“I’ll be thinking about things over and over and over again and it’s swirling around.” – Director, Engineering Consulting Firm
We all do it. Churn and agitate. Analyze and rationalize. Over-thinking wastes time and reduces productivity. How do you stop over-thinking while not short-changing evaluation of relevant information? As an accomplished over-thinker, I have considerable experience with analysis paralysis. Today, I’m a recovering over-thinker largely due to brain science. Neuroscience illuminates the dynamic inside the brain and provides a surprising solution.
Stop trying so hard and trust your gut more. Let me explain.
The brain isn’t designed to think too long or too hard. Cognitive thinking uses working memory which tires quickly, uses a lot of energy, and holds limited information at a time. Complex, ambiguous decisions exceed its ability. We over-think when we try to ‘figure out’ complex situations only using our thinking parts of the brain (in the prefrontal cortex) even though there are other perfectly good brain parts that would like to contribute. In short, over-thinking sub-optimizes brain resources. Ironic, huh?
Scott Grafton, MD and a team of researchers from UCSB’s Brain Imaging Center found that participants who learned the fastest were the ones who were able to shut off the frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. These are two areas of the brain associated with cognitive function, but which weren’t required for the task being learned.[i]
Similarly, activation of the brain’s executive-control centers—the parts of the prefrontal cortex that plan, organize, and manage your activities—are negatively associated with creative task performance. Too much activity in specific regions of the prefrontal cortex was the likely culprit behind “paralysis by analysis.” [ii]
So, what can you do to think less? Here are four steps to manage over-thinking that are effective in my work:
- Early warning signs. First, identify the early warning signs of over-thinking. You’ll hear over-thinking phrases like: This is taking w-a-y too long. We’re making it harder than it has to. We’ve been over it again and again. We’re spinning our wheels. This feels like a dog chasing its tail. Sound familiar? When you hear these words, you’re over-thinking it.
- Simplify and detach. Realize in that moment that you are too much “in your head.” Simplify the number of variables in the decision so you’re left with only the key ones. Now, detach from thinking. Trying too hard with the cognitive brain blocks deeply-stored memory where a lot of good stuff from your experience is housed. Shut down the whirring in the front of your head so that the subtle signals can get through. Take a short break to let your brain rest.
- Notice and name. Next, notice the nagging feeling that lurks behind all that thinking. It’s the nagging feeling that holds you back. It is trying to bring information from experiences stored in other parts of the brain that don’t have access to language. You can help out. Name the feeling (worry, anger, fear, concern) and elaborate. Here’s how one leader gets at the nagging feeling. “Okay, let’s face it head on: ‘What’s really bugging you?’”
- Resolve it to solve it. In order to solve the problem, you must resolve the nagging feeling. Typically, I find that nagging feelings are based in fear or insight. Early in our careers, fear-based feelings are common: fear of being wrong; disapproval from the boss; going against the rules. As a CEO, you probably dealt with most fears. My interviews with 77 executives showed that their nagging feelings are likely from insight. Insight, what some call intuition, is the integration of information such as experience, knowledge from others or seemingly unrelated situations that the brain creatively combines. Don’t ignore your insight. It’s the ticket to resolution.
“Intuition pushes me to ask questions. I get a feeling that there’s more to the story and that pushes me to ask questions and explore.” – CEO, Construction Materials Company
It’s possible to manage over-thinking with practice. Stop trying so hard and listen inside.
[i] Buczynski, Ruth, The Over-Thinking Brain: A New Way to Look at Learning. National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavior Medicine. https://www.nicabm.com/brain-science54714/
[ii] Bergland, Christopher. Why Does Over-Thinking Sabotage the Creative Process? Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201508/why-does-overthinking-sabotage-the-creative-process, posted August 19, 2015
About the Author
Shelley Row, P.E. is a leadership decision-making expert and a recovering over-thinker. A sought-after speaker and consultant, Shelley helps managers and leaders skillfully trust their infotuition. Shelley’s Infotuition Cognition-Intuition Balance Model represents the intersection of business pragmatics and gut feeling. For complex decisions, data alone is not enough, and infotuition is essential.
She founded Shelley Row Associates LLC and has conducted over 75 leadership interviews. Prior to that, she was a 30-year transportation-engineer and senior executive with the federal government.