How to stop overthinking about work: probability-impact analysis

The Problem

I’m a natural overthinker. If a thought or potential issue pops into my mind, usually related to work, my instinct is to spend time thinking about what to do about it. Even if I get the thought out of my mind, it has a tendency to re-appear, usually at an annoying and inconvenient time. Often when I am busy doing something completely unrelated, rudely demanding my attention again.

This can be a huge distraction, sapping time and energy away from being able to focus on other important things. “Just don’t worry about it” or “Just don’t allow yourself to think about work when you’re not at work” are seemingly simple pieces of advice that are commonly offered.

However if you are naturally inclined to mull over solutions to problems or have an inherently analytical nature, this is much easier said than done. In fact, heeding this advice may sometimes even be detrimental, as having an analytical and detail-oriented mind is often a strength, especially in a lot of work-related scenarios.

So what’s the solution? There must be a way to both reduce the time spent overthinking about work-related issues, whilst simultaneously, and ideally quickly, satisfying yourself that it is reasonable to stop thinking about a particular problem.

Over a number of years, I’ve experimented with a number of techniques. One of the most effective methods that works for me is described in this post: the probability-impact model. If you’re like me and have a natural tendency to overthink things, or even if you are only an occasional overthinker, I hope this helps.

How to solve it

A technique sometimes used in business to analyse potential problems is to perform a probability-impact analysis. Essentially, it is a way of thinking about two key factors associated with potential problems:

  1. How likely is it that this thing actually happens? (“probability”)
  2. What will be the outcome if this thing happens? (“impact”)

These two factors together can be used to determine what to do about the potential problem. I find it helpful to think about this using a table.

High probability
(51-100%)
Don’t worryThink about this moreThink about this more
Medium probability
(“11-50%”)
Don’t worryThink about this moreThink about this more
Low probability
(“0-10%”)
Don’t worryDon’t worryThink about this more
Probability / ImpactLow impact
(“Doesn’t matter”)
Medium impact
(“Not good”)
High impact
(“Disaster”)

I have found performing a risk analysis like this when a problem enters my head, helps the vast majority of the time, as it mostly allows me to stop thinking about the problem, whilst having the satisfaction of having analysed the problem and determined that it is okay to do so.

You will note that if something is “Low impact”, this model says you never need to worry about it (regardless of probability). And if something is “Low probability”, you don’t need to worry about it unless it is “High impact”.

You may be reading this thinking:

“This seems over-engineered; now not only do I have the problem I started with in my head, but I have to perform a risk analysis as well!”

Let me address this. On face value, I agree, it seems overkill. However, in practice (and with practice) this can be done in your head very quickly. In most cases, I am able to do this analysis within a few seconds.

You may also be thinking:

But what if I do the analysis and it says I need to think more?”

Again, on face value, I agree. And in fact this is trickier to address. In reality, I have found that in the vast majority of cases (I’d estimate over 95% of the time), performing the above analysis leads me to a “Don’t worry” conclusion.

In fact, most of the time, the problem is both low probability and low impact. Over time, you come to learn this and your brain almost does this analysis without actively thinking. Maybe this is similar to what is automatically going on in people’s heads who are naturally able to not overthink things.

In the remaining 5% of time where the model says you need to think more (which admittedly, may be higher depending on your job role and the nature of potential problems which pop into your head), you’re right, the above model will need some extra steps. In those cases, I’ve got some other ideas, to follow in another post.

The final step

Once you have performed the analysis, at some point in the future the problem thought will inevitably pop back into your mind. You can’t stop this from happening. But you can stop yourself from thinking about it further past this point. This takes discipline. The gremlin in your mind might be saying “But what if I performed the analysis wrong?” or “What if I do need to think about it more to prevent a disaster?”.

The analogy I think of here is the legal system (or my layman’s understanding of it). Once a judgement has been served, you can’t have an appeal unless there is some significant change in circumstances, for example, new material evidence comes to light.

We can apply that logic here. Once you have performed your analysis, if the gremlin appears, tell him to do one. You can do this safe in the knowledge that his request is invalid unless he has some new information for you to consider (which usually, he doesn’t).

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