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Overthinking is a natural part of life for many of us, even when we’re not aware we’re doing it. Research has shown that overthinking is prevalent in young and middle aged adults, with 73% of 25-35 year-olds identified as overthinkers. More women (57%) find themselves overthinking than men (43%), which is a significant difference. This means the majority of women are overthinkers, and the majority of overthinkers are women.
I’m not a woman, but I am an overthinker. So I guess I’m in the minority… a vocal minority ;) If you find yourself spending an unreasonable amount of time thinking through something, twisting it around in your head until you’ve seen it from every angle and possibility, chances are you too are an overthinker.
There are very few benefits to being an overthinker. Being logical (and therefore unemotional) about taking action has a lot of merit and can have positive results, but there’s a difference between thinking about something just enough – and thinking about something to the point of analysis paralysis. The short of it is, you don’t want to be an overthinker!
Overthinking can occur as a consequence of a decision that needs to be made, big or small, and is typically exacerbated in stressful situations. It’s not limited to decision making however, as it can also rear it’s ugly head whenever something has the ability to cause any level of anxiety or worry. It’s the proverbial thing that “keeps you up at night” and stems from an actual or perceived lack of control over some aspect of life. With a lack of control comes a feeling of helplessness. Overthinking is frequently the direct result. The worst overthinkers actually spend time overthinking seemingly meaningless things to the point that they’ve spent more time thinking about the thing than the time it would have taken to address it completely. What a waste of time and energy!
There have been a number of studies over the past 20 years that challenge the view that overthinking equates to better decisions and therefore improved happiness and success. Specifically these studies have found that overthinkers are more prone to sustained sadness and negative thinking. And though it may seem that thinking through problems to the extreme would result in better decisions, overthinking has actually been shown to impair problem solving and rational thought, and interfere with initiative and motivation.
What’s worse is that people aren’t clued in to the dangers of overthinking. Most people feel they’re making progress while cogitating endlessly, but in fact they’re permeating negative thoughts and fostering a pessimistic view of the situation. As we know, “we are what we think”, and for those stuck in the cycle of overthinking, they’re reinforcing this adverse thought process and letting it trickle into other areas of thought.
If you got this far, chances are you’ve identified yourself as an overthinker. Which means right now you’re probably wondering what the heck you can do about it? If you were to stop reading right now, you’d probably go off thinking that you have a problem – and then spend the rest of the week wondering how this affects your thinking, what you could do to “fix it”. And again, you’d be overthinking it!
Overthinking isn’t something you’re born doing, it’s a learned habit you form over time, probably as a defense mechanism to the possibility of failure. So before going any further, let’s see what we can do about it.
If you find yourself overthinking, you need to change the channel in your mind immediately. Simple, right? It mostly is. The caveat here is that while the solution is simple, putting it into action takes ongoing practice. But just like most things, the more you do this, the better you’ll get at it next time and the time after that. Here are some ways you can change your current thought process:
- Avoid situations and people that can lead to overthinking. You can do this based on history – you can probably determine which situations are going to keep you up at night unnecessarily. Or do this based on how something makes you feel prior to participating. This takes some self-awareness, but it isn’t unlike what an alcoholic has to do in order to stay sober. They avoid the people, places, and things that put them into that mental state.
- Talk to yourself. Rather, don’t talk to yourself in the way you’ve been talking to yourself; “level up” your self-talk. When you have something on your mind and you can’t shake it, stay aware of your thought process… You may find it surprising how often the topic pops up. You may also be surprised to find that overthinking is more likely to occur with negative thoughts, which means you’re fixating on the wrong things to help you overcome the situation. Every time you find yourself overthinking something, especially when it’s negative, think instead, “This isn’t helping. What would help is…” and replace it with a positive affirmation. Do this each and every time.
- Commit to a project that maps to your goals. Find a happy person and chances are you’ll find at least one active project that aligns with their core values. If you’re able to focus your energy on something that matters to you instead of on the repetitive monotony of unhelpfulness, you may find yourself thinking less and less about the thing you want to avoid.
- Distract yourself. Get out, do something, and get your mind off of the thing you can’t stop thinking about. It’s possible to do this… you just have to be willing to give it a shot, which is probably the trickiest part (convincing yourself to do it). The best way I’ve found to distract myself is to exercise – for whatever reason it’s hard for me to overthink when I’m sweating – but spending time with your family, going on a drive, or just sitting still and breathing work as well. The best distractions are ones in which you can find the flow state. Find your favorite distraction and do it!
- Enforce a time limit to your thinking and document your thoughts. If you’re going to overthink, just commit to it for a short amount of time. Give yourself permission to overthink, but only for 15 minutes. Set a timer, grab a pen and paper, and for the entire 15 minutes, write down everything that comes to your mind. Don’t stop to correct yourself (pretend there’s no eraser or backspace key), it doesn’t matter what you’re writing. You’re just letting yourself get it all out. When the 15 minutes are up, crumple up the paper and throw it out (or safely burn it) and move onto something else. Something fun.
- Turn overthinking into a next action in a project plan. One big reason for overthinking is not knowing what comes next in order to make forward progress. When you consider that overthinking is usually endless unstructured thinking on something, the key is to turn that energy into structured thinking. Determining what the next possible action is you could take in order to push the boulder another inch up the mountain could free you from thinking about everything else at once. Crystallize your thoughts into a list of next actions and take the first step. Add the next to your calendar or to-do list, and know that you’re making progress.
- Realize that being perfect isn’t possible. Striving for perfection is a recipe for disaster, and the sooner you give up those perfectionist tendencies, the sooner you’ll move past the thing that’s occupying all your thoughts. Perfectionism is highly overrated, and this post lists the 11 reasons why!
- Work through the 5 keys to overcome fear. The most important one for overthinkers is to stop projecting the worst of what could happen. Ask yourself what’s the absolute worst that could possibly happen – and then be OK with that outcome, coming up with appropriate responses if necessary. This is an amazingly freeing step as almost immediately, a light bulb in your head goes off. If the worst case scenario isn’t actually that bad, and if you know how you’d deal with it if it came to that, anxiety about that thing may disappear completely.
- Think about the big picture. This is the one that has worked the best for me over the past few years. It takes a little experience (i.e. the know-how to realize that it will indeed pass) but if you ask yourself, “Will this matter in a month/6 months/1 year?” and the answer is “No” or “Not really”, then what’s the point in thinking it to death? If you do, in fact, determine that it will matter in a year, you can use this opportunity to leverage post-traumatic growth. How has this experience changed you? What have you learned from it, or how will you approach it differently next time?
Overthinking is a real detriment to focus and must be stamped out. Forming positive habits and reinforcing them over time will make a big difference in your propensity to overthink, and these steps are some ways in which you can start to do that. Let me know how it works!
(One way I’ve stopped overthinking and trying to perfect this post is to close my laptop without rereading it and get outside – it’s Sunday afternoon. I’ll read it once more in the morning and then post it.)