Overthinking Things Is Killing Your Productivity. Let an NHL Goalkeeper Show You How.
One of the best descriptions for the mind I've ever heard is that it's like the stomach for your thoughts. Put the right things in and you condition yourself to become stronger, leaner, more agile. Put the wrong things in? That's where breakdown comes. When your mind takes in too many competing thoughts, questions, beliefs or ideas, it essentially shuts down. It gets tired, slow and unable to function properly — quite the opposite of productivity.
All it takes to validate this idea is to think about the way you talk to yourself every day. How do you feel when you overthink something? Anxious? Nervous? Defeated? Confused? On the contrary, how does it feel when you take those decisive actions? When someone asks you how to handle a problem at work and you confidently scan your experience and knowledge…and bam. The answer was right there all along.
Don't overthink it
This principle in action was never more evident than what recently happened on a sheet of ice in Toronto. Teams in the National Hockey League bring two goalkeepers to every game: one who starts, and another backup just in case. In the event something crazy happens, like both goalies get injured in the same game, each game features an emergency "just in case" goalie in the arena who can sub in for either team. The odds of a team needing to call on one of these ringers is so rare that most teams don't put much thought into who their emergency sub even is.
Well, luckily for the Carolina Hurricanes, their emergency goalie was a 43-year-old man named David Ayres. The night the Toronto Maple Leafs hosted the Hurricanes, Ayres was a local part-time Zamboni driver (the Zamboni is the machine that cleans and smooths the ice between periods) sitting in the crowd enjoying the game with everyone else. Then the Hurricanes' starting goalie got injured. Then their backup got injured. Suddenly, not halfway through the game, Ayres' phone blew up from Hurricanes personnel.
"Can you come to the training room? We need you to suit up."
What happened next became the stuff of legend. Ayres had played some minor league hockey in his youth, but he certainly wasn't pro level. And yet he managed to stop eight of the 10 shots he faced and helped the Hurricanes win the game.
There are a lot of reasons to love this story. It hits on the human story in multiple ways. But the one I think we need to focus on the most closely is the fact that Ayres didn't have time to doubt himself. One minute he was in a seat with everyone else, the next he was turning away hockey pucks and scrapping on the ice with some of the best hockey players in the world. Logic would tell you there's no way Ayres should be able to save even one shot, let alone 80 percent. So how did he do it?
In the simplest terms possible, he didn't overthink it. He didn't have time.
Too much information
One of the biggest problems we face today is our economy of information. We're continually inundated with plans, options, information, opinions. We're bombarded with information all the time, from every angle and at every turn. In one sense, we're in the most incredible time in human history for learning. As the executive of a training company, we have more resources to give our clients now than ever before, from e-learning tools to workshop materials and everything in between.
But that comes with a cost, specifically the fragmentation of the brain. This quote from economist Tyler Cowen is a good place to start the conversation: "The more information that's out there, the greater the returns to just being willing to sit down and apply yourself. Information isn't what's scarce. It's the willingness to do something with it."
From an evolutionary perspective, being overwhelmed with choice triggers the fight, flee or freeze response in your brain. Your brain tells you to flee because it sees this information overload as a threat, so it shuts down. That goes back to our brain-as-stomach analogy. It's getting too much food, so it's sending frantic signals to stop eating (or, in this case, stop taking in more information).
You won't always have the ability to jump straight into the fire like David Ayres, but you can certainly follow his lead. When you stop deciding to act and just act, you'll notice you access more of your ability than you thought possible.
Here are four simple steps to create a culture of everyday decisiveness for both you and the people around you.
1. Start every day with one action item. One of the biggest mistakes I see professionals make is wasting the early hours of their work day. Studies show your brain is most productive early in the day, and as time passes its energy slowly dissipates. So when you turn up to work and the first thing you do is get coffee, organize your desk, check emails and chitchat with a co-worker, you're wasting all that productive energy.
That's why it's key to light a fuse underneath your day early. Make it a goal to accomplish at least one thing within the first 15 to 20 minutes of your workday. It gives you momentum and sets the tone for a massively productive day.
2. Hypothesize, test, pivot. This process has given me so many wins over the years that I can't even count. And it's so simple that you can start using it right now. First, come up with a hypothesis about what you think is going to happen ("When we execute this marketing campaign, we'll get X engagement"). Then test that hypothesis in the real world ("We actually ended up getting less engagement than we thought"). Then pivot to a modified, upgraded strategy ("Now we're going to try marketing campaign Y"). Again, it's so simple it hurts, but it works like crazy. The key? It forces you to test your thoughts and theories in the real world. It implants action into the process. And it shows in the results.
3. Turn generalizations into proactive statements. Your self-talk is absolutely critical in these moments. Ayres is the perfect example. After the game he told reporters that he always kept up a positive string of self-talk statements to build himself up. Had he continually been telling himself "There's no way I can do this," he probably wouldn't have. We can only succeed at the level we believe is possible for us.
So turn any generalizations into positive, proactive statements. If you say to yourself, "This project is too big for me," that stops you from acting. Instead, get positive and proactive. "I will start preparing today so this project won't be too big for me." That kind of self-talk makes it a completely different conversation in your mind.
4. Focus on the next decision. Going forward, I want this to be your mantra: "One step, one decision, one moment at a time." You have to chunk it down to the smallest possible step so you can avoid feeling overwhelmed by the circumstances around you. When you feel overwhelmed, the brain essentially shuts down. It stops regulating a chemical called cortisol, which controls things like your energy level, how well you sleep and your blood pressure. In turn, you feel drained, your immune system doesn’t work properly, and you’re more likely to get headaches and crushing anxiety.
So how do you avoid all that? You chunk. It. Down. Every time you think, “There’s nothing I can do about the economy,” I want you to say to yourself, “One step, one decision, one moment at a time.” Every time you say, “I can’t control my traffic,” I want you to think, “One step, one decision, one moment at a time.” Every time it seems like the market is getting worse, I want you to feel, “One step, one decision, one moment at a time.”
Do this and you'll find that you have more motivation, fewer bottlenecks at critical moments and a more proactive belief about becoming more and contributing more right now.