Your Best Thinking Doesn’t Help

When we get ourselves into situations where we are unhappy and we need things to improve, there are three places we can live: in our beliefs, in our thoughts, or in our actions.

I almost always live in my thoughts. I can often figure things out, given enough time, so I think that if I just think harder about something, I will be able to solve whatever problem I face. But some parts of our lives do not respond to thinking, even our very best thinking. So, we have to realize at some point that we are trying to think ourselves out of a physical, mental, or spiritual hole, and all the thinking in the world isn’t going to help.

Are you stuck in your thoughts?

Everyone understands that if we find ourselves in a literal, physical hole, we have to take action. We have to try to climb the walls, scream for help, look around for tools, etc.

However, if we find ourselves in a mental or spiritual hole, we often jump right into thinking our way out of it. And when get even further stuck in that hole, it can be really hard for us to admit that we are stuck, and that our best thinking hasn’t gotten us anywhere.

At some point, we need to realize that it’s time to STOP THINKING and turn to our BELIEFS, or take ACTION.

One way to go the beliefs route, is to think about our core values. What is it that I truly believe about the world? How does the world work? How do I fit into the world? What do I think is right and just, and what do I think is wrong?

Sometimes it can be hard to know what our core values are. If someone asked you right now to name your core values, you might not be able to answer right away. But I can assure you that you do have core values, and you do operate based on them, no matter how opaque they may be to your conscious mind.

Here’s a mental shortcut you can use to help you figure out what you believe.

What really annoys the crap out of you? What is something that makes you sad? What is something that makes you want to take up arms and fight?

Negative emotions can help us understand our core values. If you get mad when someone is rude to service staff in a restaurant, then it’s likely that one of your core values is something like “politeness” or “consideration of others’ feelings”, or “empathy”. If conflict makes you upset, one of your core values might be “peace” or “understanding”. If you hate it when people lie, maybe one of your core values is “authenticity” or “honesty”. These triggers are all things that someone else does, but they can help you look inward and see what you value.

How can this help when you have thought yourself into a corner? It can help you recognize what is important to you and what isn’t as important. That can help you see things in a different way, and maybe set up some boundaries based on your values. You can start to think about what you will accept into your life and what you won’t, based on your beliefs. And once your thinking is backed up with your beliefs, you will have that extra little bit of oomph to get you to make, or stick to, your decision.

If you are really stuck, though, you may need to take some sort of action instead of delving into your spirituality, because you may get yourself more stuck by heading into a philosophical investigation of your beliefs.

What kinds of actions do I mean? Some actions will be very specific to the problem you are trying to solve, such as taking the first step towards getting yourself out of bad circumstances, but if you can’t think of any specific actions you can take, here are some suggestions:

  • talk to someone
  • do some writing about the issue
  • go for a walk
  • sit for 20 minutes in a comfortable place with a nice view and just relax, without imposing any structure on the time
  • express your gratitude to someone (and actually tell them, don’t just think about it)
  • actually make the decision you have been waffling over and live in it (at least temporarily for a few days so you can get a sense of how it feels)

After you have taken that action, check in with yourself to see if it has helped to move you forward, and keep you moving forward. If it hasn’t, resist the urge to go back into “thinking mode” and take another action.

Here’s one way to think about this:

“If you can’t think your way into good action, you need to act your way into good thinking.”

I always thought that I needed to think my way out of every situation I got into, but when thinking doesn’t work, or when it traps me in a spin cycle, I need to keep taking the next right ACTION until my thinking changes. Thinking, and overthinking, can only get me so far.

Shaney Crawford is the head of Tsukuba International School and a freelance “thinking coach” who specializes in working with people in leadership roles (including middle leaders), people who work in education, people who live in Japanworkaholicsperfectionists, and people who tend to overthink things. Of course, anyone who wants help moving their thinking forward is welcome to apply to think in partnership with Shaney.