May 8, 2023

That’s not progress, that’s paralysis


Overthinking is problem solving in disguise.

Complexity becomes attractive because it feels like progress.

But in most cases, intense reflection is not rewarded by a clearer vision. Staring harder typically means moving slower. Constantly questioning ourselves and everyone around us is a high effort low reward exercise.

The creative director at my old ad agency was stickler for this behavior. Whenever he would notice a designer or copywriter overthinking a particular task, he’d sneak up behind them and whisper, you’re spending too much time on this.

The first few times he did this to me, I nearly jumped out of my seat. But I soon realized he was the voice of reason on our team. Even many years and many jobs later, his voice still rings in my head. I’ll be overthinking some minor task into paralysis, and twenty minutes will pass without any progress.

Scott, you’re spending too much time on this. You’re spending too much time on this.

Eric’s little office ritual reminded our team to budget our time so it wasn’t all sucked up by one step of the process. Without his probing, it was easy to get stuck in a loop of inaction.

It’s interesting, there were some designers in our office who worked late every night. And my question was always:

Are they incredibly hard workers, or terrible time managers? Are they deeply dedicated to their craft, or insufferable over thinkers? Probably the latter. Because people don’t seem to realize that when their mind goes over and over a decision, but they’re still no closer to a resolution, then they’ve done nothing.

All their overthinking merely allows content that is unhelpful and exhaustive come more sharply into view.

Sorry, but that’s not progress, that’s paralysis. It’s like spending twenty minutes looking at recipes, and then not cooking dinner. But still wondering why your stomach is growling.

Matter of fact, overthinking can be literally hazardous to your health. Harvard ran a study about how excessive brain activity caused by excessive thinking could lead to an early death.

Scientists discovered the mechanisms that extend life in humans are poorly understood, and extended longevity in humans is associated with a distinct signature in the cerebral cortex characterized by down regulation of genes related to neural excitation and synaptic function.

In layman’s terms, you want your neurons to be active, when and where you want them to be active, and not to be just generally firing off.

Of course, that’s only one study. Try not to, ahem, overthink it.

Where might you be doing too much work inside your head? Are you someone who insists on looking at all the possible options, even if you’re not under pressure?

If so, then here’s my promise to you. You don’t need more time, you need to make a decision given the limited information you have at the moment.

And once you make that decision, don’t look back. Seal the doors behind you. Enjoy what you have instead of lamenting what you might have missed.

Trust that you’ll be fine. And trust that if something goes wrong, your ability to course correct will steer you back on track.

Do you act your way into learning, or overthink your way into paralysis?