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Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

I've been working professionally as a mechanical engineer for about a year now and am fairly introspective by nature. One thing I never thought would be an issue in my career would be my tendency to think too much about things. During university the only negative feedback I could attribute to it might be a comment like "who cares why it's like that, the answer is correct". However, working in consulting I find myself really struggling to establish myself as "efficient" because of this. I've been criticized several times for spending too long on jobs that may not have had anywhere near the budget required to justify it.

There are obvious advantages, attention to detail is rarely criticized when you spell it out that way. But the mindset I have has a downside even when it comes to things like how I should write up a report, form a table or spreadsheet, number of measurements I take to ensure I've covered all the bases and even triple checking calculations to see that I haven't missed something, for example. It's bad enough to the extent that I actually feel a tremendous sense of anxiety when I feel something isn't optimized, even if it's just presentation of a table in a report.

For ages I thought that I was 'still learning' and dismissed it. But I'm now convinced it's much more deeply seeded than that and really feel like I'm bad at my job because of it. It's really not something you can just 'turn off' either so to speak.

I'm just wondering if this is actually a handicap or if I'm maybe just not doing the right sort of job to suit my personality/logical framework.

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

Over thinking can be detrimental when it leads to inaction and indecision and delay of work activities. As a consultant, you are hired for your expertise. Failure to impart that expertise in a timely manner guarantees no new work from the entity paying for your services.

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

Engineers tend to dislike risk, since the consequences can be severe in certain circumstances (bridges failing, space shuttle exploding, etc.). As a consequence, we tend to be rather cautious in the approach that we take toward our work, and many of us exhibit the traits that you described to varying degrees. You appear to be on the more conservative side of the scale. I suspect that this is the case because you're a young engineer and lack confidence more than anything else. You'll probably find that as you gain experience, the sense of anxiety that you are feeling will diminish over time. If it doesn't, then talk to someone about it.

Don't worry too much about making mistakes because we all make them. That's why we have other engineers verify/check our calculations. This field of work is for someone who is naturally detail oriented. As you progress up the corporate ladder, this characteristic will become less important because you will be leaving the details up to others and will be focusing on the "big picture" instead. Look at how your managers do their jobs - they leave the details up to you, don't they? They probably spend most of their time looking at how resources are being allocated, budgets, and what the horizon looks like for incoming work. It might not be a bad idea to get their perspective on what it was like for them the first year that they were out of school. You may be surprised at what they tell you.



RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

Welcome to the real world of engineering - a world of one judgment decision after another. There's an old saying in my field: "In every project there comes a time when its necessary to shoot the engineers and start production." Overthinking. Its what we do. I've been doing this for over thirty years and I still can't shut it off at night. I can relate to your predicament.

My first word of advice is this - do NOT think that this attitude makes you a bad engineer. It doesn't. It only makes you a young engineer. Accept this fact - you will falter. You will make mistakes. You will have to do things over again sometmes. The best education is one hard learned. Learn to start by taking a large overall view of your project. Identify those areas that are most critical, those areas that are most likely to fail, those areas in which failure would be the most costly, those areas in which failure would be easily fixed. Prioritize your work. Learn to work to a schedule, even if your boss doesn't impose one on you. Impose one on yourself.

Learn where mistakes are most likely, and focus your efforts there. Let the less important things go.

If you are going to overthink some areas, which you will, learn to focus that thought on the areas that count the most. Learn to let some things go with minimal effort. The successful engineer isn't necessarily the one with the most knowledge. He (or she) is the one who best knows how to apply that knowledge with experience and judgment to obtain the optimal (not perfect) results in the real world.

When one of your designs is built, people will remember whether or not it worked. They won't remember if one of the guards didn't fit exactly right.

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

Don't ever stop thinking, but don't let it stop you from getting your work done. There will be a time when a little more insight into the true nature of a problem will be needed to overcome, and a thumbrule doesn't cut it anymore.

One of the most important skills in engineering is the ability to control one's own scope of detail. There is a time for broad strokes and a time for fine detail. A time for theory, a time for practice. A time for understanding and a time for execution. (Thus begins Tick's Ecclesiastes of Engineering.)

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

This is a skill that develops over time. You're on the road to determining when a solution is "good enough." Rarely does a commercial endeavor beg for PhD thesis level analysis.

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RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

CODE --> TheTick

A time for understanding and a time for execution 

I have a big problem with that one :)


Seriously, I understand the OP feeling, I have the same every days !

Everyone is very critical of my "not productive" work... I am doing too much analysis or calculation apparently !

In my opinion, A lots of engineer in my domain take unsafe shortcuts, and should use their calculator more often !!!

Finding underdesign or bad design is not even rare when i am checking "other engineers" design !!!

I am sad for my profession.

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

Is over-thinking a bad attribute?


prognosis: Lead or Lag

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

"A time for understanding and a time for execution"

A rule which I routinely apply to handling personnel problems... the ones who are hard to understand get executed. lol

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

By definition over doing anything is not a good thing.

As has been said experience goes a long way in reducing the need to check every last thing, or make the same mistake over and over again whichever way you want to look at it.

Unfortunately consulting is often very price driven and all nearly companies have to make money, keeping a job within budget is paramount.

Maybe trying to find a job where results are more important than budget might suit you better?

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

This disease has a name: it's referred to as "analysis paralysis". And it's potentially fatal to your career as an engineer if left untreated.

There's a difference between being careful or methodical and being so insecure in your knowledge and skill that you are unable to submit your work without becoming a nervous wreck first. It's more than just a matter of degree.

Fortunately, analysis paralysis is easier to treat than the opposite problem, which is a confidence which extends well beyond one's confidence. People with that disease are generally unaware that they have a problem and won't believe anyone who points it out to them. Unfortunately, their disease can also be fatal to others.

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

Maybe - yes. I once worked for an engineer that would take 3 weeks to to do a problem - that could easily be designed in three days or less.

So - he was way over board!!

To top it off - his thinking wasn't always that good!!

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

Conversely, pejorative phrases like "shoot the engineers..." and "analysis paralysis" are often used as excuses for moving forward without adequate consideration.

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

If it's a simple beam, yes.

If it's a Highrise, Definitely not.

Anything in between is questionalble.

Mike McCann
MMC Engineering

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

A few point, in no particular order.

No sweat, but remember you get paid for those hours. A year in, your boss sees that as learning curve, but too much, and he'll think 'cost center' at the next layoff. If taking longer than the the other new guy to complete a task, you are probably sticking out.

My second engineering job after school, I did a month of risk analysis on medical products. Pretty influential to my thinking. Risk, severity, probability, mitigator, revised risk. Green cell on the spreadsheet = 'OK' Hundreds of lines of assessment. Assess, decide, act, record. Support your decisions with competent peer or senior review. Explaining your thinking and seeing how others work with the problem should be educational.

While review is useful, don't rely on it. I gave a completed failure analysis to the big man for approval, and no fine tooth comb. 'All green, OK'. His responsibility now, but the fine tooth comb would have been more assuring.

Confidence comes from meeting a challenge successfully, with awareness, and not by accident. If you experience anxiety or fear, acknowledge it and proceed.

There are probably several decisions or calculations that you make every day. Make a point of identifying what information you need, how to proceed, how to assess the outcome, and how to move to what comes next. You are now more assured and effective at things you do every day.

Some disasters are rooted in geeky fem & stress mistakes, like that bridge in Minnesota. I think there are more disasters rooted in gross stupidity, research the pinto, the space shuttle, the KC Hyatt regency. Check your thinking, trust what you do well, check w/ others about the rest.

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

You're a young engineer. Try to find solutions on your own, but if you cannot, don't be afraid to ask someone with seniority. They will appreciate that you asked the question more than you sitting at your desk spinning your wheels for weeks and not producing.

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?


There have already been a lot of good posts. Here's some additional advice from my experience.

I have developed a reputation of being "slow, but good." It's better than "fast, but careless;" but it's not a good reputation to have. Being this type of guy, my boss gives me the tasks that must be done correctly. Therefore, there is a place for someone who is "good, but slow." However, I can't afford to be TOO slow, as I'm already walking on thin ice! Earlier on in my career, I was much slower; but I have since improved my working habits. At this point, I'm actually not that much slower than the rest of the guys. Although, after first being labeled as "slow," I have never been able to fully recover from that reputation. You should work hard to avoid this reputation. My experience has shown me that bosses care more about budgets than the quality of your engineering work. Being slow and busting budgets will annoy them because they go to meetings and their bosses hammer them about budgets. These upper level managers don't care about how clean a drawing looks, how optimized a spread sheet is, or how all your bolts are called out correctly on the BOM. That means your boss cares about budgets (because his boss cares about budgets). Now, you should care about budgets. However, making costly mistakes will annoy your boss too; and ruin your reputation in other ways (i.e. incompetence). So, it's a balance and you're never going to make everybody happy. Your goal should be “good enough,” but never careless! Unfortunately, there's usually not even enough budget for “good enough.” But, there's only so much you can do...

Try to develop a voice in your head that tells you when to stop what you are doing. You need an alarm system of some sort. My slowness was often driven by curiosity and tangents. You need to separate what you can spend work time on and what you need to do on your own time. Here is an example.

Say you are making a spread sheet. Say, you don't like way the font looks. Or, it would be useful use the freeze row feature. Spend no more than 30 sec trying to figure this stuff out. If you can't figure it out in 30 sec, move on! Stay on task! Do not look on Google or the help file. If the spread sheet is useful as is, move on! A useful idea for me is to think about what would happen if my boss came over at that instant and said "what are you doing right now?" If you would be embarrassed telling him, you should not be doing what you are doing at work. My boss would freak out if I told him I was Google searching how to do something in Excel that wasn't COMPLETELY necessary. Do these sorts of things at home to improve yourself. Say you are re-using an old spec drawing from a past job. Say it’s a pressure switch. There's no question as to whether you can re-use it or not. At most, quickly look it up on the company’s website just to know what the dam thing is. DO NOT read all the spec sheets, manuals, etc. You are not picking out a new sensor. You are re-using an old one. What would your boss say if you just spent 30 min reading something that you didn't need to read to get you job done? Just re-use the dam spec. drawing! Move on! My boss would freak out.

Don't let this ruin your curiosity. Explore your interests at home. Just remember that at work, your job is to get things done! Not learn things that don't directly relate to you getting things done. It's a bummer, but it makes sense and it is the way it is.

I hope this helps.

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

The heart of innovation and creativity is observation combined with, what you called, "over-thinking". "Over-thinking" may be the main thing that separates engineers whose careers involve investigation, design, and development from engineers whose careers are that of a specification/contract writer, high-paid drafter (detailer) or CAD modeler. Engineers of both paths are needed to make the engineering world operate.

I myself have 12 patents. Most of those patents came about from when my employer wanted a new widget with a combination of more-or-less existing features, and in the process decided to apply for patents. Such patents are like about 95% of patents -patents that separately by themselves probably don't have enough value to have paid for the cost of the patent, but do make the corporation and sales/marketing people happy as they have something to print on the product literature. However, two of those patents came about during the development process when things didn't behave as expected, and I began to over-think "What is really going on", "Why did this happen", and "How can I make use of this effect". One of those patents has gained me a lot of complements from others in the field, and I suspect (but don't know for sure) has enabled that former employer to license the patent out to others. The second patent became the foundation for a string of successful new products for another employer that now form the main product lines of that division.

Now, you indicate that you do consulting work. Consultants are not paid to think much, so you may have to discipline your over-thinking some. But, don't destroy your over-thinking - still allow it to exercise on occasion. You will probably not be a consultant or contractor for ever. Keep it alive and you might find a future environment where it can be allowed to grow.

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

I think you're all overthinking it...

Ha. Long week.

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

At the end of the day the decision that is made may not be that important. What is important is that a decision is made and the whole team works to make it right. That is why private enterprise wins over governement everytime. Private enterprise are interested in the "project" whereas government are interested in the "process". Engineers re the "can do" people of the world. Best if you have a problem to solve take three solutions to your peers or boss and explain them and seek guidance as to the decision. As you explain them it generally becomes clearer what the way ahead is. Dont be swayed in terms of cost vs effectiveness, safety, compliance etc. Engineers are not bankers. Your solution should be technically correct. If there is insufficient monies to achieve same then refer the person complaining to Chase Manhatttan or other bank. You are ot a banker.

If you cannot become more efficient in decision making go into government you will be well suited to their inaction. If you want to improve your decision making learn some of the tools. The four matrix approach of important and un important and urgent and non urgent. Make a cross , these heading along the top and down one side.

Important and urgent should always be kept empty of as best you can. These are your crises needing attention.
Important and non urgent are your day to day grind, your to do list, your bread and butter
Unimportant and urgent are down the list somewhat. Delegate them or re evaluate why?
Unimportant and Non urgent are frivoloss things best left for you bucket list or given to someone else.

“The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.”
---B.B. King

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

When you start a job, you and your boss should agree to a timeline to get the job done. As soon as something comes up that you feel will jeopradize that timeline, you need to discuss it with your boss. He may elect at that time to apply additional resources to address your concern and still meet schedule; or he may tell you you are overthinking the issue and to 'get over it' and finsh the job on time. The point is, it is okay to 'take a deep dive', but not to make that decision on your own. You are apt to be investigating issues that may have already been resolved by others; you are apt to put project dadlines at risk.

You won't get in trouble asking for direction.

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

You could always invest the extra time spent "after hours" and "off the project billing clock". Want to woo-hoo the boss, tidy up that BOM and spreadsheet fonts after 5pm. I can only speak for the civil roadway side of life (private and public coming on 25 years), but getting a working first pass right out of the gate is tons better than an overbudget tweaked set of plans. I've seen guys invest time in defining centerline alignments ('er chains) for a 10' deep driveway apron graded at 5% in GeoPak (and that was on the private side!). I still don't take points off for using scissors and tape if it gets the job done.

On a side rant, I'm seeing a lot of over-investment in resources to produce deisgns in 3D that aren't being constructed using anything close 3D control in the field. I say that after using a hybrid 3D CAD platform for over 15 years. In my opinion, 2D paper drawings are still the standard for the foreseeable future. You want 3D electronics? Pay me upfront for a 2' interval TIN without holes, elsewise it is 25' urban or 50' rural interval cross sections on 2D K+E sheets.

As has already been stated numerous times, establish what the deliverables are to be with your boss (and eventually the client) and aim for that. You have to know when to cut bait.

RE: Is over-thinking a bad attribute?

I always strive to know not just how to solve a problem or answer a question, but to develop an understanding for the value of the accuracy. If I'm generating a force value that will be used in a structural analysis, then it's vital to know whether a 10% difference in value will affect the final design in a significant way. Become skilled at using conservatism to offset time investment.

Those who fail to think "down the line" and understand how much effort is required for a given task, will waste tremendous resources spinning off in circles trying to refine things that have no value. Just come up with the first suitable answer and move on.

On the other hand, knowing which problems are the most valuable and critical to your business means that noodling over refinements and alternate solutions can be very worthwhile.

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