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5 Genius Tips to Outsmart Mental Pile-Ups

Are your thoughts always swirling in a tornado of stressful to-do’s? Experts say there are easy ways to clear the mental storm.


Life is filled with so many sweet moments, but sometimes we get stuck feeling like we’re in that classic scene from I Love Lucy: The chocolate keeps coming faster and faster on a speedy conveyor belt and there’s no way to handle it all, let alone savor it! Our mental to-do lists can go haywire like that too. Around 35,000 thoughts pass through our brains on any given day, and some of them pile up, spoiling our ability to feel focused, productive and joyful.

Plus, due to neurological gender differences, women have increased blood flow to the emotion-processing area of the brain called the cingulate gyrus. While this improves our ability to recall key details, make quick decisions, and love deeply, it can also cause us to feel emotionally drained by our thoughts. What’s more, studies show that women’s brains are wired to tackle multiple tasks at once. “This makes us great at getting things done, but lingering to-do’s can become low-level stressors that trigger side effects like anxiety,” says Christina Carter, PhD, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

Our mental pile-ups may also be rooted in deeply ingrained gender roles, adds Arthur Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “When a woman, who takes on more family-maintenance responsibilities, sees a sock on the floor, it can create feelings of obligation and stress; whereas a man may not even notice it.” Thankfully, our complex and brilliant brains respond well to these easy tricks that reduce stress and promote peace.

Scattered? Write everything on your to-do list

You wake up and jot down your to-do’s for the day — grocery shop, get gas, visit the post office — but that neatly printed list doesn’t reflect all the emotionally draining and distracting thoughts that are still cycling through your head, demanding attention. The fix? Write down nagging thoughts on your list too, like: Forget about the verbal slip-up I made to the neighbor or Don’t worry about that meeting next week. “Lists externalize information so that you don’t need to dwell on it internally,” explains Carter. “This frees up space and emotional energy in your brain.”

To silence your mind even more, add a deadline whenever possible to your traditional to-do’s, such as: Clean the closet by Friday. Research suggests that the most mental freedom comes from lists that anchor tasks in time to prevent the mind from wandering. Carter adds, “We naturally feel more focused by listing when we’re going to do a task, not just that it needs doing.”

Stuck? Swap multitasking for a timer

You’re simultaneously trying to write an email, respond to texts, and schedule a work trip, but before you know it, 30 minutes have passed and nothing has been accomplished. “New neuroimaging studies have shown that multitasking doesn’t exist,” says Craig S. Travis, PhD, Director of Behavioral Sciences at OhioHealth Grant Medical Center. “We’re actually multi-switching our focus, which makes us less productive and is mentally draining.”

The fix: Try to complete one task at a time, only moving on when the first is finished, suggests Chicago psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, author of Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love ($14.70, Amazon). If tasks are too big to finish in one sitting, try the Pomodoro time-management method: Set a 25-minute timer and complete as much as possible of one task before starting another.

Overwhelmed? Keep track of your “don’t do’s”

You spent the entire day putting out fires for everyone else, but now it’s bedtime, and you feel anxious that you didn’t tackle a single item on your own to-do list. “Our success and happiness are based as much on what we choose not to do as what we choose to do,” says Carter, who recommends women keep a hard copy of a “trynot- to-do” list such as: Don’t answer the phone during family dinner; don’t take a volunteer opportunity unless it speaks to my heart; don’t try to be perfect; don’t sweat the small stuff.

“By being explicit in your don’t-do list, you increase the odds that you’ll spend your time on the things that matter most to you,” Carter explains. Since women are hardwired to be service-oriented, it may take practice to say no, but Travis assures that writing your don’t-do list and reviewing it often can simplify things in a positive way and work like a road map to freedom and joy.

Trapped in a fear cycle? Tap into a “feel-good file”

You toss and turn all night fretting about an upcoming meeting as your mind races with all the problems you encountered the last time you worked with this client. When this fear-induced cycle strikes, Travis suggests reframing your negative thoughts using a strategy of cognitive behavior therapy known as reappraisal. One technique: “Pretend you are a lawyer in a movie and look for facts that support the opposite of what your negative thoughts are telling you about the situation,” he suggests. For instance, instead of focusing on past glitches, recall memories of success. “These feel-good files nip fearful thoughts in the bud and train the brain to respond in productive ways — and the more you practice it, the more effective it becomes!”

Second-guessing? Celebrate tasks completed

You may have crossed “paint the bedroom” off of your official to-do list, but months later you’re still dwelling on whether sea-foam green was the right color choice. This is called rumination, and it’s like a skipping CD replaying your negative thoughts over and over again. To press stop, Lombardo advises praising yourself for the ways you’ve succeeded — no matter how small, like getting the paint job done, under budget, and with some leftover for future touch-ups. “We as women tend to judge our self-worth on accomplishing tasks,” she explains. So celebrating any successfully completed tasks triggers the reward center of our brain and helps us reset any negative rumination.

This story originally appeared in our print magazine.

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