How to Stop Overthinking at Work (and in Life)

ProjectManager.com

Consciousness is a blessing and a curse. Thinking has led to great innovation but has also brought people into disastrous conflict. While thought is neither intrinsically good or bad, it can be used for positive or negative ends.

Whatever the cause, big or small, overthinking is proof that there can be too much of a good thing. Sadly, this surplus of mental exertion is practically unavoidable: thinking turns into overthinking before you know it. What’s important is having the foresight and the tools to see those red flags and stop yourself before you are stymied by your own head.

The following are some practical measures you can take to stop overthinking and get your work done without having to worry more than is absolutely necessary.

Be Cognizant

That’s just a fancy way of saying that you need to be aware of your thoughts. Some call it awareness or mindfulness, which is a popular term in corporate culture nowadays. But whatever you call it, don’t follow your thinking: stay in control of it.

Try not thinking; it’s impossible. Thinking is a natural expression of the body, no different than breathing. You need both, of course, but just because you need them doesn’t mean you should let them operate unchecked. For example, if you’re running and your breathing becomes labored, you’re going to stop and catch your breath. To continue pushing yourself past your capacity is dangerous.

Thinking is similar in this way. It can carry you to places that are not healthy, making you worried or nervous. You might try to calm yourself with food or alcohol, only compounding the problem. Don’t let your thoughts rule you: watch them for signs of obsessiveness, and note when they aren’t productive. The last thing you want is to burn out at work.

Be a Problem-Solver

Acknowledging that your thoughts are going off-track is just the beginning. Now what? Well, you can start by challenging yourself. One way to do that, especially if you tend to move into negative thoughts, is to stop, sit back and say to yourself that thoughts are not truth. Maybe you’re making a mistake in your dire conclusions.

Instead of jumping off the cliff, take a moment to move away from the problem and towards the solution. What is it that you need to do, and what are the practical steps you can take to get there? Maybe look back on a similar problem from your past and recall how you pulled yourself out from that hole.

Basically, instead of being passive and letting the problem grow in dimension until it overshadows your sense of reason, think of what you can actively do—make an action plan. Acting is always better than doing nothing. Once you begin to act, the overwhelming feelings that are driving your overthinking into the gutter will no longer feel as insurmountable.

Take Time for Reflection

Downtime isn’t always available, but it’s essential to recharge your mental batteries. Often, after even a short period of reflection, the knot of overthinking a problem is unraveled to reveal the obvious solution you couldn’t see at first.

It’s a matter of doing things differently. When you’re overthinking, it’s as if you’re grinding the gears in your head or flooding the engine. To continue with the car analogy, all you accomplish is stalling.

Therefore, prepare for the period of overthinking that is likely to occur by setting aside time each day for you to just think. Worry. Ruminate. Mull over the issues, but just make sure you get back to work. In a sense, you’re scheduling your overthinking, so you brain knows it has this brief time to chew over its problems.

Do Something Else

Another practical method of stopping your mind from overthinking is to change the environment. Instead of just saying, “Stop thinking,” you can avoid the endless loop in your head by placing something else in front of it to distract.

Maybe it’s time to do that paperwork you’ve been putting off, or clean up your work station? Is there an errand you need to get done? Do it. If not, simply take a break and walk around the block. Do whatever you can that doesn’t relate to the issue driving you to overthink. Removing yourself from the subject that got your mind reeling is going to give you a moment to calm down and return to the problem with a fresh head.

Related: Work-Life Balance for Managers

Figure Out Why You’re Overthinking

Finally, meet the problem of overthinking head on. Try and get to the root cause that is sending you into a dark hole of anxiety. Confront your demons!

Are you overthinking because you can? Don’t feel guilty: our brains are hardwired for such activity. This doesn’t mean, though, that you can’t manage the process so that it’s less detrimental to your work. Remember that your thoughts, just as with your emotions, are not the truth. They’re transient, and even overthinking will eventually be over.

To help overthinking conclude, try relabeling the ideas that you’re overthinking. Re-frame the experience to identify the errors in your thinking that are causing you to doubt yourself. Once identified, refocus your attention on what parts of the problem are important and can be worked out.

This new information will provide your overthinking brain with a salient message, and you’ll find yourself open to reevaluating the problem in realistic terms. This beneficial exercise reveals that the brain often overthinks without any reason other than that it was designed to run through these mental hoops.

Give yourself the distance to see, not only the problem, but your own thought patterns in perspective.

An Example of the Dangers of Overthinking

Overthinking, left unchecked, has the potential to ruin a project, a career—even a life. Think of someone like Howard Hughes. Before he became our go-to symbol of massive wealth creating great eccentricities, he was a successful businessman.

Howard Hughes first made his mark as an influential figure in the aviation industry and as a film producer. He produced the original Scarface (1932), controlled the RKO film studio and formed the Hughes Aircraft Company. He broke air speed records and sought to build the world’s largest aircraft. Built out of laminated birch and spruce, the airship had a wingspan longer than a football field and was designed to carry 700 people.

But sometimes bigger isn’t better. The start of WWII gave Hughes even more business, as the US government commissioned Hughes Aircraft Company to build large flying ships to carry men and supplies over long distances.

While what became notoriously known as the Spruce Goose did take flight once, it never went into production. Hughes refused to give up on what he believed to be his greatest achievement, and he housed the prototype in a huge climate-controlled hanger, costing him $1 million a year, until his death in 1976. What started as a rational idea to help with the war effort was overthought into an albatross that ended up helping to define Hughes as a madman and possibly lead to his later reclusive life.

That Spruce Goose, of course, is an example of overthinking in the extreme. You’ll likely be beating yourself up over mistakes made, playing Monday morning quarterback. Or maybe you’re unable to get out of your head and make progress on a task because you’re crippled with too many choices. Whatever the case, remember our tips and Mr. Hughes’ unrealized potential, and maybe you’ll be more motivated to move from overthinking to action.

One way to stop overthinking is to let someone else do the thinking for you. While ProjectManager.com can’t do that, our cloud-based project management software does take a lot of the busywork off the table, so you can deal with more important matters. Our real-time dashboard gives you up-to-the-minute data and online Gantt charts makes scheduling collaborative, so everyone’s on the same page. Don’t overthink this one, try ProjectManager.com today by taking this free 30-day trial.

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