HR Insights

Overthinking on the Job: It’s Both Costly AND Counterproductive

Overthinking

I looked at my phone and there was a text that said, “Urgent: now what do I do?”

Like a lot of people in HR, I do a fair share of career counseling, especially with Gen Y. This was a call from someone who, to put it mildly, works in a terrible culture with mistreatment all around. There is no such thing as a normal day (10-12 hours per day).

This person finally decided that she had to get out. Resumes went out and, just like bait, she got a hit. She felt that this was her chance. Now she had to worry about getting the time off to go to the interview.

The power of overthinking a situation

She was able to convince them that she needed a day off for a “family emergency.”

Out of the blue, she gets a call from the recruiter that the hiring manager has an emergency meeting and they would have to reschedule. Already being on the edge, she now was floored as to what to do.

When I finally got back to her, she was in super panic mode. Now that she had to cancel her interview, what would her current employer think? If she needed another day to reschedule, what would they think? Maybe they would know that she is looking for a job.

Well, this woman basically made up five or six different scenarios until I finally told her to “just stop.” In talking about and overthinking something, she took it to an entirely different level.

After walking her back from the edge, we both discussed a scenario and I hung up. We talked the next day and she calmly said that her appointment was a week later.

She was now glad that it worked out that way because it gave her more prep time.

As we continued the conversation, I told her that she had just demonstrated the power of overthinking a situation.

How small situations become big events

I have noticed that for one reason or another, people today tend to put a great deal of thought into the smallest situation. I sat in a meeting not too long ago, and this one executive spun a scenario that had everyone looking on in amazement as he literally got caught up in his own story.

When he finished, I told him that if this job did not work out, he would make an excellent Hollywood screenwriter.

Overthinking is counterproductive to whatever problem you are trying to solve. I’m amazed sometimes as how we sit in meetings and the situation is turned every which way possible. What should have taken a small amount of thought has turned into an event.

There is a difference between thinking about something just enough and thinking about something to the point of analysis paralysis. The point is that no one should want to be branded as an overthinker.

When I hear the phrase “what keeps you up at night,” I sometimes think about overthinking. If something has a tendency to keep you up every night, that tells you that decisions should be made to solve it so that you can move mentally onward.

Overthinkers spend time overthinking seemingly meaningless things to the point that they end up spending more time thinking about the situation than the time it would have taken to address it completely.

Change your channel

If you find yourself overthinking, you need to change the channel in your mind immediately. Turn away and do something completely different. This is a process I have used over the years.

Distract yourself, get out, do something, and get your mind off of the thing you can’t stop thinking about.

The best way I’ve found to distract myself is to exercise. For whatever reason, it’s hard for me to overthink when I’m sweating. It could be that spending time with your family, going on a drive, or taking a walk could work as well. I have been known to stop what I am doing to go out and cut the grass or wash the cars.

The best distractions are ones in which you can totally lose yourself in whatever it is. Find your favorite distraction and do it when you find yourself in an overthinking mode.

Enforce a time limit to your thinking and document your thoughts. If you’re going to overthink, just commit to it for a short amount of time. When I am writing and I find this overthinking coming on, I begin to write everything that comes to mind. I find that the initial few steps will start the process and serve as a cleansing for my mental capacity.

Think for a minute about what could possibly be the worst thing that could happen. Now come up with the appropriate responses, if necessary. If you now know how to deal with it, the preceived anxiety should disappear completely. And you know what? — it is never as bad as you think. Yes, it is not the end of the world.

The Big Picture view

Never, ever lose sight of the destination. Always keep the “Big Picture” in view. Never forget what you want to happen, because what you think of today will determine where you will be tomorrow.

Sometimes that view may be a little fuzzy, but it is like looking through a foggy glass or mirror. Once you take a towel and wipe the fog away, viola, you have clarity.

This may sound easy and may take some time for you to make the adjustment, but if you keep working at it, you can change your approach.

Overthinking is a real detriment to your workplace focus and must be eliminated. Forming positive habits and reinforcing them over time will make a big difference in your propensity to overthink each and every situation.

If you look at organizations, there is a tremendous cost to overthinking. This is possibly why meetings have become notorious in so many workplaces for not getting anything accomplished. There are good meetings and there are bad meetings. Bad meetings drone on forever, never seem to get to the point, and leave you wondering why you were even present.

Effective meetings leave you energized and feeling that you’ve really accomplished something — and without a lot of overthinking.

Ron Thomas is CEO of Great Place to Work-GCC countries, based in Dubai. He formerly was Chief HR Officer of the RGTS Group in Saudi Arabia. Ron is also a senior faculty member of the Human Capital Institute. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as a Master Human Capital Strategist (MHCS) and Strategic Workforce Planner (SWP). Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living. Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia. Contact him at ronaldtthomas@gmail.com or on Twitter.
  • Bryan Seaford

    Ron,

    Well put my friend. The famous PDCA (Plan Do Check Act) approach came up in a conversation yesterday. While it doesn’t happen on every case, often individuals and teams will stay in Plan, perhaps at the expense of the action that needs to happen.

    Best,
    Bryan