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David Muckle
David Muckle

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"You're overthinking it."

To preface, I am a student, so hearing this isn't too unfamiliar. But at the same time, I wonder if it's something normal to hear.

I heard this the other day when trying to format printing in an interpreter I was working on. The solution was so simple that, indeed, as my friend noted, I was overthinking things. When someone says "You're overthinking it," how does it make you feel?

Top comments (6)

val_baca profile image
Valentin Baca

It's a really hard balance to find, especially in the working world.

The simplicity or complexity of a problem is not always correlated to the simplicity or complexity of the solution.

Simple Problem: Determine if a computer program will terminate in finite time or run forever.
The solution is both infintely simple ("You can't") and complex, i.e. explaining why "you can't" or coming up with heuristics, such as those used by Windows and macOS for apps "Not Responding".

In industry, if you don't think about all the complexities of a problem ("Nobody knew health care could be so complicated" -US President), it can be your neck. On the other hand, if you can find a wonderfuly simple solution to a problem, sometimes you can retire on it.

The problem is that the simple solution never comes from underthinking, but only overthinking.

The term "overthinking" usually comes from going down rabbit-holes that you think you have to go down because of some assumption.

Here's another example: planning seating at a wedding party. If you don't know, this can drive you nuts. Uncle Bob cannot sit next to Cousin Phil, etc. Before you know it, you're looking up the NP-complete SAT problem. But in this case, you could be over thinking it. You could side-step the whole problem if you have an open bar, a great playlist (DJs are the worst), and a great dance floor. Or you could just let people pick their own seating and keep the party short.

So to answer the original question, when someone says I'm "overthinking it" it makes me feel like I got caught in the weeds with a problem. I need to take a little step back and see what is the real problem I'm trying to solve.

dmerand profile image
Donald Merand

Totally agree with all of this. Well put!

I read a great Thoughbot article called Start with the Problem that I think of when I get into the "overthinking" zone. I find it helpful to step back from my particular solution and take another look at the actual problem I'm trying to solve. After having been stuck in the weeds, changing perspective can be all that's necessary to get un-stuck.

dvdmuckle profile image
David Muckle • Edited

Totally agree, sometimes you end up making the solution a problem in of itself, and forget about the actual problem at hand.

codemouse92 profile image
Jason C. McDonald • Edited

Often, relief. I tend to overthink things quite often. It's a natural side-effect of how I think - from machine code up. Then someone taps me on the shoulder, points out the obvious, and I'm unstuck again.

We even have a GIF on our Phabricator instance at work for those occasions when one of us has started overthinking/overengineering a problem...


Of course, there are cases where I'm told I am overthinking the problem, and I'm not, but there's no harm in checking!

sergiodxa profile image
Sergio Daniel Xalambrí

I heard it a few times in the past, my reactions is always "there should be an easier way to do it and I'm not noticing it 🤔", it's usually followed by a "how would you do it?".

craigmorrison profile image
Craig Morrison

I've said it and I've had it said to me. It doesn't bother me because I know it happens to everyone.

In software development our problems are often complex, it's easy to assume that even simple problems are more complicated than they are. Sometimes you just need to take a break or have a colleague look at it with fresh eyes.