Overthinking is easy to slip into. Think about a time you distinctly remember overthinking. You feel your heartbeat rise and your eyes dart. Thoughts fire at unprecedented speeds as you struggle to pick up the pieces. You work yourself up, imagining all kinds of scenarios in your head, overloading it with stress.
Now ask yourself this, how many times have you felt silly or a strange wash of relief because the overthinking led to nothing? More often than not, situations aren’t as complex as you may think. Overthinking can lead to procrastination, and a lack of self-confidence, and destroys the time you have with yourself while potentially affecting those around you. Of course, this isn’t a blanket statement. Neglecting certain aspects in fear of overthinking will cause avoidable issues. Still, it’s worth noting the damage overthinking can cause.
More significantly, however, there are plenty of solutions to overthinking. These aren’t instant fixes – undoing a thought process in your head is often a daunting task, so before reading the rest of this piece, take some time to forgive yourself. Self-improvement is all about understanding why you do things a certain way and moving forward.
This is no different.
Accept you can’t control external events
For anyone, overthinker or otherwise, control is critical for feeling in charge of our lives. It’s represented in all kinds of ways, from your morning routine to planning a wedding. For overthinkers, however, the desire for control can extend further.
It can extend to external events way beyond an overthinker’s grasp. The more they take on in their mind, the heavier that responsibility weighs, even if there is no responsibility in the first place.
Let’s say you’re an overthinker and you’ve just completed a job interview. You’ve done everything you can – asked the right questions, composed yourself throughout and gave as good a version of yourself as possible. The interview ends and all you can do is wait. For some, that’s that chapter closed until you find out more. For those who struggle with overthinking, the brain goes into overdrive.
Thoughts about your performance, how you ended the call and what emails you can send after the fact all play on the mind when in reality, you’ve done all you can. Accepting that you can’t always control external events helps put your mind at ease. Think of it like a roadblock for intrusive thoughts.
A helpful way to bring this to life might be by writing down the things out of your control and sticking them somewhere prominent as a continued reminder of what not to think about.
Taking action (no matter how imperfect)
One of the biggest causes of procrastination is an overhanging sense of imperfection. While it is simple to write any number of tasks on your to-do list, actually completing them is another thing entirely. How many times have you done everything you set out to do in one day?
One of the most difficult challenges facing overthinkers is getting started. Before beginning, overthinking can lead to performance anxiety and subsequent procrastination. It may sound too easy to simply ‘take action’, but the more you break it down, the easier it becomes.
Again, let’s use the job interview example from earlier. You’ve been tasked with creating a presentation for the potential role. It’s due in just a few days but you haven’t started; the task itself seems daunting as all manner of questions and scenarios run through your head: ‘What if the technology lets me down?’, ‘What if they hate the presentation?’, ‘Where do I even begin?’
These questions and scenarios bounce around in an overthinker’s head until the task itself has grown from a small hurdle into an unsurmountable climb. The solution, as we’ve touched on, is quite simple. Break it down. Find the smallest, most achievable part of your task and run with it. Pick something that doesn’t require perfection and secure that coveted feeling of achievement. In this example, simply opening, titling, and saving a presentation document would be a solid, achievable start.
Stop following through on all your thoughts
You may occasionally see videos captioned ‘when you let the intrusive thoughts win’ doing the rounds on TikTok and YouTube. Intrusive thoughts are the Alfred to an overthinker’s Batman. The thing is, most people get them and they can be completely random. For example, have you ever stepped in a lift and been tempted to push all of the buttons at once and run? Perhaps your intrusive thoughts are more innocent, such as wondering what would happen if you got on a random train instead of the usual. I don’t know, but whatever way these thoughts materialise, they’re there.
A problem arises when these thoughts aren’t left in the void your brain leaves for such a thing. Giving intrusive thoughts credence is a surefire way to overload your predominant line of thinking and overwhelm your mental energy resources. A tip if this is you? Stop following through on all of your thoughts. Not all of them need to be listened to.
It’s as simple as recognising that not every thought is a good one. Our minds are not immaculate – human error is prevalent. You’d be forgiven for conflating this with self-doubt, as reminding yourself that not every thought needs listening to could cause you to doubt the authority of your voice. If you’re worried that’s the case, work on tracing the severity of your thoughts down. Ask yourself, “will this matter in five days?” If the answer is no, chances are it’s not worth your time.
Live in the present moment instead
I know what you’re probably thinking. Living in the moment is advice flung around in a far too carefree nature amongst the self-improvement community. But, as with a lot of seemingly tired cliches, its positive effects ring true.
Overthinking is a challenge we face when we dedicate too much of our present-day energy on our future selves. Going through life with your future self in mind is a very healthy trait to have, but if taken too far, your present-day is at risk. Overthinking about details out of your control in fear of the potential for damage negates any effort you put into enjoying your life as you’ll never get to enjoy the moment you’re in.
Living in the present moment helps to refocus and recalibrate wasted energy into a force of good. It can come in the form of simple exercises such as this. Look around you and notice:
- 5 things you can see
- 4 things you can touch
- 3 things you can hear
- 2 things you can smell
- 1 thing you can taste
Tasks like these and journaling help highlight a sense of self in the present moment, freeing up time for self-reflection and limiting overthinking space.
Understand motivation differently
While at the outset motivation is merely the energy required to carry out a task or activity, if you look deeper, you’ll find a critical cog in your well-being and your relationship with yourself.
Firstly, let’s view motivation from a typical standpoint. When the deadline for something like sending a bunch of emails or completing some tedious coursework comes along, you may find yourself searching for inspiration other than the consequences of not completing the task at hand. That search is often left wanting. Motivation doesn’t work like that – you can’t spend your day waiting for it to float into your lap. Instead, you must simply begin, whatever that looks like.
Think back to earlier in this piece when we spoke about taking action, no matter how imperfect. That applies here. When you’re up and running, the motivation will follow – that human need to finish something we’ve started. That snowball effect is motivation.
To solve the issue of overthinking, understanding how motivation works can be a vital tool in your arsenal. When you know about the snowball effect, it becomes easier to let go of the intrusive thoughts and unrealistic ‘what ifs.’
Overthinking ends when you begin
While some of these steps may make it seem simple to stop overthinking, the reality is different. For many, it’s how their brain works, so challenging that authority may seem daunting. If that’s you, then fear not, you’re not alone.
In summary, throughout the solutions featured in this piece, two key themes stand out: acceptance and action.
When you forgive yourself for not being able to control everything, you can put your best and most important foot forward. Overthinking can cripple the sharpest of minds, so it’s important to remember that it doesn’t make you any less of a person. It simply means putting your present self in the driver’s seat and putting faith in your decision-making.