No, I’m not talking weight loss here. I’m referring to that feeling of mental and emotional sluggishness we all get from time to time when something is just taking up too much space in our brains. A persistent worry. A huge responsibility. A sense of being overwhelmed by too many things to do at work or at home.
We need mental space
I recently asked a client what he planned to read during his upcoming vacation. He said he would probably just peruse some of the short articles in his social media newsfeeds, since it was tough to settle down long enough to read an actual book. This made me really wonder about the problem of feeling weighed down. What does it mean if we can’t relax enough to concentrate on something completely different? What if we can’t settle the noise in our heads enough to be “in the moment”? Short-term, it’s annoying. But long-term? It can have a significantly negative impact on our careers and our lives.
Mental clutter sneaks up on us
I know there have been times when I felt mentally weighed down. The heaviness can creep in slowly when we are busy and distracted. Sometimes we don’t even recognize it until a problem is resolved or a burden lifts. The sudden arrival of a lighter, happier feeling provides a jolt to our consciousness, sparking the realization that our brains had been unknowingly dragged down by life’s cumulative stresses. It happens to all of us, from CEOs to entry-level workers.
While I’m not a psychologist, I do know that it’s very difficult to perform at our peak capacity if our brains are sidetracked with too many competing elements. If we’re struggling to focus and concentrate, we’re in big trouble when it comes to strategizing and managing others effectively.
We can reduce the clutter
To avoid mental overload, try to pay more attention to the messages and signals coming from your brain. Are you agitated? Having trouble getting clarity to make decisions? Feeling overwhelmed? Can you pinpoint why? Sometimes the reasons may be obvious: grief, loss or worry. Other times, the culprit may be much more subtle. Underlying concerns about whether you are in the right job, the right organization or the right relationship. Or maybe it’s that recording in your mind on an endless loop that nags about a problem you can’t solve or your past mistakes. Once you acknowledge the issues contributing to “brain drag,” you can address them and move forward to recapture that lighter, happier mental state.
I asked some of my clients to describe what they do to lighten up when their brains are feeling weighed down. I’m sharing the top responses below, and I hope they will inspire you to make some positive changes.
1. Exercise. Calorie-burning benefits aside, a good workout is great for your brain. It releases feel-good endorphins and is scientifically proven to increase your mental focus.
2. Get creative. Your brain needs a regular vacation from spreadsheets and business proposals. In The Artist’s Way, Author Julia Cameron suggests scheduling time once a week to “play” and have fun, regaining the sense of wonder and joy we all get from doing something creative.
3. Prioritize. Tackle big jobs first to generate positive momentum. This creates energy to help solve big-picture problems that might get neglected in the rush of day-to-day demands.
4. Change your setting. Sometimes a new environment and pace can help your brain move past a roadblock. If you’re feeling stuck, take a walk around the office, go to lunch, move to a different workspace, or try brainstorming with a co-worker in a conference room.
5. Delegate. Take a closer look at your to-do list. Determine where you can add real value, and outsource appropriate tasks that are simply cluttering your brain.
6. Keep a journal. The act of writing down your thoughts and feelings (no matter how random they may seem) can be very therapeutic, especially when you’re trying to process emotions or make sense of something. Many people report that journaling helps them shift heavy thoughts from their heads to the paper, which leaves them feeling emotionally lighter.
7. Talk with a coach. (Not really surprised by this one, are you?) A trusted outside resource can work wonders to help sort out problems and gain a fresh perspective.
8. De-tangle your day. If you spend all your time in back-to-back meetings, your brain doesn’t always have time to analyze and process the outcomes. Give yourself a few moments to sort through the decisions made and next steps, as well as any ramifications and concerns. Adding a little mental organization will help you stay focused and keep important details from falling through the cracks.
9. Be thankful. By making appreciation an active process, you’ll improve your outlook and lighten your mood. Expressing your gratitude to others is an attitude-booster for everyone.
10. Don’t skimp on the Zzzzzz’s. Are you getting enough sleep? Problems are usually easier to solve after a good night of rest. At some point, your email can wait until tomorrow. So can the great movie that starts at midnight. Set the DVR, and let your brain get the sleep it needs to make you more successful.
Do you have different ways to lighten up when your brain is feeling weighed down? I’d love to know about your experiences.