How to Avoid the Curse of Analysis Paralysis

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A couple of months ago, I felt stuck. Stuck stuck. I had my list of goals and intentions for this year. I had opened the hood to check they were the real deal: they focused on things I could control, the process , and they were rooted in pursuing growth.

But I also had no idea which one to start with first. I dabbled here, dabbled there, but didn't make much tangible progress in either direction. As soon as I thought I'd made a decision to hunker down and commit to one thing, I would start to second-guess myself. I switched to working on another goal, second-guessed again, and flip-flopped back and forth, all the while not getting anywhere.

I was experiencing analysis paralysis.

Analysis paralysis (or AP) describes a state where we over-analyse a decision so much that we think ourselves away from action.

Some of us get it over the really big life decisions: where to live, whether to get married or what career we want. If you’re like me, perhaps those decisions feel fairly clear-cut but you experience it with mundane choices: do I get the cat t-shirt or the pug t-shirt? (Obviously, “both” is the correct answer in that situation). What should I have for lunch? What should I read next? What colour font should use in that image?

Although the former kind of AP might seem more important than the latter, they are both a waste of time and energy—and, with that, a growth opportunity.

Analysis paralysis is only a symptom, not the problem itself.

Experiencing AP isn't pleasant, but it is a great opportunity to learn more about ourselves. I’ve noticed the different flavours of AP fall into five general categories:

  • Decision fatigue

  • Perfectionism

  • Fear of being wrong

  • Fear of change

  • The “Finding your calling” myth

Decision Fatigue

Every time we make a decision, we use willpower. The more decisions we make in a day, the harder it becomes until we have no decision juice left (side note: this is why a lot of people do their most creative work first thing in the morning or late at night after they’ve had a break). We can also experience decision fatigue if something is sapping a lot of our emotional energy.

If decision fatigue is the source of your AP, look at where you can minimise the number of decisions you’re making in your life. 

This is why I plan my week ahead in advance, eat the same thing for breakfast, have pretty much the same daily routine and usually throw on pretty much the same thing each morning (a glamorous combo of leggings or jeans, t-shirt and sweater) when I get up. When I do these things, I have way less decisions to make about stuff that isn't so important to me, which leaves me way more energy to make decisions about stuff that is.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism comes in two forms: fear of being wrong (more on that below) and the “single starburst” mentality. This is the idea that we only get one shot at something (a conversation, a launch, a showcase, a pitch) so it has to be 100% right first time around. Talk about pressure!

In reality, there are very few things in life we only get one chance to try. So what is this fear really about? Taking risks, being vulnerable, and being willing to be a beginner.

We can deal with perfectionism by remembering two things: first of all, consistent, dedicated action beats perfection every single time. Secondly, the golden twin of perfectionism is mastery, and the only thing that brings us closer to mastery is being willing to try, practice, and try again.

Fear of being wrong

One of the areas in which I often experience most analysis paralysis is spending money. Should I spend money on X or Y? I kind of want X, but Y is slightly cheaper. OK, I’ll go for Y. But maybe X would be better after all? It has better reviews and seems to be better quality so maybe it will last for longer. Eh…

These internal discussions aren’t unhelpful: I want to have them when I’m making a big purchase like a new computer. It’s when they happen over things like “Should I get the £2.99 sushi or the £3.49 sushi? Or is sushi just a frivolous waste of money anyway?!” that they become a problemIn these situations, the paralysis isn’t around the surface issue, it’s around the fear of being wrong and, on a more existential level, what we think it means about us if we are wrong.

We can move past our fear of being wrong by acknowledging that the difference between making the “right” decision and the “wrong” decision is rarely as clear-cut as we think it is. It’s also useful to dig a little deeper and question the meaning we attach to being wrong. Does buying sushi really make me frivolous or bad with money? Does this decision or that decision really make us a bad person? Flighty? Reckless? Or any of the other things that little voice is saying we’ll be?

Once we’ve done that, we can start to view the times we are wrong as learning curves and opportunities to course correct next time.

Fear of change

Any change rocks the boat and comes with potential drawbacks. Even situations that most of us would welcome without hesitation, like winning $1 million in the lottery, come with significant negatives: you suddenly have the additional responsibility of managing a lot of money, people might have ill-conceived expectations of your newfound millionaire status, it might change dynamics in your relationships, and so on.

When we give ourselves space to acknowledge the potential negatives and drawbacks of making a decision, we stop unconsciously trying to avoid them and give ourselves a chance to make peace with them.

The “Finding your calling” myth

There is a lot of New Age-y BS pressure around “finding your calling.” Much of this can leave us feeling freaked out about finding the one “thing” that is “our thing.”

This is a quick path to paralysis: If we think we have a single purpose in this world, we don’t necessarily want to take action and discover the “thing” we thought was “our thing” isn’t actually “our thing” after all. Because if not, then what? What if, after 10 years of wanting to be a writer and feeling sure that’s my thing, I sit down, start on chapter one, and discover that I totally hate it?

We can overcome this by recognising the difference between our mission (which is usually fairly abstract) and the vehicle for that mission (which is usually more vocational/practical). My mission in life—which might be very similar to your own—is to be the best version of myself that I can be and to leave my corner of the world better off than I found it. Right now, Becoming Who You Are is my vehicle for that mission. It’s not my one true pre-defined purpose, I don't know if it's something I'll do forever, it’s just one of many possible ways I could create a sense of purpose in my life right now.

Forget the idea that there’s one thing you’ve been put on this earth to do and, as Joseph Campbell says, “follow your bliss,” get on the track that has been waiting for you, get out and meet people also on that track and see what happens. In other words, take action (i.e. live) and recognise that how you live will change and evolve as you do.

When do you experience analysis paralysis and how do you overcome it? Leave a comment and let me know. 

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash