The human imagination is a wonderful thing. When you throw open the floodgates of creativity and embark on a brainstorming session, you can formulate any number of ways to deal with an unsettling problem. Afterward, you can test your ideas to see which one will work best for your specific situation.
This is where some of us run into the brick wall of overthinking. Ironically, creativity can be a drawback if allowed to range too freely, especially if you have trouble evaluating the ideas you’ve dreamed up. I recently read an article in which the authors criticized “idea monkeys,” creative people with so many bright, shiny ideas they can’t bear to settle on just one and explore it fully. Until they learn to prioritize and focus on their best ideas, they won’t accomplish much.
The other flavor of overthinking arises from perfectionism, which so rivets your attention on getting things “just right” that you stall out. While there’s much to be said for doing the best job you can, perfectionism represents a dead end if it blocks completion.
Overcoming Analysis Paralysis
Once upon a time, Aesop tells us, there was a fox who boasted to a cat about the hundred different ways he could escape the hounds. When the hounds showed up minutes later, they caught him right away, because he couldn’t decide on which route to take and what method to choose. Meanwhile, the cat climbed a tree to safety, implementing its one and only escape route. Clearly, overthinking is an ancient human problem.
Serve Up the Lean
The worst flavor of overthinking is the nitpicking kind, where you want to be so perfect and answer all the problems in advance. If someone asks you for a rough estimate, you don’t need a 5-page treatise with a detailed analysis to the 7th decimal place—the person is simply trying to determine if it’s worth continuing to explore. Is it $5K or $50K? Reduce the time, number of ideas, and alternatives to a manageable level. Try these simple tricks to get a move on:
The Triage Approach. Once your brainstorm is over, sort your catch. Toss the little ideas back, along with those too silly to work with. Let’s say your company makes pet care products. A new type of squeaky toy for dogs might be worth pursuing, but the spray-on hair for cats? You should probably forget about that one. (I wish I could!) Wield your knife ruthlessly. Some of your favorites may end up on the cutting room floor, but that’s how it goes. Maybe you can reintroduce them at a better time; maybe not. Conduct due diligence on only the very best ideas to ensure they’re likely to work before you invest a big pile of time, energy, and money.
The MVV formula. Having trouble with your triage process? Compare each idea to your company’s mission, and vision, and values. If it fits, put it aside for further consideration; if not, toss it immediately.
Opportunity Cost and ROI. Every idea you take on has an opportunity cost: in other words, if you put resources into developing it, you’ll have to say no to other things. So if you discover that pursuing a potential moneymaker will block you from doing something even more profitable, or if its return on investment appears limited, you’d best drop it. There are always so many “shiny pennies” out there that can distract us from our true purpose and high-value activities.
Use a Sounding Board. Even when the decision is ultimately yours, bounce your ideas off someone else. You can do this even when you don’t have time for a consensus decision. Just be sure to avoid yes-people; you need someone who will answer you honestly, even bluntly.
Some strategies can help no matter why you’re overthinking. For example:
Find a quiet place. Escape the hubbub so you can think in peace. In the office, a special “quiet room,” like those Microsoft maintains for small groups and focused alone time, may work; otherwise, seek an unused conference room, office, or lunch room. If you can leave your building, go to the library, a peaceful coffeehouse, or a park to weigh your options.
Role modeling. Model your decision-making on an action-oriented person you admire, such as a public figure, relative, friend, historic figure, or mentor. Think about how they make (or made) decisions, and consider adapting their philosophy to your situation. When I was the president of the National Speakers Association, I did this with past presidents I admired, thinking about how they would handle the same situation.
Can the negativity. You know how you psyche yourself up before an important event? That’s positive self-talk. Its opposite can shatter your confidence and self-esteem, ruining your productivity. When you decide something’s so complicated you’ll never be able to start it, much less finish it, you’ve established a self-fulfilling prophesy. To use a delightful British phrase, that’s about as useful as a chocolate teapot. Rather than think about what might go wrong, silence your inner critic and consider all the things that might go right.
Move It On Out
Though easier said than done, the final solution to any case of overthinking is to make your decision and put it behind you. As mystery writer Rita Mae Brown points out, “A peacefulness follows any decision, even the wrong one.” Yes, you may later discover you goofed—but since when could mere humans foresee the future? At least you did something to MOVE already! You can almost always correct course, as very few things are irreversible. One thing’s for certain: You can’t let fear of failure, too many ideas, or perfectionism destroy your productivity.