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Overthinking is not a useful activity, yet most people do it to some extent. At work or in our business, it can be a serious hinderance. An email arrives and we read into every line, trying to decipher hidden meanings. A client leaves and we question our self-worth or wonder if we said something we shouldn’t have. A presentation doesn’t get the feedback we expect, a colleague passes a comment that sounds passive aggressive and we speculate about the meaning of every conversation or the possible outcomes of every decision.

Taking thoughtful and considered action is what great leaders do, but when thoughtfulness impedes the action or impacts your mood it’s time to make a change. Here are five ways to stop overthinking at work.

1. Determine what’s real

Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On the left-hand side write ‘real’ and on the right, ‘not real’. Next, analyse the situation you’re overthinking to differentiate the two. What has actually happened and what is an interpretation? What are the cold, hard facts and what is speculation, conjecture or up for discussion?

It’s often not the events themselves that are harmful, it’s our pessimistic, exaggerated and sometimes downright wrong construal of them that leads to anxiety and confidence knocks. Real: the thing that factually happened. Not real: what it might mean, what people might think. Focus on only the left-hand side of the page and go from there. Reading into events, comments, questions and conversations is a downward spiral that doesn’t go anywhere good. If you’re not sure what something means, ask. Let someone else plug the knowledge gap instead of filling it with unhelpful speculation.

2. Don’t let the lizard lead

There are two versions of you, your higher and lower self. Your higher self is the best you. Confident, assertive and focused on your mission. Peaceful, kind, with nothing to prove. The best leaders lead from this place. Your lower self is your lizard brain version; the worst possible you. Governed by the amygdala, driven by fear, judgment and separation. Obsessed with competition, battening down the hatches, flying off the handle and convinced the future is terrible.

Only make work decisions when you are your higher self. Only have important conversations with your team when you are your higher self. Unless you’re being that version of you, hold yourself back. Your higher self plans for the long term, gives the benefit of the doubt and is firm but fair. The lower self version seeks short term wins, is greedy and divisive and convinced there’s not enough to go around. Your lizard brain makes mistakes because it’s led by emotion. It says things it later regrets and makes decisions it can’t go back and undo. The more you lead with your lizard, the more you lead with fear and the more you overthink whatever you said that you didn’t mean.

Acting from fear and its inevitable overthinking will lead to reactive moves and suboptimal conversations, which bring undesirable outcomes. The cycle perpetuates as you make gradually worse decisions and overthink them even more.

3. Understand and create boundaries

If you don’t have your own boundaries, you’ll see someone else’s as a threat. You’ll assume them being unavailable is them not wanting your help, or interpret their actions as standoffish, judgmental or with a hidden meaning. Worrying what other people might think about you can change your actions. Instead of switching off devices to power through your list, you stay available in case they have a question. You avoid saying what you want for fear of offending. You work on their terms and put your own agenda aside.

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Without your own definite plan of action for your day, week and month, smaller tasks creep in and work is created for idle hands. When you’re not getting anything useful done yourself, your attention moves to the people around you and what they might be up to. There’s space to overthink so thoughts run away with you. Make your own boundaries. Figure out how you’ll spend your time and let the actions of others be an afterthought. Avoid overthinking by focusing only on your mission, and what you need to do to see it through to completion.

4. Talk it out

Overthinking means creating stories in your head. Two people overthinking the same situation ends in chaos. Each second guesses the other, each infers the tone and reads between the lines, and both parties are ultimately wrong. Overthinking gridlock ensues until it’s too late and the professional relationship is doomed. If you don’t know why something has happened, ask. If you are confused about a reason, request clarification. If you suspect but don’t know for sure, probe and seek feedback. Choosing to wallow in unhelpful thoughts instead of finding clarification feels safer. Once you ask the question you’ll know for sure and you’ll have to face the reality. The truth might hurt. Or it might not be as bad as you thought.

Overcommunication is the secret sauce of team members that thrive. Understanding someone’s character means understanding their motivations and knowing for sure why they say things and act in a certain way, but trying to work out what they meant based on false information is a waste of everyone’s time. If you don’t know them well, attempts to guess will be futile, which is why talking it out is the only way. Leading by example and always communicating with clarity will ensure you’re not misunderstood. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Encourage others to do the same.

5. Avoid dramatization

Seeing things as they are removes ambiguity and the grey areas. In a world of black and white, there’s less room to overthink. Either your clients are happy with your products or they’re not. The prospect is either signing up with you or they’re going elsewhere. It’s raining or it’s sunny. You’re making excuses or making money. The cards have fallen and that’s the situation, where you go from here is up to you.

It’s natural to want to infer the meaning, but sometimes it’s because we secretly crave the commotion. Rather than objectively analyse to find out where we can improve, or shrug something off as a non-issue, we gossip and whisper about the reasons and create a drama that didn’t need to be there. Most high performers wouldn’t admit they sought drama, but their actions might prove a different story. If you find yourself gossiping, bitching or passing negative judgment, consider that this is a form of overthinking that isn’t healthy in any way. It’s also a massive waste of time that creates a habit of finding meaning when there’s nothing there. Make a pact with yourself to stop and avoid being dragged into the conversations of others that focus on theatrics. Sometimes something isn’t good or bad; it just is. And that’s okay.

Stop overthinking at work because it doesn’t improve any situation. Find out what’s real, don’t let the lizard lead, create boundaries, talk it out and avoid dramatization. Become a more confident, assured you and find the true answers to your questions rather than wondering what they might be. Less overthinking means more time for ideas, having a good time, and doing the work you were put here to do.

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