Do you overthink everything? Here’s how to stop
Beth works for a big tech company as a project manager, and making decisions is her job. How to prioritize tasks? Who should be assigned to each project? What kind of report is needed? Each time Beth oversees a project, she makes hundreds of decisions to shape its strategy, direction, and vision.
Although Beth loved her job, she found it stressful to be responsible for so many decisions. Her thoughts raced back and forth as she analyzed every last variable, hoping to make the “right” choices. She worried about upcoming projects and considered all the possible ways things could go wrong. And then Beth blamed herself for wasting time considering options instead of taking action. His thoughtful nature had a dark side: over thinking.
Beth is a perfect example of what I call a sensitive worker – a high achiever who deals with the world more deeply than others. Studies have shown that sensitive people have more activity in areas of the brain associated with mental processing. In other words, the minds of sensitive seekers not only absorb more information, but they also process it in more complicated ways. While sensitive activists like Beth are celebrated for their nuanced explorations of different angles and possibilities, they are also more vulnerable to stress and overwhelm.
Deliberation is an essential quality for effective leadership, and without it results tend to suffer. But for sensitive activists like Beth, the decision-making can be heavy thinking.
If you’re struggling with this issue, try the five strategies below to break the cycle of overthinking and make confident decisions in less time.
5 effective strategies to break the cycle of overthinking
1 – Let go of perfectionism
Perfectionism is an obstacle to quick and effective decision-making because it is an exercise in all-or-nothing thinking. A perfectionist obstacle is the belief that if you choose anything other than the “correct” one, then you are a failure. (And that’s another example of faulty thinking: the idea that there’s only one right option.)
Another way perfectionism can trip you up is through the misconception that you need to know all, anticipate every turn of events and make a comprehensive plan before you act. It’s paralyzing trying to think of all the possible ways things could turn out.
You can combat your perfectionist tendencies by asking yourself questions like these:
- Which of these choices would have the greatest positive effect on my top priorities?
- Of the people who will know about this decision, who do I least want to disappoint?
- Is there an action I can take today that will move me towards achieving my goal?
- Given the information I currently have, what is the best thing to do next?
Focusing on the next step is much more realistic and fruitful than trying to anticipate what needs to be done months or years in advance.
2 – Putting the problem into perspective
Some decisions deserve careful and thorough consideration, but many are not. Before you make your choice, make a written inventory of the priorities, people, and goals that will be affected by the decision you make. This will clarify whether the choice at hand is significant or of marginal importance.
The 10/10/10 test is a tool that works in the same direction. If you are worried about the consequences of a possible decision, ask yourself what you will think about it 10 weeks later, 10 months later or 10 years later. Chances are the decision to be made won’t be very important or even memorable in the larger scheme of things. By taking a long-term view, you can put aside your perfectionism and take action to achieve your goal.
3 – Let your intuition take over
Intuition is a form of pattern recognition. When faced with a situation, your brain quickly compares it to all of your past knowledge and experience, then offers you a “gut feeling” based on that initial assessment. This process is automatic and much faster than conscious thought. So when time is tight and data is scarce, intuition may be the best way to make a choice.
Studies have shown that the combination of intuition and logical thinking leads to faster, better, and more accurate decisions, and leaves you with more confidence in your decisions than relying on analytical thinking alone. A study showed that car buyers who only used logic were satisfied with their long-term decisions only a quarter of the time. However, buyers who relied on their intuition were satisfied 60% of the time. Using rapid cognition (AKA “thin-slicing”) enables the brain to avoid overthinking and make sound decisions.
Beth, whose story started this article, was so struck by the idea of letting intuition guide her decisions that she decided to spend 24 hours trusting her instincts. She called it her “Disinhibition Day,” and it allowed her to make tough decisions without censoring herself, even when she knew she might upset stakeholders. “I decided to appreciate not only what I did, but the means by which I did it, the speed and how it made me feel,” she explained. “It optimized my mindset and prepared me for anything that came my way.” Give yourself a “disinhibition day” or try a much shorter experiment today and list three to five examples from your past where you followed your intuition, along with how you feel about the outcome.
4 – Reduce decision fatigue
Hundreds of decisions demand your attention every day – from the outfit you choose to the order in which you answer your emails – and each decision depletes your stores of mental and emotional energy. Feeling exhausted makes you more likely to overthink, so the fewer choices you make, the more resources you will have for the really important decisions.
You can ease the burden of making constant decisions by implementing simple routines, like a capsule wardrobe or a weekly meal plan. And you can look for ways to eliminate certain decisions altogether, like delegating, withdrawing from meetings, and implementing standardized protocols and best practices.
5 – Master the art of building creative constraints
Parkinson’s Law states that our work expands to fill the time we devote to it. For example, a month’s deadline to complete a presentation means that this project will take you an entire month. However, a one week delay would give you similar results in a fraction of the time.
Sensible efforts subconsciously adapt this law to overthinking and allow themselves to spend a week or more worrying about a task that would only take an hour to complete. It’s unnecessarily stressful in addition to being ineffective.
By using creative constraints, you can hold yourself accountable and avoid the long process of overthinking. For example, you can set a deadline for finalizing a decision. Set a phone alarm, mark the date in your calendar, or even contact a stakeholder and let them know when you’ll get back to them. My clients love using “worry time”, which blocks out a brief period of the day to solve problems.
Remind yourself often that you have a competitive advantage because of your mental depth. By taming your tendencies to overthink, you will empower yourself to use sensitivity as your superpower.