I am spent and empowered at once. I am looking around, eyes squinting, blood boiling in my veins, my muscles contract, like a big cat, pacing around my prey. I am waiting for a sign, to lunge, to attack, to kill if I must. My body is trying to find its balance; it’s not easy — I am hurting, my muscles are aching, yet I am hyperalert and my focus zooms into one single point. I suck in some air and I relax and tense my muscles again, lift my hands and…
‘And one more round! Left punch, right punch, left hook, right hook, and a right sidekick.’
He’s prompting the moves I have seen and done a million times. I am memorising them with my muscles, so I can give all my strength without the burden of thoughts. I’d like to wipe off the sweat but there is no time for that; I can’t even breathe for shit, let alone move my arms further than I must. In the break, I obediently do another 20 push-ups and 50 crunches and then one more round.
I am trembling all over and my focus is starting to loosen. I start to think about the next move, it is visible in my eyes. My coach… he knows me too well…
‘Don’t think, stop thinking!’ He is yelling at me.
When I stop to think which hand, which leg, what motion, I am sure to screw it up — and I am a lot weaker, a lot less focused, and I am off-balance too.
‘This is the last round! Stronger! You can do stronger!’
My jaw tightens at the insult masked as motivation, my eyes squint, I nod… of course I can. I grit my teeth. I am moving my balance from my right leg to the left and focus on the punch. I am sucking in the air, making a hissing sound — it swiftly crosses my mind that it’s far from being feminine and getting annoyed by my own vanity makes me give my best and strongest punch. My head feels light, time stands still, I am hyperfocused, I see the dust specks against the sweat-filthy walls and old neon lights. I see myself from outside and I feel my body in multiplications of a stop motion animation. I deliver a killer left punch and I am floating. My body betrays me. I should have collapsed by now, but my heart soars, adrenaline floods my cells; I am stronger than I thought, less tired than I believed, and I can do it… I am standing grinning in the puddle of my victory.
‘Told ya! That’s the spirit, girl!’
I flash a weak smile at him. I lift my hand for a final fist bump with the boxing gloves, trying to get back my breathing to normal.
I am prone to overthinking. Hell, I’m even overthinking if I am overthinking.
When I am training I have a hard time to snap out from my usual overthinking MO. I need extra effort to exert energy because my mind is busy with figuring out which hand to lift, which leg to kick with.
I am wasting precious energy and I make more mistakes than I should.
I mix up my hands, I lose my balance, I have less power to my punches. And then I keep apologising for it, trying to make up for it.
I need to learn to stop thinking and start doing when it’s time to do, not think.
“Five percent of the people think;
ten percent of the people think they think;
and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”
― Thomas A. Edison
We are taught from a young age to think. To think before we act, to consider the consequences, to contemplate the alternatives — to get prepared by the power of our minds. And while in some cases rational thinking is great and necessary, I saw only too many people wrecking their own lives by their own thoughts — thinking when they should be doing, musing about the best option when they should just take a leap of faith, over-worrying things that don’t deserve any more thoughts wasted on them.
The biggest challenge is not to think — it’s to know when to think and when to act.
You don’t want to jump into the unknown before sizing up the situation, before considering the possible outcome, before analysing what the best way would be to approach it. And it’s a great ability to be able to think — to some extent.
But there comes a moment, when overthinking is more detrimental than not thinking at all; when analysing over and over again is just another form of procrastination; when actions are needed, and thoughts are pointless.
“I think and think and think, I‘ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.”
― Jonathan Safran Foer
How to start acting — without hindering your own success by thinking too much.
Practise until you can’t get it wrong
One of my favourite quotes is:
Don’t practise until you can get it right — practise until you can’t get it wrong.
Think about playing the piano, or think about the carefully choreographed moves of a dancer. There is a period when you need to focus and practise, giving it your full attention, crafting the movement, getting your body and mind used to the motions — be them mental or physical. It’s the time of learning and thinking, saving the unnecessary moves, getting rid of the fluff for efficiency. You strive to get it right — for the first time, and then again, and again. Your mind and body are training to get used to delivering a good result, where you are able to do it without making a mistake. This is the time when you need focused attention, continuous thinking.
And then, you give in to the routine, you let your trained movements take over your thoughts. You stop thinking about it, you start really doing it. And slowly practising more and more you get to a point when you can’t get it wrong anymore.
Any further conscious thinking will confuse you — you don’t need to start to think which finger hits which key and which pedal you are pushing — you just do it.
This is when you are bound to do exceptional things — when you have enough headspace to add your own personality to it, where your movements become graceful, where your talent can shine through.
Going back to my kickboxing training example — delivering one right punch is not too difficult. Doing it well gets more difficult with each and every blow. The more I practise, the more I realise how poorly I did it before.
This is the same for lots of things in life. Think about writing. Look back on your previous work and see how different they are from what you are capable of now. A month of steady work already makes a huge difference.
Progressive repetition brings a flow state
Have you ever done a repetitive task, even just copy-pasting huge numbers of items from one file to another? When there is a key combination that you realise to be the best and quickest way?
It starts with figuring out the right way of doing it, then repeating it so many times that your movements are automatical. There is great pleasure in repetitive tasks; and funnily enough, they are not the exact same movements at the beginning and in the middle of the process. You seem to repeat, but you are improving — you use up less space, you are quicker, you are more effective.
It seems to be a mindless repetition, but it still needs concentration and focus — if it’s a little challenging, it can even get you in a flow state.
According to Wikipedia, in positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.
The flow state requires two factors:
- You need to have the ability and skill to do the task,
- and it needs to be just a little challenging.
If you have the skill but it’s not challenging, you will get bored. If it’s too much of a challenge, you will get frustrated. The flow state is a progressive state where your skills are increasing as you want to meet the challenge. This is how playing the piano — for example — can get you in the flow state easily, as the more skilled you get, the biggest challenges you can take on.
In kickboxing, the goalpost is continuously moving. No matter how repetitive the task is, there is always an ever-increasing level of challenge. To hit more precisely, to do it stronger, to move more efficiently, to save more energy. Focusing on one single move makes you very aware of the difficulties and beauty of that task. The progress is slow but visible and it keeps you in a continuous flow to repeat the same, only a little better than before.
In any other areas, forming a writing habit, taking up exercising or running — the same progressive repetition is there. You don’t need to think about it, you just have to do it; and by repeating it, almost mindlessly will get you in a state where thinking is not uselessly overdone. This is why freewriting, journaling or rambling can help you with your writer’s block because it brings you back to the routine, that gets your creative juices flowing, even if previously you thought that you have zero ideas.
Being there is more important than thinking
Mindfulness, as a concept is getting more popular by the minute, thousands of articles promote the art of being there. It seems easier than it is, as instead of being passively present, we need to work on our focus and attention to get into an actively present state. It involves focusing our attention more on bodily experiences to clear our minds from the repetition of unnecessary thoughts. It is a conscious way of dissecting our experiences into items that don’t require us to overthink it. When you need to focus on your breathing, you don’t stop and think about the mechanics of it, you just do it. It slows down your brain and cleanses the crowded synapses — by focusing on something that you can do without considering whether you can do it.
You can use mindfulness to find the focal point in your life, something that doesn’t need to be thought over, something that needs action more than anything.
Our ability to think is one of the greatest perks of us being human — but as much as thinking is great, overthinking can be completely counterproductive. We need to be aware of when it is time to think and when it is time to do.
And when it’s time to do, we need to just do it; progressively repeat it and practise it until we can’t get it wrong, and be there fully. This way we can both master the art of doing and the art of not overthinking.