Chronic overthinking, also known as the “killer of productivity”, “destroyer of decision-making” and “problem-solving gone wrong” isn’t much different from splitting reality into multiple universes. In fact, it’s even more confusing.
If you’ve ever played out a mental scenario of multiple probabilities arising out of one action and felt paralyzed by the inability to make the one “right” decision, you’ll know what psychologists mean by “rumination” or “chronic overthinking” behaviors. Overthinking is about creating and playing out multiple probability scenarios without any certainty as to their odds, credibility, or even usability.
Overthinking tricks the brain
Overthinking is essentially a defensive mechanism. The brain finds a brilliant solution — it births a mindset that stops a person from acting in any way by engaging them in persistent overthinking regarding possible outcomes.
Such hypothesizing, in turn, feeds the fear that caused it, creating a vicious cycle — what sports psychologists Martin Turner and Jamie Barker call the “destroyer of decision making”. Whenever we’re faced with a potentially life-changing decision, our brain starts generating multiple “outcome scenarios” that continue to exist on their own, both feeding on and nurturing our subconscious fear of action.
How to battle overthinking and improve decision-making
Persistent overthinking isn’t just bad for decision-making processes. It’s one of the most frequent preludes to anxiety disorder, panic attacks, and may even be an early sign of suicidal thinking in people who’re incredibly sensitive to the possibility of failure.
Here are some proven ways to drop chronic overthinking and improve decision-making both on the job and in everyday life.
Embrace small lifestyle changes — A fantastic way to fuel brain activity for better decision-making is through small lifestyle changes. As Mike Battista, a staff scientist at Cambridge Brain Sciences puts it, “It’s lifestyle changes, rather than simple practice of specific tasks, that have the biggest effects on the brain” and its decision-making processes. We all want to get better at the big things, but today, let’s start small — with the things 100% good for us, such as new learning habits, better mental health, and regular exercise.
Take leaps of faith — As humans, we make plans. Yet our most important decisions (and biggest breakthroughs) aren’t accomplished through plans as much as leaps of faith. This is one grain of wisdom we can learn from past generations who weren’t as good with information but were very good at instinct and vision: when the time comes to act, consult your intelligence thoroughly but trust your gut with the action.
Use fear as brain fuel — Our brain may be unwilling to tackle fear, but as Turner and Barker remind us, fear raises our acute awareness and activates the brain’s decision-making potential and creativity. Giving in to fear without turning it into brain fuel, on the other hand, leads to overthinking and the resulting “analysis paralysis”.
Set yourself a timeframe for action— there’s a sensible difference between thinking wisely and overthinking. Wise thinking maps out the options and weighs those pros and cons, but subconsciously understands that time is never eternal and is never to be taken for granted.
Be resilient — In the age of social media, success is marketed as a carousel of retouched lives and viral fame opportunities. Behind the scenes, however, we see that sound success is still about joining the minority. While 80% of enthusiasts get off to a good start, only about 20% succeed — not because they started off faster but because they have more resilience in the long run. To join that creative minority, let’s keep in mind that resilience is an acquired skill.
Talk to a human — One of the best ways to drop overthinking and improve decision-making is through live, human interaction. Unlike bloggers who will tell you wondrous success stories that may never apply to your life situation or background, consulting people eye-to-eye always makes for more honest conversation. Consulting a friend with a similar story to yours who’s nailed the same goal is always more helpful than Googling “how to open an online business” and dealing with the 8,530,000,000 results while trying not to overthink the options.
A few more ways to handle overthinking:
Observe your thoughts from a distance
A key component of meditation is that you watch your various thoughts pass, instead of getting caught up in them or trying to stop them from arising. Realize that you can actually choose to observe your thoughts rather than getting caught in them. The tendency to over-think is to some extent a natural tendency of the mind (which varies to some degree by person), but one you can change through practice.
In fact, Steve Jobs described this very same process to his biographer, Walter Isaacson:
“If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is … If you try to calm it, it only makes things worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things.”
Write down your thoughts
One way to stop your thoughts from spiraling out of control is to talk out the issues with someone else, who might offer a different perspective. Otherwise, you can write down your thoughts on a piece of paper.
I usually find that this allows one to organise their thought process a lot better, whereas if you keep those thoughts stuck in your head, not only can they make a mountain out of a molehill but they can also lead to you coming back to the same ideas continuously and thus over-analysing the same thing repeatedly.
Establish “no-think zones” to prevent yourself from dwelling too much on a single problem. For example, don’t think about difficult things after 8 p.m. because it might affects your sleep.
You can also schedule time — maybe 20 minutes — for reflection. During this time, let yourself worry, ruminate, or mull over whatever you want. Then, when the time is up, move onto something more productive. When you notice yourself overthinking things outside of your scheduled time, remind yourself that you’ll think about it later.
It sounds simple, but it’s really hard to concentrate on two things at once.
I recommend exercising or playing a game when you find yourself over-thinking: The run of emotions when complemented with the physical action brings in a great balance between the two. The key to not over-thinking is to find an absorbing activity. Specifically, you’ll want “a physical activity that combines mental engagement and social contact, such as tennis or a brisk nature walk with a friend.
You can break a thought spiral by replacing thinking with doing.
“Do not focus on what you need to do, do not focus on what you haven’t done and should have done, and do not focus on what is going on around you. Just focus on something you can do now, however small, and then do it.
Respect your own opinion
Part of the reason why you’re over-thinking a decision may be because you don’t trust yourself to make the right choice. Learn to respect your own opinion. The more you think about it, the more doubts you’ll be creating upon your own thoughts.
Know that you can change a wrong decision
It’s normal to worry that you’re choosing the wrong job, marrying the wrong person, or taking the wrong driving route home. But the mistake doesn’t have to be a catastrophe — in fact, it could be an opportunity for growth.
Challenge the common assumption that, if you’re wrong about something, you’re an idiot. Instead, she says, realizing that you made a mistake and reframing your view of the world is where innovation and creativity come from.
Over-thinking often comes from the notion that you will make a grand finale decision that will never change and must be correct. Being comfortable with being wrong, and knowing that your opinions and knowledge of a situation will change with time, brings a sense of true inner freedom and peace.