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Overthinking is Toxic

(I posted on Twitter yesterday that this would be called “Overthinking is Masturbation”, and it is, but I had further thoughts this morning. Heh.)

One of my many flaws is that I procrastinate in the form of “thinking about what I need to do.” I like to take long walks and muse about shit: story ideas, game mechanics, blog posts, personal stuff, whatever it is that’s on my mind. And there’s a degree to which this is helpful.

That degree is the excuse I use to keep doing it far, far beyond usefulness. Because (and here’s where we get into the original title) thinking, as an act, is pleasurable. Being clever or intelligent or whatever it is we’re doing when we’re thinking to ourselves about something fires off neurons in our–well, at least my–head that reward me for this activity. I find it calming, relaxing to just think about something. For hours. For fucking days.

Only it’s not useful to “just think” that long. After a bit, because nothing is recorded or submitted to others for feedback or anything that would take me beyond “just thinking,” I come around to the same thoughts over and over. Sometimes I realize it and explore new tangents. Sometimes I don’t until much later. Either way, now I’m wasting my time and preventing myself from moving onto the next action I need to do.

Sometimes these thoughts are about worrying about said action. So I analyze over and over what I feel I should do to mitigate a problem. Sometimes these thoughts are about a hard action, like a tough bit of writing or designing or editing that I need to do. So I think about it over and over. There are different reasons I’ll spend time just thinking, and they’re almost all excuses.

(The ones that aren’t excuses, unfortunately, justify this activity for the ones that are.)

I’m started to read, slowly, Getting Things Done. One of the things mentioned early on is to write down on paper things in your mind, so that you can free your mind up from fixating on them. It hit home yesterday, and a little more this morning (when I changed the title of this post) how the ways I’ve already been doing that have helped me, and how I need to do a better job at it still.

Since I got my iPhone a few years back, I have absolutely fallen in love with quickly typing notes and emailing them to myself. Or occasionally doing a voice memo. I told people within two months of having my phone that it changed my life. I would have a quick idea, type a note, email it to myself, and did that so often that I have a tag in GMail called “Notes to Self” that I routinely go back and search through.

Suddenly I could remember small ideas that would hit me minutes after going to bed. And by typing them out, I was suddenly able to sleep better. My mind wasn’t chewing on this idea over and over — it was allowed to set it aside.

Productivity ensued.

Now, I realize I need to get better at this, not just for the “I’m walking and oh that’s a good mechanic idea I should write it down” moments, but for everything. I can “just think” about a short story for a day, at most, but the next day I need to write things down. The act of writing makes an idea concrete, something I can better explore because I have made it tangible, and something I can then put down without fearing losing the idea — the very reason my mind keeps obsessing about overthinking.

That frees up my mind, my mental bandwidth, for other things it needs to work on. And for working on whatever that thing is more efficiently.

I mentioned why I considered “Overthinking is Masturbation” above, with the brain reward cycle element, but here’s why it’s toxic: once you’re done with the initial thinking you need to do, you’re wasting time. Your thoughts will become better once you write them down. And better still once they come into contact with someone else. The move from pure thought to action is profound, sometimes intimidating, but necessary. And the longer we delay that move, well, none of us are getting any younger.

There are so many excuses we do to keep us from acting. I’ll address some of my own past ones now:

  • I only have part of an idea. Congrats, that means you have an idea. You’ll have more if you make your brain explore it by writing it down.
  • I don’t know where to start. Actually, you do, it’s just not where you want to start. That’s okay. Start in the middle, or wherever words flow best. You needn’t be linear.
  • My idea sucks. Then stop thinking about it? Can’t? Probably means that it’s actually your confidence that sucks. And that’s something that takes practice. So, practice by writing this idea down.
  • I’m not ready to write it down. You never are really ready to do anything until some time after you’ve done it. Don’t wait to be ready. Make yourself ready by doing it.
  • I’m tired now. I’ll do it tomorrow. Really? You can’t just make a few notes right now, before going to bed? You can’t suck it up for ten minutes?
  • I don’t think I can hack it. That’s honest. And you might not be able to right now. But if you never act, you’ll never be able to. Yoda was full of shit: there is a “try.”
  • I’m afraid of what I’ll write down. Yep. But that fear doesn’t go away if you ignore the action. It just eats at you. So, suck it up and write. And move on. It’s easier to do so if you act than if you don’t.

When we overthink, when we allow our minds to keep us from moving forward, we’re losing precious hours and days that we could spend creating. We’re losing precious time we could spend learning how to be more confident in our efforts, in how to recover from the mistakes we will invariably make, in all those things that it takes to be a creator.

I’m not telling you not to think. But instead of procrastinating, allow yourself to enter an upward spiral of thinking-acting-thinking-acting. You’re allowed to go back to thinking after you’ve acted. I promise you that. And I promise you that in each iteration of that spiral, your thoughts will be even more awesome and more rewarding.

– Ryan

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3 Responses to Overthinking is Toxic

  1. David Gallo says:

    Ryan, I would agree and disagree.

    Once you’ve thought about something and put it on a sufficient back burner where it won’t bug you – you don’t have to act on it. Sometimes (in the creative process at least) things get better with some time.

    There have been many times in a design process where I was able to benefit for having some time between inception and action. It allowed me to refine ideas, come up with better ones and get some perspective.

    Yeah, sometimes you need to iterate fast and furious. Other times, you maybe only have half of the idea and the other half is waiting for you further on down the road, so just let it simmer until you can put together the meal.

    Procrastination sucks, period. It’s about not making choices. When you make a choice to put an idea on hold until later and work on other things, that can be useful.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      David,

      Sure. And Mythender, for instance, has greatly benefitted from a long gestation period. But the times when I’m making progress on that (or anything, like my involvement in Dresden) is when I’m acting on thought, then going back to thinking, then acting again. Take too long in the “just thinking” space and you’re not actually moving forward.

      We’re probably getting into semantics, but “write the idea down and put it somewhere” is an act. Deciding not to dwell on it after that is neither thinking nor acting, sure. I have found it valuable to take a break in the cycle and do other stuff. It’s the “make the ‘thinking’ part of the cycle take too damned long” that I’m addressing as procrastination and toxicity. Pausing, which is what I’d call what you’re describing, is an optional step after any action in my think-act spiral. But that’s not overthinking. That’s something else. And it can also yield fruit.

      And if done too much or not enough, just like thinking, is toxic to your project and to your well-being as a creator.

      – Ryan

  2. Wayne says:

    I’m a huge advocate of digital voice recorders, as I think I said at one or more panels at RinCon last year. I started using them about 5 years ago when I was re-taking a Photo 101 class to get access again to a darkroom, and found it indispensable for making notes when on long distance drives. I’ve also been using PDAs for over 15 years and use them for notes. I had a folder on my Palm Pilot for Game Design, and I’d transcribe note snippets into it for later review and work.

    It’s been very useful for me over the years.

    (Recently I got a sweet Olympus voice recorder from Staples Online for $50 that has a built-in USB connector and charger and, after a firmware update, records directly in to MP3 format. And it works great on a Mac, so it should be fine on a PC.)

    The iPhone, of course, is an excellent blending of the two, having the voice recorder and the note pad all in one device. Sadly, all I have is an iPod Touch (love it though I do.) I do tag all my game design notes with (gd) in the first line so I can easily look at all of the things that I’m accumulating.

    But you’re absolutely right: if you have an idea, it must be recorded. If it isn’t, it’s too easily lost. Something might trigger a recall event, but the subtleties of your original idea will be lost.