Analysis paralysis is overthinking a decision or a situation to a point where no action takes place, or the decision-making is postponed for the future.
Keith is looking to buy a new phone because the one he’s using has slowed down after years of usage. Since he is neither tech-savvy nor a gadget freak, all he is looking for is a smartphone that does the job. But, the hunt for a suitable phone within his budget leaves him baffled. The sheer amount of options and the features they provide make him dizzy.
Keith doesn’t know which one to buy even though he only uses his phone for calling, texting, and a few basic apps. He gets off his chair, closes his laptop, and decides to figure out the best option later when he has the time.
What just happened? Did he not find a phone suitable for his needs? Were the options he liked outside his budget? Or was the decision-making process too exhausting?
You can guess the answer because you’ve experienced the same. You analyzed a decision and went on and on, adding to your woes of making a choice. No matter how much effort you spent or research you did, you could not make up your mind. That’s exactly what decision paralysis is.
- What is analysis paralysis?
- Research and history:
- Real-life examples of analysis paralysis:
- How to overcome analysis paralysis
What is analysis paralysis?
Analysis paralysis is when a person or a group overthinks a scenario causing paralysis of decision making. You fail to reach an outcome or take no action, thereby leading to endless procrastination.
The fear of making the wrong decision prohibits any solution or action. Analysis paralysis occurs often when you have multiple options to pick from, each of which has its own pros and cons.
If I had to plot a graph for the time taken vs the options available this is how it would look like:
The more the choices, the deeper you go into analysis finding the positives and negatives of each choice. You even compare attributes that make little to no difference to you.
Interestingly, your happiness does not follow the same trajectory. Until a certain point, you’re pleased to have more options. Beyond that, your happiness turns into confusion. When the options are plentiful, you end up with stress.
Failing to make a decision due to too many choices is called decision paralysis.
Research and history:
The jam experiment highlighted how analysis paralysis affects human beings.
In the year 2000, researchers placed 24 varieties of jam in a supermarket. Customers had the option to sample one or more of them for free and then buy the one they liked.
On day 2, they repeated the same exercise with a minor difference. They only had 6 varieties of jam instead of 24. If you had to guess which among the two days resulted in higher sales without knowing what analysis paralysis was, most people would choose day 1 with conviction. “People had more options to pick from, so everyone purchased something or the other, right?” you say.
But the results were exactly the opposite. The sales on day 2 were not just higher, but a whopping 10 times that of day 1. The 24 varieties of jam had provided so many options to customers that they could not make up their minds. Analysis paralysis made them overthink their choice of picking a simple jam for breakfast.
The fox and the cat:
An Aesop’s fable showed way back in history how we’re vulnerable to overanalysis using the story the fox and the cat. This is among the lesser-known fables though.
A fox and a cat are walking in the jungle. The fox boasts about having a bagful of tricks up his sleeve to get out of any situation. He ridicules the cat’s only go-to option of climbing a tree.
All of a sudden, a hunter sounds the horn. The cat chooses the only trick it knows and rushes up a nearby tree in an instant. The fox does not know which trick to apply for the situation. He tries to dodge the hounds by running at top speed, entering burrows, and whatnot. But, in no time, he’s dead meat.
The moral Aesop provides is – one safe trick is better than a hundred you cannot choose at the right moment.
The psychological effect called the Centipedes dilemma originates from a short poem written in the 19th century. The story begins with a happy centipede crawling around with hundreds of legs. One day, a toad asked her, “Which leg moves after which?”
The centipede had no clue how its legs worked together. It tried to figure out an answer by overthinking its natural ability and fell into a ditch.
Though the story is hypothetical, you’ll notice similar behavior in aspects of real life, for example, sports. After years of practice, the subconscious mind takes control of many of the complex tasks. What appears sophisticated to a rookie becomes second nature to a pro. But during pressure situations, veteran sportsmen commit mistakes by overthinking the basics. For example, many golfers err by analyzing their swing during tight moments and going against what they’re used to.
Real-life examples of analysis paralysis:
Though you aren’t a centipede walking beside a toad or a fox running away from hounds, you’ll experience analysis paralysis regularly.
1. Buying decisions
The most common area where you are vulnerable to analysis paralysis is during buying decisions. Today, the internet provides us so many options that making a choice becomes a tedious job.
A year back, I wanted to buy a TV. My only requirements were a screen size of 55 inches with HD along with the Smart features. But the moment I started checking options, I started comparing features like the processor that I knew and cared little about. If I had purchased a different TV, it would have made no difference to me today. Yet, I spent days trying to choose the best possible option.
You’ll experience the same confusion when ordering food. Thankfully, that decision takes minutes and not days. A few years back, ordering food meant calling a nearby restaurant and mentioning the dishes you wanted. You had about 5 options in your vicinity to choose from.
Today, with online apps, you have a hundred or even more. “Should I order a pizza or pasta? Oh wait, I haven’t had a burger in a while.” My brain goes loggerheads against my stomach every time I have to order food.
2. Decisions in teams
In organizations, a team can take a long time, sometimes weeks or months to arrive at a decision. When a group of people gather, each person adds his/her perspective along with supporting arguments. So the leader and the sub-ordinates go on analyzing scenario after scenario, considering factor after factor hunting for the flawless decision.
Long meetings end with an agenda of catching up again after a few days to continue where they left. Many a time, the factors evaluated make little difference to the consequences. Yet, the team feels the urge to consider every single boundary case only to postpone the decision for eternity.
3. Chasing goals
Pursuing your goals takes effort and is accompanied by an element of risk. Often, you analyze all the possible outcomes and focus on the negatives alone. By doing so, you paralyze yourself from making any decision because you fear the consequences.
For example, if you want to quit your job to start a business, you worry about going bankrupt. Even though you hate what you’re currently doing, you keep analyzing all the negative outcomes of entrepreneurship and never take the first step.
That doesn’t mean you should rush into a decision without considering all the pros and cons. But when you cannot make up your mind to move forward or drop the idea despite all the research, you’re undergoing analysis paralysis.
4. Making a tough decision
Just like chasing goals, making a tough decision involves pros and cons. You might also have different options to pick from.
For example, let’s assume you do not like your present sales job profile and wish to move into project management. You analyze if you can succeed in the new role or if it will dent your career. After a point, you either have to make the switch or drop the decision. If you keep it pending for the future, you’re only postponing your action by overthinking.
Multiple options can trigger a similar paralysis. For example, if you have a lump sum of money, you’ll have various investment opportunities. Considering the benefits and risks of each is quintessential for your future wealth. But if you have evaluated myriad options, but still cannot figure out which one to pick, you’ve stalled your decision.
How to overcome analysis paralysis
Getting over analysis paralysis to make a decision can scare many. That’s because when you’re making a choice, you lose out on something or the other. But, you cannot enjoy all the benefits of all the options you have. You have to pick and choose which you might find comfortable.
Even though you cannot wipe off analysis paralysis from your mind, you can try to make the best decision considering the time at hand.
1. How important is the decision?
If you find yourself stuck in the loop of decision making, ask yourself, “How important is this to me?” For example, if you’re choosing between varieties of jam, you don’t need to break your head unless you’re a chef of a fine dining restaurant.
You can draft similar questions to help you narrow down on an outcome. For example:
- What’s the worst that could happen by making the wrong decision?
- Will this affect me after a few months?
- Can I manage if I make an incorrect decision?
If you ask yourself these questions while picking jam, you’ll realize how a poor choice makes no difference. So you might as well pick any jar and move on. But if you were picking an investment opportunity, you’d face far graver consequences by making the wrong choice. So, allow yourself more time to come to a decision.
2. Evaluate consequences of good vs perfect
Your hunt for the perfect choice can leave you chasing down rabbit holes until you’re too exhausted to make any choice.
For example, if you’re going on a vacation, you try to shortlist the best possible hotel from a multitude of sites. But, can you recall the details of the room you stayed in a few years back? I doubt that.
You won’t curse your vacation because you failed to book a pool facing suite. As far as you have a room which makes you comfortable, you’ll enjoy the overall experience.
Similarly, people explore tons of phones to find the one with the best camera. “I want my pictures to look amazing on Instagram”, you remark. But the difference in picture quality among your top 3 options is so minuscule that most of your followers won’t even notice.
Often, the difference between a good and a perfect choice is negligible. Besides, the perfect choice may not exist at all. Learn to love a good choice and stop assessing the other options once you’ve made the decision.
3. Set a timeline to stop analyzing
Your brain hates making difficult choices. Therefore, your mind keeps postponing the decision to avoid the discomfort. Putting a timeline for making the choice forces you to stop analyzing.
For example, let’s assume you plan to start a business. Allow yourself enough time to do your research and consider the risks. You can choose any deadline you deem appropriate. Pick a few weeks, months, or even a year or two. You don’t necessarily have to type your resignation letter. You can evaluate the option of running your venture on the side too.
But once you hit the deadline, you must either start acting or drop the idea. You can no longer buy more time for yourself to continue evaluating.
4. Cut off half the choices
When you have too many options to pick from, you paralyze yourself even further. You’ll consider the little attributes of every choice and compare them against each other even if they mean nothing to you.
When you have too many choices(6 or more), eliminate half of them. Feel free to use any criteria you like to make that decision. You can use the tip from step 3 to set a deadline to drop half the options too. Once you have fewer choices, you can think straight and focus on what matters to you.
Keep repeating the same procedure until you’re left with one or two choices.
5. Take a break, consume sugar, and come back
When you’re making smaller choices, you run out of mental energy due to decision fatigue. For example, if you’re picking a pair of running shoes on Amazon, but cannot make up your mind, your head starts feeling heavy.
Research has shown that decision making requires blood glucose. So if you find yourself mentally exhausted between choices, eat something sweet to replenish what your body was missing. Bananas, oranges, raisins, grapes, honey, jelly are among the quick ways to restore your blood glucose and help you make the right decision.
We always love to hunt for the perfect choice. But that quest can leave you paralyzed to the point where you take no action at all.
You always look at the consequences of making the wrong decision but fail to consider the repercussions of indecisions. They’re endured in silence and suffered through unhappiness.
Finding the right choice is necessary for many occasions. But we apply the same analysis even for trivial decisions thereby causing more damage than good. The sweet spot of decision making lies between taking a blind leap of faith and paralyzing yourself with overthinking.
Can you strike the right balance?
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.