“What if I can’t do it?”
“What if they say no?”
“How can I possibly get this done in time?”
“What if she says something about me?”
How frequently does your brain loop on similar thoughts?
More often than you’d like?
If so, you’re not alone.
As humans, it’s normal for our brain to grab onto questions like this.
In fact, it may even think it’s necessary.
But today I’m here to suggest that it’s not.
Because looping on these unanswered questions often leads to overwhelm, confusion, and distraction.
No, thank you!
So what can we do instead?
How can stop these ruminating thoughts in their tracks?
That’s exactly what we’re talking about in episode 82 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast.
Have a listen, learn my best strategies to close your open question loops, and create clarity for your brain to focus on what matters most.
You can listen to the episode below, or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here:
Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.
Listen To The Podcast Here!
In This Episode, You Will Discover…
- Why our brain loves to overthink things
- How to find answers to the questions
- My top two strategies to stop the looping questions in their tracks
Links From The Podcast
- Sign up for your free consultation with me here
- Join the I’m Busy Being Awesome Facebook group here
- Sign up for the free habit training on February 23rd here
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Episode #82: How To Stop Overthinking Everything: Close Your Open Question Loops (Transcript)
Hey, everybody! Welcome to episode 82. Thanks for joining me today. In this episode, we are continuing our exploration of open loops, but from a very different lens.
Last week we talked about the more task-oriented concept of open loops inspired by David Allen’s work Getting Things Done. We explored how open loops – our thoughts about incomplete projects, unanswered emails, and unscheduled appointments that we’ve been “meaning to do,” – are major causes of distraction in our lives. They keep us from focusing on the task at hand and they often stop getting the important things done because these open loops keep popping into our minds.
They often sound like, “Oh no, I forgot to schedule that appointment.” “Ugh, I still need to answer that email.” and “I don’t know when I’m going to get all of these projects done.” And with each reminder of the other things we still need to do, it pulls us away from the thing we want to be doing in the first place. So last episode we talked about how to close those loops and stop those thoughts from distracting you.
How to Stop Overthinking Everything
Well, this week we are looking at open loops through a lens of questions that we’re often asking ourselves over and over. I call these open question loops. And these open question loops keep us ruminating and spinning out so we can’t focus our brain on what we want to be doing.
In other words, it’s one more distraction for our already distraction-prone brains. And today we’re going to talk about two powerful ways to close these open question loops.
Before we jump into the episode, I want to quickly remind you that – depending on when you listen to this episode – my free habits training is in just one week. I’m teaching it on Tuesday, February 23 at 3:00 est. In the training, we are going to explore all things habits. You will get tactical strategies and tools that you can use immediately after the training to both establish and stick with your habits and start seeing those positive changes you want in your life. So again, that will be on Tuesday, February 23rd at 3:00 pm EST.
If you can’t make it live, no problem. Add your name to the list and I will send you the replay. But I encourage you to make it live if you can, because those who come live get access to a complete workbook that walks you step by step through my process, it helps you take the work deeper, and there are habits trackers to keep you on track going forward, too. So if you want to join us, just head to http://imbusybeingawesome.com/training and I will send all of the details and information your way. You don’t want to miss this one.
So. Let’s talk about open thought loops, shall we?
As I mentioned quickly before, if open task loops that we talked about last week keep our brain busy, I would argue that open question loops that we keep asking ourselves over and over are downright exhausting. In fact, this is a concept that I coach on daily with different clients.
What Are Open Question Loops
So first, let’s talk about what I actually mean here. What are open question loops, specifically? These are the questions that often begin with “What if” or “How can I” or “Who could even?”
And more specifically, it might sound like, “What if I can’t do it? “What if they say no?” “What if she thinks I’m too much” “What if they think I’m not smart enough?” “How can I possibly get this done in time?” “How can I force myself to do this?” “Who could ever do such a thing?” “What if I can’t handle this?” And so on and so forth – forever and ever – as your brain identifies one thing after another to worry about.
Why Do We Ruminate and Overthink Things?
As we know, our brains love ruminating on things. And this is because one of the main jobs of the brain is to solve problems. By thinking about problems, challenges, or ideas, the brain is doing its job. And sometimes this is great! When you ask your brain to solve a problem and you intentionally find answers for each step, then it’s effective.
However, with these ruminating questions, your brain is like a dog with a bone. It’s going to keep turning the question over and over in your mind without ever solving for anything because you’re not treating it like an actual problem to intentionally solve. Instead, the brain is simply worrying and spinning out. It wants to keep asking, “Yeah, but what if this happens? And what will they think about that thing I said?” And our brain desperately thinks this worrying is necessary. It thinks it must do this to be effective and do its job and survive. But this just isn’t true.
And it brings me to the next reason why our brain loves to loop on things. It is our brain’s job to scan for danger. It is always on the lookout searching for the next potential threat. And it doesn’t matter whether it is actually a threat or it just thinks it’s a threat. It doesn’t matter if your brain is on high alert looking for cars when crossing the street or playing out worst-case “what if” scenarios in your mind about whether your boss will say something negative in your performance review. If your brain thinks it’s a threat, it is going to focus on it to try and keep you safe.
So if you’re asking yourself open question loops like “what if this happens? What if they don’t like me? What if they think I’m too much or not enough?” You better believe it’s going to loop on those open-ended questions, trying to protect you from what it perceives as a potential and uncertain danger.
Finally, your brain is always looking for ways to conserve energy. So if your brain locks onto a thought, or in this case a question, it is so much easier for it to continue looping on that question. It becomes a well-worn neural pathway. It doesn’t have to do any extra work. And it doesn’t have to potentially find a new answer or step outside of its comfort zone by doing something new or take a different action. Instead, it can be as efficient as possible by simply looping on the same what-ifs day in and day out.
So let’s talk about some examples. How might this actually play out?
Open Question Loop Examples
Let’s say you are on the job market and you’ve sent out a stack of resumes. Or you’ve gone through a few rounds of interviews and now you’re in the dreaded waiting game. You’ve been there before, right? There is literally nothing you can do in terms of action steps to help you get that job once you’ve applied and had the interview. Now it’s time to wait.
The Waiting Game
But your brain is not game with this. Your brain wants to keep exploring all of the what-ifs as it desperately tries to keep you safe from potential rejection. So it probably keeps cycling on thoughts like, What if I don’t get this job? What if this doesn’t happen? What if they didn’t like me? How could I have answered the question like that? Why didn’t I answer with this response instead of the one I gave? And let the rumination begin.
Because again, your brain thinks it’s protecting you. It’s interpreting this circumstance as dangerous in terms of potential rejection or fear of failure, so it’s scanning all threats through asking these questions over and over. Additionally, it is saving energy because it takes less energy to spin out on the same handful of thoughts than it takes to move forward, apply to the next job, and keep taking action. And finally, it thinks it’s helping by solving a problem. It thinks that looping on these questions will help solve the problem of getting a job. But the problem with this logic is that the brain isn’t truly solving the problem because we’re not being intentional about the questions we’re asking.
What Other People Think
Another example of open question loops might focus on other people’s opinions. And I know that this is a big one since I’ve heard from so many of you after we explored other people’s opinions back in episodes 69 and 70. We all have this concern over other people’s opinions at one time or another.
We may have the general constant chatter of open question loops like, “what will they think if I do this? What about when I do that? What will she think specifically? And what about if she talks to that person about me? What will that person think?
Or maybe we have just one or two people, maybe it’s someone we really admire, maybe it’s someone like a boss or manager who has some say in your job, maybe it’s someone really close to you like your partner or your parent.
And once again, your brain is just doing what it thinks is necessary. It sees potential for rejection when interacting with others, so it’s trying to protect you ahead of time. It’s conserving energy because these are such well-practiced thought loops that it takes no extra mental energy to just keep looping on them. And it thinks it’s solving the problem of rejection by constantly having you on high alert.
Getting Things Done
Or maybe your open question loops sound more like, “how am I ever going to get this all done?” Or “how can I possibly find the time?” And while these could be useful questions depending on the feeling they create for you, most of the time they’re asked without much intention, and they become open loops. And rather than slowing down to figure out how you can get it done, your brain instead thinks it’s solving the problem by being efficient and looping on the familiar neural pathway once again.
So. My guess is that you have identified some of your own open question loops by now. And I encourage you over the next week to start capturing others. Do they come up when you’re journaling? Do they pop into your head when you’re talking with a friend? Perhaps you notice them when you’re creating your schedule for the day. Start noticing when they come up. And now that you have the concept on your radar, I have a feeling you’ll start noticing them quite a bit more often.
And once you do start noticing them, here is what I suggest you do.
Answer The Questions – Close The Loops
I suggest that you answer those questions. I suggest that rather than allowing your brain to continue looping on the unanswered questions to instead answer that question. And what’s more, answer it from every possible angle so that the next time your brain throw’s a “what if” or a “how can I” your way, you have a fully fleshed-out answer ready to go.
“Well, let me tell you, brain, this is what I will do…”
So let’s talk about how to do this. I like to close my open question loops with two different strategies. The first is to turn the question into a statement and do some thought work on that, and the second is to actually answer the question and give my brain some direction.
Make A Statement
Let’s first talk about turning the question into an answer. So here’s a sometimes surprising factoid for people. Often when we are looping on these open questions, there is some fear or uncertainty behind the question, and it helps reveal what we’re really worried about. It gives us a window into our own doubts and concerns.
By turning our questions into statements, it can help show us what we’re thinking and then give us space to decide how we want to keep thinking about the circumstance going forward.
So for example, let’s say someone on your team emailed you asking that you add another presentation to your full schedule this month. You want to decline. So you look at the email, and your brain offers some version of the familiar thought, “what if she thinks I’m being selfish for saying no?” or “what if she thinks I’m not being a team player?” or “what if this reflects badly on my performance review next quarter because I don’t say yes?”
Normally, we stop there. And we just keep looping on those questions.
Instead of doing that, with the first technique, we’re going to turn the question into a statement. This will help us see where we might be questioning or doubting yourself. So for our email request examples, the statement might look like: I’m being selfish for saying no. I’m not being a team player. If I don’t say yes it will reflect badly on my performance review.
So already, by stopping the racing what-ifs in their tracks, we already lower that frenetic energy a few levels. We take down the overwhelm a little bit, and we tap into ourselves and what’s true to us. We get out of everybody else’s models and everybody else’s thoughts and we tune into our own.
Is This True?
And from there, I invite you to ask a powerful yet super simple question, which my coach shared with me and I practice all the time with open question loops like this. And that question is: “is this true?” So after I turn the looping question into a statement and show myself what I’m really thinking, then I take a deep breath. I think about that statement. And I ask myself, “is this true” And I listen for the answer. I wait for the gut answer that feels true not only in my head but also in my body. You know the expression “gut response,” right? That’s what I wait for. Is this true, yes or no? And I wait for the answer.
So is it true that I’m being selfish for saying no to this extra request? I breathe into the question. And I wait for the answer. Then I do the same for “is it true that I’m not being a team player by saying no to this request?” and “is it true that it could reflect badly on my performance review?”
Now here’s the deal, I don’t know the answer that you’ll find. Of course, with my clients, we can dig in and really explore these questions together. But I encourage you to go into the questions with curiosity and openness. If the answer is no, let that close the loop. And anytime the question returns, you already have your answer. You are stopping the loop in its tracks and training your brain to realize it doesn’t need to keep considering that question anymore; it has already solved the problem.
Close The Loop
And the same is true for any what-if question that you explore in this way: “What if I can’t get my business off the ground?” becomes “I don’t think I can get my business off the ground.” “What if they don’t think my writing is good enough?” becomes “I don’t think my writing is good enough.” And with each question, pause and ask yourself, “is this true?” If the answer is no, you’ve closed your loop. You’re good. Remind your brain of that every time the question returns. And it will return. Because remember, your brain is an efficiency seeker. It has been practicing these thoughts over and over. So you’re now creating a new neural pathway that needs just as much practice to make strong.
Byron Katie’s Four Questions
But what about when you ask the question “is this true” and you find the answer is yes? Then what? Then I suggest taking two more steps. The first step is running it through Byron Katie’s Four Questions.
Now for those of you who might be unfamiliar with Byron Katie, she is an author and speaker and a leader in the practice of teaching others to question their thoughts. And her four question framework includes these four questions: Is it true? Can you be absolutely sure it’s true? How do you react when you believe that thought? Who would you be without the thought?
So we’ve already talked about “is this true?” If your brain offers yes, then you ask the question “can I be absolutely sure it’s true?” And this is where we slow down even further. How can we prove it’s true? What is true? How do we actually know? So if we go back to being selfish for saying no to the request.
- Is this true? In our example, our brain said “yes, you’re being selfish”.
- So then we ask, can you be absolutely sure it’s true? → How can I be sure that this is selfish? Is it possible it’s not selfish? How might that be true? So we start playing around with it further.
- Then from there, we ask our third question, how do I react when I believe this thought? How do I react when I believe that I’m selfish for saying no? Well, I probably shame myself for not being a team player and then reluctantly say yes to the request. And then I feel bitter and annoyed about the whole thing because what I’m really doing is being selfish about work and not taking care of myself.
- Then the fourth question is: who would I be without this thought? If we keep the same example, who would I be without the thought that I’m selfish for saying no? Well, I would be staying true to myself and what I really want. I’d be taking care of myself and probably showing up to the job that I readily agreed to with a much better attitude.
So by acknowledging that open question loop and turning it into a statement, we better understand what we might be thinking. And from there we can really challenge that thought. We can turn it upside down and examine it from different angles by using Byron Katie’s 4 questions, and close our loop.
Answer The Question
But what about when the questions we’re looping on don’t fit into this scenario? OR what if we go through the questions and we still really believe they’re true?
This is where the second strategy comes in, which is simply pausing to answer the looping questions. I know this seems obvious, but the reality is that we don’t do it! Our brain loops and loops and loops without ever landing on an answer. And today I invite you to actually close the loop by answering the questions.
So if you’re really worried that your colleagues will think you’re selfish for saying no to the extra project request, and your brain keeps asking, what if they think I’m selfish? Then answer that. So what if they do? What do you want to think about it? How do you want to feel about it? What do you want to do about it? Because all of that is within your control. You get to decide what you make of this situation.
Worst And Best Case Scenario
What’s more, I encourage you to let your brain go to the worst-case scenario. In other words, maybe they do think you’re selfish and they talk about it with your colleagues and it shows up on your performance review. So what? What will you do? What is the worst-case scenario? I can tell you that the worst thing that will happen is you will feel some kind of negative emotion about it. You might feel guilty or angry or judged. But you can handle that. So what will you do? What if they think you’re being selfish. Make yourself answer the question.
And then, as we’ve talked about in previous episodes, make sure you’re allowing for equal airtime. If you spent 5 minutes catastrophizing the worst-case scenario, you need to spend 5 minutes thinking about the best-case scenario, too. Because your colleague might also be inspired by your new boundaries. They might start thinking that they can take control of when they say yes and no. They might look up to you for staying true to yourself. This is equally as possible, yet we never let ourselves explore that positive possibility. Instead, we get stuck in the negative.
If your brain is looping on, “what if I can’t get my business off the ground?” So what? What if you can’t? What will you do then? First of all. I would get clear on what “getting it off the ground” means. What does “getting the business off the ground” mean in measurable terms? Is it replacing your current income, being profitable, having a certain number of clients or revenue each month etc. So first make sure you’re clear on what that means. And then once you have clarity, then answer the question. What will you do if you’re not reaching that goal by a certain time? Will you try a new marketing technique? Could you take a course? Will you work with a coach? What will you do if that happens? Answer the question and close the loop.
If your brain keeps asking, “how on earth can I get this all done?” Again, answer it. How will you get it done? Will you identify the most important tasks? Will you cancel your afternoon meeting? Or will you delegate some of the smaller things? Will you let go of your perfectionism and embrace B- work? If your brain is freaking out about how you can get everything done, be intentional with that question. Put your brain to work finding an answer that’s useful rather than spinning out in worst case scenarios. You’ll be blown away by the shift you feel.
And there you have it. Part two of our open-loop series all about open question loops. I’m telling you, when you put these strategies to work, and you close your open question loops by either turning the question into a statement or answering the questions with intention, you will notice a significant reduction in unnecessary brain chatter and have so much more free space to focus on what really matters. And when you pair that with closing the open task loops from episode 81, I think you’ll be amazed at your overall increase in mental clarity, focus, and peace of mind.