There’s almost nothing I like more than thinking, ideating, musing, brainstorming, and just letting my mind run wild through a field of beautiful ideas.
But as lovely as it would be to spend all my time living in the idea field that exists in my own mind, some of my favorite people exist outside of my head and life would be decidedly less joyful without them. Also, as a writer, my job is literally to set those wild, beautiful ideas free to wander through the world.
All of this leaves me with a tiny dilemma whenever I start a new writing project: Do I indulge in my thoughts (my favorite) or do I constrain my thoughts and focus on getting the words down on the page (a lot less fun)?
I picture a tug-o’-war between the thinker and the scribe inside of me.
Most of the time, though, my thinker and scribe get along pretty well. I put a lot of energy into observing and trying to understand better how we all think. And this provides helpful context for collaborating with experts to write about their ideas.
But every so often, like when I’m writing a rough draft of a LinkedIn post, an article, or a book, the thinker overpowers the scribe and overthinking gets the best of me.
Can you relate? (I see you nodding your head.)
Lately, I’ve been working on taming my inner thinker. So I want to share my tricks and tips for avoiding overthinking and getting that pesky draft out of my head.
Why does overthinking happen?
Before I dive into the tips, it’s helpful to understand a bit more about why this happens. By the way, everyone I’ve ever met struggles with this, especially when it comes to writing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard business owners, leaders, and experts say, “I have the whole thing mapped out in my head, but then when I go to write it down, I can’t figure out what to say.”
So even if you’re more action-oriented than I am, I bet there are areas where you find yourself overthinking things.
Is there a scientific explanation for overthinking?
A quick Google search tells us that overthinking is a symptom of stress and anxiety. It’s most often treated as a psychological challenge characterized by obsessive thoughts or excessive worrying. While I can certainly see how my particular flavor of overthinking could be a result of anxiety about finishing a specific piece of writing (for example, it tends to creep in more when I’m writing something for a new client and I’m concerned about the feedback I’ll get), it doesn’t always feel this way.
Certainly, there are degrees to acknowledge here and certainly overthinking can be both a blessing and a curse. The same tendencies that make you great at solving problems can also cause you to dwell on problems. The same tendencies that make you extraordinarily self-reflective can also cause you to think too much about negative things you can’t control.
But my takeaway from this quick bit of research is that the real difference between overthinking and problem-solving or self-reflection isn’t about the amount of time you spend in deep thought. It’s about whether those thoughts are purposeful and productive or unhelpful and counterproductive. The key, then, is about redirecting that inner thinker, rather than shutting her down.
So let’s look at how I avoid overthinking so I can get that pesky draft out of my head.
3 Tips for Taming Your Inner Thinker
Here are three tips and tricks I use (pretty much daily) to avoid overthinking:
1. Speed writing: I set a timer for 10 minutes and force myself to get the bones of the thing down on the page. This works whether you’re trying to write a book, a blog post, or a series of tweets. All you have to do is adapt the method for whatever you’re working on.
Here’s my approach: If I’m working on a book, I’ll brain dump ideas in the form of a mind map. If it’s a blog post or article, I’ll come up with the section headings and any bullet points I need. If I’m batch creating social media content, I’ll throw some topic ideas out and start brainstorming specific post ideas before trying to compose the actual posts.
Once I have the structure mapped out, for longer pieces, I set a timer for 10 minutes and attack each section starting with the easiest one. This usually gets me to a messy draft of a blog post or article within 40 minutes or so. In fact, I used this method to get this very blog post written. For a book chapter, you would simply add on more 10-minute blocks.
Never underestimate the power of timed writing. The slight pressure of watching that clock tick down can be just enough to distract that overthinking part of yourself.
2. Give a pretend presentation: Another approach I use is to pull up PowerPoint or Google Slides and pretend that I have to give a presentation on the topic. Thinking in terms of 5, 10, or 20 slides forces me to zoom out, instead of getting bogged down in the wordsmithing that happens when I’m stuck in overthinking mode.
Along the same lines, you could imagine that you have to teach a room full of kindergarteners about your topic. Or if you have access to an intelligent child IRL, you could even try out your idea in real time. Forcing yourself to get down to the core of your message can help you to avoid unnecessarily complicating the picture.
3. Read around a bit: Often when I’m overthinking it’s because I haven’t really taken the time to think through what I’m trying to say. That’s right, underthinking can masquerade as overthinking, especially when you tend in the direction of overthinking.
Sometimes this means I need to do some more research or at least get a feel for what others have to say about my topic. This one can be a double-edged sword though — too much research can also lead to overthinking. So it’s important to know your limits here.
These tips help me to tame my inner overthinker and get my rough drafts done, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention accountability. Whether you have a partner, a group, or a community of co-writing pals that you meet with regularly, like I have with my Write the Thing! sessions, or you need a professional to free those wild, beautiful ideas from your head, the right accountability partner is available.
Do you have a favorite strategy for overcoming overthinking?
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