So, you want to know how to overcome analysis paralysis.
What is analysis paralysis, anyway?
Analysis paralysis refers to a situation in which an individual or group is unable to move forward with a decision as a result of overanalyzing data or overthinking a problem. This can occur when you overthink your choices to the point you feel paralyzed and can’t make a decision. This is common amongst investors when they are executing a trade, consumers when they have too many products to choose from, fresh grads trying to figure out which career pathway or opportunity to pursue, and even entrepreneurs who are figuring out what their next step is to move the needle.
I faced this issue of analysis paralysis multiple times while working on my startup (Gulliver). Working in a startup, being a freelancer, or running your own business probably means you wear multiple hats, with your job scope spanning product, finance, recruitment, marketing, sales, design, and more.
While usually drawing my whole business model and product roadmap out in a mind map helped me to put things into perspective, having one with a thousand branches wasn’t too helpful either. I faced analysis paralysis at its finest, trying to take in as many perspectives as possible when making decisions, only to realize that no one solution would please all. I needed to learn how to overcome analysis paralysis once and for all.
The Paradox of Choice
Today, a simple Google search can give us millions of different answers to our question. We are often overwhelmed with so many possible solutions that while trying to achieve objectively better results, we also face greater anxiety, indecision, loss of motivation and even paralysis — Psychologist Barry Schwartz coined this as the “Paradox of Choice”.
There’s a principle that is commonly used in minimalist web design — “Less Is More”. Using less to achieve an effect that’s more than the sum of the design’s parts is the goal. The more is not merrier — it is an illusion that leads us into thinking that having the power of choice empowers us, when in reality, it leads to a greater fear of making the wrong decision, which in terns leads us into a seemingly inescapable purgatory of analysis paralysis (aka. getting us nowhere).
Here are some side effects of over-analyzing:
1. Lowers your performance on mentally-demanding tasks
Our working memory is what we engage when we do high-level cognitive tasks like learning. In essence, it is what allows us to focus on the information we need to get things done at the moment we’re doing them. Examples of working memory tasks could include holding a person’s address in mind while listening to instructions about how to get there.
However, our working memory is in limited supply. You can think of it like our brain’s computer memory. Once it’s used up, nothing more can fit in. When we overanalyze a situation, the repetitive thoughts, anxiety, and self-doubt decrease the amount of working memory you have available to complete challenging tasks, causing productivity to fall. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to overcome analysis paralysis.
2. It kills creativity
The most creative thoughts are formed when your brain is in the diffuse mode. Thinking and overthinking puts your brain in the focused mode, which reduces the chances of a sudden eureka moment!
The prefrontal cortex is traditionally associated with thinking, while the cerebellum [the part of the brain traditionally associated with movement] is most active when working on creative tasks. More often than not, the less you think about how you want to perform during a creative task, the more your creative juices will flow, giving rise to more creative output!
3. Decision Fatigue — It hacks away our motivation, willpower, and happiness
Decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. It is now understood as one of the causes of irrational trade-offs in decision making.
Each decision that we make, from whether or not to hit snooze to what outfit we’ll wear to what we’ll eat for lunch, draws on the same limited supply of willpower. Rethinking a specific issue over and over again will eventually leave you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, unhappy and unmotivated.
Experiencing this for a prolonged period of time made me doubt myself and my own capabilities — which further fed my frustration of not being able to figure out a solution to the problem. Sometimes, it helps to step away from what you’re working on for a couple of days or even weeks — you’ll be surprised at how much more refreshed you feel when you come back to it.
Here’s how to overcome analysis paralysis in 6 easy steps..
1. Recognize that Analysis Paralysis is Kicking In
Awareness is always the first step to solving a problem — and in this case, analysis paralysis is the problem we have created for ourselves while trying to solve some other problem. Ironic, isn’t it?
2. Prioritize the big and small decisions
Remember the 80/20 rule, where you prioritize the 20% of factors that will produce the best results? Apply that here.
- How important is this decision?
- Will this impact me a year from now?
- What’s the worst thing that could happen?
If the decision will create a major impact after a year and result in serious implications from making the wrong choice (eg. marrying someone you don’t love), then it’s a big decision. Put some time aside to mull over it, but don’t spend forever on it. That’s a big key when figuring out how to overcome analysis paralysis.
3. Ditch Perfection — Aim for “Moderately Okay”
Every option has its pros & cons, and has its own set of considerations. The perfect choice is almost never available right there and then for every decision — it’s something that you have to develop over time. As such, perfectionism has a high opportunity cost of wasting time and feeling bad about a “bad decision”.
The goal is to lower your expectations and be more comfortable “making mistakes”. We are human — learn to deal with errors and carry on. If you learn from it, it wasn’t a bad decision.
Going back to the 80/20 rule: To nail down the 20% to achieve a 100% perfect outcome (instead of 80% improvement), you need to invest an incredible amount of time and effort. This needs to be justified by the importance of the problem or decision — bringing us back to the importance of prioritizing!
4. Set a Time Limit
Parkinson’s Law says, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
This means is that your work will take however long you allow it to take. If you set aside 15 minutes for a task, it’ll take 15 minutes. If you set aside an hour, it will take an hour. If you don’t set a time limit, it may take forever!
Set a time limit based on the importance and difficulty of the decision, and then work towards it within this timeframe.
5. Get a trusted opinion
Depending on what problem you are trying to solve, talk to someone who is an expert in that field if that is possible. Narrow down your options to 2–3 solutions and consult them for their opinion. You don’t want to overwhelm your mentors with a thousand possible solutions — it would look bad on you AND confuse them while you’re at it. Try to funnel it as best as you can before you put the problem on someone else’s plate.
6. Use your gut
Analysis paralysis is all head all the time; this is the opposite of learning to listen to your gut, your feelings. Sometimes, just looking at quantitative data points isn’t enough — you have to act on your feelings.
In the context of product design, I realized that speaking to users didn’t always help. They simply didn’t know what they want. Conducting user tests gave me a thousand and one brilliant suggestions for new features we should build — even with the numbers and data points backing these up, we still had issues trying to prioritize over 100 possible features and directions to move the product in. Sometimes, our best bet could simply be going with our gut and running with it, and make changes as you go along.
Armed with these 6 steps, you’ve finally learned how to overcome analysis paralysis.