How to Reframe Overwhelming Thoughts

Author Sasha Sagan explains how she uses to-do lists to boost her confidence.

As the daughter of astronomer and educator Carl Sagan and writer/producer of “Cosmos” and Contact, Ann Druyan, Sasha Sagan was taught from an early age about the power of science. “Science is a source of not just information, but awe, and even joy,” Sagan tells Thrive. 

She has worked as a television producer, filmmaker, and editor. Now, Sagan has written For Small Creatures Such As We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World, a book about finding meaning and connection

Sagan shares how she stays focused, and how to stay connected with the people who are meaningful to you.

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?

Sasha Sagan: Thank my sweet husband for bringing me a cup of coffee.

TG: What gives you energy?

SS: Lively conversations, great and bustling cities, packing for an exciting trip, parties, and progress.

TG: Tell us how you view the connection between spirituality and well-being.

SS: Asking ourselves deep, philosophical questions is sometimes very hard, but I think facing ourselves, our mortality, and our reality can help bring us a little closer to how we might hope to be, and provide a real sense of wholeness in our lives.

TG: What’s your secret life hack?

SS: Audiobooks. I love to read but there’s so little time in my life when I can just sit quietly with a book. Audiobooks let me learn, research, and get inspired while I fold laundry or run errands.

TG:  What are some of your traditions?

SS: We have lots! Two favorites I write about in my book are our secular Passover Seder each spring, and our weekly singing of the Alphabet song, as prescribed by an unforgettable D.C. cab driver.

TG: What are some of the main lessons you hope your daughter learns from you and your husband as she grows?

SS: Even though life is finite, being here, right now is profound and wonderful and very lucky.

TG: How do you deal with email?

SS: I set it so my phone only pings if the email is from a handful of work contacts. I delete what I don’t need as soon as I see it. I star what I need to come back to later. It’s not a perfect system. I frequently take far too long to reply to people and I’m sorry!

TG: What was one of the most important lessons your father taught you?

SS: It matters what’s true.

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?

SS: My book tour ended right as we were gearing up for the holidays. I felt a bit overwhelmed coming off of so much travel and excitement straight into shopping, wrapping, and preparing, but I kept thinking “I’ve written this whole book about celebrations, I can’t half-a*s it!”

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?

SS: I am a writer, so it happens all the time! Most pitches get rejected, but keeping at it helps me get past those feelings of failure.

TG: How do you prioritize when you have an overwhelming amount to do?

SS: I love to-do lists, and try to break everything down into teeny steps. I’d rather have 100 manageable tasks than 10 enormous ones. Crossing things off gives me the illusion of momentum, which gives me confidence. When I have an intimidating week ahead, I like to cross one or two things off Sunday night so I feel like I’m already a little bit ahead of the game on Monday morning.

TG: When you notice you’re getting too stressed, what do you do to course correct?

SS: For many years, when I was very stressed, I would think, “I have so much to do! I have to stay up all night to finish it all!” But over time, I started to realize that my stress level was rarely a product of how much I actually had to get done, but rather a product of other emotions and anxieties. Now when I feel very stressed, I think, “Hm, I bet I will feel better if I tidy up a bit and get some sleep.” Then I can actually do what needs to get done.

TG: What’s a surprising way you practice mindfulness?

SS: I am not an athletic person, but in my 30s I’ve become obsessed with a particular barre class. Something about making very small physical movements and focusing on my muscles and my breath allows me to be in the present in a way I find soothing. As does the very short, guided meditation at the end.

TG: How do you reframe negative thinking?

SS: It’s very hard! But I am learning to say to myself, “OK Sasha, that disastrous turn of events you’re worried about is a story you made up, now try to make up a story where this goes very well.”

TG: What brings you optimism?

SS: How much more our species understands than we did a thousand years ago.

TG: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve the way you connect with others. What did you do, how long did it take until it became effective, and how do you sustain this habit?

SS: This sounds sort of strange, but when someone I care about is going through a hard time, I set recurring reminders for myself on my phone to check with them. Sometimes we have those passing thoughts — “I wonder how so-and-so is holding up” — but forget to actually write them and ask. I think this is especially helpful after a little time has passed. When someone loses a family member, gives birth, or is diagnosed with a disease, everyone’s there to help, but after a few weeks, people go back to their regular lives. I think this is when we really need the reminders to check in.

TG:  Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve your focus. What did you do, how long did it take until it became effective, and how you sustain this habit?

SS: Using placeholders in my writing. I used to get stuck trying to think of the perfect turn of phrase and become completely derailed. Once I let myself put a few synonyms or a vague concept in brackets, knowing I could come back and improve it later, I became much more efficient.

TG: What was the biggest turning point in your life?

SS: The death of my father when I was 14.

TG: What’s your evening routine that helps you unwind and go to sleep?

SS:  Skin care and snuggling.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

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