Creative work involves extended periods of introversion and reflection. But too much overthinking can transform into procrastination and paralysis and prevent you from shipping your best work.
Instead of publishing an article, releasing a podcast episode or a new course, you labor on them for weeks, iterating instead of getting feedback from your audience.
I’m a chronic over-thinker. I lie awake at night, worrying about cash flow and mistakes in my work. The next morning, I mull over the problem while sitting in traffic or staring at my email.
I re-read the email wondering what I missed and what I could have said better. I play out disaster scenarios in my head about my finances, family, work, marriage and business.
If, like me, you face these problems, take heart from John Milton, who said,
“The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”
These coping strategies will help you manage overthinking and make decisions about your creative work faster.
1. Capture Important Tasks
A coaching client wants to cancel their contract later this month. A reader emails to complain about typos in your latest article. And a WordPress plugin is slowing down your website.
It’s only Monday morning, and you’ve a lot going on. No wonder you fall behind on an important creative project, like writing a new book chapter or recording a lesson for a digital course.
Write down urgent tasks as they occur on a trusted to-do list. I put mine on a Trello board or in Apple notes.
Capturing important tasks for actioning later on, enables you to refocus on creative work without forgetting anything important.
As for when you should do it?
Unless it’s critical, I like prioritising creative work in the morning and other tasks in the afternoon.
2. Reduce Your Choices
Ruminating on the negative consequences holds many creators back from deciding on options A, B. C, D, E and F.
Too much choice consumes an alarming amount of time. Instead, whittle down available options to what looks like the best three on first glance. Give yourself some credit. Assume these three remaining choices represent a comparatively good composite of all available options.
If it’s low stakes, also use a tool like Flip a Coin to narrow your choices. Alternatively, use a tool like PickFu or Survey Monkey to poll your audience.
With three choices to hand, ask yourself: Will I be better or worse off if this decision doesn’t go according to plan?
Chances are you can easily reverse the consequences of an incorrect choice and revisit the other options.
3. Meditate For Your Mental Health
Several years ago, a boss sent me a short, sharp email demanding an important report. I reflected on his tone for the entire day. That night, I lay in bed and couldn’t sleep thanks to recurring negative thoughts.
What had I done to make him angry? Didn’t he know how much work I’ve to do? Would he fire me?
I woke up the next day exhausted and skipped an early morning writing session. And I was already behind on my book. As a chronic over-thinker, I should have meditated for ten minutes on the problem.
According to a 2012 paper by Jaeger and June, research shows directing attention to your mental health often changes that state.
In short, a daily meditation habit helps identify unproductive thoughts in your mind as they occur. Then, you can decide whether you want to engage with them or put them to one side.
Similarly, a mindfulness practice can help creators sit with and work through an uncomfortable problem for longer. Think of it as a creative habit to cultivate.
4. Reflect On Possible Consequences
Let’s say you hosted a webinar that didn’t quite convert the way you intended. You could ruminate about it while watching television at home that night, or you could put these unproductive thoughts to one side by writing a short journal entry.
Even if you’re not a writer, journaling is useful for productive worry time and creative problem-solving. Remember, nobody has to read these entries or insights into your thought processes.
When five or six o’clock arrives, try using these journaling questions to reflect on your creative projects:
- What worked
- What didn’t work?
- What will I do differently next time?
I also particularly like freewriting about the best and worst consequences of an apparently big decision, like quitting a job to work on on my business full-time.
5. Abandon Perfectionism
Unless you’re a scientist operating in a laboratory, you’ll never have access to every fact and perfect working conditions. Things will go wrong and backfire despite your best plans.
I worried about self-publishing my first book in case of a single typo. Later on, I found out many professionally edited books still find their way into stores with missed typos and other mistakes.
In the first edition of the first Harry Potter book, the list of Hogwarts school supplies said “1 wand” twice. Books editors fix these accidental mistakes in subsequent editions.
So I published my book…and a few weeks later, a reader emailed me about a typo. Did the sky fall in? No. I fixed the typo and republished the book.
Read my guide to how creators learn some perfectionism solutions.
6. Instead of Either Or, Pick Both
Decision-making often boils down to choosing between option A and option B.
I’d like to launch a podcast, but growing a YouTube channel looks tempting.
I could start a new niche website, but perhaps I should create an online course for my existing audience instead?
Unless it’s prohibitively expensive or time-consuming, pick A and B… at first. It’s kind of like going out for dinner with a friend and ordering both desserts.
When you’re a few weeks (or episodes) in, you’ll find it easier to understand which strategy is right for your creative business. Then, you can kill the other idea and refocus your resources.
7. Practice Rapid Decision Making
Most decisions are reversible unless it’s healthcare, politics, or a big life event like getting married or becoming a parent.
At some point, the sunk cost of time and energy into the decision-making process outweighs the cost of an incorrect choice. So, decide as fast as you can. If you don’t make the right decision the first time around, use this information next time.
Going faster isn’t always easy, though. Ask yourself this question:
“Will this decision impact on my happiness in a year’s time?”
Creative decisions rarely result in a “Yes”. Picked the wrong book cover? That’s easy to fix. Started the wrong type of creator economy business? You can always pivot later once you’ve evidence to the contrary about your choice.
On the other hand, if you put off a creative project, how will you feel about this lack of progress next year? Making rapid decisions is a bit like working out. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
8. Avoid Letting Today’s Emotions Color Tomorrow’s Decisions
Many new creators worry about what others will think of their latest article, podcast, video, book or project.
They spend hours working on it, and the prospect of pressing publish is nauseating. So they fall into a vicious circle of procrastinating without ever shipping.
In Stumbling Upon Happiness, Daniel Gilbert touches on the problem of making decisions based on our current emotions:
When we imagine future circumstances, we fill in details that won’t really come to pass and leave out details that will. When we imagine future feelings, we find it impossible to ignore what we are feeling now and impossible to recognize how we will think about what happens later.
So, if you find yourself procrastinating about a creative decision, ask:
Is this about my creative work? Or is it because I’m hungry, cold, lonely or tired?
I’ve written more than my fair share of articles and thought I don’t feel like publishing this today.
To get around this problem, I schedule articles to go live weeks in advance with the help of an editorial calendar. That way, even if I’m having a bad day, I still ship something. It’s the creative equivalent of preparing a gym bag for an early morning workout, even if I feel tired and sluggish after dinner.
9. Ask an Expert For Their Opinion
Use your network or a service like Clarity.FM to speak to an expert who’s already solved the problem you’re facing. When speaking to them, avoid giving your opinion about what you’d like to do. That’ll taint their advice.
If it’s a high-stakes decision, you could consult two or three different experts and weigh up their advice before acting.
Remember, consulting or paying to speak to an expert is only a good use of time if it’s an expensive or painfully difficult decision to reverse.
I particularly like podcasting and interviewing influencers for this approach. It enables me to ask successful creators about solving a problem… and create content simultaneously.
10. Commit to Just-In-Time Learning
After a certain point, seeking more information is a form of procrastination. Part of a creator economy work demands you write that book chapter, interview a source, record a video or email your list about a new course.
Sitting down to do the work usually reveals an answer, one way or the other.
If, like me, you sometimes catch yourself endlessly taking courses or reading up on a topic, try just-in-learning. Figure out:
- What you want to achieve
- What you need to do
- When you must do it
Instead of consuming information and advice about executing on every possible choice, only consume a source immediately before you intend to act. In other words…
Skip reading up on Pinterest marketing unless you intend to market on Pinterest. Learn the basics of Facebook ads... when you're ready to set up your first ad. Buy that self-publishing course after you've written the first draft. Listen to advice from top podcasters when you're ready to launch your own show.
11. Create a Ulysses Pact
A Ulysses pact involves introducing a constraint in advance that mitigates poor decision-making.
According to Greek legend, Ulysses and his men faced sailing past the land of the Sirens. Ulysses understood the captivating siren’s song stripped many sailors of rational thought and led to their doom.
So Ulysses put wax in his men’s ears, asked them to tie him to the bast of his boat and directed them to avoid changing course. When Ulysses heard the lure of the Siren’s song, his men continued sailing the boat and they avoid shipwreck.
What Ulysses contracts can you impose in advance to simplify decision-making? Use set criteria. For example:
- I will only use X social media channels to promote my work
- I will only create this type of content for my audience
- I will focus on this niche only until I reach a traffic or revenue goal
For a while, I experimented with content marketing and paid advertising to sell my books and courses. I found it hard to focus on both strategies effective. So I picked one: content marketing.
Thanks to this constraint, I found it easier to say no to appealing digital marketing strategies and courses about paid advertising. And I used money previously earmarked for ads for other parts of the business.
How to Stop Overthinking: Make a Heaven Instead of Hell
Your mind is a powerful tool. Avoid letting it spend too much time ruminating on the little things over creative work.
When an everyday problem arises and you can’t get it out of your head later that night, apply one of the strategies above. When I doubt, decide already!
Although I’m a chronic over-thinker, I’ve learnt sometimes it’s best to act. Far easier to fix a mistake later than live with regrets about squandered opportunities.
How do you train your brain to stop overthinking?
You don’t need a ph.d to train your brain to stop overthinking. Writing ideas and tasks down as they occur, meditating and journaling are all helpful coping strategies for dealing with negative thoughts and excess rumination.
What is overthinking a symptom of?
Overthinking is usually a symptom of uncertainty and fear of the possible outcome. It’s also a negative mental habit that you can subconsciously develop. The good news is it’s easy to overcome.