When you commit to building a better you, it means you’re willing to accept the not-so-great you.
But this isn’t passive acceptance.
The unfavorable parts of your personality aren’t subject to fate. Nor are your demons an inevitable necessity. Rather than merely tolerating these things, you can choose to cozy up next to them. You can put your arm around them and take a mindful approach to get more familiar.
I see you, demons. How can I use you to my advantage?
After all, the things we traditionally think of as flaws often turn out to be our superpowers. So how can you take one of the most undesirable traits there is and make it work to your advantage?
Let’s connect the dots between overthinking, creativity, and mindfulness.
Are You an Overthinker?
Even if you don’t identify as one, chances are, you’ve spent more time than you’d like to admit dwelling on the past or replaying “what if” scenarios in your head.
Not only is this behavior incredibly unproductive, but it turns out it’s horrible for your health (according to some brilliant folks that have been studying it for 30+ years).
Among the most disturbing findings: “rumination maintains and exacerbates depression by enhancing negative thinking, impairing problem solving, interfering with instrumental behavior, and eroding social support.” (Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco, Lyubomirsky 2008)
There’s also research from Stanford that shows overthinking zaps creativity.
Learning those two facts alone was enough for me, ironically, to go down the rabbit hole and think a lot about overthinking. I was pleased to see that mindfulness practice is the most commonly recommended strategy to help you get a grip on rumination before it ruins your life.
Here’s the best article I found on how to stop overthinking. TL;DR:
- Practice mindfulness
- Test out relaxation techniques
- Change your focus
- Schedule a time to worry
- Try writing out your thoughts
- Hold yourself accountable
- Practice self-reflection
- Acknowledge the relationship between feelings and thoughts
As mentioned at the end of the article, there’s no quick fix, so don’t get discouraged. Try each technique to “find out what works to make you feel better and stick with it… to see long-term results.”
Related: Rethinking Rumination (Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco, Lyubomirsky 2008)
Change Your Focus
If you’re paying attention, you noticed I emphasized one of the techniques above. I love this one because, if done creatively, it’ll make you, well, more creative.
But first, a quick story.
In 1981, a man who’d come to be known as KC had an unfortunate motorcycle accident. He suffered a severe head injury that made him unable to form new memories. He also lost everything but the primary details of his past. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he was “unable to plan for—or even envision, in any sense—the future.”
Here’s where it gets exciting. Enter Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter. In studying KC, Schacter discovered that “memory is essential for constructing future events, for imagining the very hypotheticality that is so central to creative thought.”
Schacter, of course, has a super complicated name for this concept: Constructive Episodic Simulation Hypothesis. He says, “the better our recall for the past, the better we are at constructing a hypothetical future.”
In other words, memory and creativity go hand in hand. In that case, doesn’t it stand to reason that improving your memory will ultimately make you more creative?
Now back to changing your focus. If you’re overthinking, it means you’re already using mental energy to do something. You may as well use it to enhance your creativity.
Here’s how: memorize poems.
Poems are easy to remember. Memory guru and winner of the US Memory Championship, Joshua Foer, says, “…rhythm, rhyme, meter… make stories more memorable. That’s part of the reason that poetry is so much easier to memorize…”
So next time you find yourself overthinking, try changing your focus by doing something that will act as preventative medicine for diminished creativity, one of rumination’s worst side effects.
Related: If we remember more, can we read deeper-and create better? Part II.
Is This Useful?
I can thank Dan Harris for many things. Among them are realizing just how normal it is to suffer from anxiety and piquing my interest in Vipassana retreats. It was Dan’s book, 10% Happier, that first got me wondering how interesting, challenging, and downright crazy it would be to sit in silence for ten consecutive days with nothing but my thoughts to keep me company.
It was also comforting to understand that a high-powered news anchor struggled with anxiety just as much as some guy no one’s ever heard of sitting in his cubicle in North Texas.
After suffering a panic attack on air, Dan dove deep into the world of meditation and mindfulness to get the root of what caused the most embarrassing moment of his life.
Now an avid meditator, he still deals with overthinking just as much as you and me. As it often happens, the thought merry-go-round speeds up the most during meditations.
If you’ve ever meditated before, you can relate. You make an effort to calm your mind, and you end up ruminating on the same thing over and over again, much more than you did before you sat down to meditate.
You can snap out of it with a powerful, three-word question: Is this useful?
When Dan feels overwhelmed because of some unreliable construct of past events or useless mental chatter, he comes back to this question. It’s an insanely simple way to overcome negative thoughts that inevitably lead to a bad mood—or worse, a negative reality.
Recommended reading: 10% Happier Revised Edition
Remember, overthinking happens to all of us, and it’s impossible to eliminate forever. But when you make an effort to reduce it, you’ll become more mindful and creative in the process.
When all else fails, be kind to yourself.