Do you spend more time thinking about hypothetical consequences of a decision, than you do on the decision itself?
Overthinking is more than simply taking an unusually long time to make decisions; it is a culmination of excessive worrying about the future while spending too much time dwelling on past mistakes. Overthinking can impact both mental and physical health and evidence symptoms of anxiety and exhaustion. It can also limit creativity and academic performance, which is especially important for post-secondary success. However, overthinking is not always a negative trait; it can also be a healthy approach to decision making, improve our self-confidence, and act as a catalyst for academic success. The challenge is being able to recognize when our overactive thoughts are impairing our ability to make everyday decisions.
Impairing physical and mental health
Dwelling on decisions and outcomes can adversely affect our physical and mental wellbeing. Over time, symptoms may mirror those of generalized anxiety disorders which include restless sleep, stomach problems, and headaches. Once you identify your tendency to overthink, you can develop habits such as deep breathing and calming exercises; these activities limit the impact your stressors have on both your physical and mental health. Writing down your main ideas, options, and worries is also another way to help you take some of the pressure off your physical body. By making lists, such as a pros and cons chart, you visualize and externalize the issue. This frees up space to set aside or take a break from the decision-making process to focus on your physical and mental health needs.
Analysis paralysis is defined as “over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation, or citing sources, so that decision or action is never finally taken, resulting in paralyzing the outcome.”
Often when we overthink a task or a problem, we are trying to problem-solve so we make the best decision possible. However, overthinking can stifle decision-making abilities, leading to inaction and/or unproductivity. Psychotherapist Amy Morin recommends nurturing a healthy mindset by setting aside designated “worry time” each day. Morin says by doing so, we leave more time in our day for our productive, problem-solving thoughts. Personally, I find taking a walk and listening to a podcast helps me set aside whatever thoughts are crowding my mind. Whatever strategy you find most beneficial, it should be one that provides you with enough time to reset so when you come back to the decision-making process, you have a fresh perspective.
Having a positive and productive mindset is especially important for post-secondary students, as assignments often require a high level of critical thinking and concentration. AU offers students a variety of learner supports including mental health counselling, assistance with exam preparation and time management as well as strategies for developing effective study skills.
Perfectionism; a symptom, or a cause?
I am a self-proclaimed overthinker, and my need for perfection started when I was an adolescent. As the youngest of four children in my family, I simply watched and learned from my siblings’ mistakes. However, inaction is one of the major downsides of perfectionism. As an adult, when I am faced with an important decision, I tend to imagine all potential outcomes or consequences beforehand. I spend hours pondering polarizing choices, and often consult multiple people to obtain various opinions before making any major decision. I usually feel an enormous sense of relief when a decision is taken off my plate and placed of my control.
Now, as a post-secondary student, I overthink assignments and email replies, waiting many hours for potential productivity. My biggest fear when studying for exams is that I will forget or miss essential information; I try to counteract this by attempting to cram as many facts into my short-term memory as possible. The only time I ever remember cheating on a test was because my Grade 6 teacher scared us all into thinking the test was too difficult for anyone to pass, even the smart students. I truly believed I could not pass the test on my own, so I spent hours memorizing the multiple-choice key from a friend who had written the exam the previous year. As an educator, I now realize students who cheat, do so because of lack of confidence in their own success. My perfectionism and overthinking let me down in this instance. If I had spent even half the time studying that I had spent creating and memorizing an acronym for the key, I would have scored just as well on the exam.
With some conscious effort, I have slowly learned to identify when I am overthinking, and I am now more willing to accept less than perfect outcomes. However, there are still long, challenging assignments which have required more creativity than I thought myself capable of. Wrapping my head around an unexpected assignment has often taken me longer than creating the actual assignment. Overthinking has a way of clouding our creative thoughts, leading to long unproductive periods of time.
As a result of my own tendency to overthink tasks, I have been forced to tone down my academic expectations of myself and recognize how my overactive thoughts are inhibiting my creative abilities. My personal health and family obligations are prioritized, but sometimes that means setting a time limit for myself on course assignments. Learning to set boundaries on your decision making can help you avoid the vicious cycle of overthinking, along with the negative effects of stress on your physical and mental health.
Fine-tuning Self-awareness and Mental Strength
In the article, “3 Thinking Strategies That Will Make You Mentally Stronger Today,” Morin provides purposeful mental health exercises to enhance your problem-solving skills and creative potential. Below is a short summary of Morin’s recommendations:
- Recognize the signs.
- Develop a purposeful, self-reflective approach to changing your mindset.
- Create a mantra to boost your confidence.
- Rephrase negative self-talk into positive self-talk.
- Challenge your brain to identify its own potential.
Try to set aside the long hours of cyclical thinking, and instead, focus on what goals you want to achieve. Ask yourself if the decisions and choices you are spending hours mulling over will have a long-term impact upon your goals, relationships, or career ambitions. Set mental time limits and be aware of how dwelling on thoughts for too long can impact mental and physical wellbeing. Lastly, and I am saying this to myself more than anyone, teach yourself to be alright with accepting less than perfection. In doing so, you may find you have more time to spend on more fulfilling tasks and feel more energized to tackle all of life’s big decisions!
- Learner Support Services, Athabasca University
- Do You Have Analysis Paralysis? Psychology Today. April 24, 2019.
- Keep It Simple: 14 Ways to Stop Overthinking, Healthline. November 14, 2019