I hit the road every Saturday morning. Usually, I'm gone for an hour or two. Saturday is my long run day. The time commitment of training for a half marathon is significant. As I walk out the door, my little ones are wide awake and active. They hit me with the questions: "Where are you going, Dad?" "When will you be back?" "Why will you be gone for so long?" "Can you stay with us?"
Up to a few months ago, I felt guilty for leaving them. I felt like I was being selfish. I questioned if I was neglecting my wife and kids to do something I wanted to do that took so much time and energy. This was me overthinking, being flooded with negative self-talk. They didn't tell me I was being selfish. They were my biggest cheerleaders. But my overthinking was affecting reality.
Have you been there? Are you an overthinker, too?
WHAT IS OVERTHINKING?
In his latest book, "Soundtracks: The Surprising Solution to Overthinking," Jon Acuff offers us a simple definition of overthinking. He says, "Overthinking is when what you think gets in the way of what you want."
When I think I'm neglecting my family to go on long runs one day a week, I'm listening to negative self-talk. Acuff calls these soundtracks. They are symptoms of overthinking that get you nowhere. We are just wasting resources on dead-end thoughts. He refers to overthinking as "the greatest thief of all. It steals time, creativity, productivity, hope."
We can all be subject to overthinking as a spouse, a parent, a boss, an employee or a friend. In any scenario, overthinking can be detrimental to furthering our relationships.
SO HOW DO I STOP OVERTHINKING?
Jon Acuff suggests we retire our broken soundtracks, replace them with new ones and then repeat the new ones so often that they become the predominant thoughts you hear. The soundtracks we listen to are associated with an action. A broken soundtrack leads to inaction. It doesn't take us anywhere and doesn't motivate us to push toward our goals.
Let me give you a real-life example. Training for a half-marathon takes anywhere from four to six hours a week for 12-18 weeks. This is time I would normally spend with my family. My negative self-talk led me to believe I was neglecting them and that I needed to spend that time with them, having fun. This made my training difficult because I felt guilty. That's my broken soundtrack — all in my head.
My wife told me, "We are so proud of you. You are setting goals and doing what you love." She helped me see that even though I was giving up some family time, I showed my kids what it looks like to set goals and take steps to achieve them. And there's a bonus: They're getting some weekend trips to races that they are super-excited about.
I retired my broken soundtrack, replaced it with a new one, and it's playing on repeat.
To stop overthinking, we have to identify a broken soundtrack. But how do we do that?
Jon Acuff gives us a simple way to figure it out. Write down something you want to do. Doesn't have to be anything significant. Maybe it's "I want to have a weekly date night." Then, listen to the first thought you have. What is your first reaction? If you immediately start saying, We don't have the money, we don't have the time, or we can't afford a babysitter, you're overthinking.
Congrats, you just found a broken soundtrack. Now ask three simple questions about that thought:
1. Is it true?
2. Is it helpful? (Does it move me forward or hold me back?)
3. Is it kind?
You don't have to ask these questions about every thought, but ask about the big ones. Question the thoughts that seem to be holding you back the most. You might be surprised at how many broken soundtracks are playing in your mind.
Overthinking doesn't have to kill your relationships. If you are an overthinker, evaluate those thoughts. Identify if they are true, helpful or kind. And if those thoughts are hurting your relationships, it's time to release, reshape and repeat new ones. You can choose what you think. Tell yourself, "I have the permission and the ability to choose what I think during the day to lead me to action I will take."
Mitchell Qualls is the operations director at family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email him at email@example.com.