What is paralysis by analysis and why it happens
Paralysis by analysis is the process of overthinking, overanalyzing and staying in that perpetual analysis state without moving forward or taking action.
We have all been the victim of overanalyzing too much, staying in our heads and not taking action.
What’s important to know is that all factors that cause paralysis by analysis are within our control and with the right preparation and processes they can be eliminated one by one.
First let’s look at the common situations where this happens.
Too many unknowns
If something is new for you, by definition there are many things you don’t know and are not aware of.
Because you lack the experience you give all decisions too much weight. This way there are too many decisions to be made all at once and thus comes the overwhelm, overthinking and procrastination.
We’ll explore how to handle this by splitting big decisions into many smaller ones.
Too many options
This is one of the reasons Apple is doing it right. They offer just 3 versions of MacBooks and 2 versions of the latest iPhone.
Too many choices also make us second guess our decisions after we’ve made them.
We will handle this by eliminating most choices before making our decision.
Perfectionism can take on many forms and can become a serious roadblock in many situations.
In this case you are trying to make the prefect decision.
You want to know everything about the situation, explore all different choices and make the best, most optimal decision for you or your business. Sounds good in theory but in reality it’s impossible to have and remember all data out there.
Perfectionism ties in with the two types of decision makers: Sacrificers and Maximizers.
“Sacrificers” choose an option whenever they find something that satisfies their criteria. They are willing to make a decision before considering all possible choices thus sacrificing on the quality of their choice.
“Maximizers” on the other hand have to consider all options and then try to make the best decision. Sounds good in theory but in the end, among all the choices that satisfy your criteria there isn’t that much difference. You can see why the job of Maximizers is more difficult, all these options are quite similar in the end and they are much more likely to second guess themselves and feel unhappy after they’ve made the decision.
Four studies done by Swarthmore College studied the psychological effects of these two decision-making styles and found:
- Maximizers report less life satisfaction, happiness and self-esteem and more regret and depression than satisfiers.
- Maximizers are much more likely to engage in social comparisons and experience more regret after making a consumer decision.
- Maximizers experience greater increase in negative mood when they did not perform as well as their peers.
These results hint that Maximizers are trying to maximize every decision in their lives and are second guessing themselves about everything.
If you are one of those then you must recognize that chasing perfection is a lost cause. Just like the people in the study, maximizing can leave you looking for that perfect choice all the time in everything you do. That is why the people from the study kept comparing themselves to others, they need to know if they are the best.
To start moving from Maximizer to Sacrificer start with the less important choices in life: what to wear today, what to buy for lunch, what to buy for Christmas. All unimportant choices without long term consequences. Start practicing on those and you will see it’s no big deal and the world will still go on, you one the other hand will start feeling much better.
How it affects you
You probably won’t notice it while it’s happening but this constant reading, listening and watching everything in sight, making comparison tables and checklists can have much greater impact on your productivity than you think.
Our decision making ability is like a muscle that can get fatigued like any other muscle in the body.
This surprising study published by the National Academy of Science looked at the decisions of parole board judges over a 10-month period. Judges are way more likely to grant paroles early in the morning or after their lunch break. On the flip side cases that came at the end of a long session were much more likely to be denied. This was true for over 1000 cases regardless of the type of crime committed.
Take a lesson from this and make your important decisions when you’re feeling well rested and relaxed. Often I like to consider my choices, then forget about it, go on with my day and then come back to make the decision few hours later.
Procrastination always knocks on our doors whenever we feel tired, exhausted or overwhelmed. Well paralysis by analysis very nicely fits into this criteria and almost always causes procrastination and laziness.
Our brain has limited capacity, (especially the prefrontal cortex that we primarily use). By overthinking and overanalyzing when faced with too many choices our conscious mind starts to overflow with information. Essentially our mind is constantly filled with this new information and it has a hard time remembering other important things that we need to do. This not only impacts our decision making ability but also our ability to concentrate and be productive for the rest of the day.
Now it’s time to arm ourselves with a few helpful mental models that will make our decision making easier, simpler and more structured.
Action plan to avoid paralysis by analysis
Action is the only thing that can move us forward. Every moment spent on unstructured overthinking and analysis is a moment wasted.
This 5 step action plan will help you prepare the right way and start making decisions with ease and confidence.
1. Prioritize the decisions you need to make
Start by choosing what decisions are priority and must get decided today. Eliminate ruthlessly, if something is stopping you from moving forward with your goals, project, life then prioritize that first. Then when making the decision keep in mind that often times bad decision and taking the wrong path is better than standing still and doing nothing.
Again make sure to make the decisions that are a priority, urgent and important, the decisions that are keeping you or your team from moving forward. Another way to look at prioritization is to make decisions that will have immediate impact, as in today.
2. Limit the scope of decisions
Make your decisions and choices as small as they can be. This way you end up with 5 small decisions instead of one big one. You will discover that 4 of those decisions can be made really fast and you can start acting on them immediately, that 5th decision that was holding you back can stay undone but you are free to move forward.
Example 1: You want to start your own blog
You want to start a blog about productivity and the first thing you do is look for a domain name. Of course all of the popular ones are already taken so you spend the whole day looking for free domains with no luck. Tomorrow you might still look around or even worse you get discouraged because nothing is available and decide to do nothing that day.
What if on the other hand you separated this big task of starting your blog into 5 smaller ones:
- Pick domain name
- Pick hosting
- Install wordpress
- Figure out titles of first article
- Start writing
As you can see only the first decision, picking domain name, has the ability to block you. All others can be done regardless, you can move forward without deciding on a domain name or even thinking about it.
Taking action is the best cure against paralysis by analysis
3. Avoid perfectionism, go for iteration
Especially true for designers, writers, bloggers or any profession that has artistic or creative side to it. You can spend ages perfecting and working on your products: your designs, mobile apps, articles, books, courses but you will never make it perfect. Especially in your eyes, we are always the most critical of our work.
Another problem is that you are trying to create something for other people, you can’t be sure what perfect is for them.
Always prioritize getting your work in front of people, gathering feedback and then iterating, making your work better based on that feedback.
How standup comedians operate
When developing new material, standup comedians go to clubs every weekend for months. They test their new jokes and gather feedback from the audience. They throw out what doesn’t work, improve what does work and move to the next city. Even the experienced ones have no idea if people will laugh at something or not, just like we have no idea wether people will buy or read or listen to something we create.
There is no point in trying to figure that out without showing it to them.
4. Reduce the choices available to you
When faced with too many choices you can flip the decision making process on its head and start by eliminating the ones that are definitely not a good fit. Make a short list of must-have criteria and ruthlessly eliminate all choices that don’t satisfy them.
5. Separate deciding and producing
I have found it much easier to make decisions on what to work on when I don’t have to work on it the next second. The pressure isn’t there and I can decide with a clear head.
That is why I prepare my todo list the night before and I’m able to crush the next morning.
This last step is about making the decisions as early as possible when you still don’t have the pressure. This will make it so much easier to avoid paralysis by analysis because there is less stress and urgency.
Your best work is at stake
It is very important to avoid paralysis by analysis because you need your decision making muscles for your real work.
Anything that is creative or difficult to do, things that move the needle forward in your life or business, they are all made up of many small decisions.
If you are writing a book, you are making decisions when composing every sentence. Your are making choices on what words to use, the order to use them in and so on.
For us programmers, every class or function that we write, we are deciding on the best way to do it, what compromises to make and how it could affect the rest of our code.
Every deep work that produces creative products: code, articles, designs, sketches, schematics. All of them require deep thought and decision making ability.
Make your job easier by following the action step when making decisions and save your brain power for the things that really matter, doing your best work possible.