Thinking is generally considered as a form of tool - for action. Thoughts may be random sometimes and range from past memories to future imaginations, from realistic content to fictional ideas, from practical to idealistic themes. Dreams are also form of thought contents, however, they are unconscious. Thinking, on the other hand, is an act, a conscious one. According to Google search, "think" means "direct one's mind towards someone or something; use one's mind actively to form connected ideas." This implies, that thinking is an active form of engaging one's mind. Thinking is always directed at something. Thinking also constitutes reasoning - analytical, critical. Again according to Google search, "reasoning" implies "the action of thinking about something in a logical, sensible way" and "find an answer to a problem by considering possible options". These above definitions indicate that thinking is a form of reflection on a problem at hand such that reasoning is applied to connect ideas in a logical way to reach a definite answer.
What is overthinking?
It wouldn't be wrong to say that overthinking is an attempt at problem solving. However, here, the person is thinking excessively in order to reach a solution. This means that either the person doesn't have an easy solution, or the person finds it difficult to solve the problem, or may be the problem is hard to solve, or his/her thinking is not effective in finding the solutions. In some or the other way, the solution is difficult to reach. But why the solution is difficult to reach? Or is it really an issue of a difficult problem or an ineffective strategy? Let us understand this with an example. A 28 year old male employee is thinking repetitively whether he will be able to present the report the next day with confidence. He is aware of the possible mistakes he can make. But somehow lacks confidence. He remembers the presentation that he gave last time which did not go as expected, because he could not answer the questions of the panel. Now while preparing for the report presentation, he is constantly thinking of how he will perform. He is trying to find excuses and delaying the work due to stress. He is trying constantly to make himself assured that everything will be alright. To convince himself, that things will be as expected, he is worrying and putting extra thoughts. The fear of the situation is motivating him to think more in order to find convincing solutions that he is not at any risks.
What is the problem here? Problem is the preparation of presentation. How much thinking is expected? In such common situations, people would be thinking cautiously of this event that will happen in near future. This situation is going to be stressful; it will be attended by a panel of senior members of the company, it has to be well presented, there must be adequate preparation beforehand. There is an obvious future element to this situation that must be kept in mind. Despite all the stresses that this situation has to offer, the thinking should be focused on the task at hand, in present, and no future thoughts are going to help. One never knows what turns out in the real situation. The appropriate thinking would be to focus on the present situation because presentation has to be prepared now. So overthinking can only creep in when there is over-concern for the future. So the best strategy would be to solve the problem by investing relevant amount of thoughts in present, and preparing the presentation with best efforts. This present oriented thoughts would be almost similar in quantity for all, who do not overthink. So extra thoughts can basically be about the future (or past, in some other case). Once the presentation is completed well, the next day's situation can be handled later, depending on its uncertain challenges.
Now compare this strategy with the "overthinking" protagonist above. It is usual for some people in this state to think this particular way. But worry about future and the subsequent overthinking, is reducing his focus and causing all other kinds of psychological distress. He is losing confidence, not concentrating on the presentation, making mistakes in the content, not able to fully prepare and work on the task. His present peace of mind is not there. He may be thinking of future outcomes, which are important to anyone like him, but state of overthinking is ruining his mental state, which can possibly be relaxed and calm. So the strategy here is to solve the presentation problem by focusing on all those aspects of the situation that may go wrong in future. This comes with an expectation that by thinking more, he will be assured of possible favorable outcomes. And still he is not being able to do anything about it because it's in future. In fact, by thinking too much, and disturbing his current performance of preparation, he is actually increasing the chances of negative outcomes to happen. If presentation really goes wrong due to any number of reasons, he will justify himself that his worries were correct. Though in many cases, the facts of the real incidents are not related to the worry content because worrying is about the abstract possibilities, which can be numerous, may not be associated with the reality at all.
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As we can see, the problem is not difficult and is faced by several individuals who are working in an organization. But the way the thinking is implemented is totally personal and depends on the individual. Thinking is required to make a proper presentation. It requires the skills of reasoning and persuasion. However, past experiences, low confidence, poor preparation, and many other factors can trigger over-thinking in order to reach a definite solution as soon as possible, and as effectively as possible. Therefore, we can say that over-thinking depends on some personal or internal factors (self-esteem, communication skills) and some situational or external factors (presentation at the meeting in front of panel). If these factors are not favorable, then over-thinking would be employed to reach a solution.
But this does not mean that over-thinking is just like any other strategy. Over-thinking is unproductive and unnecessary. Because it does not bring solutions but only increases worries and distress. Unless underlying factors are resolved, over-thinking can not be overcome. The solution may always have past, present and future aspects. But the focus to solve it by keeping in mind the future or past experiences would only amount to overthinking. This is how we come to see that some individuals who focus too much on future would feed their mind with extra thoughts that are unnecessary and need not solve the problem at hand.
It must be mentioned that there are two common types of overthinking - worrying, with focus on future and rumination, with focus on past. Details of these are given in other articles. The image above summarizes the ideas presented in this article.
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