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Taming the Thought Monster: Techniques for Managing Overthinking

In the work world, many – if not most – of us like to think. We have brains and we like to use them. Thinking is good.

But what happens when thinking gets out of control? Thinking goes from ideas and inquiries to never-ending assessments, analysis paralysis, and projects frozen in their tracks.

Overthinking dresses in different disguises – planning, analysis, quality review, editing, formatting, or discussion. But it’s hiding its true identity.

Overthinking isn’t thinking. It’s the opposite of leveraging or actually doing something your and your team’s knowledge.

Overthinking is when thinking gets in the way of what you, your team, and your organization need to do: e.g., make decisions; move projects forward; change people; or take the next step.Signs of Overthinking—and What to Do About Them
Let’s take a look at five glaring neon signs of overthinking and ways to overcome them.

1. You can’t start.
I was once hired to develop a set of process documents where I was pulled into three weeks of solid meetings before I could write the first darn word.

From my extensive project experience, a huge obstacle to starting is the pressure to be right or perfect on the first draft. We are often the most scared and hesitant to start our most important projects (in our work and our personal lives).

Recognize this problem. Remember that your project doesn’t need to be brilliant from the get-go. Take a deep breath and just START.

2. You can’t finish.
Overthinking can take the form of perfectionism where the team is holding out for the “perfect” product.

I once had a client who spent five years developing detailed systems documentation and enterprise mapping with a full project team. The team held out for the ideal launch time. Unfortunately, new management took over and the product never launched – years of intellectual capital and millions of dollars burned in the process.

There are some projects – maybe safety, operations, or a product to external audiences – that require extreme thoroughness and detail. In those instances, a later launch is okay and outweighs the consequences.

But you don’t need the same standards for all projects or activities you are working on. For some of us professionals, we need to un-train ourselves into thinking that every activity needs nuclear-reactor levels of accuracy and precision.3. You’re going down rabbit holes in the detail.
I have watched documents go through twenty rounds of edits – then no one reads the documents anyway.

I have worked with documentation systems that take more time to manage than creating the documents themselves.

I have seen companies spend fortunes on information management strategies but never implement them.

When detail is taking you to a place where you don’t want to go, this is a sign of rampant overthinking. Get your head out of the details and back to the big picture.

4. You can’t make a decision.
Sometimes waiting is the wise choice—new insight or information could provide essential guidance. But delaying a decision can have as many consequences as being wrong. There is a downside to being “wrong”, but there is often a bigger downside to delay.

I have worked on policies that have been circulated and talked about for years before getting published. Most of the time, these polices would take only a few days, or even hours, of my actual writing time. But the overthinking would sneak in as people had trouble pulling the trigger, or leveraging what the know already.

I can tell you from experience that delaying decisions has a stiff cost of internal and external resources especially for larger organizations with more layers to work through. Weigh both sides – the benefits of moving faster so your team can move to execution (or to new things) and the benefits of the delay – and then decide accordingly.

5. You can’t stop talking about it.
Have you heard the same issue discussed about fifty different times? Hearing the same conversation over and over again is another sign of overthinking. I call these issues Groundhog Day issues because you are reliving the same issue over and over and over again in your team.

When you are stuck in a pattern of overthinking and over-talking, a great intermediary step is to write things down. This is about using the power of the information and insight that you have already in your own head.

Email out a few action items. Bang out a quick memo to show your analysis. Take notes to get a decision finalized. Stop talking and just write something, share it, and go.

Where do you see overthinking in your organization, team, or department? Are you guilty of overthinking yourself? Spot out the signs of overthinking and take the steps you need to leverage what you know already and stop the vicious circle.

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