How to quiet your overthinking brain enough to enjoy your holiday break

[Image description: Close up on the face of a sleepy light brown chihuahua that’s lying down. Their eyes are half-closed, looking at the camera. This looks like one tired puppy who needs a break.]
Hi everyone, before we begin, check out this delightful video made by the Human Services Council in New York City. Similar to this NAF post, the video envisions a for-profit, here a pizza place, being treated the way nonprofits are; it brings to light the absurd stuff we have to deal with (NAF gets a shout-out in the end credits).

Many of us are preparing to take some time off for the holiday break. I wrote about the importance of giving your team and yourself some time to recharge in “A Call to Inaction: Nonprofits, Give Your Staff a Break.” Giving people time off, now or later in the year, is a relatively inexpensive way to boost morale, increase effectiveness, and make it more likely that you’ll get one of those coveted “Best Boss in the World” mugs that I’ve only heard about. 

For many of us though, even when we are not at the office, we’re not exactly on a break. This is due to several reasons. Our field tends to attract people who care a lot about others; nonprofit work does not end when we go home; and the complexity of the work combined with the fact that we care about people means we’re always trying to read up on the latest research or model or thinking of new strategies or whatever. There are always more things we could and should be doing.

Because of these things, many of us really suck at relaxing because our brains are constantly in motion. When we are not working, we think about work. But having a mind that is always active has some consequences, including a higher risk for depression. If you’re one of these overthinking people, you are not alone (although maybe you are alone). To calm your brain enough to make the most of your holiday break—if you are taking one—here are a few things to try, in no particular order (because I didn’t want to overthink this post):

Be unambitious: Every year, I make a list of non-work things I plan to get done: Organize the pantry, install a storm door, purge the closet of excess clothing, do a push-up, etc. I invariably fail at 95% of these projects and then feel like crap and ruminate on why I didn’t accomplish my goals and am such a useless human being. Maybe think of one or two things you absolutely need to get done (like your will and advance care directive), but otherwise, leave your brain time to relax by not creating more stuff for it to think about.

Reduce news consumption: Especially this year, all of us have been continually checking the news to see what terrible things our communities are dealing with or will have to face in the future. It is often bleak. Even on holiday, many of us constantly check our phones for the latest headlines. This much constant negativity is not good for us. We should be up-to-date with the latest happenings in our city, country, and world, but vacations and breaks are good opportunities to tune out for a bit. Or at least reduce consumption; for some people, tuning out completely might activate their brain to start guessing on what’s happening, which defeats the purpose. Do what works for you.

Cut down on social media: While there are plenty of good things that come out of social media—such as these awesome Facebook support groups for nonprofits—it’s also linked to social anxiety, loneliness, and depression. Probably because seeing idealized snippets of other people’s lives make us ruminate on our situations and engage in unhealthy comparisons. Also, engaging in the occasional scorched-earth intellectual battles with others, or even just witnessing these types of interactions, does not really help to create a calm and relaxed mind.

Don’t schedule work-related meetings: I have a few days off next week and immediately thought “This is the perfect time to schedule some meetings, since I’ll be in town and my schedule is clear.” So now I have a few meetings on my calendar that I should not have scheduled. Resist the urge! Work-related meetings can wait for 2019. Think also about the people you are meeting. They too deserve a break. Do everyone a favor and postpone any meetings you made if you can.

It’s OK to turn down some stuff: Social activities, holiday gatherings, meetups with friends, etc. It’s your break, and if doing these things energizes you, go for it. But often, we attend holiday functions not out of joy, but out of obligation. For many introverts, parties can be fun and community-building, but they often are an exhausting amalgam of overthinking and anxiety. Know your limit, and don’t feel guilty saying no. Chances are, no one will even notice you’re not there. That sounds sad, but it’s actually pretty freeing.

Enjoy some “non-educational” books and movies: We in this sector often have the mindset of continuous improvement, so we stock up on books on leadership, management, grantwriting, donor relations, equity, etc. These are wonderful. But it’s also great to enjoy some “mindless” entertainment. Don’t feel like you’re wasting time. Escapist fares give our brains occasional and much-needed opportunities to decompress.

Engage in things that make you laugh: Laughter is one of the surest way to stop an overthinking brain, or at least divert the overthinking to a positive direction. Go to a comedy show, re-read the complete collection of Calvin and Hobbes, make time to hang out with your friends who are actually funny. I just rewatched Hot Fuzz, one of the smartest and most hilarious movies ever made, and for two hours, I laughed and didn’t think about capacity building, systemic injustice, or the coming Apocalypse and how I need to stock up on vegetable seeds because they will be the new currency. (Seriously, do yourself a favor and watch Hot Fuzz on Netflix if you haven’t seen it. The main character is an exemplary police officer who cannot ever shut down his brain).

Try meditation: I don’t have much experience with this so can’t really guide you. But it seems to work for a lot of people. There are tons of apps you can download. Maybe this break is a good time to try some of these meditation techniques. Maybe start by listening to this Guided Meditation for Nonprofit Professionals.

Recognize when you meta-overthink (overthink about overthinking): Unsurprisingly, overthinkers may overthink about overthinking itself.  This can be stressful: “OMG, am I thinking to much? This article says I need to think less and relax! I think I am doing OK at that?” Recognize when you’re doing that, because it can be counterproductive, kind of like when trying to do self-care activities actually causes you stress. Try not to freak out if you do end up thinking or working during your break. If it helps, allow yourself a short time each day to engage in overthinking. Kind of like when I’m on vacation, it’s actually helpful for me to spend a few minutes every three days checking emails so my mind doesn’t start making up stuff to worry about. 

Finally, remember what’s important: This week I was moved by this ad for a Ruavieja liqueur where an interviewer talks to various sets of people—siblings, friends, parent and adult child, etc.—and asks them how often they see one another. Then, using statistics based on life expectancy and other factors, the interviewer calculates how much time they have left to spend with one another. For instance, if you live far away and only see your mom once a year for about five days during the holidays, and she has on average about 15 years left in life, then you have approximately 75 days left together (if Fate is kind).

These alcoholic beverage companies and their clever commercials! Ruavieja is making a point that over our lifespans we each spend a total of years staring at screens, and we do not realize that the time we have with the people we love most is numbered in days. I think it is also a good reminder about what we lose when we are consumed by our work to the point that even during the few days we may have left with our friends and family members, we are not mentally present. If you must think, think about the people you care most about and how you can maximize the time you have with them.

The work will always be there. If you can, try to give your body and mind the time and space to relax and recharge, and spend these days with the people closest to you. You deserve it, your loved ones deserve it, and it will make you more effective when you come back from break, if you are taking one.

Happy Holidays. Thank you for everything you do. I’ll be taking a break from working and writing and will be back on January 2nd with a new post.

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