Why over-thinking can be a bad idea

 

By over-thinking, athletes can lose the physical grace to succeed

Non cogito, ergo sum

Sometimes thinking is a bad idea. Ian Leslie draws on Dylan, Djokovic and academic research to put the case for unthinking

The Economist    IAN LESLIE | MAY/JUNE 2012

IT WAS THE fifth set of a semi-final at last year’s US Open. After four hours of epic tennis, Roger Federer needed one more point to see off his young challenger, Novak Djokovic. As Federer prepared to serve, the crowd roared in anticipation. At the other end, Djokovic nodded, as if in acceptance of his fate.

Federer served fast and deep to Djokovic’s right. Seconds later he found himself stranded, uncomprehending, in mid-court. Djokovic had returned his serve with a loose-limbed forehand of such lethal precision that Federer couldn’t get near it. The nonchalance of Djokovic’s stroke thrilled the crowd. John McEnroe called it “one of the all-time great shots”.

Djokovic won the game, set, match and tournament. At his press conference, Federer was a study in quiet fury. It was tough, he said, to lose because of a “lucky shot”. Some players do that, he continued: “Down 5-2 in the third, they just start slapping shots …How can you play a shot like that on match point?”

Asked the same question, Djokovic smiled. “Yeah, I tend to do that on match points. It kinda works.”

Federer’s inability to win Grand Slams in the last two years hasn’t been due to physical decline so much as a new mental frailty that emerges at crucial moments. In the jargon of sport, he has been “choking”. This, say the experts, is caused by thinking too much. When a footballer misses a penalty or a golfer fluffs a putt, it is because they have become self-conscious. By thinking too hard, they lose the fluid physical grace required to succeed.

Perhaps Federer was so upset because, deep down, he recognised that his opponent had tapped into a resource that he, an all-time great, is finding harder to reach: unthinking.

Unthinking is the ability to apply years of learning at the crucial moment by removing your thinking self from the equation.

Its power is not confined to sport: actors and musicians know about it too, and are apt to say that their best work happens in a kind of trance. Thinking too much can kill not just physical performance but mental inspiration. Bob Dylan, wistfully recalling his youthful ability to write songs without even trying, described the making of “Like a Rolling Stone” as a “piece of vomit, 20 pages long”. It hasn’t stopped the song being voted the best of all time.

In less dramatic ways the same principle applies to all of us. A fundamental paradox of human psychology is that thinking can be bad for us. When we follow our own thoughts too closely, we can lose our bearings, as our inner chatter drowns out common sense.

A study of shopping behaviour found that the less information people were given about a brand of jam, the better the choice they made.  When offered details of ingredients, they got befuddled by their options and ended up choosing a jam they didn’t like.

If a rat is face with a puzzle in which food is placed on its left 60 percent of the time and on the right 40 percent of the time, it will quickly deduce that the left side is more rewarding, and head there every time, thus achieving a 60 percent success rate.

Young children adopt the same strategy.  When Yale undergraduates play the game, they try to figure out some underlying pattern, and end up doing worse than the rat or the child.  We really can be too clever for our own good.

By allowing ourselves to listen to our (better) instincts, we can tap into a kind of compressed wisdom. The psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer argues that much of our behaviour is based on deceptively sophisticated rules-of-thumb, or “heuristics”.

A robot programmed to chase and catch a ball would need to compute a series of complex differential equations to track the ball’s trajectory. But baseball players do so by instinctively following simple rules: run in the right general direction, and adjust your speed to keep a constant angle between eye and ball.


To make good decisions in a complex world, Gigerenzer says, you have to be skilled at ignoring information.
 

He found that a portfolio of stocks picked by people he interviewed in the street did better than those chosen by experts. The pedestrians were using the “recognition heuristic”: they picked companies they’d heard of, which was a better guide to future success than any analysis of price-earning ratios.

Researchers from Columbia Business School, New York, conducted an experiment in which people were asked to predict outcomes across a range of fields, from politics to the weather to the winner of “American Idol”. They found that those who placed high trust in their feelings made better predictions than those who didn’t. The result only applied, however, when the participants had some prior knowledge.

This last point is vital. Unthinking is not the same as ignorance; you can’t unthink if you haven’t already thought. Djokovic was able to pull off his wonder shot because he had played a thousand variations on it in previous matches and practice; Dylan’s lyrical outpourings drew on his immersion in folk songs, French poetry and American legends. The unconscious minds of great artists and sportsmen are like dense rainforests, which send up spores of inspiration.

The higher the stakes, the more overthinking is a problem.

Ed Smith, a cricketer and author of “Luck”, uses the analogy of walking along a kerbstone: easy enough, but what if there was a hundred-foot drop to the street—every step would be a trial. In high-performance fields it’s the older and more successful performers who are most prone to choke, because expectation is piled upon them. An opera singer launching into an aria at La Scala cannot afford to think how her technique might be improved. When Federer plays a match point these days, he may feel as if he’s standing on the cliff edge of his reputation.

Professor Claude Steele, of Stanford, studies the effects of performance anxiety on academic tests. He set a group of students consisting of African-Americans and Caucasians a test, telling them it would measure intellectual ability. The African-Americans performed worse than the Caucasians. Steele then gave a separate group the same test, telling them it was just a preparatory drill. The gulf narrowed sharply. The “achievement gap” in US education has complex causes, but one may be that bright African-American students are more likely to feel they are representing their ethnic group, which leads them to overthink.

How do you learn to unthink? Dylan believes the creative impulse needs protecting from self-analysis: “As you get older, you get smarter, and that can hinder you…You’ve got to programme your brain not to think too much.” Flann O’Brien said we should be “calculatedly stupid” in order to write. The only reliable cure for overthinking seems to be enjoyment, something that both success and analysis can dull. Experienced athletes and artists often complain that they have lost touch with what made them love what they do in the first place. Thinking about it is a poor substitute.

We live in age of self-reflection, analysing every aspect of our work, micro-commentating on our own lives online, reading articles urging us to ponder what makes us happy. Much of this may be worthwhile, but we also need to put thinking in its place.

Djokovic’s return was both the culmination of his life’s effort and an expression of careless joy. It kinda worked.

10 Simple Ways You Can Stop Yourself From Overthinking

Here are 10 simple ideas to help overthinkers stop spinning their wheels. 
CREDIT: Getty Images
 

Overthinking doesn’t sound so bad on the surface–thinking is good, right?

But overthinking can cause problems.

When you overthink, your judgments get cloudy and your stress gets elevated. You spend too much time in the negative. It can become difficult to act.

If this feels like familiar territory to you, here are 10 simple ideas to free yourself from overthinking.

1. Awareness is the beginning of change.

Before you can begin to address or cope with your habit of overthinking, you need to learn to be aware of it when it’s happening. Any time you find yourself doubting or feeling stressed or anxious, step back and look at the situation and how you’re responding. In that moment of awareness is the seed of the change you want to make.

2. Don’t think of what can go wrong, but what can go right.

In many cases, overthinking is caused by a single emotion: fear. When you focus on all the negative things that might happen, it’s easy to become paralyzed. Next time you sense that you starting to spiral in that direction, stop. Visualize all the things that can go right and keep those thoughts present and up front.

3. Distract yourself into happiness.

Sometimes it’s helpful to have a way to distract yourself with happy, positive, healthy alternatives. Things like mediation, dancing, exercise, learning an instrument, knitting, drawing, and painting can distance you from the issues enough to shut down the overanalysis.

4. Put things into perspective.

It’s always easy to make things bigger and more negative than they need to be. The next time you catch yourself making a mountain out of a molehill, ask yourself how much it will matter in five years. Or, for that matter, next month. Just this simple question, changing up the time frame, can help shut down overthinking.

5. Stop waiting for perfection.

This is a big one. For all of us who are waiting for perfection, we can stop waiting right now. Being ambitious is great but aiming for perfection is unrealistic, impractical, and debilitating. The moment you start thinking “This needs to be perfect” is the moment you need to remind yourself, “Waiting for perfect is never as smart as making progress.”

6. Change your view of fear.

Whether you’re afraid because you’ve failed in the past, or you’re fearful of trying or overgeneralizing some other failure, remember that just because things did not work out before does not mean that has to be the outcome every time. Remember, every opportunity is a new beginning, a place to start again.     Perfect Love casts out all fear.  1 John 4:18

7. Put a timer to work.

Give yourself a boundary. Set a timer for five minutes and give yourself that time to think, worry, and analyze. Once the timer goes off, spend 10 minutes with a pen and paper, writing down all the things that are worrying you, stressing you, or giving you anxiety. Let it rip. When the 10 minutes is up, throw the paper out and move on–preferably to something fun.

8. Realize you can’t predict the future.

No one can predict the future; all we have is now. If you spend the present moment worrying about the future, you are robbing yourself of your time now. Spending time on the future is simply not productive. Spend that time instead on things that give you joy.

9. Accept your best.

The fear that grounds overthinking is often based in feeling that you aren’t good enough–not smart enough or hardworking enough or dedicated enough. Once you’ve given an effort your best, accept it as such and know that, while success may depend in part on some things you can’t control, you’ve done what you could do.

10. Be grateful.

You can’t have a regretful thought and a grateful thought at the same time, so why not spend the time positively? Every morning and every evening, make a list of what you are grateful for. Get a gratitude buddy and exchange lists so you have a witness to the good things that are around you.

Overthinking is something that can happen to anyone. But if you have a great system for dealing with it you can at least ward off some of the negative, anxious, stressful thinking and turn it into something useful, productive, and effective.

Original article here

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