Seven Thinking Errors That Contribute to Mental Overload

Do you overcomplicate decisions? Here are some solutions.

Posted Oct 23, 2018

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People who are prone to anxiety, low self-confidence, and/or perfectionism can have a tendency to over-research, overthink and excessively complicate their decisions. This can result in a constant sense of mental overload.  The examples below will help you learn how to spot this pattern in yourself, and moderate it.

Seven Ways People Overcomplicate Decisions and Overlook Easy Solutions:

1.  You've got a task on your to-do list that you don't actually need to do.

You think "I need to buy a new dress for Lucy's wedding" when you have an acceptable dress you could wear.  This is a sneaky "must" thought in disguise.  When your self-talk is "I need to....." it's implying that you must do it. 

Solution: Switch your "must" thinking to "prefer" or "could." Recognize that you could buy a new dress, and perhaps you would prefer it, but you don't have to. Perhaps you have other priorities for your time, cognitive energy and/or money. If these other priorities currently trump dress shopping, you've got the choice to just cut this decision from your to-do list.

2.  You've already thought of a good solution, you just haven't implemented it.

An example of this trap that I discuss in my book The Healthy Mind Toolkit is about someone who knows they need to do something about their depression. They know their basic options are either trying cognitive-behavioral therapy or medication but they haven't pushed the button on either of these choices. The person doesn't need to do continued thinking about their options. They know what they are. Both of their ideas are good ones and it's time to move to action.

Solution:  Recognize that there is often more than one good option, and simultaneously, no guaranteed or perfect option. 

3. You think you need to research a decision but you don't.

This point is related to #2 but involves a slightly different way of thinking about it. Let's say your microwave broke and you need to buy a new one. Your to-do list includes the item "research microwaves." You don't have time or energy, so it doesn't get done. In the meantime your family is doing without a microwave, which everyone finds inconvenient. Since all microwaves cook food, you can probably just pick one without actually researching it. Any choice is likely to be fine.  

In modern life, we have a lot of access to reviews and comparison shopping.  Both of these factors combine to make us second guess our decisions and get sucked into buying products with extra features we don't really need.  Perfectionists, who get anxious about making an imperfect choice, are likely to be especially vulnerable to this trap.

Solution: Aim to differentiate between decisions that need exhaustive research and those that don't. The type of microwave you buy isn't going to have a major impact on your happiness.

Practical tip:  An alternative to overthinking these types of decisions is purchasing using a credit card that gives an extra year of warranty protection. If your cheap microwave that had an one year warranty busts after 13 months (and who hasn't had a situation like that?), you're still covered.

4. You're thinking about a potential later step in a process that doesn't impact your next step.

Lets say you want to try a DIY fix for something that broke in your home.  For example, one heating element on your stovetop has stopped working. You think "I could try ordering a new part and see if that solves the problem." However you're not sure of the next steps if that doesn't work. At that point, you expect you'll be out of your depth in terms of DIY. 

Solution:  If step 5 won't impact step 1, try not thinking about step 5 and just enact step 1. 

5.  Your next step involves asking someone, and you don't want to.

When I was discussing this article topic with my spouse, she brought up the example of trimming our trees. She needs to ask our neighbors if they have an extension ladder she can borrow but feels inhibited to ask. In situations like this, your next step can whirl around in your mind on and off for weeks. The path forward is clear but it's intimidating for some reason.

Solution: Sometimes just articulating what you feel inhibited about is enough to get you unstuck.  Try talking over whatever you feel anxious about as a way of getting unstuck.

Practical tip: In general, whenever you're stuck trying to figure out a course of action or solution, consider whether there is someone in your broad network who you can ask for advice or help.

6. You see a choice as irreversible.

There's a balancing act involved in whether you should put temporary or suboptimal fixes to problems in place, or whether you should "do it right the first time."  While doing it right seems like the obvious correct choice, sometimes that's too onerous and, in the specific situation, something is better than nothing. For example, our side gate broke off at the hinges. The wooden gate is in pretty bad shape but putting it back up is a much less intimidating option right now than getting a new gate built (since it's not a standard size).   

Solution:  If you feel stuck or intimidated, ask yourself whether considering a temporary solution would help get you unstuck. With some decisions, you might think to yourself "I'll try this for a (period of time) and see how it works out."

7.  You're trying to 100% control other people's reactions.

Lets say you want to say "no" to someone. You're thinking "I need to find a way to say no that won't upset or offend them."  Actually you don't, and sometimes that's impossible.   

Solution:  Try aiming for the golden rule of do unto others, but without thinking you need to (or can) ensure other people react the way you'd prefer they did.

How to Make Use of This Information

  • It would be easy to read this article, see a point/s that applies to you and then not act on your new insights.  When you do more in-depth processing of what you've read and apply it to specific examples in your own life, you're much more likely to benefit from the information (for more about this, see this article about people who read a lot of self help but who don't act on the tips they read).
  • If you really want to make use of this article, a good step would be to take each point and identify an example of a situation in which you've fallen into that particular trap.  You can look back on past situations or you can notice any new situations as they come up. 
  • If you take the latter prospective route, whenever you notice that you're feeling stuck or procrastinating, identify if the issue falls into any of the seven categories I've outlined.  Take note of situations as they come up in your life until you've identified one situation in each category.
  • Another option is to come up with other hypothetical examples for each point.  I typically give one example per point, and you can try coming up with another one example per point on your own.