“I wish there was an “off” button for my thoughts.”
“Sometimes I get lost in thoughts, memories, and regrets, and it brings me down.”
“How do I get out of my mind, so I can feel like I’m really living?”
“How can I feel more secure in my decisions, without procrastinating on moving forward?”
These are just a few things I’ve heard during recent client sessions. Analysis paralysis is a common human challenge that causes stagnation and frustration. In fact, overthinking is scientifically proven to:
- lower productivity
- stifle creativity
- decrease willpower
- cause unhappiness
If you can relate to feeling stalled in your life because your mind is running in circles, you’re not alone.
Your brain is your most powerful tool, yet it becomes a prison if you don’t have the tools to break free from your everyday loop of thoughts.
The mind jail is especially unpleasant if the thoughts keeping you captive are negative — and they probably are!
According to the National Science Foundation, 80% of an average person’s thoughts are negative, and 95% of those are repetitive thoughts.
“The mind is a terrible thing; lose it.” -Brad Blanton, Radical Honesty
Literature is full of tales with warnings against overthinking, reaching as far back as Aesop’s Fables.
Do you remember the story of the Fox and the Cat? The Fox boasts hundreds of ways of escaping, while the Cat has just one.
When the hounds come chasing, the Cat moves without hesitation, scampering up a tree. The Fox on the other hand, can’t decide which of his escape routes to take, and he gets caught.
The moral of the story? “Better one safe way than one hundred that you cannot reckon.”
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is perhaps one of the most famous over-thinkers in literature. “Sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” Hamlet’s character is defined by his inner turmoil.
“To be, or not to be…”
For recent literature, just google “analysis paralysis” and you’ll find so many resources that it will be impossible to decide which one to read…
How did we get here? A short summary of how your mind evolved.
Your mind is made to keep you safe, not to make you happy.
Here’s an excerpt from the book, The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living, by Dr. Russ Harris:
“The modern human mind, with its amazing ability to analyse, plan, create and communicate, has largely evolved over the last hundred thousand years, since our species, Homo sapiens, first appeared on the planet. But our minds did not evolve to make us feel good, so we could tell great jokes, write sonnets and say ‘I love you’…
With each generation the human mind became increasingly skilled at predicting and avoiding danger. And now, after a hundred thousand years of evolution, the modern mind is still constantly on the lookout for trouble. It assesses and judges almost everything we encounter: Is this good or bad? Safe or dangerous? Harmful or helpful?
These days, though, it’s not sabre-toothed cats or 200- kilogram wolves that our mind warns us about. Instead it’s losing our job, being rejected, getting a speeding ticket, not being able to pay the bills, embarrassing ourselves in public, upsetting our loved ones, getting cancer, or any of a million and one other common worries. As a result we spend a lot of time worrying about things that, more often than not, never happen…
Thus, evolution has shaped our minds so that we are almost inevitably destined to suffer psychologically: to compare, evaluate and criticise ourselves; to focus on what we’re lacking; to be dissatisfied with what we have; and to imagine all sorts of frightening scenarios, most of which will never happen. No wonder humans find it hard to be happy!”
My big takeaway is: if you want to break the cycle of overthinking and create positive progress in your life, you must do something about it. It won’t happen automatically.
The good news? You can build the habits that launch you from overthinking into wholehearted living — it’s 100% within your power to do so.
What does it take to overcome your over-analyzing mind? There are the four key stages. I call them stages because they’re not steps that you can accomplish immediately. Each stage takes time to practice and integrate into your life.
This work is worth it. It will transform how you live.
The 4 stages to overcome analysis paralysis:
- Vision and Values
- Committed Action
As you grow in each stage, I guarantee you’ll feel motivated by the meaningful life you’re creating. You’ll no longer feel stuck inside your mind. Instead you’ll consistently be able to separate yourself from your thoughts, and take action toward things that are most important to you.
The journey begins with awareness.
Stage 1: AWARENESS
You can’t change what you can’t see.
Imagine a typical situation when you get caught up in thought. Perhaps while trying to fall asleep.
You’re in your bed, and you’re completely consumed by a disconcerting situation that happened earlier in the day at work. You replay it over and over in your mind, feeling the awkwardness and disappointment of the moment. You begin imagining worst-case scenarios. You imagine yourself being passed over for the the promotion you’ve been working toward, or getting fired altogether.
Then, suddenly, you realise that you’re thinking. You’re no longer inside the thought, but instead you’re observing yourself in the act of thinking.
In this moment, you’ve shifted from your “thinking self” to your “observing self.” You’ve become aware.
Thinking self vs. Observing self
All of us have two selves — the thinking self, and the observing self. The thinking self is, of course, the part of you that generates thoughts. It’s is always changing, like the weather. New thoughts, urges, and feelings come and go quickly.
The observing self, on the other hand, is the part of you that can reflect on your own thoughts and behaviour. It sees what is, without making judgements. The observing self doesn’t change — it’s your awareness.
The moment you shift from thinking to observing is critical. Usually the moment of awareness lasts for a split-second before your thinking mind takes over again with a thought like, “You idiot! You’re over-analysing again! This is pointless! Just go to sleep!”
But this moment of awareness — when you “catch yourself” over-analyzing — is actually a moment to celebrate. Because all your power lies in this awareness. Once you’re aware, you have a choice about where to go next. When you’re stuck inside thought, you have no possibility to see anything outside the thought itself. When you’re aware, you have every possibility — you can choose how to respond next.
Intentionally cultivating awareness
You don’t have to wait for yourself to suddenly “wake up” to awareness. You can consciously cultivate your observing self and put it to work in your life.
As you activate your observing self more often, you’ll be able to make more conscious choices about how to spend your energy.
Here’s a practice for connecting to your observing self through body sensation:
As you’re reading this article, take a deep breath.
Notice the position of your body right now.
Are your legs crossed, or do you have both feet on the floor?
What position is your spine in?
Is any part of your back touching the back of your chair?
Notice your hands and their position.
Now be aware of your neck and shoulders.
Now, for 20 seconds, breathe and scan your body from your toes to your head.
What sensations do you feel?
Notice weight, tension, pain, openness, lightness, heaviness.
What did you experience? Were you able to connect with your present experience for a moment or two?
Your thinking mind will never stop talking to you, but you can tune into your observing mind at any moment.
Another exercise — activate your observing self by noticing thought:
Take a deep breath.
Ask yourself, what stories are my thoughts telling me right now?
Watch and listen.
See if you can experience your thoughts as if you were watching a movie.
Is your movie a horror film, a drama, a tragic romance, or a comedy?
How long can you remain detached from your thoughts, before getting sucked back into the movie?
The purpose of this exercise is not to control your thoughts, but instead to observe them with curiosity.
You can close your eyes if it helps you.
What was that like for you?
The funny thing about thoughts is they’re mostly fiction. When you connect to your observing self, you may even begin to laugh at how silly your thoughts are…Which brings us to the next stage.
Stage 2: ACCEPTANCE
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change.” -Carl Rogers, psychologist
You cannot change what you don’t accept. So begin working with your mind, not against it.
When you become aware and find yourself over analyzing again, your thinking self’s first reaction might be to get frustrated. Perhaps your mind believes that if you punish yourself with mean thoughts, you’ll stop doing it.
But the truth is, the more you beat yourself up, the less energy you have. There is no nobility in letting yourself endure a tirade of self-deprecation.
Next time you’re aware of yourself caught in analysis paralysis, just accept it.
Acknowledge what you’ve been thinking about. Acknowledge that it’s important to you. Acknowledge your thinking self and how valuable it is in so many situations.
Take a deep breath, relax, laugh to yourself, and think, “I’m just over-analyzing again. That’s okay. I know my mind is powerful, and it’s good at keeping me safe. Thanks, mind!”
Developing a “thanks, mind!” relationship with your thinking self helps you to accept yourself.
As you allow your thoughts to be there, without needing to change them right away, the knots will begin to loosen on their own.
Accept where you are, and you will have the energy to connect with what makes life meaningful for you.
Stage 3: VISION AND VALUES
This stage is about creating forward momentum in your life. Now you get clear about what you truly want, and what makes life meaningful for you.
Clarifying your vision and values is different than setting goals (that comes next). Instead it’s about establishing a general direction that guides your life, and defining principles that give your life meaning.
What’s your vision for your life?
If you don’t yet know your vision, schedule a few hours next Sunday to reflect. Plan to go somewhere that inspires you. Have a coffee, relax, and complete the exercises below.
A great way to start your visioning work is to “begin with the end in mind,” as Stephen Covey suggests in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In an exercise from the book, he says to imagine your own funeral, and write down the things you want the people in your life to say about you.
For a video explanation of the exercise, click here.
Imagine that you are going to a funeral, and you walk in and look around, and the funeral is filled with your friends and your family and people that you know.
As you go to visit the casket, you look and you see that it’s actually you — that it’s your own funeral.
Imagine that there are four speakers at your funeral:
1. The first speaker is from your immediate family.
2. The second speaker is from your friends, your group of friends.
3. The third speaker is someone you work with, someone from your career or profession.
4. And the fourth person is from your church or a community organization that you’re involved with.
Think deeply about what you want each of those people to say about you.
From the book, “What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? What kind of husband, wife, father, or mother would you like their words to reflect? What kind of son or daughter or cousin? What kind of friend? What kind of working associate? What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember? Look carefully at the people around you. What difference would you like to have made in their lives?”
Write down your answers.
Next, imagine you’re 80 years old, looking back on your life, and complete the following sentences:
+ I spent too much time worrying about…
+ I spent too little time doing things such as…
+ If I could go back in time, I would…
+ I’m most proud of accomplishing…
+ What I loved most about my life was…
Finally, complete this values worksheet, a Russ Harris, Happiness Trap resource.
It’s designed to help you identify your values. I love this worksheet because you not only define the valued direction you want for each of 10 important domains in your life, you also give yourself a numerical rating for how you’re doing today. Giving yourself an honest numerical rating can be a wake up call for taking action.
Stage 4: COMMITTED ACTION
“What one does is what counts. Not what one had the intention of doing.” — Pablo Picasso
Taking committed action means making tangible steps toward your vision for your life. Now you’re clear on the direction you want to go. It’s time to set goals and identify specific actions to achieve those goals.
Goal-setting for committed action:
There are endless goal-setting tools and mechanisms out there. It doesn’t really matter which one you use, as long as your goals are clearly connected to your vision for your life.
When you’re connected to your vision and you know exactly what your next step is, you’re less likely to get caught in the jail of your mind.
That’s why I recommend tracking your goals with a tool called the Individual Development Plan (IDP), from the Energía Positiva Leadership & Training Company.
Your IDP is your guide to keep you on-track toward your vision.
+ Write your vision for your life, in detail.
+ Establish 3–5 specific goals in the most important domains of your life.
+ Set weekly tasks for yourself to accomplish each goal.
+ At the end of each week, you review your IDP and acknowledge whether you achieved your goals for the week, and what you learned in the process.
+ Once complete, book a call with your coach or an accountability buddy to revisit your IDP together each week. You’ll be amazed at how much you accomplish.
You can break yourself free from analysis paralysis. It’s a rewarding journey that takes commitment and patience. The good news — each stage of the process offers plenty of opportunities to grow.
Tuning your awareness, you’ll develop curiosity.
Accepting yourself as you are, you’ll feel freedom.
Setting your vision and values, you’ll renew your energy.
Taking committed action, you’ll make progress.
I wish you the very best on your journey!