Thinking is good. Overthinking is not. So, what is the difference?
When we engage our rational mind in understanding and trying to solve a problem or decide on something, we are doing the right amount of thinking. But when our rational mind goes into unnecessary overdrive, we tend to become overwhelmed. Thus, overthinking disturbs our wellbeing as we obsess over the situation—pondering, stressing and ultimately, not progressing.
The other extreme is underthinking, where we don’t consider the seriousness of a decision enough and instead, rely on gut feelings or what we did the last time.
When underthinking works for us
Underthinking works fine for simple decisions: How many slices of toast to cook? Which coffee to order? What to answer to simple emails in the morning?
These have a low cost of negative outcome and are often repetitive in nature. Our brain does a good job of learning to use muscle memory to move these from focused decisions to autopilot decisions.
When underthinking doesn’t work for us
The problem is that underthinking can sneak into decisions that it really shouldn’t. This will mostly occur when there are hidden elements to the decision that haven’t been there before, and we need to make a different decision than usual.
Our bias from the past can creep into today’s decisions. Our subconscious is great at patterns and linking things but rubbish at cause and effect. We might decide to colour our most recent presentation with specks of red because our last few presentations were prepared for companies with red as brand colours. Nothing major but possibly off-putting for our current audience.
Additionally, we can trip up when we make a quick decision to get it off our plate—what some would call a “band-aid solution”. This will fix our situation now but will only come back (potentially worse) in the future.
So, is overthinking even a bad thing?
You can imagine a spectrum where we have underthinking to the far left, then rational thinking towards the right. The danger is that there isn’t a smooth progression to overthinking at the other end. Often time, our rational mind is more and more engaged until, “Bang!” It goes off a cliff and we’re overwhelmed. The technical term for this is cognitive overload. Anything in excess or over is bad, and overthinking is usually the action that follows the inability to currently understand and progress from the situation that we’re in at the moment.
Why do we overthink?
We overthink primarily for one of two reasons: Either it’s because of an information issue or a side effect issue.
The information issue occurs either when we don’t have sufficient information, or having an abundance of it with no way to parse through the data to correctly identify the key elements for decision-making. This is made worse for most of our information doesn’t come from perfect sources. It predominantly comes from people. And often, people have their own interests at heart, while some are poor communicators. And others mean well but are just swayed by their own personal biases.
On the flip side, the side effect issue is not about the information but the consequences of the decision itself. We find ourselves focused on the “What ifs” of choosing one side of the coin. We then focus on what goes wrong on the other side. In many cases, we may even know which is the right choice, or the one we want to make, but the knowledge of what will happen if we pick it makes our stomachs churn. We procrastinate with the decision to stave off the feeling.
No wonder we overthink and decide to go on an unhealthy, unproductive loop instead.
How to stop overthinking
Exercise your brain correctly and safely
If you’re making a big decision or you find yourself constantly thinking about the same problem, then it’s time to throw some real brainpower behind your options or choices. However, instead of thinking more, you should try thinking differently. As long as you have the resources, practice proper thinking. Your brain is a muscle. If you exercise it when you don’t have to, with the right tools, it will be a lot easier to use when you need it. Therefore, we need to proceed with the following practical and safe steps to master the right amount of thinking.
Focus on outcomes in simple cause-and-effect
To simplify the chaos of information we are presented with, we need to reduce it down to its core details. Removing all the fluff and getting down to the choices and their outcomes in simple cause-and-effect allows us to see clearly just the facts—not mere opinions, biases, or emotional pressures surrounding the situation.
Put each option to solve an issue at the bottom of a page, then the outcome at the top. Fill in steps along the way, the major details as to how the option will cause the outcome as you understand it. This method leaves you with just a couple of these logical pillars.
In many cases, you’ll find that once the cause-and-effect is clear, one option would make sense and the other does not. Not only will this help you in making your own decision but will help you to communicate your decision to others who may have an interest in the outcome.
In cases where the pressure for the decision comes from letting someone down or aggravating someone you don’t want to piss off, this diagram can allow them to justify the side they are pushing for. You can share the logical pillar with them (on paper if you wish, or more likely from memory as a discussion).
When you have two pillars that both look logical and you are still stuck, it is almost certainly because of the negative side effects of picking one (of which opportunity cost is a negative side effect).
Mitigate side effects
So, you’ve already considered a couple of outcomes you want and options you have. Now consider if there is any way to make a third option which could give you the benefit of both. This may sound too simple but when the options are blurry, it is hard to consider this. However, once the logical pillars are clear, we can consider third options to gain the benefit of both. You will be surprised how often the clarity of the pillars allows you to have an “Aha!” moment and realise if you tweak one of the options slightly, you can get the outcome of both.
In the situation where you’re left with the negative side effect, which is not just the opportunity cost, we need to create another pillar as a negative that branches off the option. This works very similarly to the original logical pillars. However, rather than a positive outcome at the top of the page, you will have a negative side effect. Just like before, fill in the steps as you understand them between the option and the negative outcome. And repeat the process of stepping back and consider, “Does this actually make sense?”
This is a powerful step as many of our fears are just fears, and in fact, don’t seem reasonable once we write them down.
If you want to learn more about how to dispel your fears or mitigate the side effects of your solutions, seek out practical tools to distil esoteric advice into more tangible steps. Courses such as our Black Belt in Thinking course teach these tools in their entirety.