If there was a competition for overthinking, I'm the winner. The crescendo of noise builds as I walk through the crowd, shaking hands with fans as I get closer to the presentation stage. Other competitors look on with envy, unhappy at their wasted time spent pondering the imponderable. As I stand before the trophy, I become lost in thought.
Yep, I'm overthinking again.
As I lift the trophy above my head, soaking up the vibrations and the buzz from the audience, I notice a beeping sound. It grows louder as I turn to the crowd and they raise an even bigger cheer when I hoist the trophy up high, punching the air to show my delight. Then, the beeping takes over; the crowd, the clapping, the trophy, they've gone. All I have is darkness and high-pitched beep which I can hear, but also feel...
Another blow lands as I become aware of the bedroom, my wife hitting me again as I awaken to silence the alarm, beeping for what my wife feels is eternity. I'm disappointed not to see my trophy, with an etching of Rodin's The Thinker on the front, his chin resting on his hand as he ponders and overthinks.
Overthinking – Quantity not Quality
My dream was a sarcastic prod at something I do too much of. I think - a lot.
It is quite a three-pipe problem, and I beg that you won't speak to me for fifty minutes.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
It is an iconic scene, as a haze of smoke drifts through the rays of sunlight as they pierce the window. Holmes is oblivious to it all, his only thought the problem in hand. His imagination is an engine room of creative ideas, as he considers a variety of solutions to the problem in hand.
For Holmes, it's one problem pondered, imagined, and conceptualised, as he puffs through three pipes. His focus brings the quality of thinking required to solve the mysteries we know him for.
The Paradox of Overthinking
I marvel at my imagination. I marvel at how I’m able to think; to overthink instead of working slavishly on my work. Unlike Sherlock Holmes who concentrates deeply on one topic, I don’t.
My mind is like my nephew this summer; running along the sandy beach teasing the seawater as he waits to see how close it will get to the bottom of his shorts. For hours, he is dancing with the tide, running backwards and forwards, roaring with laughter as the crest of each wave tickles his legs.
Like my nephew, I never go deep when it comes to thinking. The waves take the shape of innovative ideas, old ideas, memories, regrets and a thousand other thoughts. Each one splashing at me for my attention as I try to think. As I start to think about one thought, another one comes along. Wave after wave pounds at my legs as I overthink on everything, rather than one thing.
It is the all-consuming agony of overthinking.
When we think about overthinking, we face a paradox; one where we convince ourselves overthinking is bad for us. We fret about daydreaming, of procrastinating and ending up with nothing.
The paradox is right. What must change is the focus.
The Three-Pipe lesson in Thinking
Sherlock's superpower: his unique strength was his ability to focus on one problem and one problem alone.
We live in world of noise that no human has ever had to face before. A continuous stream of inputs all fights for our attention. Distracted by email alerts, message notifications, breaking news banners, the TV, interactive displays, and each other, so our thinking reflects our inputs. Our minds are a mirror. What goes in, comes out.
Multiple inputs mean a glut of outputs – that is thoughts and ideas spinning in our heads as we think. We call it overthinking.
Of course, Sherlock lived in quieter times. Free from the iPhone, the mac book, the iPad, and his iWatch, he didn’t have the inputs we do. His sources of information were books and a newspaper.
His inputs reflected his outputs.
For the time it took Sherlock to smoke three pipes, he would sit in silence. No distractions, no noise, no squeals for his attention. Nothing would distract him as he sat in his armchair and thought. His mind utterly focused on a complex case which the police were unable to solve. By the end of the third pipe, Sherlock had the case cracked.
All he did was sit and think about one thing.
The Power of Peace
"All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone," — Blaise Pascal
Pascal was clearly onto something with this infamous quote. The inverse of this quote also makes compelling reading.
All of humanity’s opportunities stem from our ability to sit quietly in a room alone.
Concentration, focus, attention; these are the superpowers of mankind. Often referred to as deep thinking, this concept is more alien to us now more than ever. Not because we can’t sit quietly, but because we can’t manage our minds in the same way.
When we do spend an hour free of distraction? When do we spend more than a few minutes contemplating a big decision?
The answer: we don’t.
My Overthinking Dream
I reflected on my dream about overthinking and I suspect my subconscious was mocking me. Let’s face it, nothing good comes from overthinking. I, like many others, become distracted with multiple inputs all trying to grab my attention. As I sit here, authoring this article my mobile is never far away. A flicker from the screen acts as a call for my mind, trying to pull me back in.
My urge to open my browser and check social media is equally unflinching.
Sitting for the time it would take me to smoke three pipes (approx. one hour) and only think about one thing, would be a sizable challenge. But I also know how good it could be. I know how much better my decision-making would be. I know I could solve problems which previously appeared unsolvable.
The trophy: well I consider it a prompt. A nudge to remind me where my, and humanity’s great superpower rests.
To access this superpower means change. An easy answer might be to try and sit quietly for an hour, but drawing on the insights of Sherlock Holmes, it is clear this is entirely the wrong approach. Our minds are conduits; we feed in information and do our best to absorb it, using the lessons to inform our outputs.
It must be less in, less out.
Less in means an end to notifications; less time connected to the internet and less noise. I’m minded to the catchline of the Farnam Street blog, signal in a world full of noise. I must filter my inputs and improve my signal. Even without notifications, I’m still in an atrium of sound, listening, reading, and consuming vast swaths of information.
I recently committed to reading five books a year. The reason: to learn more, to understand more, and to build a better retention of the insights I’m learning. Previously, I read and read with little gain. I’m drawn to the image of my nephew in the sea again, my reading wasn’t deep, just flirtatious.
To become a deep thinker, I must become a deep learner. Only then can I expect not to get a trophy for overthinking.