Overthinking is a negative tendency. It’s implicit in the word “over,” too much. The problem is knowing what the "normal" amount of thinking should be. If it's possible to think too much, what’s the right amount? How do we know when we’ve hit it? When do we stop?
We’ve all seen the effect of overthinking. When we’ve wrestled with a project, turned it over and over in our head and reworked it a million different ways. We finally present our work and the bruises are evident to everyone. Somehow, it reeks of “overthink.” It’s been forced and it shows.
The line between think and overthink is easy to cross, but I’ve found a few ways to avoid it.
Method over madness
When you’re first approaching a problem, it’s tempting to just throw things at the wall and see what sticks. This can be beneficial in the beginning of a brainstorm, when you want to start light and loosen up. But sooner rather than later, I prefer to put some structure around my thinking. In the same way I’d wireframe a page before designing it, I step back and make a plan for before diving in.
Say, for example, I’m writing an ad. While I may try just free-thinking for a few minutes, putting down whatever pops in my mind, I’ll quickly move on to a more methodical approach. First, I’ll list out the benefits of the product. Then I’ll brainstorm around each benefit, trying different angles for each. I’ll explore each of those angles as far as I can go, refining and narrowing ideas down before trying another approach.
Of course, your brain can take you all kinds of directions. Let it do so. Inspiration usually strikes when you’re not forcing it. It’d be impossible to trace the path that led me to some of my best ideas. But it helps to give my brain a place to start, and a way to lead it back when it gets lost.
Don’t let one idea lead you down a dark alley
Sometimes we hit on some idea and become fixated on it, determined to make it work. We chase this idea down, throwing all our mental energy against it only to find in the end: it just won’t work. We’re left alone at a dead end, feeling tired and discouraged.
Stop before you get to this point. Instead, approach the idea, shake its hand, maybe ask it a few questions. If you’re not feeling the spark, let it walk away. Maybe later you’ll meet again and things will come more naturally. But if you find yourself trying too hard from the start, it’s probably not the right idea. I found myself in that position with this entire metaphor. I’ve followed it too far already so we’ll stop here.
Follow the flow and keep moving forward
If you’re starting to feel stuck on a task, drop it and move on to something else. Go focus on an entirely different project for a few hours. Keep your mind moving forward, even if it’s in a different direction.
This is my favorite way to procrastinate – and it usually helps rather than setting me behind. I will always have more tasks on my to-do list, so I just lay one down and pick up the next. In the end, it’s more productive than beating my head against the wall, wasting time and energy. Let yourself move freely between your work and your ideas may come more freely as well.
Many creatives will tell you their best ideas came once they thought on the subject and then switched gears. Often, your subconscious works out the kinks on its own and the right idea hits when you’re in the shower or watching a movie or doing some other completely unrelated task. I couldn’t cite any science behind it, but I’ve found it to be true for myself.
Walk someone else through it
When in doubt, consult a trusted friend or coworker. Walk them through your work or your idea, step by step. You may find they are completely confused and can’t even grasp it. Or they may spot the problem immediately and say, “but why don’t you just do this?” which will infuriate you and also free you. But just the act of explaining your work out loud can reveal its flaws or help you see it differently.
Finally, I'd venture to guess anyone who struggles with overthinking also has a streak of perfectionism. When you let go of the obsession with "getting it right" and let yourself accept the possibility of failure, you find everything in life comes a whole lot easier.
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the author of this blog, nice to meet you!