Strategies to Stop Overthinking and Start Goal-Setting
You goal-setting plan starts with acknowledging your negative thinking.
7 min read
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What do Oprah Winfrey and Mark Cuban have in common? Aside from being hugely successful media moguls (not to mention, billionaires), they didn’t let early-career setbacks block their roads to success.
Told that she didn’t have the chops for television news, Winfrey was fired from her first news reporter gig. Cuban was axed from a job as a software salesperson after disobeying his boss in order to make a profitable sale. Important side note — he never worked for anyone else again. Both Winfrey and Cuban went on to build their own empires.
Resilience is a critical trait for succeeding as an entrepreneur. Rumination, on the other hand — dwelling on negative thoughts and setbacks — can derail you from achieving your goals. That’s because ruminating sabotages certain key skills for running your own business.
Luckily, with some self-awareness and practice, it’s possible to break your habit of ruminating. But first, a closer look at the effects of getting caught in negative thought loops.
What’s the harm of rumination?
For starters, ruminating damages your ability to think clearly and solve problems. According to research by late Yale University psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, ruminators struggle to find solutions to hypothetical problems, possibly because of their negative outlooks.
Even when they do come up with solutions, ruminators are either slow or unable to enact them. Said Nolen-Hoeksema, “the rumination itself may induce a level of uncertainty and immobilization that makes it hard for them to move forward.” For example, a study by psychologists at UC Riverside showed that women who tend to ruminate took over a month longer to seek medical care after finding a breast lump.
Any founder will tell you — launching a business is all about solving a problem, and it doesn’t have to be earth-shattering.
Thirteen years ago I thought the world could use a better, more user-friendly online form builder, so I founded JotForm. I didn’t set out to reinvent the wheel, but to solve an issue I encountered on a daily basis while working for other companies. Today, JotForm helps 4.5 million users who were are having the same simple problem that I was.
Then, there are the day-to-day problems that founders face — with customers, employees, partners and business in general. In today’s economy, where business models must constantly evolve, clear thinking and problem solving is essential.
In her research, Nolen-Hoeksema also found that ruminators tend to drive away social support and that they both ask for and receive less help.
Being an entrepreneur may sound like a solo venture, but in reality, you can’t grow a business without support. It’s especially important for early-stage founders, who face late nights, high stress and oftentimes feel isolated from friends and family.
Even at my stage, over a decade into the game, I recognize the continuing value of support. I reach out when I know someone else on my team is better qualified to handle a task, when I need objective feedback on a product idea or when I need to fine-tune a strategy.
On top of it all, the stress associated with chronic negative thinking can lead to a host of health issues — from suppressed immune functioning to increased risk of coronary problems.
Because ruminating negatively affects key aspects of an entrepreneur’s job and well-being, it’s worth figuring out how to nip negative thought loops in the bud.
Four steps to stop ruminating and start goal-setting.
1. Acknowledge negative thinking.
Breaking harmful thought cycles begins with awareness. Unless you acknowledge that you’re ruminating, you’ll never be able to curtail it. What’s more, spending so much mental energy in your interior world renders you less proactive in the exterior.
“The more we are engaged in overthinking, the less [we’re] actually doing things in the physical environment,” explains clinical psychologist David Carbonell
Everyone overthinks sometimes, but if you find yourself obsessing over a negative idea or experience, take a step back and pay attention to what’s happening in your head. Be an observer for a second. Try to identify the content of your negative thoughts. Then, you can work on addressing them.
2. Switch into problem-solving mode and have a goal-setting session.
Oftentimes, we ruminate on things outside of our present control. That’s why it’s important to consider whether you can do anything right now to resolve what you’re ruminating about.
If you can, make a list of steps to work towards ameliorating the situation. Say, for example, I made a snafu during a presentation. My list would include: email attendees a clarification email, schedule extra time to prepare for my next presentation, etc. Goal-setting is key.
Or, if you can’t deal with the issue now, set a time to focus on it later. “Chances are it won’t bother you very much when you meet up with it — and you will be able to enjoy your life during the rest of the day,” writes Robert Leahy, Director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy.
3. Break a sweat.
Because nothing settles an overactive mind like some stress-reducing endorphins, exercise is one of the best anecdotes for ruminating. When you exercise, you’re also more engaged in your current activity — i.e., more mindful, which leaves mental less space to ruminate.
Whether it’s biking, jogging, boxing or yoga — do whichever form of exercise you enjoy. Even a brisk walk during your lunch hour can help clear the head. Or, depending on the length of your commute, you can walk to work like Jack Dorsey. The Twitter and Square CEO has said that taking the time to walk the five miles to work every day is the most worthwhile investment he’s ever made.
In his words: “It’s a very clearing time. I want to put as much unexpected potential in front of me because I think something that you don’t plan will always make you think differently.”
4. Treat yourself to some empathy.
Oftentimes, we’re harsher on ourselves than we are with others. For example, if a colleague had a presentation blip, you probably wouldn’t condemn them as a terrible orator. You’d likely think they were just having an off-day.
Make an effort to be objective. Consider the advice you’d give to a friend or loved one in your situation, then try to take that same empathetic tone with yourself. If your ruminating continues, visualize how you’ll feel in a few weeks from now. That’s how you’ll feel soon enough.
And remember, even the most successful people suffer occasional setbacks. What defines them is not letting those setbacks throw them off track.