Our modern culture’s attachment to excess is easy to see in the material realm: bigger homes, bigger cars, and bigger paychecks. The simplicity movement has done well pointing out the downsides of the “bigger is better” aesthetic. However, a predisposition to excess can also infest our minds. Sometimes the smartest thing to do is to think less.
Faces of Overthinking
Sit with a person suffering from depression or anxiety, and many times you learn that their problem involves overthinking. Maybe they’re stuck reliving a past argument with their partner or anticipating a stressful situation at work, or some other distressing aspect of their life. What separates overthinking from ‘ordinary’ thinking is that the thoughts are repetitive, troubling, and do not bring the thinker any closer to a solution. In psychotherapy, we might call these thoughts rumination. In other circles, we’d simply say that the thinker is spinning his or her wheels.
Even for those without a diagnosable mental illness, overthinking frequently gets in the way of effective action. How often do we know what we want, and how we’re going to get it, then change our minds at the last minute? Maybe you planned to go to the gym after work, but decided you were too tired as you left the office, or that you’d order a salad, but the burger seemed like a better idea when you picked up the menu. We made the decision, but then re-made it later.
And plenty of people will break their agreements with themselves when they’d never break them with other people. The difference is that you are always available to yourself for renegotiation and you are always so accommodating!
Clarify, then Act
When people break (or perhaps they ‘renegotiate’) their commitments to themselves, it may be because they’re trying to think and act at the same time. All but the simplest plans require some level of thinking and planning. When that planning and clarification is left undone, planning and doing compete for head-space. The predictable result is confusion and overwhelm. It’s no surprise, then, that when people set themselves up to plan and act all at once, they either don’t start, or give up when the going gets tough.
The remedy to this two-pronged mental overload is to get the clarification and planning out of the way in advance of the actual doing. Strangely, people do not seem to have an intuitive grasp of when a task is clarified enough. Consider the task buy groceries. Is having a grocery list like “milk, bread, eggs…” clear enough? Maybe, but maybe not. Should you buy two percent or skim milk? How many loaves of bread? Which store or stores should you shop at? If you’ve ever been sent to the store by someone else only to pull out your cell phone for clarifications, you’ve experienced a plan that wasn’t fully clarified.
This grocery store example points directly to a way to know if your plans are fully clarified: if you could take your description of the task or plan, write it on a slip of paper, hand it off to a personal assistant, and reasonably expect good results, then the plan is clear enough. Giving yourself the same level of clarity in plans you intend for yourself frees you from having to figure things out in the heat of the battle, raises motivation, and frees up mental resources for use when you run into unforeseen circumstances along the way.
Resolve Not to Reconsider
Every January 1st, many people are predisposed to drafting audacious goals and plans in the form of New Year’s Resolutions. Whether or not they are fully clarified plans, as described above, they often don’t survive past February. As any serious gym devotee knows, gyms get very, very busy around the first of the year, then quickly reduce to pre-resolution levels in the following weeks.
The problem, as I mentioned earlier, is that many of us feel entitled to renegotiate our agreements with ourselves in a way completely different from our agreements with others. The simplest fix for this problem is simply to promise ourselves we won’t reconsider our decision. This is a weak solution in that we could then just reconsider the decision not to reconsider, and we are back at square one. A slightly stronger solution involves naming the reasons for renegotiation and explicitly deciding these reasons aren’t valid. For instance, if I predict I might avoid the gym because I’m tired after work, I might decide that I’ll go to the gym no matter how tired I feel, reminding myself that once I get moving, that tired feeling quickly lifts.
Use the Environment
An even stronger way to avoid re-thinking the agreements you make with yourself is to take the decision outside of yourself. Returning to our fitness example, if you find yourself deciding between watching TV at home or going to the gym, take away that decision by cancelling cable and getting your TV fix while on the treadmill at the gym. Less extreme ways to change your decisions by changing your environment take the form of making positive decisions easy and negative decisions hard. Putting healthy snack food in the middle of the dinner table and the cookies in the far recesses of the pantry is a more subtle way of directing decisions.
Another way to use the environment to reduce thinking is to bring other people into the equation. If you want to be sure to stick to your gym regimen, hire a trainer or enlist a reliable gym buddy you won’t want to let down. If you value frugality, pay your gym membership in advance. That way you won’t have to decide whether to renew or not.
Given whatever task, goal, or plan you might be facing, see if you can adapt some of these ideas to ruminate less, clarify more, and use your environment to make better decisions with less willpower and less rethinking.