Don’t Overthink It: Analysis Paralysis Ruins Productivity


In an era where practically everyone has direct access to the bottomless well of high-quality information called the Internet, decision making should be easier than it’s ever been. And yet, it’s not. If anything, it has only become even harder.

Think about it. A single Google search can net you millions of results on any subject imaginable. You can research every tiny aspect of any option available before making a decision. But more often than not you just end up spending hours down an internet rabbit hole feeling more confused than ever.

According to psychologist Barry Schwartz, who refers to this phenomenon as Paradox of Choice, multiple options can indeed lead to objectively better results. But those results come at the cost of stress, anxiety, and unhappiness.

Instead of allowing us to make better decisions, our virtually unlimited access to information often results in greater fear of making the wrong choice. So we end up trapped in a seemingly inescapable cycle of indecision or analysis paralysis.

How It Affects You

Needless to say, constant over-analyzing while delaying action can have catastrophic consequences on your productivity. And in more than a few ways.

It drains your mental resources. A series of recent scientific studies into the decision fatigue phenomenon have confirmed that our willpower is actually a very finite resource.

Every time we make a simple decision (even as trivial as picking what tie to wear to a meeting) our brain spends precious mental resources. And when we spend hours agonizing over that same decision those resources run out much more quickly causing us to feel mentally exhausted.

In other words, overthinking saps your willpower, so making good decisions becomes much, much harder.

It impedes your creativity. According to a report published by a team of researchers at Stanford University, over-analyzing not only depletes our mental resources and makes it harder to perform more mentally demanding tasks, it may also restrict our creative capabilities.

Participants in the study were placed into an fMRI machine with a tablet and asked to draw a series of pictures based on verbs, while researchers analyzed their brain activity patterns. Surprisingly, it was discovered that the part of the brain that was active the most for the drawings and rated highest in creativity was the cerebellum (the movement center), and not the prefrontal cortex (the thinking center) as was initially anticipated.

Putting it simply, overthinking something makes it harder for us to stay creative. Or as Manish Saggar, the lead author of the study, put it: “The more you think about it, the more you mess it up”.

It leads to unhappiness. When it comes to decision making all people can be roughly divided in two different categories – “satisficers” and “maximizers”.

Satisficers tend to prioritize an adequate solution over an ideal one. That is to say, they make a decision based on whether or not their requirements are met. They’re perfectly satisfied with the brand of toothpaste that has the qualities they’re looking for.

Maximizers, on the other hand, are eager to make the absolute best choice possible. They won’t rest until they’ve examined every possible option and looked at every alternative.

The key difference between the two, as research suggests, is that Maximizers are a lot more likely to question their choices. They tend to express self-doubt, and feel dissatisfied, depressed, and unhappy with their decisions.

Stop Thinking and Start Doing

So, we’ve established that analysis paralysis caused by overthinking our decisions ruins our productivity and leads to anxiety and unhappiness. Fortunately, there are quite a few tried and tested strategies to help you put an end to analysis paralysis out there, and below are what we feel are the best ones.

  • Stick to your main goal. We often like to engage in decision making without a clearly defined goal or objective in mind. Suffice to say, this is hardly the best approach. Instead, the first thing you want to do is understand what is the most important thing for you (it can be a specific goal, or a life value). Then, base your decisions on whether or not they serve to further that objective. Whenever you’re struggling with a tough choice, avoid analysis paralysis by simply asking yourself which option lines up with your #1 goal.
  • Establish a deadline. Few people like deadlines, but you can’t argue with their efficiency. It’s a known fact that setting a time constraint can force you to make a decision a lot quicker. The tricky part, however, is that self-imposed deadlines are extremely hard to stick to. The key here is finding a way to make yourself accountable to your time limit. Announcing it to your coworkers or friends, for example, can make it more difficult for you to ignore it.
  • Start your day with the most important decisions. Deciding what to have for lunch and which employee you’re going to promote are both important decisions, but one is clearly more so than the other. And because each choice we make consumes our limited supply of willpower we need to be smart with how we structure our workday. Don’t try to tackle your biggest tasks in the afternoon. Instead, make a habit out of starting your day with the important things, while your mental resources are still fresh. Eliminate the small decisions you make throughout the day by turning them into routines that require little thought to perform.
  • Limit your options. Details, when used rationally, can be an essential part of any decision making process. But with human beings being as flawed and irrational as we are, decisions are often one of the main reasons we get stuck in analysis paralysis. Our desire to dig deeper and deeper for more and more details while trying to make a decision comes from the right place. However, it ultimately works against us as we end up chasing details while the decisions remain unmade.

    A great way to avoid this is to willingly set up a limit to the amount of information you’re going to research before making a decision. You’ll never be able to learn absolutely everything, and if what you’ve learned answers the call, it’s time to move forward.

  • Get a fresh perspective. Whenever you’re paralyzed by an especially difficult decision, it may be worth it getting out of your own head and talking to someone about it. So the next time you’re feeling stuck, take a moment to talk it through with a friend or a colleague. Just having to present your thoughts in a structured and clear way is often enough to push you to take action.
  • Stop treating decisions as final. Instead, take a more iterative, step by step approach. When you treat a decision – especially a very important one – as final, you unwillingly raise the stakes which only leads to more anxiety and fear of making the “wrong” choice. By contrast, viewing each decision as just the first step allows you to choose quickly with the knowledge that you can always tweak, adjust and improve on it later.

Remember, there’s no such thing as “perfect” when it comes to decision making, because even the “best” option can lead you to average results, and vice versa. It’s what you do after the decision’s been made that will largely determine if that decision was the right one.

When faced with a difficult choice it’s all too easy to get stuck in the overthinking mode, not being able to see the proverbial forest for the trees. Thankfully, with the right mindset and a handful of helpful strategies, analysis paralysis will no longer stand between you and your decisions.

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