June 1, 2018

In my eternal quest for Inbox Zero, I recently found myself on a massive email unsubscribe spree, flagging emails that felt more like nuisances than useful.

I spent a full hour going through my inbox of 2.7K unread messages, seeking out the emails I once welcomed—maybe thinking they’d be useful at one point—but now add nothing but more noise.

After each “unsubscribe” click (note: they really make this button hard to find sometimes), I landed on screen after screen showing a desperate “Are you sure you want to leave us?!”—a last-ditch effort to keep me subscribed and let a brand flood my inbox with pictures of that couch I did spend 45 minutes looking at, but still don’t intend to buy.

And it got me thinking: Junk emails are like all those extraneous thoughts in my head that don't serve me.

Think about it:

●︎ They touch on something you semi-care about

●︎ Then, they keep hitting you over the head with it unless you physically opt-out

If my mind was an inbox, it’d be flooded with emails that feel important but just add more noise.

Junk emails are like all those extraneous thoughts in my head that don't serve me.

But, unlike emails, I can’t physically see how I’m bombarded with thoughts that don’t serve me. There’s no red notification number showing me how my thoughts are really stacking up.

So, I just let it go on: the endless thought cycles about that thing I said in a meeting, the analyzing of how that friend reacted when I told that story, the ruminating over all the things that can go wrong with that upcoming presentation.

Overthinking Is Pretty Sneaky

The sneaky thing about overthinking is that it can feel productive. It can feel like we’ve got our “thinking caps” on, and we’re analyzing something thoughtfully. And, yes, some level of thinking through our actions is necessary. But “thoughtfulness” morphs into “overthinking” when we can’t quiet—or notice—our merry-go-round thoughts.

When we get into that level of intense thinking? We actually do ourselves more harm than good.

The sneaky thing about overthinking is that it can feel productive.

“Overanalyzing actually interferes with problem-solving,” Amy Morin, L.C.S.W., explains on Psychology Today. “It will cause you to dwell on a problem rather than seek solutions.”

How to Opt-Out of Overthinking

So, how do we unsubscribe from overthinking?

One of the tips Morin recommends is simply noticing when we’re thinking too much and acknowledging that those thoughts aren’t productive.

I try to do this now by thinking of my mind as an inbox. It’s flooded with messages—some random spam, some urgent and important. And within the mix there are emails—aka thoughts—that I keep allowing to pop up but truly don’t serve me. For those thoughts, I try to mentally unsubscribe.

One example: I basically get a daily mental email titled, “What if you don’t sound like you know what you're talking about?” It pops up before meetings, tough conversations, even casual brunch dates with friends.

I try to think of my mind as an inbox.

I started to notice how often I get “pinged” with that mental message—and, once I saw the influx, I mentally imagined hitting unsubscribe.

Naturally, my thoughts would also have one of those “Are you sure you want to leave?” messages—and it was actually fun to imagine what this specific chain of thinking would say. I think it’d be something like this:

Hey there! Insecurity here. I hate to see you go. I just love undermining your confidence and taking a toll on your self-esteem. And I care about you—and making you feel extremely unintelligent! Stay with me?

Imagining that message helped me detach myself from the thought itself, and it showed me how the chain of thought really added no value. So, I opted-out.

Has this trick solved all my overthinking problems?

Nope—some unwanted messages still sneak in and the inbox grows and grows.

But, like I did with my IRL inbox, it’s helpful to go in every once in a while and do a refresh, flagging the thoughts that no longer serve me and clearing them out.

Then, the noise quiets a bit. The messages feel more productive and less spam-y. I’ll never hit zero in my mental inbox, but I’m happy at least being in the single digits.

Read next: How I Trained Myself to Worry Better