7 key differences between overthinking and critical thinking

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From childhood to adulthood, we’ve always been told to be critical thinkers – to examine things closely and objectively so we can make better decisions. 

If you’re like me, you’ve taken this to heart all your life, and you ponder over problems extensively, checking their every nook and cranny. And again, if you’re like me, you’ve probably found yourself going overboard and overanalyzing everything

I hate to tell you, but you’ve crossed the line from critical thinking to overthinking. And that’s dangerous and unproductive. 

How exactly are these two different? In this article, I’ll explore the key differences between overthinking and critical thinking. Hopefully, they’ll be enough for you to get back to safe ground! 

1) Purpose

Let’s begin with the very first thing that’s glaringly different between these two types of thinking – purpose. 

Critical thinking = has a clear goal

Overthinking = no clear goal

If you’re a critical thinker and you sit down to think about a problem, you have a mission, and that’s to solve the problem. 

According to researchers, critical thinkers use several techniques to choose a course of action: 

  • Understanding links between ideas
  • Determining the relevance of ideas
  • Identifying errors in reasoning
  • Justifying assumptions, values, and beliefs
  • Acknowledging personal limitations
  • Using evidence to make decisions
  • Active listening

See all the skills that go into the process? That means there’s a clear end in sight! 

But when you overthink, you jump off that productive path and go off on a spiral of negative thoughts. You go round and round in a cycle of worry, struggling to make sense of the situation. 

Your thought process goes wildly awry, which points to one thing – you’ve lost sight of your purpose. 

And when that happens, you also lose focus. 

2) Focus

There’s no doubt about it – your sense of purpose greatly affects your focus

Critical thinking = clear focus

Overthinking = unfocused and scattered

I often think of overthinking as a crazy web of thoughts and emotions. You start out thinking about a situation, then veer off on wild tangents, some of which may not even be related to the issue at hand! 

All you’re doing is jumping from thought to thought like a monkey swings from branch to branch. No wonder the overthinking brain is often likened to a “monkey mind!”

But as I’ve said earlier, critical thinking is more structured. While it also involves going off on multiple paths and isn’t necessarily linear, it has a singular purpose – to find an answer or solve the problem – and that helps keep you focused. 

You won’t be wasting time, which leads me to my next point…

3) Timeframe

Obviously, all the worrying and going round-and-round that overthinkers do eats up time. 

Critical thinking = specific timeframe

Overthinking = none at all! 

As a former overthinker, this is something I’d always get stuck in. I’d spend countless hours, lying awake in bed all night, thinking about a problem or situation. 

You would think I’d have a sensible solution after spending all that time, but no, I most certainly did not! I’d lost the thread of the plot and gone down the rabbit hole.

Eventually, I found ways to overcome that and steered myself back to the safe ground of critical thinking. I set a logical and systematic way to solve problems and policed myself whenever I noticed my thoughts going off in crazy directions again. 

That way, I could stick to a specific timeframe for finding a solution, just like real critical thinkers do!  

4) Emotion

One of the main things I had to deal with when developing the self-discipline to be a critical thinker is to manage my emotions. 

You see, this is another key difference between the two:

Critical thinking = driven by logic

Overthinking = driven by emotions

This explains why overthinkers are plagued with anxiety or fear. They end up having irrational thoughts (most of which are negative) and making decisions that don’t make sense!

Meanwhile, critical thinkers strive to remain objective. They distance themselves from their emotions and evaluate the problem based on facts and evidence. 

5) Complexity

Aside from making you irrational, emotion also affects your perception of complexity. It makes a problem seem so much more complicated than it actually is! 

Here’s how overthinkers and critical thinkers manage complexity differently:

Critical thinking = breaks down a problem into more manageable parts

Overthinking = magnifies the complexity of a problem

When we overthink, we may find ourselves getting overwhelmed by the complexity of a situation or problem. We may feel like the problem is too big to tackle, and we end up feeling paralyzed or helpless.  

In contrast, critical thinkers are proactive – they don’t sit around and wring their hands in despair. 

No, they get all matter-of-fact about it. They go, is the problem too big? Then break it down into smaller parts and tackle those parts one at a time. No need to get emotional about it!  

6) Perspective

Another difference between these two types of thinking is the way they look at the situation. 

Do you tend to view a problem just from your own perspective? You might be overthinking. You’ll end up with a biased or skewed view of the situation because you’re not seeing it from all angles.

On the other hand, if you clear your mind and consider multiple perspectives, you’re thinking critically. That means you’re looking at all the aspects so you can come up with a well-rounded solution. 

Critical thinking = multiple perspectives

Overthinking = narrow and limited perspective

If you want better outcomes, strive to look at the situation or problem from multiple perspectives. This will help you identify potential blind spots or biases. 

Because let’s face it, we all have biases, and we should be able to push past them to make better decisions!

7) Outcome

Finally, we get to the last main difference between the two. What kind of outcome does each type of thinking yield?

Critical thinking = specific outcome/action

Overthinking = no real outcome/action

Framed this way, it’s easy to see which one is not productive at all, right? 

Overthinking is obviously a waste of time and energy – imagine spending all those hours or even days dwelling on a problem, only to end up with no real progress!

On the other hand, when you engage in critical thinking, you’re putting your brain cells to good use. You’re using your time and energy wisely because you’ve got something to show for it afterwards! 

Final thoughts

Overthinking and critical thinking are two very different ways of approaching a problem or situation. And as the list shows, one is clearly more productive than the other!

So, the next time you find yourself stuck in your thoughts, take a step back and refocus your attention. Have a clear picture of what you want to achieve, and let that guide you. 

As long as you do this consistently, you’ll be a critical thinker in no time! 

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