A couple of weeks ago, I watched a football game in which the kicker missed 4 extra point attempts in a row. For those who are unsure, that's not good, not good at all. And it was horribly cringeworthy for us football fans watching this poor guy miss left, then left again, then right, then get his kick blocked. The PAT (point after touchdown) attempt is probably the easiest kick to make. As my little one pointed out, this guy gets paid millions of dollars to send an egg-shaped leather ball between two goal posts from 33 yards out. He should be able to do this with his eyes closed, and on most days he probably could. Before this disastrous game, in fact, he'd hit 53 out of 55 PATs.
This morning at the gym I watched a 20-something college athlete (among her sports was gymnastics) struggle to do some fairly basic ladder agility drills. Drills she's probably done hundreds of times before, in this same gym, with the same people. Drills that many of us 50-plus-athletically-challenged-adults were breezing through. Every time she made a mistake - like missed the last box, skipped a box, started in the wrong box - the group fitness coach had her do the drill again. In front of all of us. On her own. They even videotaped her to show her what she was doing wrong. And she did it wrong again. Ugh!
What's going on here, people???
What I believe these examples demonstrate is the "You're Way Overthinking It" syndrome. And, yes, I just made that up. But that shouldn't take away from the fact that it is a genuine affliction that can impact anyone, anytime, including us writers.
Okay, so how do you know when you've triggered the way-overthinking-it mind in you? Below are some telltale signs:
You're totally overwhelmed by a situation that you typically/historically have conquered with relative ease...
You're experiencing "analysis paralysis" (didn't make that one up folks), which means you are tearing down every single thought you have and action you make, over and over and over again, until all that remains looks like it went through a paper shredder and then was lit on fire...
You're getting bombarded with unwanted, unprompted thoughts, and they aren't very nice. Instead, your mind is sending negative and critical messages, and messing with you by reminding you of past failures. (Note: These examples are your brain's way of saying, "Hey, let's rev up your anxiety and stress by remembering all those times you failed at this [kick, drill, writing assignment] so it's kinda likely your next attempt is going to have the same awful result. Good luck!")
You're finding that the thing that has often made you the most happy or given you the most joy - exercising, playing football, storytelling - is now feeling like WORK, and it's coming with a whole lot of pressure and seriousness.
At a minimum, way overthinking it may affect your ability to do something that typically comes naturally to you. In its worst form, it may cause longlasting fear, anxiety, and depression.
So, first off, let's agree not to way overthink anything. Of course, it's always easier said than done to just turn off our brains. Ironically, forcing ourselves to try not to think too much about something can cause the opposite effect. (There was actually an experiment that proves this out, where people were asked to not think about a white bear. Spoiler alert, they thought about it on average once every minute.) The mind is scary powerful.
Going back to the case studies of the football kicker and the athlete, let's see if there are some takeaways from their experiences.
In the case of the kicker, some past NFL kickers suggested that he might have more success if he were to move farther away from his target when he kicked PATs. So, make it more challenging for him. They even suggested that perhaps his team should have taken some penalties prior to the kick so that he could increase the distance between himself and the goal post as his longer field goals were successful.
In the case of the athlete, she was asked to slooow dooown. Work on getting the drill correct before she tried to increase the speed to what she usually uses in other athletic feats. In her case, you could say the goal was to lessen the challenge and to methodically focus on each step.
Hmmm, these seem like opposite approaches. What can we take away as writers to help us prevent the way-overthinking-it "yips" from infecting us? The following are some ideas:
Make it more challenging. What? Why would I want to do that? I am already overthinking this thing! But that's precisely why you might want to make it more interesting, different, or exciting by adding a new twist. Many times when I'm way overthinking something it's because it feels like something I'm doing for the umpteenth time - the same blog topic, the same content structure, the same website process...If I can find a way to shake it up with a new perspective, style, or strategy, then it becomes fun again.
Back away. This could mean leaving your desk and doing a non-work-related task. It could mean going outside for a walk. It could mean shutting down the computer and calling it a day. I often have what I call "a blip" overnight. I'm not sure it necessarily happens in my sleep, but sometime between when I shut down my computer at night and when I wake up the next morning, I get an earth-shattering idea - at least in my mind it's amazing ;-) When I walk away from the thing I'm way overthinking, ideas often start popping into my head like balloons. I put them in a note on my cell phone to be used to get my writing flow state going the next day. For me working when I should be "leisuring" is sacrilege, but there are times when I will search up ideas on my topic later in the evening when I'm not on work time. And you know what? When I explore things in my free time, it doesn't feel like work...it feels like I'm looking into something I'm interested in and want to learn more about. Does that make sense to anyone else?
Slow down. I know that you want to finish that writing assignment as soon as possible and check it off your list. You know how I know? Because that's what I want when I have an assignment. To get it done! And, of course, there is typically a looming deadline that adds to the need to write that last call to action and send it off to the editor. But if I try to rush through the writing process, I find it inevitably backfires into taking much longer than it should. I need to give myself, and my thoughts and writing, room to breathe. Not a chance to overthink it but give me some space to NOT think...to research, outline, jot some stuff down, start to formulate ideas/sections, fill in information, review, revise, edit again, read again, etc. It's been said that life is not a sprint, and neither should any writing project feel like one. So, this means not starting a project the day before it's due. It also means that on the first day I may just write for an hour, and it might not make much sense. As the days go by, and I'm warmed up, the writing time will lengthen and the content will be more meaningful. By the end of the "race," I'm not exhausted or hyperventilating or kicking myself for not getting it done faster or better. Nope, I'm satisfied with my performance.
Telling your mind to stop overthinking it is not going to work. Instead, you're going to have to try to get other things going to distract it. Rev up your body, spark your spirit, or ignite that sympathetic nervous system. Just don't overthink it...