Try these eight tips to avoid analysis paralysis and focus on what matters.
See Jane. Jane needed a new phone, so she went online and Googled ‘phone.’
Four hours and two red eyes later, Jane has a headache and no idea which kind of phone she wants to buy.
We’ve all been there. We’re excited to plan a trip or learn about a new opportunity, so we open our browser, type in a search, and fall right into the black hole.
With so much information at our fingertips, the decision-making process should be pretty straightforward, right? Unfortunately not.
Access to unlimited information does not empower us to make better choices; instead, it can make us scared of making the wrong choice. We become anxious when we have so many options in front of us.
This is analysis paralysis, the enemy of productivity.
What is analysis paralysis?
Monkeys, pigeons, people—the one thing we have in common is that we all like having control over our choices. Research has shown that our minds equate having options with having power. Survival instincts tell us that if we have control, we are likely to survive.
Dealing with a problem usually involves evaluating simple factors to determine the best approach. For example, when you know your coffee is too hot, you wait for it to cool down before taking a sip.
But when the problem isn’t easy, or many options are possible, like Jane’s phone dilemma, it can be challenging to determine a solution.
Analyzing too many things leads to overthinking everything.
Analysis paralysis occurs when overthinking possibilities causes indecision. With so many choices, it can feel as if every option is a potential mistake. The fear of making the wrong choice prevents us from taking any action at all.
The root cause of analysis paralysis
Analysis paralysis is the result of anxiety.
Let’s look at how it works. Research has found that anxiety lowers activity levels in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is responsible for logical and rational decision-making. We need it to solve problems, make decisions, and calculate risk versus reward.
PFC also calms the amygdala, the emotional part of the brain. The amygdala controls our feelings, instincts, and impulses, especially those related to fear.
When we are anxious, the PFC doesn’t function correctly, reducing our decision-making abilities. The amygdala is also less controlled, leading to more emotional responses. Our anxiety level rises, which further disrupts the PFC, starting a cycle that sends us on a downward spiral.
Examples of analysis paralysis
The paradox of choice is best illustrated by the jam experiment.
In 2000, two psychologists studied how choice can paralyze consumers. They set up a table with 24 kinds of jams, giving supermarket customers the option to sample them for free and buy their favorite. The next day, they repeated this at the same store but with only six varieties of jam.
The result? People were 10 times more likely to buy a jar of jam from the table with fewer options.
This study shows that while options may appear attractive at first, choice overload leads to negative results. With 24 varieties available, customers had so many options that they couldn’t decide on a simple jar of jam.
How else does decision paralysis affect our days if we can’t even make it past breakfast?
Purchasing decisions are the most vulnerable to analysis paralysis.
Today, information overload makes decisions difficult. Have you ever hopped on Amazon to buy some socks, only to find 387 white socks and lose an hour reading reviews? (Definitely wasn’t me, nope.)
Options make us spend time deliberating about things that may otherwise not matter to us.
If I purchased a pack of socks at a store, I’d scan the prices and sizes and pick one. But when I searched for socks online, I found myself comparing seam placements and thread counts for no reason at all.
Purchases aren’t the only things that overwhelm us. Any major decision can leave us paralyzed if we give ourselves too many options.
I recently experienced this when searching for a preschool for my daughter. I had essential criteria—safety, quality of care, location, and price. But as I dug deeper, reading parent reviews and learning about the curriculum and policies of each school, before I knew it, weeks had gone by.
When I finally narrowed my options and called my top three, each had already reached capacity.
I took so long, overwhelmed by the choices of preschools, that I ended up with no preschool at all.
Working with teams
When you get a whole group involved in decision-making, the potential for choice paralysis increases.
In a team, the decision-making process may take weeks or even months. Having every member of the group contribute an idea or perspective will result in too many options. A team that isn’t led to cut down those options will review factor after factor in searching for a decision.
In most cases, these small things don’t matter much. Yet, analysis paralysis depletes the team’s mental energy and creativity.
How does analysis paralysis hurt productivity?
Being paralyzed by choices doesn’t sound so great. But other than slowing down our decision-making time, does it actually impact our day-to-day productivity?
Absolutely. Over-thinking has a significant impact on many aspects of our work, including:
- Lowered productivity
- Lessened willpower
- Reduced creativity
- Decreased working memory
- Lowered self-confidence
- Escalated procrastination
- Increased decision fatigue
Researchers from the National Academy of Science analyzed ten months of decisions made by parole board judges. They found that judges granted parole more often early in the morning and shortly after their lunch break.
Unbeknownst to them, these judges were experiencing what psychologists call decision fatigue.
We make decisions all day long. Big or small, each decision saps us of some energy. If our reserves are depleted, we become anxious and overwhelmed, leading to poor decisions.
Some of the most successful people are aware of this form of fatigue. This is why Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs wore the same outfit every day, saving their decision-making power for more important matters.
8 tips for overcoming analysis paralysis
Many of us have developed a habit of overanalyzing our decisions. We can overcome this by creating new patterns. To make better decisions and overcome analysis paralysis, try these proven strategies.
Set a deadline
The brain is wired to take the most straightforward route. When faced with a difficult decision, our minds are predisposed to avoid it.
You can fight choice paralysis by setting parameters for yourself.
Setting a deadline for making the decision forces you to stop analyzing. Decide on a timeline that works for you, giving yourself time to do your research and examine the risks.
You have two options when you reach the deadline: either act or let go of the idea.
Place intentional limits
If your choice is more than a yes or no, consider eliminating half of your options as soon as possible to avoid decision paralysis.
Use whatever criteria you need. For instance, if you are shopping for a jacket, you might limit the color options to black and brown to match your existing clothes.
Having fewer options allows you to think more clearly and focus on what is important to you.
You can also use this strategy to limit your decision-making resources. Set a volume limit on the research you conduct. Maybe you will only look for that jacket in two stores or search in two online marketplaces.
Consider the consequences
The goal here isn’t to focus on the negative consequences. Instead, determine whether the effects of something are actually significant.
Does it really matter which jacket you choose, for instance? As long as it keeps you warm, is anything else important to you? The price, the color?
If you don’t think a particular aspect will affect your choice, don’t worry about perfection.
Playing in the snow isn’t any less fun in a brown jacket than in a black one.
Stair-step your choices
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, if you want to eat an elephant, you must eat it one bite at a time. This applies to decision-making as well.
Make decisions a little bit easier by stair-stepping the process. Instead of viewing a choice as a huge hurdle, break it down into a series of smaller, more actionable tasks.
For example, if packing for your impending move feels daunting, start by finding some packing boxes. That’s all. Just getting boxes.
Taking on a smaller goal feels more manageable, and celebrating your victory will boost your motivation for the next step.
If your decision requires research, schedule a specific time for it.
Beware—this is where most people stumble.
The desire to explore each new detail in even greater detail is a major contributor to analysis paralysis. It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of internet searching.
Set a time limit for your research. The Freedom app can block out any interruptions so you can maximize your time. Avoiding distractions will help you stay focused and save time.
Consider getting help from others during the decision-making process.
Amidst a big decision, staying neutral can be challenging. Objective advice from others can help move us along in the process, avoiding the paralysis of analysis and reassuring us that we are on the right track.
This is especially important when making work-related decisions. Engaging others in your thought process will give them a glimpse into your thinking as a leader. You’ll also gain a broader perspective, which will enhance your decision-making ability the next time.
Take a sugar break
Yes, you read that right. Remember the decision fatigue the parole judges experienced and how their decision-making power increased after lunch?
Turns out, blood glucose plays a vital role in decision making.
When you’re paralyzed by anxiety and don’t know what else to try, take a break and try something sweet. Avoid sugary candy bars in favor of healthier quick fixes like bananas, raisins, or honey.
Not only will the increase in blood sugar give your brain a little boost, but the time spent grabbing your snack and eating it will give you a few moments to rest and recharge.
Just do it
Making the best decision is as simple as doing it.
Nothing is ever perfect. We will never have all the information. So the next time you feel stuck, keep this in mind:
Successful people start before they’re ready and figure it out as they go.
You will likely feel unsure, unprepared, and unqualified. But I can assure you—all the planning, researching, delaying, and revising in the world won’t make the decision any easier.
So why not start now?
Find freedom in limitation
In an article for Forbes, Jeff Boss said, “It doesn’t matter in which direction you choose to move when under a mortar attack, just as long as you move.”
The next time you’re faced with a big decision, resist analysis paralysis. Instead, develop a practical plan to ensure success.
The right decision lies somewhere between over analysis and taking a bold leap of faith.