Analysis Paralysis | Ponder

What is Analysis Paralysis and why do we let it hold us back?

I’m no stranger to Analysis Paralysis.

It’s an odd place to be; you’re stuck in limbo and become increasing more frustrated with your situation, and despite all your knowledge and experience you can’t seem able to find a path forward.

I’ve noticed analysis paralysis tends to rear it’s ugly head not when there are only a few options on the table, but instead when a person is faced with multiple excellent choices. There is no clear winner, each scenario can be complex to future plan, and the eventual outcomes of the decision are complex.

The thing is that you can see yourself just as happy in any of the possible scenarios, and the fear is not that you’ll choose something that makes you unhappy, but that you’ll put aside a future that could have made you very happy (or wealthy, or famous, or whatever it is that you’re looking for).  

Just last week I spoke with a friend who’s facing his own analysis paralysis moment – despite knowing exactly what’s going on, why it’s happened and how it’s holding him back, he’s finding it difficult to push past the paralysis.

He’s a victim of his own success – highly competent and experienced, he has the power to become to architect of his own future. In fact, he has access to possible futures that most of us dream of. But the breadth and depth of possible futures he faces, combined with a lack of free time to scenario plan (more on that later) has left him stuck trying to keep multiple plates spinning.

I have no doubt he’ll overcome this temporary blip, but it got me thinking about how analysis paralysis has impacted on my own life.

Not that long ago I was faced with multiple possible career futures; the options in front of me were bright, shiny and very exciting, but in order to properly commit to one of them I knew I needed to shelve the others, even if only for a limited time. The paralysis came not from the decision I needed to make, but from being forced to say goodbye to other careers I loved and also wanted to pursue. The other paths had taken me years to carve out, and I needed to say goodbye to a passion and a group of people who had been some of my greatest supporters over a very difficult time, and finding the strength to do that was not easy.

What is analysis paralysis?

It’s that feeling you get when you’re trying to make a decision and you can’t seem to move forward. You are literally ‘paralysed’, stuck and unable to move forward with any path, for fear of letting go and/or making the ‘wrong’ decision.

The analysis has gone past just ‘overthinking’, and by the time a person has reached the analysis stage they probably know all their possible options.

The paralysis comes from fear of making the wrong decision.

In most cases, there is enough information on the table to be able to make a decision – or at least as much information as it is possible to gather at this point.

Whether the person is faced with ten possible options or two, the time to make a decision between them has been reached, but no decision has been made.

If you’re looking for a visual, imagine that moment when the skydiving jumper is about to leave the plane but gets stuck in the doorway.

There are only a couple of possible scenarios here, and just about all of them turn out well, but the fear that it might not be a good decision to jump is what holds the reluctant jumper back.

It’s a self-perpetuating cycle – once we allow doubt to creep in and we stall with the decision that doubt feeds into our fear of making the wrong decision, and it can become even harder to move forward.

There is no ‘wrong’ decision

Ok, that’s not strictly true.

From time to time we do make the wrong decision, and that’s part of the unpredictability of life.

What I’m trying to say is that in 99% of case someone facing multiple good options will make a good decision. And in the 1% of cases where they don’t, the kind of people who usually find themselves faced with analysis paralysis are more than capable of either finding their way back, or building another future.

That’s because analysis paralysis doesn’t happen to all of us.

To find yourself in this situation you are already intelligent, resourceful, tenacious, and able to critically reflect. If you weren’t, then you wouldn’t be in a situation where you have multiple good options, the freedom to choose between them, and the mental capacity to judge between them.

And all of those core skills are the things you need to move past the paralysis and make a decision.

Why is analysis paralysis a problem?

Tempted to live in limbo while you keep multiple dreams alive?

You’re not alone, but being stuck in a state of permanent paralysis is unlikely to be the best option. In fact, if you’re having trouble choosing between multiple good options then I can pretty much guarantee that holding on to the paralysis is going to be the worst decision you could make.

There are a few reasons why clinging to your analysis paralysis is a bad idea:

#1 – We can only do so much.

Sure, you’re a superhuman with immense capability, and you know that some people manage to be artists, intellectuals, sportspeople, and business leaders all at once, which makes it tempting to try to do the same. But those people didn’t do all those things all at once – they did them over many years and only tackled one or two at a time. Making a decision to choose one pathway for now doesn’t mean you need to permanently close all the other pathways, it just means you’ve picked a priority for right now.

Trying to achieve all the things pretty much guarantees you’re going to end up feeling wiped out and unsatisfied, and it also decreases your chances of doing things well.

#2 – Analysis paralysis takes up head space.

We write a to-do list because it gets the list of tasks we need to achieve out of our head, so we can stop thinking about it. It’s the same as writing a shopping list; sure, you can probably try to remember everything you need when you go to the supermarket or just wing it and hope you don’t miss anything, but writing a list takes a couple of seconds and is mentally much less taxing.

Being stuck in a toxic decision-making headspace makes it difficult to think about anything else, because you’re busy thinking (worrying) about the decision you haven’t made yet. When you make a decision and let go of the paralysis you get all that space back. Back to our skydiving analogy; once you’ve jumped from the plane you’re not thinking any more about your fear, or whether or not you’re going to jump, and instead you can focus on the experience.

#3 – Fear makes us less likely to make bold decisions.

And in many cases, the bold decisions can be the best ones. The fear and paralysis of the decision making process tells us that we need to be cautious, keep backup options open, and wait for others to make the first move.
Fear can make us fail to commit. And failure to commit makes it much less likely that we’ll be able to achieve our goals.  

How to identify if you’re suffering from analysis paralysis

This type of paralysis looks different for everyone, but we can group most people into a couple of different types:

Someone is asking you to choose between your children, and you can only save one

You’re passionate about lots of different things and don’t want to stop doing any of them. Pro tip: if you’re in this category then you’re probably also overworked and/or exhausted and prone to biting off more than you can chew.

FOMO

You’re worried you’ll pick the suboptimal option, and terrified you’ll miss out on something amazing. Unfortunately, if you’re in the position of having to choose from multiple good options then you are going to be missing out on something, and that something may have been amazing. But if you don’t choose at all then you’ll be missing out on even more.

Imposter Syndrome

You’re afraid you don’t have the skills/knowledge/time/resources to pull it off. If you’re waiting for someone to come and give you a certification letting you know you definitely have all the things you need for success, then you’ll be waiting a long time.

Fear of change

You’re doing ok right now, and are worried about what change will bring. It’s natural to be concerned about how your choices may change your life, but letting fear of change hold you back simply ensures you stay the same while everyone else moves forward.

If you’re suffering from analysis paralysis then you may:

  • Put off applying for a course or job
  • Avoid talking about goals
  • Tell yourself you’ll be ready soon (but you’re not ready yet)
  • Find yourself backing out of commitments
  • Find yourself avoiding commitment
  • Decline opportunities when they arise
  • Dislike people asking you what you do

How to overcome analysis paralysis

The very first step is to recognise what’s going on. If you think you may have slipped past decision-making into paralysis, then acknowledge it for what it is, and decide you’re going to move forward.

  1. Get some perspective
  2. Identify possible futures
  3. Do some goal setting
  4. Align your goals with your options
  5. Choose a path

Get some perspective

If you’re feeling stuck, then the first thing to do is take a step back. Let go of the panic and stop forcing yourself to make a decision right now – panic has a way of feeding itself so closing down the panic and lifting the paralysis is the first step.

Give yourself a couple of hours, days, or weeks and take stock of how you’re going. What is working with your current role, and what needs to go? Are you spending enough time doing things you enjoy? What is your number one priority for this time of life? Don’t think about the future for a minute, just take a moment to think about what’s happening now and how it’s working for you.

Identify possible futures

Once you’ve got a good idea of your current position it’s time to think about the future. If you have a decision to make then it’s clear you have two or more possible futures to consider, so take some time to project forward and imagine what life would look like if you followed each of those pathways.

It can also help to project forward as if nothing changes – this alone could be enough to spur you into making a decision one way or the other.

Write down where you would be in one year, three years, five years, and ten years if you followed each path.

Set your goals

If you already have clear goals then write them out, but if you don’t already have a goal or two then now is the time to create some. This isn’t the same as the last activity – then you were predicting what could happen if you followed a path, now you are dreaming of what you would like to see happen.

These goals can be personal or professional – both are equally important.

Align your goals with your options

This is as simple as putting the two together – which possible future is closest to your goal? If this gets complex and you have multiple goals that match up with multiple futures then go back to your original goal setting and work out which goal you’re not willing to give up.

Choose a path

By this point it should be relatively simple to make a decision, but if it’s not then don’t let that stop you. Toss a coin if you have to – picking anything at all is better than staying stuck in limbo. Remember, in almost every scenario you can backtrack if you’ve made a mistake – very few opportunities disappear forever and most can be revived with a little bit of work if needed.

Don’t let analysis paralysis take over your life

This kind of ‘stuck’ is exhausting and draining, and very little good can come from it. By all means take your time and make educated, informed decisions, but once you have all the information you need to make a decision you need to move on, because the only thing worse than the wrong decision is no decision.

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