Don’t Think About It. Do These 5 Things Instead.

dont think about it

Most of us learned early in life that “thinking about it” is always a good idea. That is what reasonable, intelligent people do when they have a big decision in front of them, right? They think about it.

The truth is that quite often, when it comes to the big questions in our lives — Should I take the job? Should I start the business? Should I marry her? Should I relocate? — thinking gets us stuck.

By thinking, I don’t mean all neurological activity. I mean our everyday definition of thinking: the furrowed brow, fist at chin, solitary activity in which we muse on a subject, evaluate pros and cons, make internal arguments and then supposedly “figure it out.” This often leaves us more confused than when we started, further away from our own answers.

I see this frequently as a coach, as a friend, and I know it from my own experience too. I once took a month to “think about” what kind of job I wanted, and ended the month with no new insights, just a little crazy from all that time I sat at home “thinking about it.” I see coaching clients and friends taking time to “think about” what they want to do next, and getting really lost and bummed out in the process. I have a friend who drove herself into a huge pit of stress and upset “thinking about” whether she wanted to marry her boyfriend or not.

When thinking is helping you find clear answers that feel right to you, excellent! Feel free to use it. I’m certainly not anti-thinking. But when approaching a question by thinking about it is leading you down a road that feels repetitive, narrowing, overwhelming, or crazy-making, try these other tools:

1. Simmer

Simmering is a way of processing that is less conscious and deliberate than thinking. When we simmer on something, we sit with it over a period of time. We let our full mind – conscious and unconscious – work on it while we go about our lives. We cook it, just as we would a stew on the stove.

Like an oven timer going off, simmering sometimes results in a new insight or answer “popping up”  when we least expect it–often while we are immersed in some unrelated, absorbing activity. It can also slowly build an answer over time, like flavors gradually developing in a stew, settling into a rich taste.

2. Experiment

Experiments allow us to gather information from lived experience, not mental reasoning. They test out new ideas, behaviors, or approaches. If you are contemplating transitioning to a new field, instead of “thinking about it,” take a class on the subject, do related freelance work, or spend time with the kinds of people you’d be working with. If you think you might want to take up piano again, instead of “thinking about it,” just go play one within 48 hours, and see how it feels. Notice what you learned from the experiment.

3. Write

Most of us won’t write the same things over and over again, but we often get stuck thinking the same thoughts things over and over again. In this sense, writing moves us past our mental loops.

In addition, when we read our words on the page, we have the opportunity to observe our own thoughts. Observing our thoughts will always provide more insight and forward movement than thinking them.

4. Share

Sharing forces us to clarify our beliefs, desires and unanswered questions. Just as writing helps us get perspective on our thoughts because we literally see them, sharing helps get perspective because we hear ourselves.

Find a great listener who can create a space for you to share. Or, be bold and ask a good friend to participate with you in a 20-minute conversation with special rules: You share. They ask you short, simple open-ended (not yes/no) questions back to help you probe your ideas further. No statements on their part – just questions. You can exchange the favor, helping them explore an important topic in their life.

5. Check Your Gut

As a coach, I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard clients come in overwhelmed by all the pros and cons and possibilities that thinking has led them to, when the answer is actually already within them, and is ready to emerge as soon as I ask, “What does your gut say?” Ask yourself this question, and be open to the answer – even when it is uncomfortable or scares the hell out of you.

If you feel disconnected from your instinct and can’t hear it (which commonly happens), put your attention to the place in your body where you feel it. You can also place your hands there. Take a few breaths, release tension in your body, and then tune in to your gut instinct and see what information is waiting for you. Hint: Your gut’s answers are simple. No long explanations needed.

Simmer. Experiment. Write. Share. Check Your Gut. You may find that one or two of these tools work best for you. Here’s my suggestion. Don’t decide which of these to use by thinking about it. Instead, check your gut, or experiment with a couple.

And, yes, how could I not say it? Please don’t think too much about this piece.

Photo by Jacob Botter

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28 thoughts on “Don’t Think About It. Do These 5 Things Instead.”

  1. Checking my gut told me to write a response to this post!
    Really, checking my gut, writing about it, and experimenting are my three favorite methods of going past “thinking about it”. Great post! Useful information which is (dare I say it?) worth thinking about!

  2. Writing really helps me. When I’m stuck and running over a problem over and over in my mind, writing it down helps clarify for me what it is I’m trying to solve, and at least gets me out of that mental loop where I keep going around in circles over the same options over and over again.

    The other thing writing it down does is it gives me permission to let all that out of my head. I know it’s written down – so I can stop thinking about it and worrying about it. That’s why I keep a journal next to my bed – if I’m thinking about anything at night, I just scribble it down in my journal for a few minutes and it helps me get to sleep easier =)

    1. Yes, and in fact there is even scientific research now showing health benefits for people who journal during a time of chronic illness. It definitely has huge stress reduction power!

  3. Love it! You are so right, Tara. I’m a life coach and sometimes I can almost hear the gears grinding in my clients’ heads as they try to figure things out. I find that a great way to break through that kind of stuckness is to ask them to make up an answer, any answer, and let go of the need to be right. This frequently gets them connected with their creativity, which is, of course, where the best solutions are.

  4. I have a friend who likes to let ideas “marinate” before she makes a decision…so, the same thing as simmering. I just love the metaphor when she says she’s going to let something marinate, I feel like it’s going to be tastier and more tender when it’s ready! I like the “a problem shared is a problem halved” approach, so talking about things with a friend or family member is what often works for me. It’s so easy to get completely stalled by too much thinking, and important to realise that not acting can be as much of a mistake as taking the wrong action!

  5. Nice post. Big decisions often take up my time – simmering and checking my gut are normally my first port of call. I don’t tend to share or write but hey, maybe in the future.

  6. Very nice, and so true. I’m thinking too much about every decision I have to make, and realized a short while ago that isn’t the solution.

    I decided that I should stop thinking, and that makes making decisions even easier. Sometimes, don’t think, just DO!

  7. Interesting post, and I especially like the final point about doing a gut-check. Gut checking is very scary and sometimes it can tell you to do the exact opposite of what you had believed that you should do.

    The other thing that I learned is that it’s okay to make mistakes because everyone makes them, and lots of them. When you think and then do, and it ends up being wrong, its okay to go back and look at what you might have done wrong and how you can do better next time. Interesting post, and it’s spot on!

    1. Thanks Dan. And yes, that is such a good point – a lot of times we *do not like* and don’t want to hear what our gut is telling us. And yet, often we really need to face the truth it is pointing us to.

  8. I love this post!

    I can tell you that for me, sharing and checking my gut are the two things I do the most. I find that when I get it out there via sharing, I am better able to “see” the situation and make some sense of it. But when all else fails, check my gut and come from the heart. Those two things have never led me in the wrong direction.

  9. I love that you’ve identified “Simmer” as a process to replace thinking! I realized when I read this that I do this ALL the time – but I never realized it. I think I always thought of it as procrastinating and I would feel bad about it. But more often than not, simmering has allowed me to really process the information without worrying or over-analyzing. It’s amazing what you brain and subconscious can do when you just let it work on it’s own!

    1. Yay for liberating yourself from the judgement that you are procrastinating, when important simmering is really happening instead! And yes, I agree, it is AMAZING what our brains will do for us when left to work their organic process without fear or judgment entering in.

  10. i cab really relate to the writing part. i also find myself write to myself and it wither calms me down or lets me reflect on my thoughts. sometimes you feel like the only one who feels that way so it’s nice to see i’m not alone!

  11. Like most of the bloggers above, I also can relate to the writing aspect. For me, writing not only serves an aid to organizing thoughts and compiling insights, it also acts as a “coping method.” It is certainly a stress reliever; sometimes I find myself unaware that I am struggling to make a decision until I start reflecting through writing. By reading my thoughts on paper, the “right” answer becomes much more clear!

  12. Great list. #5 is my favorite because I’ve been so guilty of getting bogged down in pros and cons. My analytical nature leads me to question everything and its taken years for me to learn that the answers are already inside. All I have to do is relax and listen to my inner being….. simple yet powerful.

  13. Too much thinking isn’t as bad as too much talking though. But doing of course much better than just think or just talk about it.

  14. All actions start with a thought but sometimes inaction is caused by too much thinking and not enough doing. I am an overthinker, I used to overanylise everything before making decisions, choices or actions. I used to worry about this happening, or that not happening. I used to think of doing things all the time, but never put my thoughts into action. I now suffer with a chronic illness that does not allow for all the things I want to do now. But, I have come to a new way of thinking, just to let it flow, to allow my mind to open and accept things as they are, not to question too much about why things happen but look upon them as life lessons to improve, grow and just enjoy life. I am still a deep thinker but I just look at life differently now and that helps me keep perspective on the important things

  15. Nice post! The tools you mentioned are really great and helpful, i guess the most effective one here is writing, expressing yourself through writing releases your tensions and worries, it helps you to analyze things better. thanks for sharing.

  16. Love your post. I am ready to try out each one. Surely these tools will help me not only in the everyday decisions I make but most of all those decisions that are lifechanging. Thanks!

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