Have you ever really needed to get started on something but there is something holding you back? You need to analyse every option first, do a SWOT analysis (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) for something as simple as choosing a colour for your new notebook. You need to spend far too long deciding on the title of your work, or on the image to use for your project, even though deep down you know it won’t really matter in the end (I’m looking at you, me).
When decisions are delayed until you can get more feedback. Until you can get just a little bit more information that will finally help you to decide. Except it doesn’t usually. More information usually creates more questions, more doubts, more delays and either fewer decisions made or more time wasted.
If any of this sounds familiar, you might be suffering from something called analysis paralysis.
The sneaky thing about analysis paralysis is that it is a special form of procrastination that often disguises itself as your friend. While with classic procrastination you know exactly what you should be doing but delay it, with analysis paralysis you convince yourself that you haven’t thought about the problem enough and so you pretend you don’t exactly know what you are doing, so can’t take action just yet.
It is sneaky because some form of analysis and measurement in your decisions is a good thing. Therefore thinking about a problem a lot can often seem like the right thing to do. Because we are able to rationalise our procrastination in this instance, it becomes a hell of a lot easier to justify and accept it. It becomes a part of the story that we tell ourselves about needing the extra time to make a decision. We just aren’t very good at deciding when enough is enough.
Why do we get it?
So why does analysis paralysis even occur in the first place? Well, there are actually a variety of reasons that it happens that we should be aware of before we can begin to tackle it in our own lives.
The desire to avoid something unpleasant (real or imaginary)
As is the case with any other form of procrastination, analysis paralysis often arises when we are about to undertake something that intimidates us, worries us or that has doubt surrounding the process and/or outcome.
Doing extra research or extra thinking can often fool our rational minds that we are just taking the necessary steps towards solving the problem. When chances are, we already have enough information to begin writing the article, starting the project or asking for a raise.
It can be a difficult thing to distinguish between doing actual research into something vs doing research to put off action. It takes an honest judgement with oneself to decide which it is.
Being a perfectionist
This is the main reason that I find myself in a state of analysis paralysis quite frequently. I want to make the ‘perfect’ decision for everything. I sometimes won’t do something because the conditions aren’t perfect for me and so I will spend extra time either trying to make the conditions perfect or simply letting an opportunity pass because I couldn’t get them perfect.
The fear of making a wrong move and the opportunity cost associated also ties in heavily here. I often spend excessive amounts of time and energy mulling over a decision because if it turns out to be not perfect or the right choice, then I will think about what I missed out on. It takes a little time to realise that extra research and delaying action is missing out. If something is a wrong decision, correcting course along the way is often much easier than you think and much more valuable from an experience perspective.
Aside from personal projects and the sorts, analysis paralysis can crop up in everyday life in a number of different places. Living in the age of information and choice, there has never been a time before this where so much choice means, paradoxically, it is more difficult to choose.
From trivial things like deciding what food to order on a menu and what clothes to buy in an online sale to the more serious things like choosing a partner or starting a business, the seemingly endless amount of options, possibilities and outcomes often leave us stuck right where we are. Where there are options, there is often some form of analysis paralysis. Of course, this point links with the perfection section too, since we always feel compelled to choose the ‘perfect’ option from a long list when such an option rarely exists.
Steps to overcoming it
So how are we to handle this beast that can sneak up on us at the worst times, keep us stranded where we stand and keep us from moving forward? Thankfully, there are some steps to take for both when you feel like you are in analysis paralysis and for before it even gets its dirty grip on you.
Start now, adjust later
Linking back to what I said earlier, I have found that just starting something that you know to be important rather than excessively analysing it is one of the best steps that you can take. This concept has been cliched massively because it is true. ‘Taking the first step is always the hardest’, ‘Just do a little bit and you will end up wanting to do more’, ‘You can’t think your way into learning to ride a bike’. The point of all these being: think less, do more. Falling off your bike repeatedly is how you learn to adjust and eventually ride freely. Writing awful first drafts is how many authors reveal they began writing bestsellers. Besides, in hindsight, the bad usually is a key part of the good.
The conditions don’t have to be perfect for you to begin. Just good enough.
Learn to see the difference between big and small decisions
As the blog Personal Excellence explains it, there are 3 key questions to ask to differentiate between big and small decisions:
- How important is this decision?
- Will this impact me a year from now?
- What’s the worst thing that could happen?
Note that answering question 2 and 3 will ultimately lead you to the answer to question 1. If the decision won’t impact you a year from now and nothing major can happen to you (think your actual physical security), then it is a small decision and you should take the minimum amount of time possible over it. Make the decision and move on. Don’t think about the alternatives because you aren’t even considering them anymore.
If you conclude that is a big decision, then obviously it is necessary to spend a bit more time on it and properly think it over. However, don’t let it get to the point where it consumes you and you are jumping back and forth. If you find yourself in this position, it might be time to act.
Set a decision deadline with a default option
This is one of my favourite ways to prevent analysis paralysis from even occurring. If you know you are going to find yourself in a position where you are likely to be procrastinating and paralysed, then set a default option and then set a ‘no looking back’ deadline.
Say you need to propose an essay title and abstract or submit the draft title and subject of the book you are writing. The titles, possibilities and alternatives are all seemingly endless. That doesn’t matter if you say:
‘This is my title for now that I quite like and the subject that I am going to write on. I will give myself until this date to mull it over and change it if necessary. Once that date comes, I am 100% committed to what I decide on and have no time for looking back.’
At this point, you consciously put the decision outside of your control (already decided) so there is no longer a need to worry about it.
Having a deadline and default option not only makes the final decision easier to make, but can also make your thinking and deciding process more efficient since you have a shorter amount of time to choose.
I always think back to being a kid in a sweet shop as an example. Whether I had 1 minute to decide what I wanted or had 15 minutes to decide, I would almost always take up all of the time allocated. And more often than not, I would always just default to my favourites anyway.
‘Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good’
Voltaire: ‘The best is the enemy of the good.’
Confucius: ‘Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.’
Shakespeare: ‘Striving to be better, oft we mar what’s well.’
Each of these quotes essentially means the same thing: Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. This is one of my favourite and most practical concepts that I try to live by and I have it etched into my mind ready to pull out whenever I face an important decision or feel some sort of analysis paralysis coming on.
Pushing yourself to an impossible perfect, whatever your endeavour, is a waste of time and energy. It is a gift, one that I am still learning for sure, to know when something is good enough and it is time to move on. It might take 10 hours for something to be 95% what you want it to be but another 10 hours to get it to 99% what you want.
Having the ability to ask yourself: ‘is this extra time and effort causing unnecessary stress?’ and ‘could this perfecting time be better spent elsewhere?’ are both essential for escaping the perils of analysis paralysis.