Ironically, the paralysis caused by fear of failure or making the wrong decision can result in unnecessary risks. But you can rewire your brain against over-thinking.
The term ‘just do it’ has become as ubiquitous as ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’, which puts the foundation of decisions in something of a double-bind – never mind the decision itself. Procrastination is among the most prohibitive thought processes. Yet its inverse impulsivity (action without consideration for consequence), is equally undesirable – think spur-of-the-moment purchases and eating a tub of ice-cream or even accusing a friend or partner of something they didn’t do.
There’s a fine line between inertia and impulsivity. Too much calculation of risk can be as bad as too little. In fact, one often begets the other as frustration with your own impasse or extrinsic demands for action lead to panic decisions (think deer in headlights).
The connection between impasse and impulsive has been demonstrated in numerous studies including one emphasising a genetic link between the two traits.
There seems to be a complete genetic overlap, according to a study of identical twins published in journal Psychological Science.
“Everyone procrastinates at least sometimes, but we wanted to explore why some people procrastinate more than others and why procrastinators seem more likely to make rash actions and act without thinking,” says psychological scientist and author of the first study Daniel Gustavson, from the University of Colorado Boulder.
While impulsivity made sense for our ancestors, when fast action and immediate
reward equalled survival and the future was not a consideration, in the era of multi-tasking and juggling multiple short and long-term goals, it can be damaging.
Thanks to the brain’s capacity to change based on what we repeatedly think and do
– ‘neuroplasticity’ or the theory that neurons that wire together, fire together – it’s possible to change what may have been a lifelong habit of over-thinking. Unfortunately, like all thought patterns, this inertia quickly becomes habitual and wired as the brain’s default.
If you tend to procrastinate or fixate on worst-case scenarios, consciously trying to think less could help you to think more clearly and make better decisions.
“Over-thinking is thinking and analysing a conversation or scenario either for too long or too much,” says Dr Debra Villar, author of Urban Woman Syndrome. “When overthinking, our minds are limited to the same thoughts over and over again instead of acting on them. We become stuck in a situation and our brain is unable to create an action or resolution.”
It’s as if your brain has tied a knot around the issue at hand, rendering you incapable of healthy movement or action. Psychologist, author of Stand Out and co-founder of Pragmatic Thinking Alison Hill, believes that over-thinking results from pursuit or expectation of a ‘perfect’ solution.
“It is often the fear of making a ‘wrong’ choice that leads to over-thinking: what if I move jobs and it doesn’t work out; what if I start a business and it fails; what if I start a healthy routine and I don’t stick to it,” she says. “Underlying this is an unconscious belief that there’s a ‘right’ answer if only we think more about it. In reality, there’s often not a ‘right’ answer – only an option that may be a better fit for now. We always learn something regardless of whether the fit is right or not.”
“The other reason we over-think is because of the sheer number of options that are available to us. We can be paralysed by choice, again waiting for a perfect match, when performing any action and making it work would probably be fine.”
Hill says that ultimately any action is better than inaction.
“Being stuck is one of the hardest and unhealthiest places to be sitting in for a
long period of time,” she says. “The way to overcome this is to make a decision, even if it’s to go and gather more data.”
THOUGHT TIPPING POINT
When exactly does thinking go from being an essential and productive process that has placed us at the top of the food chain to being at our own detriment?
“Jumping in without a strategy, without weighing up the options or researching
possibilities can be fraught with issues,” says Hill.
“But too much weighing, too much researching, too much strategy – essentially too much thinking – can also be a problem.”
Hill’s telltale signs of over-thinking
- The opinions of others trump your own opinion.
- You are indecisive and drowning in research – but not getting any clearer on a choice.
- You are waiting for the perfect answer, choice or direction.
- You are procrastinating from the actions that will make the difference.
“We know when we’ve crossed the line of over-thinking when we become too paralysed to take the next step, and catch ourselves distracted by tasks and conversations that pull us away from making meaningful progress,” says Hill. “The moment that the pit of thinking suffocates us, progress is what suffers. We can feel like we’re going around in circles, and getting dizzy at the thought that it may never stop – which only leads to more over-thinking.”
While it’s tossed around as a buzzword, overthinking can have serious consequences, by inhibiting action, perpetuating negative thought patterns or inspiring behaviour that’s damaging to you, another person or your relationships.
“This habit can consume energy, increase stress and can make small problems seem
much bigger than they actually are,” says Dr Villar. “It can also stop us from living, thriving and creating the life we want out of fear of making the wrong decision. Over-thinking is a form of anxiety and can have serious health consequences. Problems such as compulsive behaviour, panic attacks, anxiety and even depression have been linked to over-thinking.” The burden and anxiety caused by overthinking itself can segue to unhelpful escape or avoidance behaviours.
“If we find ourselves in a spiral of overthinking we can easily fall into the habit of ‘numbing’ this feeling through food or ‘just one glass of wine’,” says Hill.
“Exercise can also be one of the first things that goes when we’re caught in our head, leaving us feeling sluggish and tired. Doubt, anxiety and fear can all come to the forefront when we’re over-thinking. And these can kick into gear and have us in a downward spiral of ‘it’s all gone to crap’ in a matter of seconds.”