The Line Between Thinking and Over-Thinking

You think up there, you’re dead, says Tom Cruise’s character Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in one of the trailers for the about-to-be-released “Top Gun: Maverick.” Believe me.

Tom delivers this line up in the air, in the cockpit of a fast-flying Navy jet.

The message is unequivocal: When the stakes are high, let muscle memory lead. Don’t think. Most certainly don’t OVERTHINK. Act.

You are likely not a high-flying aviator like Maverick. You are, however, frequently in crucial business conversations where someone asks you a question and desires a specific and contextually helpful answer. Quickly.

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices." ~ William James

Research suggests that in the moments before and during an answer, neurons release brain chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, which generate electrical signals in neighboring neurons. These electrical signals propagate like a wave to thousands of neurons, which leads to thought formation.

There is increasing scientific interest in our mind’s propensity to wander. In her chapter in “The Neuroscience of Spontaneous Thought” (The Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought: Mind-wandering, Creativity, and Dreaming/2016), Jessica R. Andrews-Hanna summarizes current research on thought creation and proposes that mind-wandering and other forms of spontaneous thought (such as dreaming and creativity) are mental states that arise and transition relatively freely due to an absence of constraints on cognition.

Makes sense, right? In most everyday business communications, however, our constraints are high. We’re not asked to mind-wander, brainstorm, dream or day-dream, no matter how much we might like to do so. We’re asked to skillfully manage our thoughts. And quickly offer a well-considered idea, thoughtfully constructed.

Consider the following thinking guide-posts.


Talk without direction.

You may pride yourself on your spontaneity. You may be gifted at constructing great sentences. You may have been praised for your authenticity and for not sounding robotic or “scripted.”

Great. Please don’t confuse this feedback with let me just say what comes to mind. Whenever we speak in a business setting, we’re expected to take a stance, have a perspective, offer a point-of-view. We want your comments to add up to something. We want them to have direction. Direction requires thought.

Think your way through what you are saying.

You have an idea of what you want to say and then figure it out as you are speaking. Sounds great, right?

Well, chances are you will pause frequently to contemplate, even if ever so quickly, your next sentence or idea. Every time you do so, you disrupt your connection and communication with the other person. You go inward. You “leave.” You will be very tempted to overthink your conversation. And there will be little flow to what you are saying.

Find the perfect wording.

The most common form of overthinking occurs when we carefully craft each sentence as we get to it. We pause before each sentence to make sure we get the wording “just right.” And we pride ourselves on the clear and deliberate construction of each sentence.

Guess what? Our conversation partner is likely to experience us as trying too hard to be perfect. Overworking our communication. Using unnecessarily fancy words. S/he will see us as overwrought. And overthought.

And wants us to stop already.


Think BEFORE you speak.

The temptation to immediately, prematurely speak is enormous. We fear the silence before we say something. We feel the pressure to instantly answer anyone’s question. We worry they will think us not knowledgeable if we don’t provide an answer at once. So we start to talk, without knowing where we’re going with our words.

Make that initial silence your friend. Pause. For a second or two. Formulate your thought. Decide on the point you wish to make. Then execute your answer.

Because now you know where you’re going.

Keep what you say simple.

You have so many thoughts in your mind. So many things you might say. You love complexity and ambiguity, and you want to convey those, as well. You pride yourself on being a deep thinker.

Terrific. Here’s the brutal part, however. The more you tell me everything that’s on your mind, the more you actually disempower me. Remove the moments when I can jump in and probe based on what resonates with me.

Your overcommunication is all about you. It is selfish. It is not concerned with whether I can absorb what you are saying or wish to absorb it. It shuts the door to conversational co-creation. We’re back to overwrought and overthought.

Say less. Make choices about which thoughts you grab. And communicate them to me without over-explanation, please.

Trust yourself.

Here’s where trust comes into play: Trust your ability to construct strong, clear sentences (if you can’t trust THAT, practice doing so). Trust that you are smart and won’t be saying stupid things (even if what you say doesn’t come out exactly as you wished). Trust that even when a sentence or thought are not delivered to your standards of perfection, you said it well enough. Perhaps even better than if you had hit that “perfect mark.”

Overthinking is the opposite of trusting ourselves. We over-craft. We second-guess. We likely over-explain. And listeners will quickly start to tune out our thoughts and ideas.

So yes, THINK. And then trust your expression of your thought. Don’t overthink your way through each sentence. Don’t over-craft each word. Let it go.

THINK again. Explain again. Trust your sentence-construction-skills. Let the answer flow. And don’t over-explain. Let it go.

You may not be a high-flying navy pilot like Maverick, but this is YOUR muscle memory playground. Your chance to balance clear thought with the faith in your expressive skills.

What a rich playground this is.