Overthinking has serious consequences inside and outside the office. Here’s how to break the cycle.
By: Ryan Holmes, Founder and CEO, Hootsuite
Research has shown that children laugh on average, 300 times a day. Adults on the other hand, laugh only about 17 times a day. It appears that we do not wish to appear silly when we are adults, but have no such concerns when we were children. No wonder they can solve some problems more creatively than adults!
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New parents out there can vouch for me on this: walking is way harder than it looks. I’ve realized this while watching my daughter, who’s just taking her first steps. Us adults tend to think of walking as an effortless, even graceful act. But it’s more like a controlled fall. My daughter will teeter forward, stick one leg out to catch herself, then another– defying gravity for a few seconds before plopping down.
Most of the time, she’ll take a few strained steps– eyes narrowed in concentration, tiny fists clenched– then tumble right over. But sometimes when she’s holding a block or dragging along a stuffed toy, she’ll waltz from one side of the room to the other, no problem.
What gives? And what, if anything, does this mean for us adults at work?
The price of overthinking
To me, the fundamental lesson here is about overthinking — and the power of getting out of our own heads. When my daughter isn’t really thinking about it, she walks just fine. It’s only when she’s deep in concentration that she gets tripped up.
Of course, it’s not just babies who overthink things. It turns out the problem of overthinking is just as pervasive for the rest of us, with serious consequences inside and outside the office.
Turning something over in your mind repeatedly — rehashing problems over and over — actually interferes with problem solving, according to research. Taken to the level of rumination or obsession, this can lead to everything from lost sleep to real mental problems like depression or anxiety.
In the more immediate business sense, you end up with a classic case of analysis paralysis. You get obsessed with looking at an issue from every possible angle, mitigating all the risks, and reaching the perfect decision.
All that second-guessing inevitably leads to missed opportunities and wasted energy. I’ve been on the wrong side of overthinking many times in building my own company. In hindsight, it would have been better to make a decision — any decision — rather than none at all.
Breaking the overthinking trap
But how do you break that cycle of overthinking and take those proverbial first steps? Traditional approaches have long emphasized mindfulness and mantras; tools to break the spell of rumination and return to the present.
Modern research shows just paying attention to breathing can generate a powerful biological response, activating the nervous system and relaxing the mind. Exercise, too, can be an antidote to overthinking, as anyone who’s experienced the endorphin-induced clarity of a runner’s high knows.
All these approaches involve tapping into something deeper, just beyond the conscious mind — a sort of elemental insight or intuition. There’s a tendency to dismiss this feeling as wishy-washy or unreliable. But I’d argue it’s anything but.
The reality is your “gut” is a complex algorithm informed by countless inputs both conscious and subconscious. That feeling in the pit of your stomach factors in experience and memory, biology, evolutionary history, and so much more. It’s infinitely sophisticated, even if its inner workings are largely a black box.
In the business context, intuition can be an indispensable antidote to overthinking. That uneasy or excited feeling, deep inside? That strange conviction that this is the right course to take? That means something. It’s at least worth listening to — one more critical data point to take into consideration.
I think about my own experiences as an entrepreneur. In the beginning, my company, Hootsuite, had thousands of users, but no revenue. But something told me there was potential. A decade later, we’re one of the largest social relationship platforms in the world. Cold analysis alone wouldn’t have led us down this path. Gut did.
The limits of intuition
Of course, trusting your gut can only take you so far. For most complex problems and unfamiliar situations, thinking — i.e. sustained reason and analysis — is a critical tool. My daughter might be able to lean on instinct and intuition to walk and talk, but that doesn’t mean I’d let her do my taxes.
Plus, all sorts of biases prey on innate bugs in our intuition. As a species, we’re stuck with a serious negativity bias — a tendency to fixate on threats — from the days when it was an evolutionary tool to help us avoid hungry predators. Recency bias means we give more weight to stuff that happened lately (even if it’s not representative over time).
But at the end of the day, overthinking can be its own, equally insidious, trap. If analysis paralysis is holding your business back, take a cue from the toddler in your life — stop overthinking and just take that first step.
(The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.)
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