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I feel i really need to take a break for a while now, i have a complex project to keep in mind, I am basically working on it all day, but after a while it starts to overwhelm me, and I cant clear my mind to concentrate on anything else, because i am worried, that i forget important details of my project. On the while i started to acting awkward, and i have ,at least right now, a really annoying headache.

I have important appointments coming, and i have to clear my thoughts to make reasonable decisions about my life. How can I clear my head for a while, and then pick the process up just where I left it?

An easy solution would be to write everything down, but I already have endless to-do lists, post-it notes, and sketches on every surface i own. Instant advice, and long term suggestion would also be appreciated.

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+1 for good question. –  Mahbubur R Aaman Apr 15 '13 at 14:16
    
+1 Very interesting and relevant question. –  Abid Rahman K Apr 15 '13 at 16:16
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6 Answers

Sleeping on a problem or decision overnight is the classic answer, and not to be underestimated. But I get the impression you're asking about shorter diversions in the middle of the day. Well, again, a 20-minute to 2-hour nap can often help. Nap taking is a skill, btw, that many of us have to make an effort to learn.

While sleep is perhaps the gold standard to get your subconscious working on the problem, there are plenty of other things you can do. The key is to do something very different: change your environment, change your activity, and use a different part of your brain.

Taking a walk is another classic approach. Others like to clear their head with more strenuous exercise. Get outside in the fresh air, or in the water or some place very different, and don't dwell on the problem.

Many folks prefer a walk because it gives them not only a change of environment and pace, but also a great opportunity to discuss something with someone else in a relaxed, unhurried way. For a lot of us, talking things through is a great way to aid our thinking process.

But again, if you're really stuck, sometimes it's best to totally put the problem aside for a while. Try to develop an awareness of when you start to run out of steam working on something and learn to back away before you start wasting time on it. If you find yourself banging your head on your desk, you've waited too long!

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Strenuous physical exercise always works for me. When your legs, lungs and hearth are screaming for attention you won't think about your TODO lists anymore.

See "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain" for some interesting research into the good effects of physical exercise.

Also, fun social activities are a good way to get out of mental loops: salsa dancing works great for me, since it requires a deep social and physical connection to your partner and to the music.

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I'm going to terribly quote Randy Pauch again... from http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/Randy/TMenglishTranscript.pdf we have

I like to talk about "The Time Famine". I think it's a nice phrase. Does anybody here feel like they have too much time? Okay, nobody, excellent. I like the word "famine", because it's a little bit like thinking about Africa. You can airlift all the food you want in to solve the crisis this week but the problem is systemic, and you really need systemic solutions. A time management solution that says, "I'm going to fix things for you in the next 24 hours" is laughable, just like saying: "I'm going to cure hunger in Africa in the next year." You need to think long-term and you need to change fundamental underlying processes because the problem is systemic, we just have too many things to do and not enough time to do them

The message I'm getting from your post is that you are in the middle of a crisis and your are looking for a fix. That's quite understandable, and its a place I often find myself. The problem is that there are lots of long term causes both of your stress and the way you manage the project.

I would suggest that you do what you can for the moment to get yourself out of this crisis, and then schedule some time to think about the things you would do differently next time and, particularly, how you can build up a note-taking system that works: Being brutally honest, a note-taking system where you are afraid to write things down is not working.

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First of all, rest is just as important as action! Don't be tempted to skip your breaks. Taking breaks improves your productivity and creativity. Not taking breaks leads to stress and exhaustion (see also this NY Times article)

The Getting-Things-Done (GTD) system is ideal for combatting all your different post-it notes and to-do lists. It requires some discipline to maintain it, but once you get started you'll have more peace of mind and won't be spending energy worrying that you are forgetting something.

To get started on GTD, I found it best to read the book. Alternatively you can search the internet for a quick introduction (I can recommend this one and this one). Personally I found the introductions on the internet a bit short. After reading them I still had a lot of questions, so I ended up reading the book anyway. There are also other interesting posts about GTD on this site but that's for when you have more questions after learning how it works.

Regular meditation, as some other people have answered, may also help you to reduce stress and anxiety, but this may be difficult to start while you are still feeling stressed. I found it best to start by scheduling breaks and making sure you relax during the breaks. Once you feel you have your life more or less under control, you can start with meditation and investigate if it is anything for you.

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I recommend Mindfulness meditation. It's a technique inspired by Buddhism, where you basically sit down quietly and focus exclusively on your breath. If done regularly at least 7 minutes per day, studies show you will experience greater focus and less stress.

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I think your issue is calling out for some type of breathing exercise or meditation. I have personally found a lot of relief from racing thoughts and stress through this method. The idea is to actively clear your mind, and allow it to focus on something other than work for a few minutes. I think you will find that an active approach to removing stress is better than a passive.


For a simple breathing exercise you might try the 4-7-8 breathing exercise. Throughout the exercise you should be in a relaxed sitting position, and focused on touching your tongue to the area between your gums and your teeth.

  1. Take a deep exhalation through the mouth
  2. Breathe in through the nose to the count of 4
  3. Hold your breath to the count of 7
  4. Exhale through the mouth to the count of 8
  5. Repeat for a few minutes

For a simple Meditation practice, try the following:

  1. Get in a comfortable posture
  2. Close your eyes or stay loosely focused on one spot in your field of vision
  3. As you breathe in think to yourself "in"
  4. As you breathe out think to yourself "out"
  5. Stay actively focused on thinking in/out, if you find your mind wandering note the thing you were thinking about, but then move back to in/out. It is important to understand that everyone has these distractions, and it is best to non-judgmentally note them, and move on.

Two books I would recommend for further info:

  1. Search Inside Yourself
  2. Finding The Quiet Mind

Book 1 has a website with a lot of the content summarized as videos, see it here.

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+1 for nice answer. –  Mahbubur R Aaman Apr 15 '13 at 14:15
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