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 Award-winning business author and broadcaster

Leadership trainer and coach

Keynote speaker

  • Writer's pictureAudrey Tang

5 tips to Combat Overthinking

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

“Emotion only clouds judgment”

“It’s essential to consider every possibility”

“Rational analysis is the best way forward”

How far do you agree with any of the above?

  • If the answer is “greatly” – has this thought process ever meant that you missed out on an opportunity just because you did not decide fast enough, or because you were still evaluating your choices?

  • Have you ever been told you “over-analyse” …and sometimes to “just go with it”?

  • Are you an over-thinker?

How does this statement sit with you:

Sometimes things just happen!!

Rational thought, weighing up possibilities, accepting – but not solely being driven by – emotion is often a skill successful people take pride in. It can result in fewer decisions having to be redone, fewer mistakes being made, and smoother progress towards your desired outcome.

That is, when rational thought precedes action! When it does not, over-thinking paralyses. Worse still, if you have stagnated, and others are moving forward (mistakes and all), you are soon heading backwards.

“Theory without practice is just empty thought”

(Seet, 1961, Discourses on Buddhism)

Pausing for thought can be useful as long as it generates effective action, otherwise, it is another form of procrastination. (Mills, 2015)

Try the following three strategies to shift your focus from thought to action:

1. Start at the REALITY not what you presume the problem is.

Too often, because of past experience, you may choose to tackle what you assume a problem to be. This makes sense – you will have dealt with similar situations in the past, and your team may explain the issue clearly. However, sometimes, it can be mindful to observe the situation for yourself – even if it is just through a “Skype” video call if dealing with a professional issue, or simply asking those involved directly especially if personal!

Relying solely on the reports of others or hearsay may not be deliberately misleading, but their perception may be askew.

2. Remember YOU are not foolproof!

Thought experiment

Mobile phones are not to be used when driving because they can create a distraction. Adverts currently show what happens when one is distracted by replying to a text. However, you may think “That’s texting, if I don’t text, what’s the problem…having a conversation is not the same.”

But what happens if you drop your phone?

If you firmly believe that you can be 100% diligent and therefore your performance is beyond reproach, your supposition is erroneous. Humans (including ourselves) are fallible…and the bigger the system they are managing the worse this can be (Carmichael, 2017).

Never be afraid to look to others for advice and support - even if it is only on framing the problem and unrelated to the solution.

3. Look for the “null hypothesis” – seek evidence against your bias, and try to overcome it

However, Elliott Aronson (2017) spoke of his concern with the “TEDification of Psychology” – the idea that scientists were using only the validating parts of their own research to promote a “pop psychology book. Aronson advised, when gathering information to make a decision, it is always best to “look for the null hypothesis”. This same practice can be applied to the information gathering element of mindful decision making.

Rather than looking for evidence which supports the decision you are erring towards, look for what may refute that path. Once you have formed the arguments against that direction, try to refute those.

If you are able to overcome that and still wish to go that way, then this is most likely to be the best decision for you.

4. Avoid the “sunk-cost” bias (Hafenbrack et al, 2013)

A “sunk-cost” is something that has already “…happened in the past, not the present nor the future.” (Jazaieri, 2014). Jazaieri (2014) gives the example of a long term relationship which is not happy, but the couple preferring to stick together because of the number of years already passed. He explains that it is natural to want to see a return on our investments – especially time – and hope that holding on that little bit longer might yield positive results. Unfortunately, those who have been through this know that this is rarely the case. Within the organisation, this may be a business relationship that is not working, or feeling unhappy with a job you have done for a long time and not progressed in. Hafenbrack et al (2013) found that a series of 15 minute meditations focusing on deep breathing “…reduced the tendency to think in sunk-costs…[and]…reported…less influence by past events in making decisions.” Hafenbrack et al (2013) suggested that mindful meditation “…decreased focus on the future and past, which reduced negative moods and emotions, which in turn led to reduced sunk-cost bias.”

When faced with letting something you have invested in – but seen little result from – go, it can be difficult to cut that tie. For example, you may have championed someone during your recruitment process, but even after all the support they have been offered they are still under performing. While you may be reluctant to let them go, it is also important to be aware of the impact that keeping them may be having on the rest of your team, or the organisation.

5. Evaluate your decision in context

Psychologist Annie Duke says we forget that before a decision is made there are millions of different outcomes that could occur – because when it is made we simply look at the single result as related to that decision.

To give a current example, the UK “tier system” is deemed to be ineffective in the fight against Covid19 because of the mutant variant and the rising number of cases. But perhaps it is not the tiered system alone, perhaps it is us not following rules, perhaps it is that the mutant variation would have permeated through rule breaking in a full lockdown, perhaps it should be that schools should have shut with business staying open (I am NOT suggesting that, I’m just saying there are millions of factors). To just say “The tier system caused the problem” is too simplistic and might lead to further mistakes, as well as contribute to the lack of trust in the government which in turn could result in more people not following the rules.

Comparing what happened to hypotheses “Oh, if we had full lockdown earlier this wouldn’t have happened” is unhelpful because we simply don’t know that (and perhaps doing that would have lead to OTHER problems).

When you reflect on decisions, especially those you may override at a later date, be mindful that you took the original decision for good reason at the time. Life is dynamic, times can change and with them priorities. It is not necessarily that your decision making process was faulty, but that you are now at a different juncture with different priorities.

In summary

Remember you cannot control everything - and with the best will in the world, your greatest power is over your own choices and behaviour. Yes, perhaps you will have to respond if things do not go as you hoped, and yes this may include fire-fighting which you wished to avoid. One thing is certain however, paralysis by analysis will only put off anything happening and in doing so - that fear may just grow larger.

Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilienceFor coaching tips and tools including positive psychology: click WORK WITH ME or SKILL PILL and here for Media appearances or Psych Q&A. Twitter/IG @draudreyt

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