How can you stop overthinking under pressure?

A few months ago, I had an unusual opportunity to introduce myself and my business to a room full of people, of whom some 95% were total strangers. I was one of several speakers invited to share quite literally “a few words” (and not more) about my work.

Since I’m never one to “wing it” when performing, I had prepared a few well-chosen words to share. But at the event, we received even less time than I’d expected, so that I was forced to mentally abbreviate my comments.

While I didn’t “choke” or embarrass myself or others by long-windedness, the result was nonetheless less than stellar—especially for someone who has done a significant amount of public speaking, networking and even teaching, in the past.

I gave an “elevator speech” that felt too sheepish to be convincing (or to convince myself) and was uncommonly relieved when my sound bite of time had passed. Simply put, as I was “too in my head.” But what, asks cognitive scientist Sian Beilock (president of Barnard College), in this week’s issue of the Harvard Business Review, does that really mean?

Beilock explains that when we overthink what we are saying, the “prefrontal cortex, found in the part of your brain situated right above your eyes,” the “epicenter of our cognitive functioning and horsepower,” can undermine “our ability to focus on the task at hand.”

When we are performing repetitive and unpressured tasks everyday, our prefrontal cortex runs “on auto-pilot.” But when we are under pressure, such as when called to speak publicly or play in a playoff game, this part of our brain “can go into overdrive. When the pressure is on, we often start focusing on the step-by-step details of our performance to try to ensure an optimal outcome and, as a result, we disrupt what would have otherwise been fluid and natural.”

Simply put, we overthink what we already know how to do.

This dilemma besets most achieving people at one point or other in life. But what can we do to reign in that part of our brain, in such moments? Beilock recommends several tips:

(1) When you’re about to go into a stressful situation where you have practiced your task to perfection, “don’t overthink what’s next.” In other words, don’t take the time to review what you are about to do, in your head. Instead, give your mind a break to work on a crossword puzzle or to imagine how your next vacation will be or to read from a popular magazine. Distract yourself from dwelling too much on the details of what you are about to do. Let your brain sit still, as it were, trusting that you are already prepared.

(2) If you notice yourself starting to overthink, Beilock recommends repeating a one-word mantra, singing a song or focusing on only three key points that you want your audience to learn. In these ways, you’ll “use up that cognitive horsepower that could otherwise be used against you.” She uses the example of sitting down in a chair at a job interview. If you freeze up when you sit down, by not occupying your pre-frontal cortex with unrelated tasks, you’ll overthink and struggle to communicate a coherent message effectively.

(3) Don’t assume that physical symptoms like an elevated heart rate or sweaty palms are negative. They mean that your mind is preparing for what is ahead. Psychologists have found that acknowledging one’s own physical preparedness for a challenge can help you to “put [your] best foot forward when it matters most.”

(4) Don’t allow yourself to monitor every word that comes out of your mouth: distract yourself from overthinking about the minute steps of your work.

(5) Although it may seem obvious, these strategies will only work if you take the time and effort to prepare yourself, beforehand. Beilock says that it’s “crucial to replicate and practice under similar conditions.” So take a simulated test or practice speaking before a group of coworkers or colleagues. If you are a solo professional, like me, without many people handy, record yourself practicing your remarks. Some people rehearse their words in front of a mirror. These strategies will reduce the stress you feel when your “big moment” comes.

Beilock concludes that even if you “wipe out” or “choke,” remind yourself that this too will be a learning experience. She concludes: “Take the opportunity to learn how to better handle the stress next time.”

And now it’s your turn. Have you suffered from “overthinking” under stress? Please share your thoughts with me on my “contact” page. I’d be delighted to extend this conversation.