E04: Say goodbye to overthinking
This is the first in a series of "Lessons from a corporate life," where I dive into values I learned from years at stressful jobs that can help in any situation. Overthinking happens when we fear failure and try to control outcomes. From decisions big or small, we’d benefit from having a bias for action. We can actually train ourselves to make easier, faster decisions to develop better habits and end overthinking. We’ll discuss this, along with tools to make big decisions seem manageable.
This is a podcast transcript. If you would like to listen to the show in full, please find it on our podcasts page here.
In this episode:
Why we overthink
Failure is fact finding
How our gut is sometimes right
What a bias for action is and how to use it
How to form better decision-making habits
Reversible, low impact decisions
Turning overwhelming decisions into manageable ones
You may not know this, but I have a Facebook group that I’m hoping to turn into a community for listeners of this show. It’s also called “Your Uncommon Life.” Anyone can request to join it. Last week, I polled the group and asked what tends to overwhelm people the most and the number one response was your own mind and anxiety. Above everything else that’s going on in the world and in our personal lives, the main thing that drags us down is how we get into our own heads. This was actually an honest and refreshing thing to hear. We don’t need to blame external circumstances all the time. Sometimes we are our own worst problem. It’s ok to acknowledge that. That’s the first step toward making positive change.
That’s why I’m talking about taming overthinking this week. You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you don’t know if you’re making the right choice? That’s overthinking. Or that frustration you get when things don’t go exactly as you expected even though you thought so hard about your decision? That’s a control issue related to overthinking. Stack enough of those moments together and you can become pretty overwhelmed and anxious. Now I’m not a therapist and I can’t help you eradicate anxiety. But I can help you identify and reduce the triggers that I’ve become quite familiar with over the years and replace them with good habits. That’s where we’ll focus today. I’m going to talk about having a bias for action and show you how at least 50% of the decisions you labor over every day can be simplified. Along the way, we’re going to learn how to stop being afraid to fail and instead look at failure as a fact-finding mission.
Overthinking - analysis paralysis, indecision, or whatever you want to call it - can be crippling. No one wants to overthink or let indecision get the best of them, but we do it anyway. Why is this? When we fear an unfavorable outcome, we try to control it by combing through all of the details of the decision, all of the data, all of the possible outcomes, and, after a great deal of time, we might make a decision. Sometimes we give up and make no decision at all. In the meantime, we’ve driven ourselves and our loved ones mad with our anxiety-ridden indecision. What’s the point? What problem are we really solving if we make a good choice but, along the way, we hurt ourselves and others?
This pattern of overthinking is rooted in perfectionism, a need to control, and fear of failure. Fears like these often involve shifting too much power to something that shouldn’t be in a position of power. I’ll explain. Last week, we discussed fear of rejection, and how it gives power to the other person. You’re giving other people power over who you get to be as you edit your personality to adapt to their expectation of you. With fear of failure, or fear of an unfavorable outcome, you are actually giving yourself too much power. You’re believing the lie that you’re in control of the outcomes. This is why overthinking causes so much anxiety as you are regularly greeted with the frustrating truth that things happen that are outside of your control.
I would love to say that all you have to do is just be more confident and trust in yourself. But I think that’s a lie that puts too much pressure on you. I believe only God knows what the outcome will be and is in control of it. Now, we are still responsible and need to make good decisions with the information we have. But often we let perfect become the enemy of good as we pursue some ideal outcome. When we try to manage the outcome and fear failure, we usurp God’s authority. Our fear indicates that we don’t trust that he’s in control. Even if you don’t believe in God, surely you can admit that trying to control outcomes is often futile. Don’t you think that, if you were really in control of every outcome, your life would look different?
Think of all of the things, large and small, that you overthink on a daily basis. Decisions you’ve poured over in the past that ended up not mattering at all. Like what people will think of you when you put yourself out there. A parenting decision like whether to school online. A decision at work, like how to run a meeting. Even smaller things like what to buy at the store or how to organize your kitchen. Every time you let yourself overthink a decision, you reinforce this behavior and slowly turn it into a habit you don’t want. It will become an automatic pathway for you that will set you up for even more anxiety. As you let overthinking and analysis paralysis take over, you give it more and more power over you and allow yourself to get bogged down by uncertainty regularly.
I have a long history with overthinking to the point of anxiety and panic attacks. In episode 2, titled “Who do you think you are?” I detailed all of my work mistakes I made on my path toward discerning my identity. I stayed in work situations that were bad for me way too long. Often I stayed because I valued money more than my own well-being. But even when I knew I needed to leave, I usually labored over the decision to quit. After my miscarriage, I tried to act on my gut instinct and quit without overthinking the decision but my boss convinced me to stay anyway. So I stayed 4 more months before finally quitting. I should have stuck with my gut. When I went on maternity leave earlier this year, I thought I would never go back to work after. I knew I would be a stay at home mom. But, as maternity leave neared its end, I started questioning that decision. After all, it was during quarantine and I could work from home. Maybe that would work. I mean, how could I make this decision if I’d never experienced being a working parent? I started questioning my own plans. Then, it got even more complicated. A friend at a different company was hiring for a pretty senior role and reached out to me. Suddenly, I was updating my resume and doing interviews. It was looking promising that I could get the role. It would pay more than twice as much as my current job so it made sense on paper why I would want to take it. Meanwhile, I hadn’t quit my old job yet and wasn’t sure what I would do. So, when my baby was 4 months old, I not only decided to go back to work but I also decided to pursue other jobs, too. It was so stressful and was completely contrary to my original plans. I remember I was supposed to restart my old job on a Monday, and do the final interview for the new job on that Thursday. It would be a full day of interviews. I never even asked for Thursday off or made a plan for childcare. I was paralyzed, moving toward a week that would be impossible to manage and did not know what to do. So I did nothing. As that fateful week approached, I had a constant knot in my stomach. This was NOT helping me be a more peaceful person. Something had to give.
Sometimes I have to experience a little pain to make a good decision. I would like to get over that habit. We’ll work on this together. After the 2nd day of work at my old job, I finally decided to cancel the interview for the new job. I could barely handle doing the job I already knew how to do while watching a baby. So I certainly couldn’t imagine trying to ramp up to an even more challenging role. And though the job would pay enough for full-time childcare, I wasn’t interested in that option. What’s hard is that, from the beginning, I knew deep inside that I shouldn’t have ever pursued that role. I knew it wouldn’t be good for me, that it would be very stressful, and that I might not be able to be as present of a mom as I wanted to be. And yet I pursued it because I didn’t know how to make the call and the money was very alluring. I gave myself weeks of stress pouring over this decision, prepping for the interviews, and doing my resume. Weeks that I could have devoted to enjoying maternity leave with my son.
Have you ever wrestled with a decision when, in hindsight, you realized that your initial gut instinct was right all along? Very rarely are we surprised by what the best decision is, in the end. We just wrestle with our own fear for too long until we finally make it.
So we all know we aren’t in control of all possible outcomes from our decisions, right? But cognitive awareness doesn’t always incite action. Just because you know you shouldn’t overthink and aren’t in control, doesn’t mean it’s easy to just stop. It’s a deeply ingrained bad intellectual habit that you have cultivated and fed over time. And now you need to starve it. Like any bad habit, you have to take measured steps to beat it and replace it with a better habit. This is an extreme example, but consider the bad habit of smoking. You know it’s bad for you, but it’s hard to quit. There is a gap between knowledge and action that has to be filled with something like nicotine patches, gum, and therapy.
So today we are going to focus on how you can build more helpful and effective intellectual habits to combat overthinking and analysis paralysis.
I said in an earlier podcast that I would talk about lessons I learned from the corporate life because, whether I like it or not, there are things that I learned from my high-stress jobs that have affected every facet of my life. This will likely turn into a series and maybe I’ll call it “Adulting like a boss” or something fun. Today’s corporate lesson is in having a “bias for action.”
What is a bias for action? It is the propensity to make decisions, especially when the path forward is uncertain, for the sake of making progress. Employing a bias for action is about accepting risk. You use the data you have at your disposal, even if it’s incomplete, accept the risk of a possible incorrect choice, and just make a decision instead of laboring over it. Even if you aren’t positive which choice is the right one, you have to find a way to move forward. You can’t stay stalled and do nothing. Analysis paralysis is death for a project and is possibly literal death in a military scenario so many companies and organizations champion having a bias for action.
You may think that there is an increased likelihood of failure if you take action without having all of the facts. And that is sometimes true. Your decision might land in failure, but failure is one of the ways we learn and grow. Don’t think of it as failure; think of it as fact finding. Sometimes any decision is better than no decision because it will help you gather more information to determine a better decision next time. In the absence of a clear path forward, you can make any decision to rule out a bad option or understand more about your criteria. Regardless of your choice, you will always learn more than you knew before and likely feel more confident in your next choice.
I honed this skill throughout my 10 years in chaotic work environments. I was often developing programs that had never existed before and quite literally creating something out of nothing. So I had to learn to make decisions that had a long-lasting impact in an absence of clear data. We often used the term that we were “building the plane as it was flying.” So you make choices, the plane takes off. You make more choices and maybe the plane loses altitude. You quickly refuel while in flight and patch the plane to get it up to 35,000 feet again. Hopefully, by the time you reach your destination, you’re done building the plane and it works. This was everyday at work for me. And honestly, this is a lot like life. You have to change plans mid-course and reset when you realize something just isn’t working. Accept failure as part of a necessary learning and fact-finding process.
Whether it’s in your marriage or romantic relationships, dealing with family, paying bills, dealing with doctor’s appointments and insurance, or just shopping and daily tasks. We have so much random stuff we do and have to decide every day and it can’t all be perfect. So streamline the burden you’re putting on your brain and learn how to be more decisive and action-oriented.
Dealing with adult life requires a lot of pivoting and quick decision making, and you have to be smart about it. Easier said than done, right? I wish it were as simple as just “making a choice, but quickly!” I know, for me, I get stalled at all kinds of choices. So I designed a quadrant of decision making several years ago. I designed it for work situations and only very recently realized that it applies in my personal life, too.
You can go to my podcast transcript on my website to see a picture of the quadrant I drew up. It will help explain what I mean. It’s youruncommonlife.com. Click on the read tab and go to podcast transcripts to find this episode. I’ll try to explain here what I mean too. My decision quadrant has two axes. One axis is reversibility. There are reversible and irreversible actions. The other axis is impact. And there are low impact and high impact actions. Each of these axes is a spectrum. On one end, you have highly reversible, low impact decisions like most purchases or home decor choices. You can undo these decisions with minimal effect on your life. And on the other, you have high impact, irreversible decisions like buying a home or getting major surgery.
So, anytime you are considering a decision with multiple options where the path forward isn’t clear, you assess the options you have according to reversibility and impact. When you narrow down your options to these 2 criteria, it will quickly become apparent that at least 50% of your possible options are no-brainers that you can exhaust first while on your fact-finding mission.
In the absence of a clear path forward, highly reversible, low impact decisions are your sweet spot. Use them for fact finding and option elimination. For example, shopping for something. Even shopping for bigger things, like car insurance. For most things, you can return things you don’t like to the store or cancel your service. The ramifications might be measurable, but small. In these cases, sometimes making fast decisions is actually the best way to gather data efficiently. Don’t spend 2 hours doing research if you still won’t feel 100% confident in your choice. You’ll never get that time back.
Practice making decisions in this easy sweet spot to train your decision-making muscle. Once you firmly establish good decision-making habits here, you’ll feel equipped to tackle the bigger, hairier decisions with less anxiety. It’s like preparing for a fight. In order to feel confident going into the ring, you need to spar a lot. These are like mini fights that prep you for the big moment. Consider the reversible, low impact decisions like that. They’re like training for something bigger. Do them enough, and the big moment won’t feel so daunting.
A really good, low risk area to practice making fast and final decisions is in purging items from your house. We all feel lighter when we get rid of stuff anyway. Start in a low value, low sentimentality part of your home like the bathroom or laundry room. Give yourself a short period of time, like 30 or 60 minutes. In that short period of time, you’re going to quickly get rid of stuff. You’re throwing away everything that is old, doesn’t get used, or is an unnecessary duplicate. That’s old make-up, bottles and tubes that are almost used up but still sitting around, all of the face lotions and hand lotions that you never use, old prescription medications, old and gross soaps and detergents, etc. Just have a bag and throw those things away. They are old and gross and add no value to your life. I have several bottles of really nice perfume that I let sit around and gather dust. Do you know how often I wear perfume? Maybe once a year. So that’s gone. Take all of your trash and throw it away outside immediately. I bet, after doing that, you’ll feel super motivated to tackle something else. Maybe a closet or a junk drawer. When you push yourself to make fast decisions regularly, you prime your brain to make fast decisions in other areas, too.
This is actually how I started this podcast. I was on a minimalism mission around my house - getting rid of anything I didn’t need and, suddenly, I felt motivated to finally start a podcast and blog, which is something I’d wanted to do for years but was too scared to do. It felt like a high impact, irreversible decision so I had avoided it for a long time. Well, 6 weeks later, here we are. How did I overcome my fear and indecision? After making some empowering decisions to get rid of stuff around the house, I started to look at the decision to start a podcast as a series of small, low-impact, and reversible decisions. And it really was! One day I write a blog, the next I subscribe to a podcast host, the next I pick a website template, then I find a microphone, and so on until 6 weeks later when I published the cumulative effort. By breaking down big decisions into small, manageable, bite-sized decisions, everything seemed more possible.
Which brings me to my next tip. Often seemingly irreversible and high impact decisions are actually a series of lower impact decisions in disguise. The next time you’re faced with something huge - something that feels overwhelming - break it down into 30 smaller things and start with the smallest things first. You might be surprised how many big things in your life can be made possible when you break them down this way. Need to reorganize your entire house? Start with a drawer. Need to restart your entire career? Start by registering for 1 class online. These smaller decisions will help you gain momentum and confidence as you progress toward the larger things.
I’m still learning how to make fast decisions in my personal life though. A few days ago I went to Target to buy Christmas decor. Target is like a magical fairyland of cross-merchandising that makes you want to buy everything you don’t need and nothing you do need all at once. Sometimes, when I shop, I get too overwhelmed and indecisive. This time, while perusing the Christmas stockings, the same familiar tightness started to build in my chest. My head started spinning. I made what should have been a tiny decision feel high impact when it wasn’t at all. I started asking myself: “Which stockings would look best in my house? Which would my husband like? What if he hates them? Should I get extras that match for any future kids I may bear just in case they don’t sell these styles again in the future? But they’re $15 and it’s wasteful to buy 6 stockings if I’ll never need all of them. That’s $90. But maybe I can use them for my cats. But the stocking holders for the mantle only hold 4 stockings. I don’t want to buy more than 4 right now” The urge to flee the store with nothing in-hand started to rise within me. But lately have been trying to become more aware of that feeling of anxiety and overwhelm and shut it down. So I remembered what I had learned about reversible and low-impact actions and told myself I was free to make any decision and that the outcome wouldn’t really matter. I took a deep breath, bought the stocking holders that only held 4 stockings, and decided to buy a 4-pack of cheaper stockings on Amazon. Why? Because this is highly reversible. I can return all of the things. Also it is definitely low impact. If I have more than 4 family members in the future, it is relatively low impact to just get different stockings at that time. I don’t need to burden myself with planning for a future family I don’t even have. It’s just stockings. I don’t hang my hopes and expectations on stockings! Why am I wasting a single second on this decision? I hope that, the next time you find yourself fretting about something small, you remember this. If it’s reversible or low impact, make a decision NOW. Any decision is better than none. Don’t waste a single minute on it. Your time is too precious.
Once you are up against an irreversible action that is low impact, then it still doesn’t matter what route you choose. Neither option will carry materially different consequences for your life. Or, the difference isn’t anything you would notice or miss or be bothered by. For example, if you’re getting a flu shot or a routine medical procedure, it likely doesn’t matter which doctor you go to. It’s irreversible, but the outcomes won’t make enough of a difference for you in the long run.
Another use case for bias for action is something where, maybe it would have a higher impact, but you honestly don’t have enough information to know what that impact would be and you have to make a choice right away. At work, I often had to choose between managing two different projects and I had very little time to mull it over. Sometimes I had very little information to go off of. I hadn’t ever worked with the client before, or in that organization before and would basically be heading in blind. So worrying about the decision wouldn’t give me any more useful information than I already had. You can’t carry the burden of predicting the future. For decisions like these, though they might be irreversible, you still might as well flip a coin as far as I’m concerned.
Similarly, for decisions where, though they’re huge, you don’t really have a choice, don’t waste any time thinking and jump straight to action. Last year my roof leaked and we needed an immediate replacement. This was a huge moment and was hard to deal with, but there is minimal thinking involved. It was an irreversible, high impact decision but was also a no-brainer. Just because the ramifications are huge doesn’t mean that you overthinking it will affect the outcome at all. All you’ll do is waste time and energy.
In all of the above examples, all highly reversible and/or low impact choices, or choices where you don’t have enough information, you can take fast action with the information you have on hand. When you do this, you free up your mind to focus on the decisions that really do require your time and effort and focus. More importantly, you start to exercise your decision making muscle so that, when you are up against something big and hairy, you know what to do.
This was my first lesson in my to-be-named series on lessons from a corporate life! If you walk away with only a little of what we talked about today, I hope you walk away with this: 1) you are free to fail. Failure is the way we learn and grow. Failure is fact finding. 2) Overthinking, which is a form of fear of failure, is holding you back from opportunities for growth. 3) Reversible, low-impact decisions are your sweet spot.
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