5 ways to stop overthinking at work

Overthinking is not a useful activity, yet most people do it to some degree. At work or in our company, it can be a serious hindrance. An email comes in and we read in every line trying to decipher hidden meanings. A customer leaves and we question our self-esteem or wonder if we’ve said something we shouldn’t have. A presentation doesn’t get the feedback we expect, a colleague passes on a comment that sounds passive-aggressive, and we speculate about the meaning of each conversation or the possible outcomes of each decision.

Taking thoughtful and deliberate action is what great leaders do, but when thoughtfulness gets in the way of action or affects your mood, it’s time to make a change. Here are five ways to stop overthinking at work.

1. Determine what is real

Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. Write “real” on the left and “not real” on the right. Then analyze the situation you are considering to distinguish the two. What actually happened and what is an interpretation? What are the cold hard facts and what is speculation, conjecture or up for debate?

It is often not the events themselves that are harmful, it is our pessimistic, exaggerated and sometimes downright misinterpretation of them that leads to fear and trust knocks. Really: the thing that actually happened. Not really: what it might mean, what people might think. Focus on just the left side of the page and go from there. Reading events, comments, questions and conversations is a downward spiral that doesn’t go anywhere. If you’re not sure what something means, ask. Let someone else close the knowledge gap instead of filling it with useless speculation.

2. Don’t let the lizard lead

There are two versions of you, your higher and your lower self. Your higher self is the best you. Confident, assertive and focused on your mission. Peaceful, friendly, with nothing to prove. The best leaders lead from this place. Your lower self is your lizard brain version; the worst possible you. Ruled by the amygdala, driven by fear, judgment and separation. Obsessed with competition, slamming the shutters, flying off the handle and convinced the future is terrible.

Only make work decisions when you are your higher self. Only have important conversations with your team when you are your higher self. Stop yourself unless you are that version of yourself. Your higher self plans for the long term, gives it the benefit of the doubt and is determined but fair. The lower self-esteem seeks short-term gains, is greedy and divisive, and is convinced that there is not enough to make ends meet. Your lizard brain makes mistakes because it is guided by emotion. It says things it later regrets and makes decisions it cannot reverse and undo. The more you lead with your lizard, the more you lead with fear and the more you ponder what you said you didn’t mean.

Acting out of fear and its inevitable overthinking will lead to reactive moves and sub-optimal conversations, yielding unwanted results. The cycle continues as you gradually make worse decisions and think about them even more.

3. Understand and Create Boundaries

If you don’t have your own limits, you see someone else’s as a threat. You either assume they are unavailable because they don’t want your help, or you interpret their actions as aloof, judgmental, or with some hidden meaning. Worrying about what other people might think of you can change your actions. Instead of turning off devices to power your list, stay available in case they have a question. You avoid saying what you want for fear of offending. You work on their terms and set your own agenda aside.

Without your own concrete action plan for your day, week and month, smaller tasks creep in and work is created for inactive hands. If you don’t get anything useful done yourself, your attention turns to the people around you and what they might be up to. There is room to contemplate, so that thoughts run away with you. Make your own boundaries. Figure out how you will spend your time and let the actions of others be an afterthought. Avoid thinking too much by focusing only on your mission and what you need to do to complete it.

4. Pronounce it

Overthinking means making stories in your head. Two people thinking about the same situation ends in chaos. Every second the other guesses, each diverts the tone and reads between the lines, and both sides are ultimately wrong. Thinking stalemate ensues until it is too late and the professional relationship is doomed to fail. If you don’t know why something happened, ask. Ask for clarification if you are unsure of a reason. If you suspect but are not sure, research and ask for feedback. Choosing to wallow in useless thoughts instead of seeking clarification feels safer. Once you ask the question, you know for sure and you have to face reality. The truth can hurt. Or it might not be as bad as you thought.

Overcommunication is the secret sauce of team members who thrive. Understanding someone’s character means understanding their motivations and knowing for sure why they say things and act a certain way, but trying to figure out what they meant based on false information is a waste of everyone’s time. If you don’t know them well, trying to guess will be futile, so it’s the only way to talk it out. Leading by example and always communicating clearly will ensure that you are not misunderstood. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Encourage others to do the same.

5. Avoid dramatization

By seeing things as they are, ambiguities and gray areas are removed. In a world of black and white, there is less room to contemplate. Either your customers are happy with your products or they aren’t. The prospect signs up with you or goes elsewhere. It’s raining or it’s sunny. You make excuses or you make money. The cards have fallen and that’s the situation, where you go from here is up to you.

It’s natural to want to infer the meaning, but sometimes it’s because we secretly crave the commotion. Instead of objectively analyzing to figure out where we can improve, or dismissing something as a non-issue, we gossip and whisper about the reasons and create a drama that shouldn’t have been there. Most high performers wouldn’t admit they were looking for drama, but their actions could be a different story. If you find yourself gossiping, whining, or making negative judgments, remember that this is a form of overthinking that is not healthy in any way. It is also a huge waste of time creating the habit of finding meaning when there is none. Make a pact with yourself to stop and avoid getting caught up in the conversations of others who focus on theater. Sometimes something is not good or bad; it’s just like that. And that’s okay.

Stop overthinking at work, because it doesn’t improve any situation. Find out what is real, don’t let the lizard lead, create boundaries, talk it out and avoid dramatization. Become more confident, assured and find the true answers to your questions instead of wondering what they could be. Less overthinking means more time for ideas, having fun, and doing the work you’re meant to be here for.