We all do it. We all spend minutes, hours, even days, and perhaps months overthinking it. The “it” is irrelevant. It can be a decision, a visit, an encounter, an interview, a job, a project, and even writing a weekly post. Yes, I am finding myself overthinking what to write about today as I am typing.
Yet, overthinking about what to write made me pause to think about overthinking as a process. So much thinking! What can we learn from overthinking? Is there anything positive at all about it? Should we not avoid getting sucked into it? Well, as with much in this life, the answer is yes and no.
Overthinking is an organic process. It begins but it also ends.
Midsummer, I decided to apply to graduate school to pursue a PhD in Typography. I went through the motions, sent my application, asked for references, and contacted the department. I prepared a draft for my proposal of study and had a video call with one of the professors. I knew this professor by reputation and to say that I was nervous is an understatement. During the call he made significant suggestions and I got very excited. I even contacted my friends at work to help me by giving me feedback. They did. All was going well.
Because of two unexpected situations at the beginning of the semester, my focus shifted. When I got back to the proposal, I could not type. I did more research, read more articles, read more books, and found much more questions and discussions to consider. I asked for more time for our second video meeting. I needed it to get my focus back. However, the more I read, the more I pondered, the more I investigated, the better my sense for my topic—but the doubts grew both in quantity and quality. I even went to our Animation professor to ask point blank if my idea was stupid or worth it. This was at the height of my overthinking process.
I found alternative ideas to my original idea. But did I also mention they were more attractive? Oh yes. Overthinking has a way to redirect your focus to the shiny diamond syndrome. And I was swimming in it.
I tried again and again to revise my draft. I would always feel powerless. Why? What difference would my idea make? Who cares? Oh, the questions! They were both necessary and so torturous! Would it not be easier to forget it all and keep on as before? No. I now knew of this program and could not forget it. Did I really want to put myself through grad school again? Oh, yes that one paralyzed me.
See, thinking is a very curious process. To the naked eye I seemed like nothing was circulating in my head. And yet, internally my mind was a carousel only matched by the London Eye but on sonic speed.
I often walk to a monthly faculty meeting with one my colleagues. This last week, he could not attend so I walked alone. And I thought. One of my biggest reservations was the real possibility of learning yet another software. There is a technical aspect in my study proposal and I suffer from software fatigue. Don’t you? I do.
But it all came down to a question and it was really the key I needed to snap out of my overthinking rut. Do I really want to look back knowing I had this idea and I did not pursue it or try to bring it to life? I had after all even applied three times to the Guggenheim Foundation and was denied. I have been after this idea for years. Did I really want to leave it behind?
I came to the realization that I did not want someone else to do it or worse, not do it at all. I want to see my idea live and I will give it all to see it through software or not. Walking alone helped me make the decision. I spent Friday revising and finishing my second draft. At the end of the day I sent it. I did it. I rolled the dice.
If you are still reading, let me share with you what I learned:
- Overthinking is an organic process. It begins but it also ends.
- No point in forcing yourself out of it. Clarity will come often when distracted.
- Focus redirection is almost necessary. To commit to one idea, to really commit, there is part of your mind that wants to test the others albeit for a moment.
- Doubt will come, welcome it. Ask it out loud. Find someone who’s opinion you respect in that field or close to it and ask them. It will not make you snap out of it but that answer will sit in your mind and come to the forefront when it is needed.
- Ultimately, our decisions, small or big, are a risk. There is no guarantee of how things will turn out. You can only guarantee your part. Roll the dice, see what happens, and wait.
- Wait for the result and reflect. I sent my second draft on Friday. I imagine that I will hear back this week and we will schedule another video call.
- Deadline. I do not have a certain number of times I will keep trying established in my head. But I also know I will not be trying forever. This too is an organic process. And things of this nature, naturally resolve themselves.
I did overthink what to write about today. Many options went trough my mind: an installment to last week’s short story, a poem, and an essay… I settled for what I was experiencing. And this too was a roll of the dice.
Alma Hoffmann is a freelance designer, design educator, author of Sketching as Design Thinking, and editor at Smashing Magazine. This was originally posted on Temperamental amusing shenanigans, Alma’s Substack dedicated to design, life, and everything in between.
Banner image copyright the author.