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On overthinking things, and telling people not to overthink things

McKinley Valentine — 4 min read
On overthinking things, and telling people not to overthink things
Photo by Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash

Overthinking is real, and I definitely do it, and I will get into what I think it means and how to avoid it in a bit.

But it must be said that pretty close to 100% of the people who have told me not to overthink things are people with a history of poor decision-making. When someone who has, for example, bought a kitten on the spur of the moment while they are staying on a friend's couch, says "don't overthink it", my brain's immediate response is maybe in fact you could stand to think about things a little bit more.

In any case, "don't overthink it" is entirely useless as advice. Because no one aims to overdo anything. You think you're doing it the right amount. No one deliberately misses a target (if you, do then, it wasn't your target) - it's that you don't know exactly where the target is or how to hit it. "Don't overthink it" is like saying "Don't miss the target!" to an archer. Oh cool, good advice, I won't then.

Maybe more meaningful would be, "I think you have enough information to make a decision, and you're just going around in circles now."

Or: "This is a really low-stakes decision - it doesn't really matter if you get it wrong."

(This is why I can say people who say "don't overthink it" generally have poor judgement. It doesn't mean overanalysers are always right. It's about the way it's communicated - because you can actually tell someone to stop overthinking things in a way that gives meaningful information or guidance. People who say "don't overthink it" are generally just trying to shut down something that makes them uncomfortable.

Sometimes they're just bored of hearing you talk about it, which is honestly fair enough - but there are about a million ways to change the subject without saying "stop thinking or caring about the thing you think and care about."

So anyway:

Overthinking is when
a) you have all the information you need, and you're just seeking more information as a way of procrastinating on making a difficult decision. An exercise you can do is to ask yourself, "what new piece of information could I receive that would make a decision possible?" Either any imaginable piece of info (an additional user review, after you've already read 133) would not help you make a decision. Or else the piece of info is impossible - if you realise you're waiting for God or the Universe to tell you the full and complete consequences of every path you're considering, that's not gonna happen and you might as well stop searching for more info.

b) time is a factor, and delaying making a decision is worse than picking either available option.

c) it's a low-stakes decision, and the time/brain energy of spending this long deciding is not worth the benefits of making the optimal decision.

A lot of this stuff is down to anxiety. So if you notice yourself doing it, try and figure out what it is you're anxious about, underneath. Like, what does the choice represent? Is it a little choice that actually ties into bigger choices you also have to make? Often I can't do some small thing because it actually rests on a much bigger thing I haven't made my mind up about yet. Generally any "do you want to do [activity] on [day]?" spins me out because to answer that, I have to plan out my whole week and figure what I do and don't have time for, and part of that might mean whether I say Yes or No to a piece of freelance work, which is a decision that's really fraught. So you're saying "do you want to grab a coffee on Thursday?" and I'm hearing "if I say No to this piece of client, will they find another editor, who will then become their go-to person, meaning I will lose that client forever? If so, how would that affect my budget? Well, that depends on whether I decide to get that expensive dental surgery that the dentist said I SHOULD get but don't HAVE to get". So the question of coffee on Thursday is now re-doing my annual budget and making a major healthcare decision. And that's why I didn't respond to your text, Ashlee.

Anyway: anxiety. If you can see that you're circling, then maybe stop trying to decide right now and instead do whatever you usually do to feel less anxious (get warm, have a shower, ask for a hug, idk. I'm not good at this). I would also say: don't beat yourself up for overthinking things! Don't beat yourself up for feeling anxious about stuff! It's unhelpful and unkind. Even if you ARE circling repetitively around a decision that feels really big to you... okay? That seems reasonable to me? Worrying about a big thing with consequences seems pretty human and normal.

And if it's a high-stakes decision, and you're still getting relevant new info that impacts the decision, that's not overthinking, it's just thinking.

(For real, someone once told me not to overthink the decision to have / not have kids.)

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #88 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!

Unsolicited AdviceEQ & Interpersonal


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