Overthinking and the Subconscious

Sometimes people get stuck overthinking when writing or making decisions. This often means they’re relying too much on conscious effort and too little on subconscious effort. They get stuck partly because conscious effort is a very limited resource so they don’t have enough.

I’m only talking about overthinking as a self-identified problem, not “overthinking” as an accusation against others.

Part of the solution is to lower your standards. People commonly self-identify with the skill and quality level that they think they can achieve using lots of conscious effort. (For example, in school, test scores and grades are based on people’s skill level when using high, conscious effort, which students are misled to believe is their actual skill level.) However, it’s unrealistic to use so much conscious effort for everything. It’s better to connect your identity primarily with the skill and quality level your subconscious achieves with little conscious help. That is what you actually use for most of your life.

In other words, what you can do when you’re not at your best – a little tired, a little distracted, a little uninterested, a little unmotivated, etc. – is more representative of who you really are. This also comes up in sports: some people are disappointed when players can’t live up to their peak performance most of time. People may see an outlier performance as what a player is “really” capable of – their true talent level when nothing gets in the way – instead of as random variance.

People generally try to avoid doing anything that’s worse than how good they think they are (or should be). But their self-image is too hard for them to live up to in practice, which can prevent them from doing much. One result is overthinking when trying to live up to their self-image.

A solution is to accept who you are right now and be OK with that. If you want to be better, great, but you’ll have to work your way up. And you’ll make progress more effectively if you build on your current subconscious skill level instead of trying to use your higher, conscious skill level as a starting point.

When writing or doing other activities, try to keep things pretty quick and easy at least 80% of the time. You can sometimes do harder things that you might get stuck on, but not too often. Self-improvement should mostly focus on improving your “what is easy for me” skill level, not improving your “my very best work” skill level.