Just when I think it is time to move on from a topic, a client asks for my help on something that makes me see another angle worth exploring. That’s exactly what happened this week. I was getting ready to leave the topic of reflection and shift gears to something new. Then a question about overthinking prompted me to change my mind.
For this particular client, overthinking was literally keeping her up at night. She was playing back conversations from the day, questioning her words, her actions and her decisions.
“Was my feedback too direct?”
“Why can’t I seem to connect with that new team member?”
“Was that decision the right one?”
Depending on how you look at it, these questions could be helpful as a part of her reflective practice — or they could be the unhelpful and frustrating flip side of that coin — overthinking.
What is the difference between reflecting and overthinking?
Overthinking is the version of reflection where instead of focusing on moving forward in a better way, our mental wheels just keep spinning without taking us anywhere new or constructive. Or they simply grind to a halt. We replay a situation or conversation over and over in our minds and don’t end up with a plan for doing things differently the next time. In other words, overthinking leaves us feeling stuck.
I’ve noticed that many clients who describe themselves as overthinkers seem to be subjecting themselves to high levels of (self) judgement and criticism. Rather than looking at things objectively (well, as objectively as possible under the circumstances) they seem to dwell on what they alone did wrong. They beat themselves up for it rather than looking for a more balanced overview of what went well and what could be improved. That tends to leave them feeling more stressed and blocks their ability to make thoughtful decisions.
So, if you’re prone to overthinking, what can you do about it?
Well, here are my 4 Rs for turning overthinking into productive reflection:
1. Recognise — The first step is to recognise the difference between productive reflection and overthinking. Sometimes this is as simple as asking “am I overthinking?” — and that is enough to create a circuit breaker. If this doesn’t work, try bouncing the idea off a coach, colleague or friend to provide some perspective.
2. Redirect — If you’re in the midst of the overthinking vortex, try to refocus your thinking on the outcome you want. Ask yourself 2 questions — “how would I like this to be different?” and “what is the most valuable thing I can do to make that happen?”. Then commit to giving it a try.
3. Redistribute — As the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. One of the ways you can prevent overthinking from consuming your mind is to create a dedicated space for it. In other words, schedule “overthinking time” into your week. Last year, renowned organisational psychologist, Amantha Imber conducted an experiment to test the impact of devoted worry time on her week. You can read her reflections here.
4. Relax — Are you susceptible to waking in the night consumed with the thoughts of the day? If you are, having access to techniques that quiet the mind can be helpful. It could be using a meditation app like Headspace, which has some great content for what they call “Nighttime SOS” (they offer a free trial if you want to check it out). Or even the trusty notebook and pen by the bed to capture the thoughts and stop them from racing around inside your head.
It can be a fine line between reflecting and overthinking — and the busier we get, the harder it is to tell the difference. The key is to create opportunities to pause and consider the effectiveness of what you’re doing — to make sure you’re looking to the future as well as the past. If you need a hand don’t hesitate to reach out any time.