There once was a fox and a cat. The fox brags to the cat about how many different tricks he has for evading hunters. The cat, in turn, tells the fox that he has but one escape trick.
Soon, a group of hunters arrives with their dogs. The cat quickly climbs a tree and evades the dogs. Meanwhile, the fox spends so much time considering his different escape options that the dogs end up catching him.
This fable may be ancient, but it offers a timeless lesson about the dangers of overthinking. Put another way, we’d say that the fox was suffering from analysis paralysis. With so many options at his disposal, he couldn’t make a quick enough decision to save himself.
You’ve probably experienced this same paralyzing indecision in your life. It may not be a matter of life and death, but analysis paralysis can still be detrimental to your relationships, career, and general quality of life.
Fortunately, it is possible to beat analysis paralysis. Below, we’ll look at what analysis paralysis is, why it happens, and steps you can take to overcome it.
As I mentioned in the intro, people have known the dangers of overthinking since ancient times. The term “analysis paralysis,” however, is more modern. No one is exactly sure who first used the phrase, but the fact that the two words rhyme has made it stick.
But what, exactly, does analysis paralysis mean? As it turns out, there’s a bit more to it than overthinking. The Oxford English Dictionary offers this concise definition:
“Inability to respond effectively to a situation due to an over-analytical approach or to an excess of available information.”
In other words, there are two main reasons that analysis paralysis occurs:
- An over-analytical approach. In an effort to find the “perfect” solution to a problem, you get caught up in analyzing every single possibility. Another way to put this would be “overthinking”.
- An excess of available information. It can be difficult to make the right decision without sufficient information. But having too much information can be just as detrimental, distracting you from what’s important and causing you to second-guess yourself.
So that’s what analysis paralysis is, and why it happens. But what can you do to break free? Keep reading to find out.
Since analysis paralysis can arise in so many different areas of life, the best approach for moving past it will vary. But here are seven techniques that have worked well for us:
Rank Decisions by Importance
A key step to overcoming analysis paralysis is to recognize that you are, in fact, overanalyzing a situation. One of the best ways to do this is to assess how important a decision really is. When you rank decisions by importance, it becomes clearer where you should (and shouldn’t) be spending lots of mental energy.
On the one hand, some decisions really don’t matter all that much. What you have for lunch, for instance, isn’t that important as long as it satisfies your hunger, gives you energy, and doesn’t harm your health. Beyond those basic considerations, it makes no sense to agonize over the “best” choice. Just pick something and move on.
On the other hand, some decisions affect nearly every aspect of your life and deserve lots of deliberation. Choosing your life partner, for instance, is a decision that warrants serious thought. It would certainly “rank” higher in importance than what you have for lunch.
Mentally Fast Forward to the Day’s End
It’s the start of the day, and you’re faced with an overwhelming task list. You know that you eventually need to do all of the items on the list, but the sheer number of options is paralyzing you. How do you decide which task to work on first?
In cases like this, you can use a simple trick. Assume that you’ll only get one task done today. Now, mentally fast-forward to the end of the day, and imagine which task you’d most regret not doing.
Whichever task that is, that’s the one you should work on. This may not work with every decision, but it’s very useful for day-to-day productivity.
Reduce or Simplify Your Choices
As I discussed earlier, having too many choices can lead to analysis paralysis. With so many options available to you, it’s difficult to discern which is the right one.
To get past this, simplify your choices. Wasting time each morning deciding what to wear? Create a “uniform” type wardrobe where you wear basically the same clothes each day.
Or, let’s say you’re overthinking all your options for dinner. In that case, learn 3 or 4 recipes that you like, and then cycle through those each week. If it makes things easier, take a day each week to plan what you’ll cook.
Overall, do what you can to reduce the mental energy you spend on decisions (especially day-to-day ones).
Find an External Motivator
Often, analysis paralysis can arise because you don’t have an external motivator pointing you in a clear direction. Because you don’t have to make a choice, you get stuck considering all the possibilities.
Therefore, another way to escape analysis paralysis is to find an external motivator. Often, this means hiring a coach, consultant, or teacher to tell you what you should do. With the right guidance, you no longer have to make decisions. You can simply execute.
A great example of this is learning a new skill. While we’re big fans of self-directed learning, sometimes you’re better off hiring a teacher to guide you. This is especially true when you’re in the early stages of learning.
Take playing the piano: There are so many things you could learn (especially with the internet at your fingertips). But which things are most important to learn in the beginning? An experienced teacher can give you the guidance you need, helping you avoid paralysis from all the possibilities.
Ask for Advice
Sometimes, we get so emotionally or personally involved in a decision that we’re unable to see it clearly. This can lead to a particular form of analysis paralysis, one that’s quite tricky to escape.
In such cases, one of the best things you can do is to ask for advice from an impartial, trusted friend or family member. Their outside perspective can bring clarity to the situation.
Indeed, in many cases it’s less that you need advice and more that you need someone to listen. In the process of explaining your different choices, you’ll often discover what you need to do. Never underestimate the power of talking about something with someone you trust.
Remember That You Can (Usually) Change Your Mind
Analysis paralysis often stems from a fear that we’ll make the wrong choice and catastrophe will result. But generally, this is a mental illusion. Most decisions, even those that seem large or consequential, are reversible. In other words, you can usually change your mind.
Consider a decision that many people agonize over: choosing a career. It’s understandable to feel some anxiety about this decision — our society makes it seem like you have to pick one career when you graduate college and then stick with that for the rest of your life.
In reality, however, you can change careers. You’re not stuck with the one you picked at 18 or 22. Indeed, a change in the economy or technology may require you to change careers whether you want to or not. Changing careers won’t be as easy as picking something different for lunch or wearing a different shirt, but it’s still possible.
My final, and perhaps most overarching, tip for beating analysis paralysis is to abandon perfectionism.
In reality, a perfect solution doesn’t exist. No matter how much you try, you’ll always be working with incomplete information. You could spend your whole life trying to make one decision. Or, you could do the best you can with the information you have and move on to something else.
We can see the dangers of perfectionism in an anecdote from World War II. In December 1942, leading up to D-Day, Winston Churchill heard that the designers of landing crafts that would carry troops across the English Channel were spending all their time debating major design changes.
In response, Churchill gave this warning:
The maxim “Nothing avails but perfection” may be spelt shorter: “Paralysis”.
As you can now see, analysis paralysis isn’t some inescapable fate.
Whether you need to simplify your choices, rank your decisions by importance, or just talk with someone you trust, you can get beyond analysis paralysis and back to living your life.
Image Credits: eyeglasses on legal pad