Former Engineer Teaches Leaders How to Break Free from Over-Thinking

Don't Over-think. Use These Steps to Break Free.

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Shelley Row, P.E., is a leadership decision-making expert and a recovering overthinker. She has degrees in Architecture, Civil Engineering, and a Master of Business Administration, and has more than 30 years of work experience as both a traffic engineer and a senior executive with the federal government. Since 2011, she has run her own company called Shelley Row Associates, a 100% women-owned business where she works as a motivational speaker and has written several books about overcoming over-thinking.

She specializes in an Infotuition Cognition-Intuition Balance Model, which represents the intersection of business pragmatics and gut feeling. This is especially important for complex decision-making, where data alone is not enough.

Read on to learn more about infotuition and how it relates to legal careers.

Can you explain the basics of "infotuition"? What is this about?

At the core, "infotuition" is about better decision-making for leadership and life. Let’s face it, that’s where the most vexing decisions show up. In my experience and from interviews with 77 other executives from public and private sectors I discovered that the best decisions were a combination of information and intuition—what some call "gut feel." The executives noted that intuition was particularly important for decision-making in rapidly changing environments; when there are contradictions in the data; and ambiguity due to lack of data; or decisions that center on people (hiring, firing, or political decisions).

Basically, the more complex the decision the more likely that intuition will play a role.

It is important to point out that none of these leaders rely just on gut feel. They use the data at their disposal, gather input from a wide range of sources and they listen to the subtle voice inside. It is the combination of cognition and intuition that is powerful.

There isn’t a word that captures their experience so I made one up—infotuition.

What's the distinction between "thinking" and "overthinking"?

Have you ever noticed that the loudest voice in the room is the one inside our head? That’s because we “think” all the time. Over-thinking happens when we think so hard that we shut out the subtle signals coming from other parts of the brain. Today, neuroscience helps us understand that dynamic interplay inside our head.

Consider two basic parts of the brain that we’ll call the pilot and autopilot. The pilot brain is the heavy-duty thinker. It houses logic, language, and executive control functions. It is slow (in brain time) and tires quickly. The autopilot brain is fast and takes little energy. It uses deeply stored information in the brain that forms our habits, values, and expertise. Powerful and quick, the autopilot doesn’t have access to language. Think about how hard it is to describe your feelings about a loved one or the emotion you feel when standing in a beautiful scene in nature. The autopilot “gets it” but struggles to describe it.

Over-thinking happens when we over-use the pilot to the point that it overrides quiet messages coming from the autopilot.

We’ve all had that experience when we think so hard we make it harder than it has to be. If we slow down, we notice a little nagging feeling that holds us back. The nagging feeling brings experience from the autopilot. All too often, when we over-think, we shove the feeling away—along with its wisdom. That’s over-thinking.

When faced with a complex decision, I recommend to leaders that they review all available data, gather input from the appropriate people (particularly those with differing opinions), then take a brain break. Do something that distracts the mind; let it wander. The pilot and autopilot continue to work on the problem during the downtime. The result is the familiar aha-moment the comes just when we drop off to sleep or wake up, or during a run or quiet drive. That’s insightful thinking.

Lawyers are typically fans of rational thought and not so big on feelings. Why do you think it's important for lawyers to use more than just rational thinking skills? After all, that's all we're taught in law school!

I wondered about that, too. Consequently, I interviewed several lawyers as part of my research. Two observations stood out.

First, executives who were originally trained in law tended to be analytical but, as they moved into leadership positions where there is more ambiguity, they learned to also trust their gut. They still lean toward logic, but their experience taught them to take advantage of the additional wisdom that came with intuition.

One lawyer was a retired judge. She provided the second observation. Before I spoke with her I thought, “This will be a person who works solely on fact and logic.” Wrong again. This judge was articulate in describing the importance of self-awareness. It’s important that she recognized and understood what bothered her because feelings can sometimes indicate a conflict with personal values or bias. She wanted to know if her personal views (stored in the autopilot) influenced her thinking. Without that awareness, she could make an ill-advised decision. She actively paid attention to and used her gut feel.

How do you think lawyers can be more effective in the workplace, based on your research?

For lawyers who serve in management and leadership roles in their firms, or in an organization, they face complex decisions for which data alone is not enough, or complete data is unavailable. To make those decisions, thinking alone (the pilot) is not sufficient. There’s more experience and wisdom housed in the brain that can be brought to the table when they allow it to come. Here’s how one lawyer put it:

“…lots of times the decisions you make when you’re in a leadership role are based on fewer actual facts than you’d like to have, but you have to go ahead and make the decision anyway and so you have to rely on more than just the facts you have.”

For practicing lawyers, attentiveness to gut feel can point to issues where further probing is needed. The probing may be of a client or someone on the witness stand, or the probing might be of themselves. Here are examples of both from two lawyers:

“There was nothing in what he said, but it was just sort of this like he was trying not to lie on the stand and there’s something there. …it was really just like something isn’t quite right here.”

“… I realized that some of my reactions to cases were very emotional, much more than others. Then I asked myself why that was and how my own emotions or feelings were entering into my decision-making.”

Basically, the key message is that lawyers—no matter what their role—will be more effective when they are aware and respectful of the legitimate role intuition and gut feel play in their work. Based on the way we humans are built, feelings are unavoidable, but thinking about feelings is optional and many people don’t consider their feelings. And yet, the skilled conscious balance between thinking and feeling—infotuition—enhances decisions.

I'm an undergraduate student considering law school, but I'm not sure it's the right choice for me. I just can't make a decision! What would you suggest I do?

It sounds like you’re over-thinking it! Here are five questions that I use with clients to stop over-thinking. It may seem long at first, but over-thinking typically stems from a few root causes. Once you recognize the pattern, you can move through the resolution quickly.

  1. Why am I hesitating? Take a quiet moment to notice the nagging feeling that causes your hesitation. Are you feeling pushed into law school? Are you not sure if it’s for you? Is there a competing option that calls to you?
  2. What am I afraid of? In most cases, the hesitation stems from fear. Add this question to your previous answer. Maybe you’re afraid of disappointing someone. Or afraid that you’re giving up a dream for a stable career. Again…honest is the policy.
  3. What would you need to give up or let go of to move through the fear? Now probe. What’s really going on? Perhaps you have to give up the approval of others for your life choices. Maybe you have to let go of the idea that this decision is irreversible. Muster the courage to be honest with yourself.
  4. What would you be freed up to do? What would it feel like if you removed the fear? Maybe you’re freed up to make the decision that’s really best for you. Or you’re free to choose law knowing that you can move in a variety of directions in the future. What’s possible for you?
  5. Are you willing to give that up or let that go? This is a legitimate choice. Whether you let go of the fear or choose to hold it, this thought process will provide new insights for your decision.

Now, take a break. Sleep on it; go for a walk; do anything that lets your mind wander. Allow the pilot and autopilot to meld the information and insights. Then…find the decision that just feels right.

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