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How to Stop Overthinking and Take Action at Work

Has “overthinking” at work ever done you any good?


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Brooke Harrison

4 months ago | 3 min read
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The analogy I’ve used to get out of my head and move projects forward

Has “overthinking” at work ever done you any good?

That’s what I thought. Overthinking is a recipe for doubt, unclear objectives, and missed deadlines. It’s a battle with perfectionism and a too-frequent excuse for procrastination.

Overthinker? Perfectionist? My hand is raised.

At work, overthinking slowed me down and kept me from completing projects on time. I held onto my work because I didn’t think it was “ready” or because I didn’t have the answers I needed.

My dad gave me a simple analogy for visualizing my work life, and it helped me overcome my fear of taking the next step…

You’re playing a game of tennis.

The point of the game is to keep the volley going. It’s simple — get the ball back over the net.

Let me tell you what this analogy is not… it’s not for you to tell yourself, “don’t let the ball drop.” That’s a one-way ticket to more pressure and perfectionism.

Your only objective is to keep the ball moving. Put the ball back in someone else’s court.

The idea is that you don’t want to be the person holding up the project. Imagine you’re standing on the tennis court, and the player on the other side is smacking balls over the net — but you’re not swinging. You’re standing there, racket hanging loosely in hand, as tennis ball after tennis ball passes you by.

Seems a little silly, right?

Ok, maybe you’re not idly standing by — maybe you’re ducking. (Honestly, that’s how it feels sometimes). It’s kind of like that scene in Clueless when Cher is in P.E. and the ball machine sends tennis balls flying past her head.

In a real game of tennis, your opponent “wins” the point if you can’t return the ball. Skilled players know that it isn’t about making the perfect serve, or even putting “spin” on every swing.

Sure, there’s technique and strategy. But at the end of the day, “winning” the point is about getting the ball back over the net. That’s it.

What’s the next logical action step?

The analogy is a simple mental trigger for taking the next step.

With a goal of returning the ball, it takes away the pressure to be “right,” or even to finish the project. You’ll get there — if you keep things moving.

Stop overthinking. Stop procrastinating. Get the ball back over the net.

I was a project manager at a fast-paced marketing agency. My job was about keeping client projects on time and on budget.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions about work is that each project will unfold in a neat, linear fashion — and that’s not the way it goes. On any given day, I juggled multiple projects (all in various phases of development). I can tell you that the analogy works for multitasking, too.

Overwhelm is a result of having too much on your plate. The tennis balls are piling up in your court.

The solution is to offload responsibilities and push the project forward — when an email comes in, or you’re assigned a task, ask yourself, “What’s the next logical action step I can take?”

There are only ever a few options:

  • You can do it yourself.
  • You have a question; you need more information.
  • You can delegate.

If you can take care of it yourself, do it. One of the top productivity tips is this: if the task will take 5 minutes or less, do it right away.

If you don’t have the answers or the information you need, quickly pop off an email to the person who can help. (Bam — ball over the net.) Put it out of your mind until they respond. But don’t forget about it! Set a reminder to follow up if need be.

This is not about avoiding your responsibilities or trying to pass off your work to others. This is the classic give and take of any work day. The tennis match metaphor is a strategy for the people like me who have a tendency to “overthink” every email and task.

The 80/20 rule (the Pareto principle) comes into play here… 80% of the outcomes result from 20% of your input. Taking some action is better than overthinking or overanalyzing our options.

Takeaway

You’re playing a game of tennis. To “win” the point, all you’ve got to do is get the ball back over the net.

There’s only so much room in our heads for one main objective — and if your objective is to keep things moving, to take the next logical step, you’ll avoid overthinking, procrastination, and perfectionism.

Visualizing your work life as a tennis match is a mental shift to help you realize it’s not about getting every little thing right. It’s about maintaining your forward momentum. You won’t always be perfect, but that’s ok. Keep swinging!

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