Overthinking? How to Prevent it From Sabotaging Your Performance, Productivity and Mood
Life is made of millions of moments, but we live only one of these moments at a time. As we begin to change this moment, we begin to change our lives. Trinidad Hunt
Are you someone who tends to overthink things? What exactly is overthinking anyway? According to the psychologists, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D. and Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D., who have done extensive research in this area, overthinking is “thinking too much, needlessly and passively. And, endlessly pondering the meanings, causes and consequences of your character, your feelings and, especially, your problems.”
Examples of overthinking include wondering over and over throughout the day, why you are suddenly feeling so old, or if your minor headaches could be a symptom of something more ominous, and perhaps, even potentially deadly. It could mean lying awake at night thinking, “This economy is so bad, my investments are going to be worthless; I’m most certainly going to lose my job and I’ll never be able to send my kids to college.” Or, it could mean thinking many times throughout the day about how unattractive your thinning and wispy hair was becoming.
Gail Blanke, in her article, “How to Stop Overthinking Your Life and Start Living”, tells a story about being invited to the Financial Women’s Association 2007 annual dinner, and how, knowing that she was going to meet and sit next to some very influential, and presumably, very well put-together women, she became obsessed with picking the “right” outfit to wear. She discloses that she actually thought about it for days, and even made lists and sketches of all the alternatives, in her efforts to look perfect, until eventually, her daughter, who was 25 at the time, said to her, “Why are you making this so hard? The invitation says, ‘business attire.’ Just wear the navy suit and have a good time.” (She did and had a marvelous time.)
Other work related examples include: ruminating extensively about why your boss or colleague did not say something in support of the comments you made at a recent meeting. Dwelling on the situation and such thoughts as “Does that mean she thinks my ideas are stupid?”, or, “Why hasn’t he responded to my e-mail? It’s been three days. Could he be angry about something? Is he punishing me? Am I just too unimportant to bother with?” can really get in the way of confidence, performance and productivity. Someone who spends enormous amounts of time wondering why a co-worker or superior hurrying down the hall didn’t make eye contact or speak to them, is setting themselves up for feeling badly, and subsequently, not feeling like it’s worth it to put in the effort or take the risks involved for top performance.
Many people think that when they feel down, disappointed or discouraged by some events, that thinking about them extensively and analyzing the situation in order to figure it out will help. The reality, if we look at the science, is just the opposite. Rather than being helpful, endless ruminating about causes and explanations of possible negative events tends to make people feel worse. In fact, according to Lyubomirsky, there is vast and overwhelming evidence that thinking over and over (also called “rumination”) about a disappointing or worrisome situation is bad for us. It can be so toxic, that it prevents us from taking important pro-active steps that could improve the situation and it can lead to a negative spiral toward an ever worsening mood, a negative distortion of reality, and even, in those who are vulnerable, clinical depression.
Life, work and the world around us are all full of problems, from minor annoyances, flaws and imperfections, to major tragedies and frightening risks and possibilities, but overthinking them does not make them better. Nor does it make us safer, or somehow less likely to be bothered or hurt by any of these vicissitudes. Instead, it makes us feel worse and makes us less likely to take positive action to improve our mood or actually change those situations which are changeable.
Nowhere is the need to avoid overthinking more apparent than during this time of terrible financial news, a precarious economy and increasing disillusionment with government and corporate America, when trust in their ability to provide adequate and reasonable services, and the protections and leadership needed to keep the country running smoothly is at an all time low.
How can overthinking affect you career, your personal goals, your family and friendships? It can make you feel so negative that you are afraid to take risks, reach out to others, and make the significant efforts needed to be really effective. It can make you difficult and even exhausting to be around for those people that matter to you the most. Ultimately, overthinking, with its predictions of inevitable failure and dire consequences can sap the hope required to work hard, speak up and stretch to make good things happen.
Has this ever happened to you? What can you do to head this off?
1. Use proven techniques to limit or stop overthinking. Surprisingly, one of the most simple ones is the most effective. Distract yourself. Literally, choose to redirect your mind to something else, preferably engrossing and consuming, and/or interesting and positive. Alternatively, some people find picturing a stop sign and saying to themselves either in their head, or if the situation allows it, right out loud, the word, “Stop!” every time they find themselves ruminating.
2. Give up on perfection. Learn to laugh at mistakes and problems, expect human error and find the absurdity and humor in them as they occur. Assume people’s lives are busy, and that there are likely alternative explanations for what could otherwise be perceived as a snub or power play. Realize that most of the time it’s not about you.
3. Avoid triggers. Stay away, or limit your time as much as possible with people or situations that tend to lead you into feeling negative and overthinking. Identify who and what those are, and how you can decrease you exposure to those triggers.
4. Go for “flow.” Find areas of your life, whether it is shooting hoops, playing the piano, writing, running or kayaking, that you become so absorbed in that you lose yourself to all other thoughts. Schedule time for those activities that create flow in your life weekly, daily if possible.
5. Practice, practice, practice! Finally, pick a few of these tips and practice, practice, practice. Research shows that it takes a lot of practice to “hardwire” a new habit, so be gentle with yourself and just keep using your new strategies and redirecting your thoughts when you catch yourself in overthinking mode. With time and practice, you should find yourself both happier and more productive.
Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Press, 2008
Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan. Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life. New York: Henry Holt, 2003
Blanke, Gail. How to Stop Overthinking Your Life and Start Living. Real Simple