Thinking Just to Think

When I told my grandma that I stopped drinking coffee because I’ll sleep a lot better, she immediately pointed at the true root of the problem: “You think too much.” Perhaps she knew because it’s an affliction she and my mom and I all share, or perhaps it was just the wisdom of age. Either way, grandma was right on the money.

I’ve always been an overthinker. It’s hard for me to turn off the gears whizzing away in my brain. I can lie in bed for hours, be it at night or in the morning, just thinking away. Becoming a self-employed creative has exacerbated that trend. There’s always another article to write, another project to tend to, an admin problem to take care of, taxes to file, or, finally, some free time to be filled with meaningful activities.

Given there are a million things that feel like they should rightfully occupy my mind at any given time, it’s easy for me to think just to think. My thinking sessions under my comforter rarely lead to a brilliant insight. Sometimes, I’ll take a note or two after I get up, but most of the time, I realize: Those two hours would have been better spent elsewhere. Doing things, perhaps, or at the very least not fretting, which is often synonymous with “thinking.”

Meditation has helped a lot. I can catch myself thinking away and say, “Oh, that’s not useful. Let me get up and do something instead.” At first, this felt almost wrong. In a society that values thinkers so highly, criticizing the very act of thinking is a contrarian take. “What do you mean, thinking isn’t useful? What about Einstein, and philosophy, and J. K. Rowling?” But not all thoughts are created equal, and almost all thoughts are squandered potential if we don’t act on them later — if only by writing them down.

The other thing about those who think for a living is that they do it in a focused, contained manner — at least if they’re good at it. A philosopher might spend three hours each day in deep focus on her topic, then take some notes and go grocery shopping. If she can do all her “work thinking” in the morning, why add more later when her brain is less capable of performing?

The problem isn’t thinking itself; it’s thinking just to think. When thinking becomes an end instead of a means, thoughts become the disease instead of the cure.

Think as much as you need to, then stop. When you hang up a painting in the morning, you don’t carry around your hammer all day either. But thinking is deceptive. As long as there’s any kind of activity in our brain, we feel like we’re using it and using it properly. Even if that’s not the case — if our thinking doesn’t go anywhere — our brain tells us we’re smart, and we get all gooey inside. It’s the equivalent of continuing to hold your hammer just because it feels so good in your hand.

Are you thinking with a purpose, or are you thinking just to think? Separate the two as best as you can — and if it takes a lower caffeine intake to do it, I think that’s a price well worth paying.