In effect, overthinking and getting lost in endless options reduces their effectiveness by producing inaction.
Taking any action is likely to be better than inaction and indecision, but we can get so caught up in trying to find the perfect decision that we make no decision.
The answer is to cut through the indecision and overthinking with action.
Before we talk about that, let’s look at what’s going on with competent people who get stuck in their minds.
The Trap of Overthinking
For someone who doesn’t see a lot of possibilities, sometimes a choice is easy—you just choose the one that looks obvious.
But for someone who has an abundance of intelligence, there are many more doors than that. And choosing can seem impossible. So this person starts creating a decision tree in their mind: “If I choose this, then this might happen, which means I need to decide if I want this, and then that might happen and then this other option brings three more decisions …”
They also will research every option, which leads to more research. It becomes an endless cycle of thinking through options, researching them, and through the research, finding even more things to think about.
It’s also impossible to analyze so many endless options because each option contains a lot of uncertainty—you can never know how each will turn out, how important every factor is, what the probability is of each possibility happening.
The uncertainty in this kind of thinking is what keeps us stuck in indecision. We fear the uncertain outcome, and would rather have much more certainty.
But we can rarely every have that kind of certainty. And spending a lot of time analyzing comes with opportunity cost. In some cases, we may have missed out on time-limited options as we did that research.
So how do we deal with this?
Cutting Through With Action
Overthinking can create an unsolvable knot, but how do we untie it? By cutting through it.
There can be no solving this knot through thinking—thinking is what gets us into it. That doesn’t mean thinking is bad. We should contemplate the pros and cons, and take a step back to get some perspective. We should consider the deeper “why” of what we’re doing. But at some point, we have to say, “Enough,” and take action.
Setting a limit for thinking can be a good way to do this. “I’m going to spend the next two days thinking about it, and then make a decision on Tuesday.” You consider the merits, do some research, talk to people, and then decide and take action.
How do you decide when there is no certain answer? You have to pick the best option given your limited information. It’s like poker—you never have complete information, but have to make a decision based on what you do know, and the most likely outcomes.
You start by taking a step back to think about your deeper “why” as it relates to the decision. Also, consider what you’re basing your decision on. Is it based on fear? On instant gratification of a desire? These don’t lead to good long-term outcomes, in my experience. The place to come from is long-term benefit—is this a loving action for those you care about, or for yourself?
Then think about the different factors that weigh into the decision, and how important each is to you. Think about likely outcomes of each possibility (don’t limit yourself to just two possibilities), and weigh the probable benefits with the probable costs.
And then finally, just go with the decision that seems best. Do a quick review of whether this is for the best long-term benefit. And then pull the trigger. Step off the plank.
You cut through all the doubts and fears and hand-wringing that are holding you back and just dive in.
Get good at this diving in, by doing it in small versions:
- Write something short and publish it
- Take a small action to your long-term dream career or business
- Take a small action to be healthier
- Declutter one thing that’s easy to decide on, rather than getting stuck on things that are hard for you to make a decision about
What decisions are you stuck on? Can you make a small decision that’s easier, and take action? It might give you more information that helps with the bigger decision. And in the end, the real benefit is practicing taking action without getting caught up in indecision and inaction. And if it turns out to be a wrong decision in some way, forgive yourself. Mistakes are inevitable.
Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net