Writing this post is somewhat difficult for me. I feel conflicted. On the one hand, I am definitely someone who has a tendency for overthinking things, however, I must say there is a fine line between overthinking and thinking things through just enough so that I get to better outcomes. Nailing that fine line becomes key, so that our thinking brain remains productive instead of becoming counterproductive.
If you find yourself being in the same camp, you are probably annoyed when carpe diem peers say ‘oh, just don’t overthink things.’ For me it is as if someone said ‘don’t be introverted’. Well, I am so I don’t know how not to be. It wouldn’t be authentic anyway. Same goes for thinking: I cannot not approach things from an analytical perspective.That said, I need to know where to draw the line.
Ok, so as you can see, I am already overthinking writing about the topic of overthinking. But the thing is, I am writing about it, there is an action and so an outcome. Hopefully one that you will find useful. What we need to catch is this tipping point, where thinking turns into overthinking and so it prevents you from taking action. Also known as analysis paralysis.
Now, this is a tricky one, because analysis feels good. It feels good simply because it creates the illusion that you are making progress. It may even appear as action you are taking (by analysing things) to get one step closer to what you want to achieve. But the reality is that this is just an illusion. You are exactly where you were prior to starting to think about the issue at hand.
What matters is taking ‘real’ action. The fear of doing that, the fear of having made the wrong decision, the fear of having possibly closed other options, is what makes you stuck in overthinking. However, we know from various research that making a decision and taking action, any action, is better than not taking any at all. The former allows you to learn and course correct down the line, while the latter slowly puts you into the state of being stuck. And more thinking will not get you out of that. I am sure that is not newsflash to anyone.
So what shall we do about it? Other than the cliche ‘just make a decision and move on’ advice, which can sometimes feel patronizing, let me try and give 3 better ones:
1.Get out of the analysis paralysis state
Our minds go into overdrive after too much thinking. It is not that we can’t think clearly anymore, but our mental state is not ideal for making decisions and for seeing things from different perspectives. Tony Robbins’s 3-day flagship event, which many people who attend it find transformational (I think that deserves some caveat, which I am happy to share with anyone over a glass of wine), is kicked off by getting people into a different mindset. About half a day is spent doing exercises that put people into a mindset that is optimal for making decisions and finding solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. This is the long version of what he calls ‘priming’, a daily exercise that is part of his morning routine.
Getting out of the ‘stuck’ state can mean different things to different people. You don't necessarily need to go to an event or invent a morning routine. Going somewhere new, changing the scenery, spending time in nature, talking to people who uplift you with their positive attitude, doing something creative, etc. are all good options. Whatever works for you to stop your mind going in circles about one single topic.
2. Do the fear-setting exercise
This one is from Tim Ferriss, and you can read about it in his blog in more detail. In a nutshell, the exercise is to make you write down all the ‘worst case’ scenarios that can happen when you make your decision. Not only that, but you also need to rate the likelihood of those things actually happening. Finally, you need to come up with a plan to recover if the worst case scenario indeed happened.
What this exercise does is making your fears more tangible and it forces you to be super practical about implication and outcomes as well as about your recovery plan in the various scenarios. What often happens is that you realize that your ‘worst case’ scenario is not unmanageable after all; you would still live and walk away with some good learnings. We are a lot more resourceful than we often think, and it is only in these ‘worst case’ scenarios in life when we realize that. Fear-setting is the simulation of this, prepping you for the real deal, but also making you recognize that you can handle whatever happens.
3. Trick your brain
I could say ‘tap into your intuition’ but it is more than that, and it also sounds less cliche than the intuition advice every instagram life coach would give you. :) Ok, so you probably know about the placebo effect. What is interesting about it is this: when your brain believes something, there are physical (and emotional) reactions that are triggered by that belief. That is why people who are given a placebo painkiller feel better; not just because they believe in it, but there is also a real physical reaction when the brain gives the instruction to the body to produce its own version of pain relief (endorphin).
The other thing we know from neuroscience is that our brain cannot tell the difference between reality and something we imagine, whether it is a dream or a manifestation (a vision you want for your life). Ok, so what to do with all this?
When you need to make a decision between, say two options, start with one and imagine what your life would look like if you picked that. How would the decision impact your day to day? And your relationships? How would people react to your decision? How would you go about your life and the implications triggered by the decision? This is not a 5min exercise, as you need to make your brain see details to the point that it feels like the new reality. Now, what you do is notice how this reality feels. Are you happy about who you are, where you are and what you do? Can you handle the challenges and difficulties that come with it? Wait a day or two, and repeat the exercise but now with option #2. Most likely you will know but more importantly, feel, what the right decision is.
Lastly, I want to recognize that some decisions in life are truly difficult. They are difficult because there isn’t a perfect option, all scenarios have trade-offs and they all entail something that we are uncomfortable with or anxious about. Most often, these decisions require you to make a change, which can be really stressful and scary. You will face these decisions in life for sure, but most often, the decisions you need to make are not in this category.
Most often we face decisions that have a simple answer. An answer that you probably know in your heart already. Overthinking is just your brain’s way of trying to rationalize your decision, and to reassure you that it is the right one. If you are someone who tends to overthink things, next time you face a decision, ask yourself ‘If the answer was simple, what would it be?’ See what the answer is without trying to justify it. Trust that a simple ‘this is what feels right’ is enough.