Overthinking — Stop Worrying and Move Forward

by | May 29, 2024 | Personal Growth

“Worrying is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it does not get you anywhere.”

— Erma Bombeck

Life is much more than sitting in a rocking chair — we need to move forward to grow. As leaders we can accelerate our development when we understand how we think — especially avoiding the trap of overthinking.

Psychologists define overthinkers as those who obsessively worry about things that could go wrong. This group of worriers is everywhere — research tells us three quarters of adults confess to thinking too much.

While underthinking is costly, such as not realizing the consequences of our decisions, the impact of overthinking can also lead to anxiety and trouble. The trouble we get into is repeating the same thoughts over and over — what about this, there must be more information, etc. Revising that email for the eighth time, putting off a decision, or delaying a project waiting for the perfect solution.

Our clear mind gets cluttered, and we sit rather than run. We get stuck.

A February 07, 2024, Harvard Business Review article, “Three Types of Overthinking — and How to Avoid Them,” offers three warning signs you may be an overthinker:

  • You fixate on negative feedback
  • You often bring up past failures when talking with others
  • You are overly cautious, double, or triple checking your work because you want to avoid mistakes

These signs are thoughts in your head from past experiences. Two types of thoughts overthinkers face are ruminating and worrying. The following examples define these thoughts and offer two ways we can respond.

Ruminating — Negative Images of the Past

“My boss did not say hello to me when I passed by her office this morning.”

Two potential thoughts

  • Negative — did I do something to upset her?
  • Positive — she was just busy, and we have a strong relationship

“No one on the team supported my ideas in the meeting yesterday.”

Two potential thoughts:

  • Negative — I am not valued on this team
  • Positive — my co-workers will need time to be persuaded before they agree with my ideas in front of our supervisor

“Worrying — Negative Predictions of the Future

“When I make that presentation tomorrow, I will probably make a mistake.”

Two potential thoughts:

  • Negative — I am not a good presenter
  • Positive — I am prepared, and my expectation is not perfection

“No one will ever promote me.”

Two potential thoughts:

  • Negative — I will always be stuck in my current job
  • Positive — I need to be patient and own my development, and quit worrying about who is holding me back

Three Keys to Manage Overthinking:

  • Make Peace with Ambiguity
    • 100% certainty is not how leaders make decisions — they choose action over excessive analysis
  • Perfection vs Good Enough
    • Once a decision meets your criteria and is satisfactory, move on and adjust along the way
  • Confidence
    • Leaders do not walk decisions back — they do their best and move forward

Read to Lead

Leaders benefit from being active readers, long reads not just social media posts and news feeds. A deep read builds concentration, strengthens your intellectual capacity, and offers wisdom you can share. As you refresh or build your reading habit, diversify your experience — old, new, fiction, non-fiction, audio, hard cover, and e-readers.

My May 2024 favorite:

The Demon of Unrest by Erik Larsen

Erik Larsen’s latest book examines the run-up to the Civil War during the six months between Lincoln’s November 1860 election and the surrender of Fort Sumter. The country was bitterly at odds; Southern extremists were moving ever closer to destroying the Union, with one state after another seceding and Lincoln powerless to stop them. I was amazed how chaotic this short period was in American history, and reminded how leaders can underestimate their decisions and the disaster coming until it is too late.