
Observe the thoughts you’re having, the emotions you’re experiencing, and how your body feels
Proceed with whatever you were doing, trying to maintain that sense of conscious awareness
Then what? Here are just a couple of approaches to shifting your self-talk:
Challenge the validity of your thoughts, particularly your harsh inner commentary. Remember that you don’t need to believe everything you think. Ask yourself if there are any circumstances under which the story you’re telling yourself might not be 100% accurate. In my experience, the answer is almost always “yes.”
Go easy on yourself! One great way to accomplish this is taking regular self-compassion breaks. This simple strategy, proposed by Dr. Kristin Neff (www.self-compassion.org), consists of the following 3 steps. First, admit to yourself that this is a moment of suffering. You might say, “this is really hard” or “I’m really struggling right now.” Next, acknowledge that suffering is a part of life that ties you to our common humanity. You may tell yourself, “it’s normal to feel this way” or “a lot of people are going through similar situations.” Finally, simply say, “may I be kind to myself in this moment,” and allow yourself to be just as you are.
I have a hunch that my mind is going to be especially talkative over the coming weeks. If the same proves true for you, I hope that you will find one of the approaches above to be helpful. And if not, at least you’ll have a better sense of what doesn’t work for you! Above all, I hope that you will experience moments of quiet, moments of joy, moments of presence,… moments that are exactly what you want and need at this time of year.
In closing, I offer inspiration from David Allen, creator of the popular work-life management system Getting Things Done (GTD): “You should never have a thought twice unless you really like that thought.” Hmm. I’ll have to think about that. At least twice. ;)
Wishing you peace now and always,