It's easy to get stuck in life. Most of us have experienced this feeling of “stuckness” at one time or another, feeling that despite everything we try and do, we can’t move forward in our life.
One characteristic of being stuck is that our brain doesn’t move forward. While our brain is nothing like a computer processor (which can handle millions of instructions per second), it does have a set, finite capacity of our attention. It can’t be thinking of a hundred things all at once and attend to them all equally.
With a limited attention span and “brain cycles,” what kinds of things can bring our brains — and our lives — to a screeching halt?
Our brains are amazing organs that can process certain kinds of information about the world around us in the blink of an eye. However, like every other organ in our body, our brain has a finite capacity and limited attention.
You know your brain and your attention span is limited through a simple example. Imagine the last time you were angry at someone, maybe a recent argument with a loved one. Maybe he (or she) was trying to reason with you during the argument, but all you could see was how he hurt you and how bad you felt in that moment.
That’s your brain simply getting stuck in one place, a specific emotional state (anger or hurt), that blotted out all other reasoning and attention. You couldn’t think logically, because your emotions overtook your brain’s capacity for other kinds of thought and reasoning.
4 Habits That Impair Your Thinking
What other kinds of things — or habits, if you will — will also impact your reasoning and thought processes?
1. Complaining or ruminating for no reason
Who doesn’t like to complain or brood over something where you felt like you were wronged? But engaging in these common habits doesn’t help you much unless they are goal directed — that is, unless you plan on changing things. While it’s fine to vent your anger or frustration, when you do so, it usually just reignites your feelings all over again.
The same is true with ruminating or brooding. Obsessively turning over the same thoughts in your head rarely results in new insights or perspectives. Instead, it taxes your brain and focuses all your attention on a past situation that just reminds you of your anger or upset. Unless you’re doing so in order to repair a past relationship or figure out a different way of acting in the future, you’re wasting your time. And negatively hurting your current mood for no good reason.
2. Worrying over things out of your control
There’s nothing wrong with worrying over a presentation you have to make on Monday, or in preparing for a test you have to take next week. Such worry is healthy, normal, and helps prepare your body for the upcoming challenges. You have a lot of control over how prepared you are for a presentation or test.
What you don’t have control over, however, should take up few of your thoughts. Worrying about things out of your control — such as an asteroid hitting the Earth, or whether a family member will behave next time according to your standards — is simply a waste. Worrying sharpens the mind and pushes everything out of it so that you can focus. So spend that focus wisely on things where you can either make a difference, or that are under your direct control.
3. Spending more than a day thinking about rejection
Rejection is a normal part of life — you can’t make it out of this life without being rejected by someone or for something. Rejection is trying to teach you a lesson from an evolutionary perspective — correct your behavior or make wiser choices in the future in order to survive. Our memories are great at being able to help us relive the pain of rejection — a dangerous combination if left on its own.
We feel rejection like a punch in the gut, or a sharp pain in our hearts. There’s a very real physical pain to rejection, which makes it all the more difficult to ignore or to stop thinking about. But too much time spent thinking about rejection causes a hit to our self-esteem, making us engage in more self-doubt, and over-analysis of situations we’ve handled well in the past. Spend the whole day steeped in the feelings of your rejection. The next morning, wake up and move forward with your life.
4. Letting guilt endlessly get the better of you
Lots of things have the ability to take over our minds on a day-to-day basis, but guilt usually beats them all. A day doesn’t go by that we don’t feel guilty for doing (or not doing) something, or doing it poorly. We hurt another person, and a normal part of the human experience is to feel bad about it.
But feeling guilty over something you’ve done (or failed to do) should be in the service of something else. Perhaps an action you can take to rectify the situation, or the apology you should make to help assuage another person’s feelings. Because the longer you hold on to that guilt, the more brain cycles it consumes, making less room for — and spending less attention on — everything else in your life.