“It seems like you created a problem out of nothing. You need to stop overthinking.”
At first, I tried to explain. I was perfectly right in my assumptions and speculations. I was right to be irritated and you know…. right.
But then, I realized… This person had a point. Not only had I been overthinking this particular situation, I had also created stories in my head that weren’t true. Stories that made me anxious, worried, and annoyed. Oops!
Eventually, I gave in. My ego and I surrendered in one big: “You know what… you’re right.”
Overthinking can start off as something small and innocent. Your mind might tell you something like, “Oh, we’re just going to explore different options here”. But unless you stop it at a reasonable time, it can bring you into a place of inaction and oh-so-many negative thoughts.
“They said this… but what did they really mean?“
“Did I make the right choice? Yes, probably. But what if I didn’t? Oh damn… what if I didn’t?!”
“I want to write a book, but where, how and when do I start? Now? Tomorrow? Next year? Can I even do this? Who am I to write a book?”
Overthinking turns small problems into big and scary Mount Everests. It triggers anxiety and might also keep you up at night. (Ever been there?) It can also turn you into the difficult person who wants to control everything.
I know what it’s like to overthink (projects, relationships, next steps – you name it). But, by now I also know how to get myself out of the too-much-thinking and to take back control. Here are some of my best tips to do just that.
1. Stop building momentum to stop overthinking
Similar thoughts have a tendency to follow each other. Lousy thoughts attract more lousy thoughts. Fearful thoughts attract more fearful thoughts etc. If you start going down a trail of negative thinking and do nothing to stop it – you’ll walk into more negative thoughts. It’s like a black hole.
Your job isn’t to stop thinking (we’ve all tried that and it doesn’t work). No, instead, your job is to slow down the momentum of thoughts. To make the rushing train of thoughts go a little slower. So, instead of fueling it with more energy, choose to become an observer. Observing what’s going on in your mind can, at first, feel overwhelming. But after a while, the momentum will subside and you’ll start calming the chaos. Ahh!
2. Start asking yourself better questions
Your mind will give you the answer to whatever question you ask. If you ask yourself, “What could go wrong?” then your mind will tell you all the possible scenarios of what could go wrong. Useful? Perhaps during a short moment, but most people tend to freeze up when they think about negative outcomes. Instead, they end up doing nothing. (And let’s face it, 99% of those things will probably never even happen).
So, instead, make sure to ask questions that will benefit you. “What can I do about this situation?” is a much better question to ask. It will make your mind look for helpful and insightful answers.
3. Write down your problem and its solution
If you have a problem, there is for sure a solution available. But as long as you have your eyes fixed on the problem, you’re not going to be able to see, or figure out, the solution. (Because those are two different things, right?)
To shift focus, list your current problems or worries on a piece of paper. Then next to each problem, write down a solution. If you don’t know the end solution right now, write down the next logical step. Maybe it’s about making a phone call? Maybe it’s about giving something a try? Maybe it’s about deciding to focus only on what you can control (hint: yourself) in a particular situation?
4. Get into imperfect action
Ohoy! Do you have a little perfectionist inside of you? If yes, he or she might be the one stopping you from moving forward. As Elizabeth Gilbert said, “I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified.” She nailed it.
To move past your inner perfectionist, commit to imperfect action. Leave something 80% finished before you pick it up again, or before you hand it over. This can be scary as s**t, I know. But what I’ve discovered is that not leaving something “perfect”, will instead trigger new thoughts and ideas – both for yourself next time you pick it up, or for the other person. (Also, you can say, “I left it about 80% done because I wanted your thoughts on it before I finalize it.”)
5. Meditate yourself into calmness
According to the National Science Foundation, our brains produce as many as 50,000 thoughts per day. Some even say that it’s more like 70,000 thoughts per day. Out of them, 95% are said to be repetitive. Holy moly, right?
No question that we have a lot of thoughts per day. For many people, a big part of those thoughts are negative. One of the most ancient techniques to calm your mind is through meditation. When you meditate you reduce stress, anxiety, and enhance your self-esteem and optimism – among many other scientific benefits.
6. Zoom out to see the bigger picture
Do you find it easy to give someone else advice? But, when it comes to yourself it’s like executing mission impossible? That’s because your problem is right in front of you, and with someone else, you’re able to see a bigger picture. When we zoom out from our problem and add more perspectices, we’re often able to find better solutions.
To broaden your perspective ask yourself, “Will this matter in 20 years?” and “What advice would my 90-year-old self give to me right now?”
7. Declutter from social media
Oh oh oh! This is a key one. Did you know that every minute 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube? And that the average user spends 35 minutes on Facebook per day? And that Google processes over 100 billion searches every month?
Crazy, no? No doubt that we live in a society with information overload. Often what we need, when we’re in a place of overthinking, isn’t a new strategy or recommendation – but to trust that we have all the information necessary to move forward. Decide to declutter from social media and instead focus on your next logical step.
8. Realize what’s within your control
Thinking stuff through, again and again, is often a sign that we’re trying to control everything. Because what would happen if you failed or made a mistake? Gulp!
So instead of trying to control everything, see how you can control what’s within your control: your perspective and reactions. Choose to see a potential failure as a learning, a rejection as proof that you tried, and an embarrassment as a sign that you’re one of the few people taking steps outside your comfort zone. Either you succeed or learn. Those are your two only options.
9. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt
If you’re in a negative spiral where you question yourself and your abilities, give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you’re more capable than you think? Maybe the solution is easier and closer than you think? Maybe you’ve been doing it right all along?
My point is this: beating yourself up isn’t the solution. That will only fuel the overthinking. Instead ask yourself, “What would I tell someone I love if they were in the same situation?” Not only will you feel better when you’re nicer to yourself, but you’ll also start opening up to solutions faster when you’re in a relaxed state.
10. Ask yourself, “What would this look like if it were simple?”
A while back, Tim Ferriss openly admitted to having, at least a partial, midlife crises. To move from the anxiety and overwhelm, he began asking himself, “What would this look like if it were easy?”
What I love about this question is that it forces you to turn complexity into simplicity. Often we have a tendency to complicate things. (Not only me doing that, right?) But perhaps, there’s often an easier way of accomplishing things than what we initially think? Let this question guide you towards the simplest path.
11. Start over tomorrow
Do you remember when your parents told you to “sleep on it”? This advice might be more powerful than you think. When we sleep the momentum of thoughts stops. So when we wake up in the morning we have a chance for a new start.
So if all else fails, choose to start again tomorrow. When you wake up the following day, start by counting three blessings. This will help stir your mind in a positive direction.
Chill Down And Focus On Solutions
Overthinking often leads to inaction and general frustration. Eventually, we might find ourselves caught up in a negative spiral that’s not leading us in a desirable direction.
To stop the analysis paralysis and to take back control, start with one thing from the list above. Then, once you’ve done that, move on to another. Soon, you might become a master at moving from problem to solution, from inaction to action, and from overthinking to constructive thinking.
Boomshakalaka! You can do this.
Photo by Nik MacMillan