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Fight Overthinking, That Destroyer of Decision Making

Fight Overthinking, That Destroyer of Decision Making

When making decisions under pressure, many professionals are plagued with a fear of making the wrong choice, selecting an option that could lead to business failure. This fear of failure, in itself, is not a bad thing.

In our new book What Business Can Learn From Sport Psychology, we examine how a fear of failure can actually provide powerful motivation for athletes and business professionals. But that's only if the fear of failure inspires thoughts of success and assertive actions toward a desired goal.

So where does a fear of failure stem from? Often it originates from a fear of making the wrong decision, which more often than not is caused by overthinking.

Related: The 4 Factors to Making the Best Decisions for You 

The root of overthinking.

With overthinking, you want to make the right decision so badly, you worry that you won’t be able to and lose sight of what it takes to make good decisions: a clear mind. By worrying and ruminating about your decision, you  slow down the mental processes that underpin decision making. You try to force the brain to complete the complex process (and skill) of making a decision in a way that the brain is not comfortable with.

Take driving for example. Driving is an extremely complicated process involving the coordination of mind and body to perform intricate movements safely and proficiently. If you have been driving for some time, no doubt you make the complex decisions of driving without thinking about the precise processes. You have developed expertise after all, and decisions can be made without having to process each alternative and without having to consciously weigh the pros and cons. But maybe when you were learning to drive this wasn’t the case. When learning to drive, each choice was intentional and deliberate.

But if we told you that you had to take your driving test again to continue driving (and to try to make sure your performance was flawless), you will probably abandon your automatic decision-making process and break the choices down into their component parts instead: Are my hands in the right place? Have I checked the mirrors? Am I in the right lane? 

The trouble is, by breaking the choices down, you are now making decisions in a way that is very odd for your brain. You are an expert, remember, and all this intricate and in-depth procedural decision making is not needed anymore. So what is normally a smooth and proficient decision-making process is now a slow and uncoordinated state of confusion. That ultimately damages your performance.  

In golf, overthinking skill execution has been the ruin of many a professional. Like all elite athletes, professional golfers have undergone thousands of hours of deliberate practice to ingrain technical skills into their mind and body. This learning process means that when they perform, they don’t need to think about the individual component parts of skill execution.

When putting, they don’t need to think about the complex sequence of coordinated movements in their hands, arms, shoulders, back, trunk, legs and feet. They can just think about where they want to the ball to go and execute the move automatically. But when worry starts to emerge, in those pressure situations when a putt will win the championship, many golfers start to break the skill down and try to perform the putt as if they were novices performing the skill for the first time. No longer is putting a smooth automatic process, it is now an uncoordinated and rigid process. And that can turn a simple putt into a performance catastrophe.  

Related: The Scientific Reason You Should Trust Your Gut

When working memory isn’t working.

So under stressful situations, when decisions are vital and pressured, worrying can cause overthinking. The working memory is where you quickly calculate risk and weigh pros and cons in the brain. It is also where you worry.

Because worrying takes up vital space in your working memory, no longer can you efficiently process the information you need to make that all important decison. Instead, you try to grasp every little component part of making that decision and break down the skill of decision making into a mechanical process. Just like the driving example, this isn’t how you normally make accurate decisions.

Be instinctual.

In those stressful high-pressured moments, instead of overthinking and risking paralysis by analysis, carry out your business analyses and evaluations, think about the issues and then go with what feels right rather than trying to operate like a computer with a calculated output. In other words, consider the information you have and then trust your instincts.

Your gut reaction is informed by your vast experience of being a business professional and also from your experience of being human. You make decisions all the time without overthinking them. You, as a human being, are an extremely powerful and efficient decision-making machine.

Related: 10 Steps to Quality CEO Decision-Making

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