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Stuck in a thought loop? Here’s how to stop obsessing and act on your decisions

A distracted (or paralyzed) mind doesn’t bode well for our happiness.

Stuck in a thought loop? Here’s how to stop obsessing and act on your decisions
[Photo: Tine Ivanič/Unspalsh]

Our brains never stop working—even when we’re sleeping or enjoying some downtime. They’re constantly solving problems and churning through possibilities. But eventually, it’s time to stop thinking and take real action. Whether you’re considering a challenge, an opportunity, a new project, or a nagging problem, overthinking and overdiscussing can slow down your workflow and derail innovation.

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Overthinking often takes different forms. Sometimes, we obsess about every detail before taking the plunge. Other times, we repeat a negative mental loop that amplifies emotions like fear and anxiety. In this case, research shows that a distracted mind not only stalls progress but can also make you unhappy.

In a study published in the journal Science, Harvard University psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert found that we spend almost 47% of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we’re currently doing. “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” wrote Killingsworth and Gilbert. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

Why do we think so much and fail to act? In the 13 years I’ve spent building my company, JotForm, I’ve noticed four main reasons why we get stuck in a never-ending thinking loop.

We don’t know where to start

Today’s business environment is more complicated and more accessible than ever before. We have the tools to transform almost any idea into reality. That’s powerful, but removing constraints can also make us feel untethered.

We fear failure

Silicon Valley preaches “fail fast and fail often,” but that’s easier said than done—especially if your sense of self is intertwined with your work. For many of us, the drive for perfection masks a deeper issue: “. . . it’s not necessarily the sky-high standards that slow you down,” Boston University psychologist Ellen Hendriksen wrote for Psychology Today, “but the sky-high standards mixed with a belief that your performance is tied to your self-worth.”

We feel like it will take too long

Humans are wired for instant gratification—and long projects don’t provide this. Whether the start and finish lines seem miles apart, or you’re in the middle and struggling to continue, it’s easy to stall in thinking mode.

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We dislike the work at hand

Building a business, leading a team, or stretching yourself isn’t always fun. It’s not easy to make tough calls. Thinking and talking can feel productive when we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

How to shift into action

Start by ensuring your goals are bold but achievable. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, we perform best when tasks are moderately difficult. However, too much stress or complacency can prevent us from achieving peak results.

If disruptive mental loops are the issue, try a technique that will be familiar to meditators: once you realize your brain has slipped into an unproductive thought pattern, notice and acknowledge but don’t judge it. Then pull yourself back to the present moment. Repeating this process can make it easier to release distractions and stay on track.

Psychotherapist Amy Morin says overthinking a decision not only blocks progress but can also increase anxiety and depression, compromise sleep, and promote unhealthy coping tactics, like binge-eating. If a problem plagues you throughout the day, schedule time to mull it over. Set a limit and give your mind free rein. Then when intrusive thoughts pop up, remind yourself that you’ll address them at the set time.

Finally, take a break. Research shows that we solve problems more effectively and creatively when we’re in a good mood. Taking a walk, for example, is one of the best ways to induce a better mindset.

Overcoming inertia

To crush overthinking through procrastination, determine whether you have a prevention or a promotion focus: Prevention is avoidance to prevent a potential loss, like wasting money or damaging your reputation. Promotion is when you see an opportunity to advance, learn, or grow, but you can’t get started. Understanding the difference encourages self-compassion and can help you overcome blocks.

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If you’re afraid to fail, you can build strength by mastering transitions. As leadership consultant Peter Bregman wrote in the Harvard Business Review, the toughest part of acting on anything is the transition to working on it—shifting from a comfortable activity to something that’s physically or emotionally difficult.

“We tend to think that getting traction on our most important work requires that we be skilled and proficient at that work–but that’s not quite right,” Bregman wrote. “The real thing we need to be skilled and proficient in is moving through the moment before the work.” Use your willpower in that critical moment of transition, repeat, and you’ll soon adapt to the discomfort.


Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections and more.

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