It happens to the best of us: analysis paralysis. Too much information, too many choices, and a deep fear of making the wrong decision can cause you to ruminate for hours. Yet not only does overthinking waste precious time and keep you from moving forward, it can lead to making worse decisions and hurt your health, including increasing anxiety and depression, destroying your sleep, and leading to unhealthy habits like binge eating.
Here’s how to stop overthinking everything when attempting to make a decision, large or small.
Notice when you’re too much in your head
Pay attention to when you can’t stop replaying events or decisions in your mind. Overthinking can actually be a habit you don’t even recognize until you start paying more attention to when you’re doing it. Instead of seeing only problems, start to look for solutions, focus on what you can control, and then challenge certain thoughts and ideas you might have.
Stop hoarding decisions
Too many people spend too much time trying to solve mundane and trivial problems, and often they spend too much time making small things complex, according to a report by Katarina Berg, Spotify’s chief human resources officer, and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup.
If you spend too much time mulling trivial decisions, such as what to wear or how to respond to a tweet, the less amenable you are to change. Not to mention, the mental effort of poring over those small decisions will leave you exhausted.
Focus your energy instead on important and consequential decisions, whether that means contacting a potential client or learning a new skill. Use your energy to make complex things more simple.
“Do not pile onto mini decisions that will fundamentally make you bad at making big, important decisions,” Berg and Chamorro-Premuzic wrote.
Identify your options and prioritize
Consider laying out all of your options, even the ones that may not be perfect. You may feel like you can move forward if you see more options. Don’t limit yourself, Patti Johnson told Fast Company.
Johnson, CEO and founder of PeopleResults, said that if you know all of your options, you can find clarity—even if the perfect solution isn’t one of them. She suggests listing the options, including doing nothing. Pulling in support from others can also allow the best ideas to emerge.
Weigh options based on what’s most important to you and eliminate the rest, she said. That part is key: Psychological science has long suggested that while we love our freedom, too much choice can be paralyzing. It not only stops you from making decisions, it actually boosts anxiety and dissatisfaction with your choices.
The world is not going to get any less complex, so it’s vital that you sit back and prioritize. Does your decision take you away from your goals or toward them?
Consider your decision-making style
Are you an exploitation decision-maker, or someone who chooses options that are familiar and provide a higher certainty for reward? Or are you an exploration decision-maker, someone who tests out unfamiliar choices?
When you’re under excessive pressure, the tendency is to repeat choices and explore less, according to a previously published Fast Company piece by Barbara J. Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology, and Aleya A. Marzuki, a PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.
The best way to make a decision? Switch flexibly between exploration and exploitation, according to the scientists.
“On the one hand, exploration can be highly beneficial, as trying out novel options can enable you to potentially reap better benefits and enable you to make better choices in the future,” Marzuki said. “On the other hand, if the new option turns out to be inferior, it can be costly in terms of time, effort, and potentially monetary resources.”
Tamp down the anxiety
Feeling stressed about a decision you need to make—especially if it’s time sensitive—is natural.
But when anxiety takes over, you’re far more likely to make a bad decision. In fact, anxiety actually impacts the parts of the brain responsible for decision-making and for memory. So if you’ve faced this kind of decision before, you could be flooded with fear, anxiety, and stress. Often, that anxiety ultimately leads to a state of passivity. You don’t make any decision because you’re afraid you’ll make the wrong one.
It’s a good idea to learn mindfulness skills to calm your brain and nervous system and keep yourself from ruminating over problems and stories. Give your brain some healthy sleep and reframe your decision from loss-oriented thinking to gain-oriented thinking. Even writing down your emotions in a journal can be a tool to tame the worry inside of you.
Get into the flow state
You cannot overthink things when you seek out the flow state, in which you’re usually most productive, according to executive coach Sara Sabin. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined the flow state as one in which you lose all track of time and become intensely focused on the task at hand.
People tend to feel productive, creative, and happy in the flow state. And it’s not a place where people overthink everything. An overactive mind will interfere with that focus and absorption of flow. In this space, you’ll give your mind a break and will absolutely stop thinking about your decision or problem.
Many people swear by relaxation rituals such as meditation, walking, or taking a hot bath to get into that state of mind, which also helps with anxiety.
Listen to your body
Leadership consultant Diana Chapman advises that when you’re ready to make a decision, take a moment and get into your body first.
“I call it a whole-body yes,” Chapman says. Each person has their unique way to experience a whole-body yes, tuning into whether they are fully aligned with a decision with their whole body—head, heart, and gut.
Chapman, who advises executives as founder of the Conscious Leadership Group, suggests thinking of a time when you experienced something that felt of service to you and others, or a time when you felt in flow and connected. “How do you feel in your body as you think back to that experience?” she asks. Now, when pondering an answer to a decision, how does it feel in your body? The same?
Chapman says that when people say yes without really experiencing a whole yes in their body, it can lead to resentment that can grow over time. People often don’t honor those yeses and nos when they make a decision based on fear of missing out, of being unkind or alone, or doing something wrong, she says.
No seriously, listen to your gut
Your gut reaction could be more important than you think. The gut contains many of the same neurotransmitters as the brain and uses those to send information to the brain. Your intuition can help filter the decisions that you send up to your brain for processing. Research is starting to reveal the large part intuition plays in productivity and better decision-making.
Obviously, gut feelings can’t replace data and evidence, but they can lead you in a clear direction.
Oftentimes, overthinking can be driven by a big emotion: fear. The fear that you’ll make the wrong decision in itself can be paralyzing. But fear often appears bigger than it is, according to professional coach Kristin Brownstone. She recommends breaking down the components of that fear and handling each component one by one. Remember that just because something didn’t work out in the past doesn’t mean the outcome will be the same every time.
Instead of mulling over what could go wrong, start focusing on what could go right. Visualize all the things that can go right and keep those thoughts at the forefront of your mind.
Chapman says she often asks her clients to take a quiz about whether they are living in fear or openness. Are they in a mindset that’s closer to being curious and open? Or are they more committed to being right, being defensive, or feeling closed off? Most of the time, she says, they’re living in a place of fear, so she asks them to accept the part of them that is scared, triggered, or reactive. Then she asks them to try to shift back to a state of trust.
“When you approach the decision from a place of trust and listen to a whole-body yes for what direction to go, decisions are much easier,” she says.
Talk to yourself in the third person
Speaking about yourself in the third person can temporarily improve your decision-making and actually drive long-term benefits to thinking and emotional regulation, according to this previously published Fast Company report. Adopting an outsider’s perspective can help you identify and accept the limits of your understanding of a problem.
If you’re weighing whether to change jobs, for instance, the distance can help you weigh the risks and benefits of that job switch a little bit less passionately.
Schedule your thinking time
Too many people will consider a decision, make a choice, and then question that decision—leading to overthinking, self-doubt, and wasted time mulling over an idea. Overthinking problems can consume you all day or seep into time spent at work. It elevates your stress levels and makes you feel completely overwhelmed—and unhappy.
Schedule a time to think about a problem, said psychotherapist Amy Morin in a previously published piece in Fast Company. During that time, you give yourself freedom to think about the issue. But if thoughts pop into your mind any other time outside of that, then push them away with the intent of considering it later, Morin advised.
Not only does it save you from thinking about the problem during other important times, such as a family dinner or business meeting, but it will give your brain a break too. Potentially, the answer may come to you even more easily.
Weed out the “shoulds”
Kristin Brownstein, a certified professional coach, noted how often decision-making is loaded with “shoulds.” You may feel you should do something because it makes you more money, or because someone expects it of you. “Indecisiveness almost always occurs because of ‘shoulds’ crowding the room,” she wrote.
Brownstein recommended getting rid of the shoulds and figuring out whether there are answers that make things more clear, noting that she personally considers how much good she could do when making decisions.
Put a deadline on your thoughts
To avoid endless circles of mulling a choice, give yourself a deadline, Morin advised. If it’s a small decision, say, where to eat dinner, promise yourself that you’ll decide within a couple of hours. If it’s a big decision, such as whether to make a big purchase, launch a product, or pursue a career move, then give yourself far more time, such as several days.
This way, you’re giving yourself time to think deeply about important issues—which engages your subconscious in the process and can lead to ideas you might not have otherwise considered. But by having a deadline, you’re not allowing procrastination to take hold.
Make a habit of doing instead of thinking
Rather than thinking about doing something for a long time instead of actually doing it, flip that pattern on its head, Sabin advised. That could be “thinking” about leaving your job or starting a business—for years. Staying in the planning stage and not acting does in fact keep you safe, but it can be problematic at work—especially if you’ve spent time doing your due diligence and research.
Eventually, it comes time to act. People will inevitably learn from the experience of doing, so not acting can be worse than acting.
Make a decision and own it
Making small decisions will reduce the time you spend running in circles in your head. And if you’re a team leader, it will likely make your entire team feel less stressed, Berg and Chamorro-Premuzic advised. They suggest leaders communicate a clear, consistent, and compelling decision—while preparing an alternative—because it actually helps organizations build grit.
If you build a culture around learning, it could also boost people’s willingness to make decisions and be transparent when they’ve made the wrong choice. “Daring to fail is beneficial as long as the learning is fast and collective,” they wrote.
Recognize that nothing is perfect
Remember that no one has a crystal ball for the future. But if you spend the present moment worrying about and overthinking what the future holds, you’ll waste precious time today. Once you’ve made a decision, accept that it was the best you could do.