A Five-Step Process To End Overthinking

A former top engineer for the U.S. Department of Transportation turned decision-making consultant shares how to break analysis paralysis.

A Five-Step Process To End Overthinking
[Photo: Jeff Hunter/Getty Images]

Shelley Row had good reason to be an overthinker. The daughter of an Air Force pilot who emphasized the value of thinking, she became a transportation engineer in 1984. There weren’t many women in her field, so the pressure to perform in a “man’s world” was intense. And when you’re managing major projects and budgets at the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration—including operations in Georgia during the 1996 Olympics—it’s easy to get stuck in analysis paralysis and overthink things.

Shelley Row

Row was working as a mid-level manager at the Department of Transportation and was struggling with some decisions in her work. She was hoping to move up to the executive level, but felt stuck. She was seeing an employee assistance counselor for personal reasons and that’s when she had her “a-ha” moment.

“She was the first one said to me, ‘Shelley, I’m not interested in what you think. I want to know how you feel.’ That was the moment when I realized there was a whole other dimension that I was not taking advantage of,” Row says.

Suddenly given permission to tap into her gut as well as her brain when making decisions, she says she reached a new level in decision-making. “When I began to integrate what I thought about an issue with how I felt about it, I found a whole different level of intelligence there and that’s what made the difference in my leadership,” she says.

Now a leadership decision-making consultant and author of Think Less, Live More: Lessons from a Recovering Over-Thinker, Row makes her living by helping others get out of the quagmire of overthinking. Use these steps to get yourself unstuck and reach the right mix of information and intuition in your decision-making.

Step 1: Get The Data

Still an engineer at heart, Row emphasizes that data is an important part of the decision-making process. You can’t just shoot from the hip or rely solely on your gut feelings. Instead, you’ve got to know the elements of the equation you’re trying to solve. What are the factors influencing the problem? Who is involved? What is contributing to the ambiguity about the decision? Sometimes, the data makes the decision clear, she says.


Step 2: Explore Why You’re Stuck

If you find yourself stuck after reviewing the information you need to make a good decision, then you need to engage in a little self-examination, she says. What’s not sitting right? What’s agitating you or making it tough to know what to do? Perhaps the data points to a decision that’s at odds with what you feel you should do. Too many people “shove away” that nagging feeling instead of trying to understand it, she says.

“One of the main things I work with people on is to say, ‘That’s valid. You don’t want to shove that away. That’s something from your experience that’s trying to come through. You need to honor it and listen to it,’” she says.

Step 3: Name it

Once you’ve got a handle on why you’re stuck, name it. You might have emotional reasons like being afraid of making a mistake or feeling frustrated because you don’t have the resources you need to do a good job. For example, if you’re making a decision whether to stay in a job or leave it and can’t make a decision, you need to explore the reasons with brutal honesty and figure out the reasons why you’re not figuring out or accepting the right solution. When you name that emotion or reason, you can begin finding solutions, she says. If it’s risk aversion, you might be able to mitigate some of the risk or discuss the possible downside with other team members who can offer insight or reassurance.

“I call these stuck stories, because there’s some issue that you have that’s getting in your own way,” she says.

Step 4: Give It A Rest

Once you’ve got a good idea of the situation and why you’re stuck give your brain some room to process it, she says. That may take the form of a good night’s sleep, meditation, or a walk or run. If possible, do something that gets you out of the office and gives you something else to focus on while you make the decision, she says. These are the times when solutions often become clear.


Step5: Resolve To Solve It

Once you’ve come up with one or more solutions, it’s essential to take action. Failure to trust your own decision-making skills will leave you mired in the problems you dedicated time and energy to solving, Row says. It’s virtually impossible to move forward unless you’re willing to take action.

Of course, no decision-making system is flawless and you may not always get the outcomes you want. However, the more experience you have with this process, the better it will work for you, she says.

“Every experience that you have, the books that you read, the things that you learn, your brain takes part of that information and files it away in ‘file folders.’ As you have more and more experiences, you have more and more file folders. It gives you more information, more life experience, to draw upon,” Row says.

About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites