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Are You Trying Too Hard? How to Stop Overthinking

Why valuable insights are more likely to come to us when we stop overthinking
by Rosie Allabarton | Nov 22 2019

Many of us can relate to the feeling of being stuck in a cycle of thoughts, particularly when we’re desperately seeking a solution to a problem at work or in our personal lives. Often it can feel like even when we ponder the problem from every conceivable angle, we are still no closer to finding an answer. Ironically, it seems the harder we try the more the answer eludes us. This type of overthinking can impact on our sleep, our productivity and our general well-being. When we’re stumped by a particularly difficult problem or dilemma, our minds can sometimes feel like our own worst enemy.

Overthinking can be a distraction in life and at work to the point we wonder how to stop. The opposite to overthinking may just be the way to solve what's perplexing you.

However, what researchers and scientists have discovered is that overthinking—this excessive use of mental energy—actually hinders, rather than assists, our ability to find solutions. In this article we’re going to take a look at the evidence that suggests we need to give our brains a break if we are going to uncover the precious insights and solutions we crave.

The biology behind insights

For about 60% of the problems we solve, we have no idea how we did it. The reason for this hints at a delightful and dismaying truth about our brains. The human brain has only one “director,” called the prefrontal cortex, and just as the conductor of an orchestra couldn’t simultaneously “hear” the individual strains from each musician in his ensemble, the prefrontal cortex (a tiny 20% of the brain) can only process so much information at a time.

Because the conscious thought director is pretty overtasked, our most brilliant insights often glimmer to life behind the curtain without our explicit awareness they’ve shown up. These are the runner’s-high-induced epiphanies and the just-before-bed “Eureka!” moments. They don’t pop into our heads through logical reasoning – instead, insights depend on the unconscious, associative mind. However, as we’re about to see, there are a number of practical steps we can take to reach this associative state of mind to make those “Eureka!” moments a more common occurrence.

Overthinking everything distracts from our intuition

In his book If You’re Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?, Raj Raghunathan tells us that the key to unlocking insights and solutions is to focus less on the problem and to get back in touch with our intuition, the very thing that overthinking everything distracts us from. So how do we stop overthinking? Instead of focusing for a long time on a tough problem, he says, studies have consistently shown that we should try to switch off our conscious minds, reconnect with ourselves, and learn to trust our intuition. It may feel counterintuitive, but funnily enough if we give our minds a rest we are more likely to stumble upon the insights we are looking for.

In a practical sense we can switch off our brains, Raghunathan tells us, by practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness involves focusing on our breathing, and trying to notice our thoughts and feelings instead of engaging with them. Like traffic on a busy road, we should imagine that our thoughts are like the cars. Once we have learned to watch the busy traffic—our thoughts—from the sidelines, without interacting with it, we are able to escape the cycle of thoughts and achieve a more mindful state. In this state we can expect our ideas to flow more freely and for those valuable insights to start making an appearance with considerably less effort.

Why overthinking at work creates more problems than it solves

Many of the problems we face at work tend to be complex—they’re not of the sort that can be dispatched by applying any of the standard solutions we might have learned at school or through job-specific training. In addition, it is in the workplace that we are probably most likely to overthink each problem, due to pressure from our colleagues or managers to get a problem solved as quickly as possible. This is why finding the key to gaining more insights, more often, is so valuable.

In Your Brain at Work, consultant, coach, and lecturer David Rock supports Raghunathan’s theory of giving our minds a rest if we are to find the solutions we seek easily and quickly. Rock suggests de-focusing our attention from the specific problem and allowing our unconscious to work at the knots. Exercise and meditation are both ways to let our minds have a break from actively working at the problem, giving it the space it needs for insights to pop up. Another suggestion he makes is to speak the problem out loud. When we hear ourselves speaking about an issue it helps us observe our own thinking in a more objective manner and by doing so, gain some much needed clarity on the problem at hand.

Understand your brain states to stop overthinking

Getting to grips with how our brains work is a crucial step on the journey to understanding how to stop overthinking. In The Worry-Free Mind by Carol Kershew and Bill Wade, we learn about the five different brain states: delta, theta, alpha, beta and gamma. When we are in the ‘beta’ state we are on high alert. The problem is that although this brain state was life-saving when we were early humans, now we barely need it. However, us modern humans still have this brain state, and when we are stuck in it, it can lead to an overabundance of stress-related chemicals in the body; chemicals that we no longer have a use for. This leads to anxiety and overthinking, the very things that get in the way of us living productive and happy lives. They are also mental blockers when it comes to problem-solving.

To get ‘unstuck’ the authors suggest using our peripheral vision. By performing this ‘trick’ our attention is so concentrated on what we’re doing (trying to look at objects that exist on the edges of our vision) that our minds simply cannot focus on ‘overthinking’ a problem, or manifesting anxiety at the same time. Another good practice is to simply go for a walk. This engages both sides of the brain and helps to kickstart rational thinking and decrease obsessive unhelpful thoughts.

How to stop overthinking by resting between tasks

It can be tempting when we are on a tight schedule to keep jumping from one task to the next without pausing for breath. This has a similar effect to overthinking a problem; it gives our brains no time to rest and can actually end up hindering our productivity and problem-solving abilities.

In their book Burnout, co-authors Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski describe how taking a break to do even a meaningless task like folding laundry will actually increase your productivity and get your thoughts flowing freely again when you get back to work. They explain how when you are idle your brain isn’t: it’s actually using a group of connected areas called the default mode network. When your brain is in this state it’s ‘wandering’. This means it is able to assess problems in a new way, a way that simply isn’t possible when you are consciously involved in the task at hand.

There is a holiness in rest. Why? Only rest affords the time for contemplation.

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about how to stop overthinking to strengthen your problem-solving skills and gain more lightning bolt-style insights in your professional and personal lives. Whether you choose to go for a run, sit and meditate for a while, or simply schedule more ‘brain breaks’ during your working day, you will soon notice a sharp increase in the number of insights that seem to appear out of nowhere thanks to your brain having a much-needed rest from active thought. If you’d like to learn more about increasing your productivity and decreasing unhelpful thought-cycles simply head over to Blinkist to check out the books we’ve recommended here. In the meantime, we wish you, and your brain, a good rest!

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