Which Overthinker Are You?
All of us find ourselves overthinking at some point in our adult lives. Knowing which type of overthinker you are gives you some clues for how to move from OVERthinking to thinking.
I thought about how I should start an article about overthinking.
Should I start with a personal story to connect with readers and show that I can relate to your experience when you say you are “overthinking”? Maybe I could present an example of some very practical cases of overthinking…buying a house, selling a house, shopping for a car, shopping for a job…these are all common decisions ripe for overthinking.
But, I know my readers have real problems that transcend the privilege of being able to make choices about material possessions. Maybe I could talk about the decision my mother had to make to put my grandmother into hospice rather than continuing uncomfortable visits to the hospital. Maybe I could talk about my tough decisions to ask for help when I needed it despite every inclination I had to never admit I was in too deep and getting lost in my thoughts.
Instead of just starting to write, knowing I will have the ability to edit, delete, and rewrite later, I stewed and brooded searching for just the right “Call me Ishmael” opening line to capture your attention.
This is precisely the problem of overthinking. I burned through mental energy, thinking harder and harder, passing more and more possibilities across my mind’s eye, but I wasn’t getting any closer to a decision. Rather than more thinking bringing clarity, more thinking brought increasing options and anxiety.
Because I am fortunate to have a great network of smart, thoughtful people, I asked them:
1) If they ever found themselves doing what they would call “overthinking”, and if so, 2) What did they mean by that.
It turns out, the answer to the first question was a resounding “yes”.
I was a bit surprised by the range of explanations people provided. After all, this is a word we all know. But, it means something different…sometimes very different…depending on who is using it.
Some people thought of overthinking as a duty if the decision to be made is particularly impactful to people’s lives. “I do truly believe there is a time and place to truly overthink a situation. But...you have to be pulled from the ledge of insanity once that process has worked its course,” said one professional.
The psychology literature is loaded with definitions and research on the concept of “overthinking,” but almost no one used the psychological definition in this impromptu poll. Psychologists use the term rumination…a vivid term I love.
The word rumination comes from the Latin root meaning “to chew the cud.” The root is the same word that gives us ruminant, the term for an animal with multiple stomachs, like cattle. A cow, for instance, will eat its fill of grass which becomes partially digested in one stomach before re-entering the cow’s mouth to be chewed and sent away to the second stomach.
In the psychology literature, rumination is frequently associated with depression and generalized anxiety disorder. When psychologists talk about rumination, they typically mean negative self-focus, “a tendency to dwell passively on undesirable aspects of the self” (Verhagen, "Creativity and the Examined Life").
Out of the people I talked to about overthinking only two used this definition, and one of them was a clinical psychologist, Dr. Isha Metzger, the #HumanIntelligence Senior Science Advisor.
Everyone else coalesced around the idea that overthinking is thinking without progress towards a decision.
If we create a simple x/y-axis graph, we can see the consensus. On the X-axis is progress towards a decision ranging from stalled thinking to readiness to declare a decision. On the Y-axis is the amount of mental energy we are expending. We find most people describe “overthinking” as the combination of stalled decision-making progress despite spending high levels of mental energy.
Here are some of the typical responses:
“I would say overthinking is about exponential widening of possibilities, leading to being overwhelmed and zero output.”
“I guess when my thoughts are spinning out and losing traction.”
“When you’ve spent an exponentially greater time thinking than you have acting on those thoughts, that might be where ‘overthinking’ best fits in.”
“The thinking devolves into irrelevancies surrounding what ifs instead of focusing on the initial task.”
A few of my co-collaborators were willing to indulge me further and discuss the problems they most often found themselves overthinking about.
Again, we can turn to a simple x/y-axis graph to see where they fall. On the X-axis is the severity of negative consequences ranging from insignificant to unrecoverable. On the Y-axis is a spectrum of problem difficulty, ranging from simple problems which can be solved by well-established rules and heuristics to complex problems including multiple unknowns and interdependent factors. In the center are complicated problems, those with many parts that follow knowable patterns and can be resolved with a sufficiently complicated set of rules.
We find, unsurprisingly, people are more likely to overthink problems when they are complex and a decision could result in significant negative consequences. Examples in this area are personnel decisions, decisions that can impact finances and relationships, and decisions regarding other significant life changes.
So what? How do I move from “overthinking” to “thinking”?
Great question. Let’s go back to the first graph, but add some labels
Everything on the left side of the graph is stalled, or at least slow, progress towards making a decision. On the right side of the graph, is progress towards being able to declare a decision…this is the “thinking” part of the graph.
In the bottom left of the graph is apathy. I am not making progress towards a decision, and I don’t care to spend much mental effort over the decision.
Lots of buying decisions come and go in this space. This can also be the space for problems that are simply so big we don’t know where to start solving them. Nothing happens here, and we aren’t too worried about it.
A few months ago, I spent time pitching a prospective client on adding #HumanIntelligence workshops to his company’s training offerings. He said he was interested, and I followed up with more detailed information.
After a week or so, nothing. I emailed again to make sure he received the info. He confirmed he had, and explained he was busy, but still interested.
After a month, I emailed again to check in. He apologized for the delay, but assured me he was still interested. The same happened again the next month.
I don’t doubt he genuinely felt interested and had an intention to come to a decision about working together. But, as often happens in our lives, other decisions (or overthinking other decisions) dominates our intentions. He likely simply didn’t have the cognitive bandwidth to apply to this decision, so he made no progress towards a resolution.
We spend cognitive effort thinking about the subjects that capture our attention. We only have so much effort to spend, and when we don’t spend effort, we don’t make progress.
The end result of overthinking and apathy are the same. Our inaction allows the decision to be made for us. Someone else gets the job. Our dream house is no longer on the market. The moment to have the tough conversation with our colleague passes and some other crisis of the day takes its place.
When a decision passes us by due to overthinking, we often feel disappointment. We may feel disappointment at lost opportunities, but we are often left disappointed in our own ability to make a decision. Left unchecked, this is the sort of overthinking that becomes a more persistent feature of our personality and flawed problem-solving strategy.
With a clear definition of overthinking, let’s look at the most common types of overthinkers and how we can escape the overthinking trap.
Type 1: The Overwhelmed Overthinker
The Overwhelmed Overthinker has a hard time sorting the tons of decision inputs. Too much information, without knowing what is relevant, is often worse than not having enough information to feel confident in our decisions.
We are most likely to overthink about the problems that are most complex. Complex problems are those with lots of overlapping concerns and consequences. Making a change in one place can cause unexpected changes in other places.
Multiple, ill-defined dependencies can quickly drive us into overthinking mode as we consider the ramifications of increasingly unlikely outcomes.
For example, the founder of a startup may have to choose between investing limited funds into either marketing, product development, or sales.
These options are intertwined. Without a product, you’ve got nothing to market. Without marketing, sales will be difficult. Without sales, you don’t have the cash flow to continue product development.
Moreover, each of the three investment areas have multiple, specific sub-options. In marketing, for instance, the company could invest in graphic design for improved branding, or video production to build awareness, or finding speaking venues for the founder to establish herself as a thought leader in the industry.
Each of those sub-options have sub-options as well. An Overwhelmed Overthinker finds themselves stuck comparing incomparable options. Comparing investments in logo design to investments in research to develop a new, lightweight casing for your widget is frustrating and fruitless
Solution: How to move from overthinking to thinking: Make the decisions about the general before making decisions about the specific. In the business case, this level of decision making should have been made in the Designed Strategy. If you don’t have a clear and useful strategy to follow, now is a good time to create one.
Once the founder decides to invest in product development over marketing or sales, it's possible to decide specifically which product and advance is most likely to move toward the goals described in the strategy.
This principle works for non-business decisions as well. For example, decide THAT you are willing to negotiate on the asking price for the home you are selling before you try to decide how low you are willing to go. Decide what qualities you are looking for in a new job before you start comparing multiple offers. Decide the key message you want to communicate before you choose the specific words you will use in a speech or a strongly worded letter to the HOA.
These early, initial decisions are easier because there are fewer options available to you. You are less likely to fall victim to Analysis Paralysis simply because you have fewer options to analyze.
Type 2 The Avoider Overthinker.
Overthinking can an avoidance mechanism. Spending energy and time focused on small, often irrelevant, details is an effective way to escape the bigger question.
We may be avoiding the problem for a few reasons.
It may simply be uncomfortable for us. Thinking about the tough conversation you need to have with a colleague, deciding which medical treatment to pursue, or thinking about trying the thing you failed at last time can drive us all into avoidance.
Additionally, many of us have an abiding Fear of Future Regret. I’ve written about this fear before in an article about the Status Quo Illusion. Our drive to avoid the day when we might look back on a decision and say “I wish I had done the other thing” is so strong we will stick with failing relationships, business practices, and disappointing jobs.
This is more than simply the fear of being “wrong”. In most cases, we will never know what the outcome of making the other choice would have been. We can’t simultaneously move into the apartment with the great view and the one with the easy commute. Any future comparisons will be between the reality of the road taken and our imagination of the road not taken.
We all have decisions we regret, and it is easy to find ourselves comparing a current, difficult decision to a past regret. By overthinking about the circumstances rather than the solution to the problem we find ourselves in, we avoid confronting the possibility that we will regret whatever decision we make.
To make matters worse, these negative thoughts deplete the cognitive resources we need to generate the creative ideas that might solve the problem we are facing.
In this case, being an Avoider Overthinker binds us to the status quo. The more difficult the decision, the more likely you are to keep doing what you have always done if it is available to you. You know your overthinking is connected to this fear when your reasoning includes thoughts like “it’s better to stick with the Devil you know”, “if it ain’t broke…”, or “we’ve always done it this way.”
You simply can’t make progress towards a decision or a solution if you are spending all of your cognitive effort avoiding the problem and the potential consequences of a decision.
Solution: How to move from overthinking to thinking: Ultimately we avoid decisions when we are afraid we might not be able to handle them. We worry the tough conversation with our colleague will go poorly. We worry we will regret the decision we make
If we want to minimize these fears, we need to learn more about possible futures. The most effective way to do this is through prototyping. If I can take a small, reversible step to learn something about one of the decision options, I am less likely to be surprised by regret.
If you are considering renting an apartment in a certain area of town, staying in an AirBnB near there for a few days can give you a better idea of traffic patterns, neighborhood noise, and the train that rumbles through the area at 2am every morning.
Before buying a car, you could rent a similar model for a few days to get more information than a test drive around the block could provide.
We can also prototype a tough conversation as well...more about this at the end of the article.
Prototyping isn’t possible for all decisions, but with a little creative thinking, you can often find a way to get more information and experience with a prototype of the option.
Type 3: The Perfectionist Overthinker
The Perfectionist Overthinker is a close relative of the Avoidance Overthinker, but with a key difference. The Avoidance Overthinker fills their cognitive bandwidth with dilemmas and concerns that will never lead to a solution. No amount of worry, self-doubt, or fear will generate a solution.
On the other hand, the Perfectionist Overthinker's brain is filled with too many possible solutions. In many cases, ANY of the possible solutions would be acceptable--or even great--but the Perfectionist Overthinker is afraid she won't pick the ABSOLUTE best one.
Take a look at the little illustrations of overthinkers here. I made them myself. It's ok. I know I am not a graphic designer. I know if I reached out to one of the great graphic designers or illustrators I work with, they would have produced something amazing...much better than I can do myself.
But, they would need time. These illustrations convey the point I am trying to make...and if I want to, I can get professional ones made later.
It would be easy, however, to fall into the trap of perfectionist thinking. "These illustrations reflect my brand, they need to be great" or "I don't like that the diamond above the Perfectionist isn't exactly the same style of the rest of the drawings" or "A more vibrant red would be better".
In reality, my concern really would not be about the drawings. My real concern is that I will publish this article and people will think I am dumb. But, by focusing on details of the solution, I can avoid the risk of being embarrassed.
See...I told you the Avoider and the Perfectionist were closely related.
Solution: How to move from Perfectionist Thinking to Doing The Perfectionist Overthinker creates the illusion that every decision is the final decision. If I don't get the illustrations exactly right, I'll suffer with them forever.
Thankfully, we confront few one-way decisions in our lives. The one-way decisions we do face generally don't have timelines that suffer overthinking. I couldn't do much overthinking as a fighter pilot because the opportunity for decision was fleeting.
But, in the regular world, we can make new decisions. I can publish this article today, revise it tomorrow, delete it the next day, and revise it after that, if I want. By the end, it will be better...probably much better because I learn something new each step of the way.
This is Perfecting Thinking rather than Perfectionist Thinking. Make a reversible decision, learn from it, improve on it, and make a new decision. Iteration is thinking in action.
Type 4 The Trapped Overthinker
What are some uses for a brick? Seriously, commit to 2 uses of a brick. Say them out loud.
If you are like the hundreds of people I have asked in the past 2 years, your answers will be included in these: build a wall, pave a street, break a window, use as a paperweight, prop open a door, or use as a weapon.
These are the answers people give, because they are the ways they have seen or heard of a brick being used. If I asked them how we might use a brick to fix a leaky pipe, there probably wouldn’t be too many answers that come to mind.
The concept of what it means to be a brick becomes fixed in our minds. The fixed meaning is even more persistent when we are desperate for a solution. In our urgency to quickly fix the problem, we comb through our memories looking for places where we’ve seen or heard of people using a brick to stop a leak.
We may even try some of these solutions. We hold the brick up against the pipe, pressing harder and harder trying to get the leak to stop. We may even convince ourselves it helped a bit.
The Trapped Overthinker is imprisioned by the way he sees the problem and solutions available to him. You may have experienced the same functional fixedness in different ways. We all know the saying “when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. But, the opposite is also true. When you see your problem as a nail, you only look for hammers.
Solution: How to move from fixed thinking to fluid thinking. Building and using creativity skills to reframe, refocus, and reimagine our problem opens the door to more tools.
In our workshops, I follow up the question about “what are uses for a brick?” with “what are some creative uses for a brick?”. There is an instantaneous change, and it happens inside our brains.
Rather than cataloguing how we have seen or heard of a brick being used, we start to consider how a brick might be used. We start looking for possibilities rather than past experiences.
Challenging yourself to reframe the problem or to find creative ways to look at the problem breaks your functional fixedness. It often doesn’t take much to put you on a path away from overthinking and toward the thinking side of the chart.
Watch out. The temptation to move back into overthinking can be persistent. Giving yourself permission to see where a thought path might lead isn’t the same as committing to taking the full journey.
Try it now…how might you use a brick to stop a leak. What happens if you disrupt your own thinking about the size, shape, and texture of a brick?
These solutions work…but here is a better one.
The best antidote to overthinking is collaborative thinking.
A friend asked for a conversation with me not long ago. He didn’t use the word, but he was overthinking about whether to take a new job offer or stay in his current job.
I asked him the simplest questions…why would you want the new job?
The new job was really the job he wanted for years. It would allow him to do the work he most enjoyed doing. The job wasn’t available to him before because he didn’t have enough experience to land it.
He explained he took his current job as a backup plan to that job. He enjoyed his current job, but he had done just about everything he could do there.
Because it is really the equivalent of a paid internship.
I asked him, would you ever advise a friend to stay in a job as an intern when the job they really wanted is available to them?
Of course not. No one would.
When you have a trusted co-collaborator, simply the act of talking through not only the facts, but the feelings and logic of the dilemma that is causing you to overthink restructures the way you consider it.
When you talk (or write) to someone you have to make choices about what words, feelings, and facts are really important. This isn’t what happens when you are stuck inside your own thoughts. Your internal dialogue is loud and limitless, but your external dialogue must be edited.
This process of editing limits the inputs you are able to consider at once, disrupts decision avoidance, and gives an opportunity for your co-collaborator to shatter your functional fixedness with their own experiences and ideas.
Overthinking happens in our minds. It is impossible for two people to have a trusting conversation and be overthinking in the same way. Even when you bring together an Overwhelmed Overthinker, an Avoider Overthinker, a Perfectionist Overthinker, and a Trapped Overthinker, people will find their way out, if they communicate in trusting, collaborative environment.
Even the smallest difference provides us with the traction we need to break free of the snowbank and start moving towards a decision again.
Which problems have you been overthinking? Which type of overthinker are you?
When you are ready to move from overthinking to thinking, contact us. We'll be your trusted collaborator helping you move on to more impact and bigger challenges.