If you’re stuck in a thought loop about something, you’re creating stress and odds are you’re scared to take action. But when you realize what’s going on, you can break the connection, reduce your frazzle, and move forward.

(Keep reading to understand the Dunkin’ Donuts reference in the title.)

Photo by Heather Ford on Unsplash

I actually spent a couple hours overthinking this blog post and almost didn’t write anything. I spun from topic to topic, idea to idea, wasting daylight and getting a slight headache from staring at a blank page on a computer screen.

When I finally realized what I was doing, I acknowledged I was afraid to write anything for fear no one would want to read it.

That acknowledgement was enough to cut the thought loop. My fingers began typing almost immediately.

Here’s the funny thing about overthinking — the underlying fear that causes the endless thought loop vaporizes as soon as you stop thinking so hard about whatever has your attention.

Let me share my most ridiculous personal example of overthinking. I stressed myself out so much over this bit of nonsense, I questioned my sanity. What’s saddest about this story is the overwhelming fear I felt around taking action.

Over a decade ago, I was on a committee at work (back when I had a corporate job). I was asked to pick up donuts for the next morning’s event kickoff meeting. I accepted the task with little thought and then spent the next several hours trying to decide what donuts to select, how many to buy, which donut shop to buy them from, and debated if I should also get coffee, or maybe some muffins.

I pondered these deep questions on my own. Then I pulled my girlfriend into it when we went to lunch.

As we were leaving the restaurant, she looked at me and said, “Do you realize you talked about donuts for an hour? I love you but don’t talk to me again until you can talk about something other than donuts, okay? In fact, from now on, when you start overthinking, I’m going to remind you of this day by telling you that you’re “Dunkin’ Donuts-ing” again.”

I’m fairly certain I had a startled expression on my face in response to her words, because I hadn’t even realized what I’d been doing. I apologized and we went back to the office.

Caught up in that thought loop, I wasted the better portion of a day, a friend put me in timeout, and we coined a new term for overthinking because I was scared to make a decision about donuts. Which is nuts, because…donuts. Either you eat them or you don’t.

(To be fair, I was going through a divorce, so I was questioning every decision I’d ever made and I was terrified I’d keep making poor choices. The fact that the terror extended to donut selection indicates the strength of my fear.)

Here’s the point: When you climb on the overthinking carousel, what’s really happening is you’re procrastinating so you can avoid taking action. This ramps up your stress level and impacts your ability to perform at whatever you’re doing.

If you find yourself avoiding a decision about your career, your relationship, a gym membership, or what donuts to buy, you’re overthinking it. Something about the success or failure (or both) of the decision scares you. And until you face your fear, you’re going to stay stuck.

So start by noticing when you’re overthinking. You might become aware of a repeating thought loop on your own or someone may point it out to you. How you become aware doesn’t matter. What matters is the awareness itself.

The next step is to figure out what’s scaring you. In my donut story, I was scared people would think badly of me if I didn’t deliver boxes of the absolute best of all the choices Dunkin’ Donuts had to offer. My fear wasn’t of donuts. It was about being liked and accepted at a time when I wondered if I’d ever find love again.

When I acknowledged what was really scaring me about making donut selections, the fear eased into the background and I was able to make a decision. I took one tiny step into action and broke the thought loop.

You can do the same. The next time you realize you’re overthinking something, interrupt your thought process and ask yourself what’s scaring you. And then, do one tiny thing to move yourself beyond the fear.

What decision are you “Dunkin’ Donuts-ing”?