What If Thinking Is the Problem?

Yesterday, I woke up in the middle of the night. “Oh no. Not yet. Your alarm is ages away. Just go back to sleep.” Unfortunately, my mind chose to do what it always wants to do: It began to think. I ran down one line of thought. Then another. Then another.

On a usual night, I might have kept going like this for a good 30 minutes before eventually falling back asleep. This time, however, one of my thoughts was interesting: What if thinking is the problem? In this particular case, thinking was preventing me from sleeping. You can’t think yourself back to sleep.

So, instead of just telling myself to stop thinking or resetting lines of thought like I usually do, I tried to just let go of the thoughts that came my way altogether. Maybe I was just tired, but regardless, it worked. Within a few minutes, I extended my stay in dreamland.

Sleep may be the most obvious scenario in which thinking is an obstacle rather than a solution, but it’s far from the only one. How many times do we keep pondering when we should already be pounding away at the problem? How often do we wait for motivation to tackle a hard but necessary challenge, rather than just tackling it with whatever power we’ve got right now?

Life only offers us a certain amount of downhill momentum, no matter how long we wait for the easiest path to appear. We need the right balance between thinking things through until starting them is easy, but then not overthinking and beginning as soon as we’re ready. We need the courage to think enough but no more.

The key to striking this balance is to realize when thinking turns from a solution into a problem. Imagine a gauge beginning to charge whenever you start thinking. At first, the loading bar is green. The longer you think, the higher it rises. Eventually, green turns to yellow and then to red. “Stop! The problem-solution threshold has been crossed. Think no more. Please unplug the device, and get back to the business of living.”

This transition could happen in your Monday morning meeting, on a sandy beach far away, or in the middle of the night. Wherever you are when it does, please, don’t wade into the fog that follows. Turn around, shut down your marvelous mind machine, and face what’s right in front of you – even if all that means is going back to sleep.