7 Ways to Control Your Overthinking
You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
By John Millen
Working with a group of data scientists last year, I started our workshop with a simple icebreaker exercise: I asked them to name their favorite film and tell a brief line or story from the movie.
This is always fun and gets a lot of laughs and insights into people.
But on this day, we were about three people in when it broke down. I started getting questions and analysis: “What do movies have to do with data? Shouldn’t we be timing each person? Are you judging these?” and the like.
Finally, I said, “Hey, we’re just having fun here. You guys are overthinking this.” One guy said, “Duh, that’s what we do!” That got a good laugh.
While it’s true that scientists are professional deep thinkers, I find overthinking is a common problem for many of my clients.
With a world of information at our fingertips and constant demands for our attention, a lot of people get wrapped up in their own heads and become paralyzed by too many choices and fear of making the wrong decision.
Overthinking often impairs your judgment, making it even harder to come to a decision. If you’re a golfer, as I am, you know that the longer you think about a short putt, the less likely it is to go in the cup.
In our business and personal lives, overthinking often leads to procrastination, frustration, delay and poor results. Overthinking may also lead to over-explaining as I wrote in 5 Ways to Stop Over-Explaining.
Whether it’s giving a speech, having a difficult conversation with a colleague or making a personal decision, it can be tough to avoid overthinking. With that in mind, here are a seven of the best ways to control overthinking:
1. Keep it simple
We can frequently overwhelm ourselves by creating too many options or through finding complex solutions to problems. The best solution is most often the simplest one.
Apple is well known for its sleek and elegant design. Steve Jobs explained: “The way we’re running the company, the product design, the advertising, it all comes down to this: Let’s make it simple. Really simple.”
In an era of excess, Jobs’ minimalist approach was radical. He returned to Apple in 1997, when the company was trailing behind Microsoft and sales were down by 30 percent.
Jobs reduced Apple’s product lineup by 70 percent, including a focus on building only four Mac computers: a desktop and a laptop, two for consumers and two for professionals.
The greater simplicity increased focus and quality, as well as profitability that has led Apple to become the world’s most valuable company. It was a return to Apple’s roots, as its first marketing brochure said in 1977: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Like Apple, think of producing with a minimalist mindset. Find the simplest solution.
2. Done is better than perfect
“Perfect is the enemy of good,” wrote Voltaire. In our quest for perfection, we can often stop doing something or drop a project because it’s “not good enough.” Perfectionism is a never-ending quest since there is no such thing as “perfect.”
When developing a project, it can be tempting to wait to release it or show others until it’s completely “done.” But unreasonable standards can make it impossible to ever complete.
3. Set a hard deadline
One of author Seth Godin’s famous mantras is “ship it.” It means to set an unwavering deadline for a project and at that point release it out into the world, no matter what. If people come up with additions and other ideas during the process, those are parked in a holding pen for Product 2.0, your next iteration.
As Godin writes in his bestseller Linchpin: “The only purpose of starting is to finish, and while the projects we do are never really finished, they must ship.” It’s helpful to remember that few things are final and changes can always be made down the road.
4. Imagine the best-case scenario
For many of us, fear is the root of overthinking. It holds us in place like a frozen rabbit, as if staying still will keep something bad from happening.
I have a CEO client who likes to say that when people look into the open door of a dark room, they never imagine it’s filled with angels. Our imagination of the future usually paints a negative picture.
But most of the terrible things we imagine never happen. Instead of always preparing for the worst-case scenario, we should try to imagine the best possible outcome. What good could happen?
5. Stay in the moment
Overthinking can cause us to dwell too much in the future, or to rehash the past, instead of staying rooted in the present. By thinking of everything that could happen tomorrow, you take away the opportunity to enjoy today and take action now.
Mindfulness and meditation have become increasingly popular and an accepted antidote to stress, anxiety, and depression. One study using MRI scans showed that after a two-month practice of mindfulness, the power of the amygdala, also known as the “fight or flight” center, starts to diminish.
Harvard Business Review explains: “Through repeated mindfulness practice, brain activity is redirected from ancient, reactionary parts of the brain, including the limbic system, to the newest, rational part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.” If you’re intrigued by meditation, two popular apps to try are Headspace and Calm. Or check out Transcendental Meditation, which is my practice.
6. Adopt a beginner’s mind
A fresh perspective can help to prevent overthinking. The beginner’s mind or shoshin is a concept that comes from Zen Buddhism. It teaches, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”
A beginner’s mindset helps us to be more innovative and embrace new ideas while cultivating curiosity. For example, a beginner is more likely to identify a simple solution that “experts” don’t see because our minds are too full.
There is a famous Zen story adapted by John Suler that illustrates this concept:
A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about all of his theories about Zen Buddhism. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring.
The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. ‘It's full! No more will go in!’ the professor blurted. ‘This is you,’ the master replied, ‘How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’
Likewise, adopting a beginner’s mind, we can become open to simple ideas less burdened by our thoughts and old beliefs.
7. Take action
The best antidote to fear and overthinking is action. Take action. Do something. What’s the next action you can take to move closer to your goal?
As James Clear notes in his bestseller, Atomic Habits, a small step forward is enough to create momentum in a project without triggering perfectionist tendencies. Starting is the hardest part and can cause stress and worry. By taking that first step, you can allow yourself to let go of worries and embrace the journey ahead. Soon momentum kicks in and you're making consistent progress.
Again, done is better than perfect and one small step is preferable to standing still.
What about you?
Are you an overthinker?
How do you control overthinking?
Is there a way to find a simpler solution to a problem you are facing?
I really enjoy hearing your stories. If you want to share your thoughts with me, please visit my contact page and we can talk.