How to Stop Overthinking And Start Taking Action
This guest post was written by Vlad Dolezal of Alive With Passion.
There are two basic types of people.
Those who prefer thinking things through thoroughly before taking action, and those who like to jump in head first.
I’m very much the first. My natural inclination when I want to do something new is to read about it, think about it, plan it out, read some more, delay it due to doubts, think some more…
Since you’re reading a personal development blog, chances are you fall in this category as well.
One of the reasons I love reading Niall’s blog is precisely because it’s so much about taking the other path. Taking action. From his random acts of courage to flirting with 100+ women in two weeks in Amsterdam.
I get the impression that Niall is by nature an action-oriented person. Either that, or he’s a natural overthinker who’s become very, very good at taking action for things that matter to him. (I’d love your opinion on this, Niall .)
Whatever side of the spectrum you start on, as you grow and mature, you will need to learn about the other approach.
If you’re a natural overthinker, that means learning to act without knowing everything about a topic or situation. If you’re a natural reckless acter, that means learning to plan ahead.
Niall, for example, shows a great balance of both sides. No matter which side of the spectrum he started on, have a look at how good he is at taking action on things that scare him… but also how well he planned out quitting his 9-to-5 job. He didn’t just jump in head first – he had a plan ahead of time.
So, if you’re a natural reckless acter, you can stop reading now, because the rest of this post doesn’t really apply to you.
But if you’re a fellow overthinker, then read on to find out how to stop overthinking and start taking action on things that matter to you!
Why we overthink things
Back when I was a teenager, long before I ever kissed a girl, I read up all about the topic. From how to kiss a girl to… how to do, well, more than just kissing.
I was terrified of being in that situation without knowing what to do, so I frontloaded myself with theoretical knowledge.
Sure, the first time I actually did kiss a girl was still a shambling mess. But having at least theoretical knowledge of what the heck is going on gave me enough confidence to make a move.
The first main reason why we overthink is because we’re afraid of being in an unfamiliar situation. Reading up on a topic, and thinking ahead and making plans makes the situation more familiar in our heads, and thus more comfortable.
In other words, you’re trading decreased discomfort in an unfamiliar situation for time spent planning ahead. You spend time to buy comfort.
That’s not a problem in itself – it’s good to have foreknowledge. The problem is if you keep thinking and thinking and thinking, without ever taking action. This quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns where you’re getting very little real benefit and just wasting your time. “The best laid plans of mice and men…”, as they say.
If this is you, then I’d highly recommend you check out my article on gradually building your confidence. Because as you build up your confidence and self-assurance, you will become less bothered by unfamiliar situations, and be able to act more quickly and decisively. Less time spent thinking, more time spent changing your life for the better!
I once read about a very cool experiment to do with a pottery class.
A class of beginner pottery folks was split into two groups, to see which of two approaches to learning was more effective.
They both had the same goal (making the best damn pot possible, or something – I forget the exact details), but different approaches for getting there.
Group one was graded on each of their attempts throughout the course, and each individual’s best was then taken as their final grade for the course. Group two was told to just play around with the clay and submit their best attempt for evaluation towards the end of the course. The grade they got for this attempt would be their final grade.
This lead to students in group one carefully planning their attempts, because they wanted each of them to be as good as possible. (They were getting graded on each of them, after all!)
Students in group two, on the other hand, just started playing around, messing with the clay, experimenting with different techniques. They produced way more pots (or whatever it was they were making), of lower quality. At least at first.
But as they got more practice, they got better and better… and by the end of the course, the students of group two scored way higher on average than those from group one.
By avoiding perfectionism and just taking lots of stabs at what they were trying to do, they achieved much more than those who painstakingly planned and overthought every step of the way.
So if this sounds like you, practice letting go of perfectionism. It’s okay to do things less than perfectly. Often, taking more action in roughly the right direction is way more valuable than taking a little action in exactly the right direction.
If this sounds very scary or just not right to you, you might have some deep-rooted limiting beliefs to do with perfectionism. (You probably picked those up during your childhood). Maybe you think it’s not okay to fail, or are afraid how others will think of you if you do things less than perfectly.
In that case, I’d recommend you read my article on busting your limiting beliefs. Letting go of perfectionism is one of the best things you can do for yourself, so it’s well worth a bit of effort.
Too much planning? How about not enough?
Okay, this last one might sound a bit crazy, but often us overthinkers don’t plan enough.
Or, more accurately, we don’t plan in the right way.
Let’s pick the example of becoming self-employed. This might not apply to you, but it will illustrate the point well.
You might consider the idea of becoming self-employed. Then you could spend a lot of time imagining how you would set things up, how you would enjoy not having to commute, what you would do in your free time, how much you would enjoy working for yourself… and after all this, you probably still wouldn’t have much of an idea of what exactly you’d want to be doing. Or if you knew what to do, you probably wouldn’t know how to make it happen.
You could easily spend month fantasizing about this without getting any closer to making it happen.
In this case, paradoxically, you don’t need less structure, you need more of it! Specifically, ask yourself these four questions:
- What do I want?
- How is that different from what I currently have?
- What are my options for bridging that gap? (List ALL the options you can think of.)
- What’s my next specific piece of action, and when specifically will I take it?
This structure takes you all the way from having a rough idea about what you want, to having a clear plan to make it happen. (If you want to know more, check out how to make a personal development plan. This article goes into a lot more depth on those four questions.)
I recently worked with a client who wanted exactly that – becoming self-employed.
First I helped him figure out what he wanted, which was to become a self-employed freelancer/consultant in the industry he was working in.
Once he figured that out, I helped him plan how to move towards that. So he got in touch with some acquaintances who did the sort of work he was hoping to transition into, and looked up the legal requirements, and read forums related to that job…
And that’s exactly the sort of action it takes to make changes in your life. Thinking is nice, but the action is where you actually improve your life.
Whatever changes you’re hoping to make, it comes down to taking action, quickly and in small doses.
- overthinking because unfamiliar situations are scary,
- overthinking because of perfectionism,
- or overthinking because you don’t have a clear plan of action,
the answer is taking whatever small action takes you in the right direction. And doing that a-plenty.
An airplane flying to its destination is off-course 90% of the time. But it’s continually making small adjustments, and keeps moving in roughly the right direction, until it reaches its destination.
Similarly, you don’t need to have everything planned out to the last detail. Unforeseen things come up anyway, no matter how good your plans are. But as long as you know what direction you want to move in, you can keep taking action, and make way more happen by regular small action than by overthinking.
So here’s my challenge to you – pick one area of your life where you have been overthinking things.
Have a look at the four questions listed above. Start asking them of yourself, in order. Take your time, especially for step three.
Then, once you have a list of possible actions that will move you towards what you really want, pick one of them, and schedule it for the next 48 hours. It doesn’t have to be a big action. It can be making a list to clarify your thinking. It can be sending off an e-mail with a few questions. But whatever your goal, take at least one small action in the next 48 hours to move towards it.
That’s my challenge to you.
(And when you’ve done that, you can come back here and share what you learned from the experience. )
This post was written by Vlad Dolezal, a life coach and blogger who’s currently about to run a 6-week interactive course on taking action. Check it out if you want to take massive action to make your big dreams for 2013 come true!