A few weeks ago, I got a chance to interview Justin Kan. Justin is a co-founder of Twitch (which sold to Amazon for $1B in 2014). For me, he belongs firmly in the category of ‘Big Deals’ in the entrepreneurial sphere. So before the interview starts, my mind goes into overdrive:
“I want him to like me but also I want to interview him properly and I also don’t want him to just think that I’m using him for the content…”
Unnecessary, right? The worst/best part is that once I actually did the interview, all these thoughts went away and I quickly realised it was just good old overthinking.
While overthinking might sound petty, once it turns into an ongoing habit it can keep us away from ever finishing our work, lead to procrastination, and even cause serious mental health issues.
So in this post, I’d love to share the 7 techniques that my creative friends and I use to cope with overthinking. Plus, I’ll share a few findings to give you a big picture of why overthinking is worth discussing as well as tips for learning how to avoid or at least cope with it.
What causes overthinking?
Basically, there are two types of overthinking:
- Ruminating – rehashing the past. It happens when we relive the same scenario over and over.
- Worrying – letting our thoughts drift into the future, and worrying about what the future might bring.
Rumination is focused on the past and worrying on the future, but they’re both mainly caused by two basic things – stress and anxiety – which then turn on various fightback modes in our brain that lead to overthinking.
😩 Mode #1 – “I need to be prepared”
When we’re worrying about future events, (eg: an exam or a job interview), we tend to prep even minutes before the event. When Naval Ravikant (normally a master of zen) was a guest on The Joe Rogan Podcast, he admitted that even though he didn’t want to prepare for this podcast, he couldn’t stop his mind from having an illusory conversation.
“A few days leading up to this [episode], my mind was just running and normally my mind is pretty calm. It was just running, running, and running. And every thought I’d have, I’d imagine me saying it to you. My brain couldn’t help but rehearse.”
This happens because we want to gain control and make sure we cover (and somehow predict) all possible outcomes. Being prepared is a good thing but at some point, it’s much better to calm our mind instead of feeding it with new information.
🛠️ Mode #2 – More work equals better results
Our thinking works in a similar fashion to our income with diminishing returns. Just like making more money can make us happier only up to a certain level, thinking more can yield better results only to some extent.
Some people who struggle with overthinking do it because of the ‘more thinking equals better output’ approach. And just like with personal finances, after you move past a certain level, more thinking can actually equal worse outcomes.
When people start making more than six figures (on average) their level of happiness goes down. The same mechanism works in thinking. It’s bad not to use our brainpower to prepare for the exam or a job interview, but if we do it for too long we’ll find ourselves with worse results compared to spending fewer hours on preparation.
🔁Mode #3 – If A works for B, it’ll work for C
Some things in life are universal but the time allocated to thinking isn’t. The one-size-fits-all approach drastically fails when we apply it to thinking but anxiety can make us use it anyway.
Following this approach can drain our energy levels with just a few simple tasks. When we’re preparing for an exam, we need to be focused for a couple of hours using notes, textbooks, and various slides. But if we were to use the same level of thinking to buy groceries for example, we’d get stuck overthinking which type of butter to buy.
Why overthinking is bad for us
While everyone ruminates or worries from time to time, constant overthinking comes with serious repercussions.
🔥 Rumination exacerbates depression
Although it’s not common, studies like this one published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology show that overthinking can lead to serious mental health issues including depression.
“[..] Rumination was a mediator of the longitudinal association between self-reported stressful life events and anxiety symptoms among adolescents and adults and both males and females. In addition, rumination significantly mediated the relationship between self-reported stressful life events and increases in depressive symptoms in adults, but not in adolescents.”
So, if a stressful event wasn’t enough, our overthinking can take it up a notch turning it into depression and anxiety.
🤯 Overthinking overloads our brains
Overthinking is also the #1 enemy of every creative person. That’s because we’re more creative when certain parts of our brains are “quiet”.
A recent study suggests that the less-is-more approach to thinking works great for creative output. Plus, you’ll save a lot of time that you’d otherwise spend overthinking.
😕 Overthinking impairs problem-solving
Equally, our brains are capable of processing lots of data but it’s still possible to overload them and end up in a creative dead zone. This finding becomes more important when we take a look at another study run by scientists from Yale and UCR. Researchers from these two universities were wondering to what extent rumination exacerbates depression, enhances negative thinking, and impairs problem-solving. Surprisingly, it turned out that rumination is to depression what oxygen is to flame—maintaining and exacerbating its effects.
“Specifically, rumination appears to more consistently predict the onset of depression rather than the duration, but rumination interacts with negative cognitive styles to predict the duration of depressive symptoms”
That’s an even more concerning effect for creatives as rumination enhances negative mood-congruent thinking and impairs problem-solving. When we combine these findings with why we overthink it turns out that we’re causing the exact same problem that we’re trying to solve. We think more to have better results while, in fact, we turn on the analysis-paralysis and further worry.
“[…] rumination maintains and exacerbates depression by enhancing negative mood-congruent thinking, impairing problem-solving and instrumental behaviour, and deterring social support.”
How to stop overthinking?
If it’s so bad for us then it’s worth asking: How do we avoid overthinking?
Remember that the processes involved in overthinking are useful skills. Therefore, to beat overthinking we need to transfer these skills to useful purposes instead. While there are many ways to do it, most techniques and strategies focus on two aspects:
- time allocation
- mind clarity
With a clean slate and a certain plan for the day, you can avoid overthinking and focus your brainpower on things that matter to you.
In the next section, we’ll go through 7 techniques that work best for me and other creative people who once struggled with overthinking.
7 ways to stop overthinking
Meditation is a concept that I’ve been dabbling with since early 2019 when I tried to meditate with Sam Harris’s Waking Up app but ultimately failed to build a consistent habit.
Whenever I talk to creators, online entrepreneurs, or so-called ‘successful people’, they all tend to agree that meditation was the one technique that helped them clear their mind.
Let’s go back to the Not Overthinking episode with Justin Kan. It turned out that Justin is very bullish on meditation:
“Meditation has made me much more accepting of my present-moment experience. Whatever it is. Whether it’s great and it’s joyful – things that are easy to accept in daily life but also when I’m feeling guilty, angry or when something bad happens. So, for me, meditation is the most important skill I’ve ever learnt because I’m no longer fighting against my experience.”
The same thing popped up in two of the Deep Dives episodes.
August Bradley who’s a business performance coach, strategist, entrepreneur and Notion expert said that:
“Practising meditation enables you to recognise that the thoughts and stories that are generated by your mind are not who you are. By meditating you learn to step out and observe those thoughts and stories rather than believing them.”
Same story with my friend and fellow YouTuber UnJaded Jade:
“Meditation is not just about sitting quietly for a few minutes every day – it’s about training the brain to filter out negative thought processes that hamper us daily.”
Meditation, although simple at its core, is quite hard to get into as it requires us to do nothing. And for overthinkers, that’s a very tough call to make. But it’s also a perfect way for us to clear our mind, settle the internal dispute, and prevent further rumination or worry.
Probably the easiest way to start practising meditation is to follow Naval’s tip that he shared during the earlier mentioned podcast episode with Joe Rogan. And that is to:
“Sit down, close your eyes, comfortable position, whatever happens, happens. If you think, you think. If you don’t think, you don’t think. Don’t put effort into it. Don’t put effort against it. […] You just sit.”
🙇♂️ Seek forgiveness rather than permission
Thinking through one idea over and over might happen because we’re scared of committing to our choices. When we’re afraid to push the button, worrying can become our default state.
If that happens to you, think about the worst possible consequence of what you want to do. Chances are, the reality is less scary than you initially assumed. Plus, you’ll likely find out that the chances of the worst-case scenario happening are negligible.
In one of my recent videos on 21 Tips for My 18-Year-Old Self, I share the advice to
“Seek forgiveness rather than permission”
This means that rather than sitting on that idea you have and overthinking the consequences you should do it and then (if needed) seek forgiveness.
🚪 Prop your door open
Another way to stop overthinking is to create intentional distractions from what makes you overthink.
In my video on 10 Cheap Purchases that Improved my Life, I chose a doorstop as one of the best bang-for-the-buck purchases I’ve ever made. When I was back in university, I quickly realised that spending a couple of hours more to get a 1% higher grade wasn’t worth it. So, while others were closing their door, I decided to prop mine open and invite anyone who wanted to interrupt me while I was working.
This created an intentional distraction and kept me away from worrying too much over the exam or spending too much time revising that one paper. And, as a nice second-order benefit, it led to many fun and entertaining conversations with my new friends.
Therefore, try to find how you can implement intentional distractions that are going to break the overthinking loop that you’d otherwise get into.
📜 Journal like a Stoic
Seneca, one of the most well-known Stoic philosophers, used to journal every night to reflect on his day. Such a practice makes it easier to let loose of constraining thoughts and rumination by transferring them onto paper. The way I implement journaling for better mental clarity is by writing Morning Pages.
👽 Live longer and healthier – Not going great. I’m reading Fast this Way by @bulletproofexec, which is giving me an introduction to the world of intermittent and other types of fasting, which are apparently good for longevity.
— Ali Abdaal (@AliAbdaal) March 3, 2021
Another way that I dabble with journaling is by using a Notion template that I use every morning and night to properly start and close the day. Inside the template, there are questions such as:
- One thing that I could have done to make today better and how can I apply it tomorrow?
- Am I resisting something?
- Favourite thing of my day?
By filling out these points I push my mind towards more mindful thinking about the day and by reflecting on all the things I’ve done I leave no room for ruminating over the past.
This Notion template was created by one of my friends, Valentin Perez who I’ve interviewed in one of the Deep Dives (check it out here). And, if you want to grab the Morning Pages template, you can get it here.
Going back to Stoicism, I’ve found that adopting the right mindset is one of the best ways to beat issues like stress or overthinking, at least in my life. When we focus our mind on the things that matter to us and find a way to be happy, the rest will take care of itself. If you’re interested in learning more about this, I have a whole Skillshare Masterclass on Stoicism that you can sign up for below. It’s 100% free and once you’re there, you can check out the rest of my Skillshare courses along with lessons from hundreds of other creators.
🙌 Be more grateful
Once again we’re going to steal some ideas from Justin Kan In the same podcast episode, Justin shared how gratitude journaling is one of his keystone habits.
There are many different ways to approach it but the way that works best for Justin is to just write down 3 things that he’s grateful for. This ridiculously simple practice can, as many people back up, improve your happiness and make you see the highlights of your life.
Similarly to meditation, it’s the technique that I’d love to explore in-depth and in fact, I’m committing to gratitude journaling and will continue with the habit for the next couple of weeks (which I shared in my recent March Goals Report).
✍️ Do more journaling – Journaling is apparently good for one’s health and wellbeing. I’ve been dabbling in it through Morning Pages, but I want to take it more seriously moving forward. This public journal feels like a good way of going about that.
— Ali Abdaal (@AliAbdaal) March 3, 2021
🤝 Acknowledge your successes
We often put too much emphasis on things that went wrong which makes us forget about all of our accomplishments.
Overthinking can take our self-esteem to an all-time low so it might be worth having an ace in the pack that we can use to counter such feelings. One way to do it is to keep all the nice things about yourself in one place.
Did someone compliment you? Write it down. A subscriber wrote a nice comment? Copy and paste. A stranger sent you a thank-you email? Forward and save.
My favourite method for this is Day One. It’s a journaling app that makes it easy to save and organise things like screenshots, images or emails. All these features make it a perfect solution to create a good-things directory that I can use anytime things seem not to work out.
My Annual Review is my way to reflect on pretty much everything that happened over the course of the past 12 months. It’s got 3main steps, with the first one called Reflect. I break this particular step down into four smaller points:
- Stuff I’m grateful for
- What happened this year?
- Cool stuff I discovered this year
- Reflective questions
While I’m making the Annual Review it feels like the time goes slower. Suddenly I can remind myself of all the awesome things that happened this year. Most importantly, it gives me time to reflect and leaves no room for ruminating or even worrying as the next two steps (Plan and Execute) are all about getting ready for what life has to offer in the next 12 months.
💥 Spot Cognitive Distortions
Perspective can change how we interpret any situation. What we might take as a loss, someone else can treat as a victory. By just changing how we look at things, we can reframe negative scenarios as successes.
There are lots of cognitive distortions that we fall into every day. One way to tackle this is to care only about what we’re in control of. For example, in the past, I was worried about the future of my YouTube channel as I was focused on reaching certain subscribers goals. When I switched my thinking from outcome-driven -> I want to get to 2 million subs in a year to process-driven -> I will publish three videos a week for three years (and let’s see what happens), things started to change.
Why? Let’s break down both approaches.
1 – I reached 1.8 million subs. It’s a great accomplishment but there’s no joy because it wasn’t enough to achieve the goal I set. Sure, 1.8 million subs is a lot but it’s not what I was aiming for.
2 – I reached 1.8 million subs publishing three videos a week for 3 years. Same outcome but a much different perspective. In this scenario, I’m everything but sad. I stuck with my goal that I’m in control of and achieved something worth celebrating.
Be mindful of what you might be interpreting to your disadvantage. Reframe it or dump it completely if it doesn’t make you happy.
Success isn’t about getting more done, it’s about having more fun.
If you’re having fun, productivity takes care of itself.
— Ali Abdaal (@AliAbdaal) February 26, 2021
Overthinking is a product of using useful resources in the wrong way. Luckily, it’s also a sign that we have these resources so all we have to do is to flick the switch.
Most importantly, overthinking stands in our way to being productive and happy so it should be our priority to find a way to tame it. And for creative people, like you and me, creating more brainpower and room for thinking will only be a good thing.
And don’t give up if one technique doesn’t work. Some habits won’t stick or it’s not the right time or environment for you to implement them. Experiment with all seven and find the one or two that feel like the missing piece of the puzzle.
If you liked this article and the tips I shared, you may also enjoy my weekly newsletter – The Friendzone. Each Sunday, I share actionable productivity tips, practical life advice, and high-quality insights from across the web. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in, consider signing up below. Cheers! 🙌