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GuidesResearch methodsAnalysis paralysis: Causes and ways to beat it

Analysis paralysis: Causes and ways to beat it

Last updated

11 September 2023

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Dovetail Editorial Team

The Information Age brought us many benefits. Gone are the days of heading to a library to dig out facts from an encyclopedia. We can quickly consult reputable sources for any information we could ever need.  

Of course, such a positive also brings negatives, like the endless bombardment of messages, information, and options. 

This all makes paralysis by analysis much more likely. And spending too much time thinking about options and possibilities can prevent you from taking action. 

Let's learn more about the analysis paralysis phenomenon and how we can overcome it. 

What is analysis paralysis?

Analysis paralysis is the inability to make a decision due to being overwhelmed with choices. Almost everyone can relate to this issue in their work and personal lives. 

A trivial example is having trouble deciding what to watch, thanks to your ever-growing Netflix list. And then you have to decide whether the dishes can wait for another day while you continue watching an entire 18-part season. 

Analysis paralysis becomes more serious when it hampers your decision-making process on important matters.

How analysis paralysis works

Analysis paralysis can be tricky, as people can mistake it for caution and thoroughness. After all, carefully considering your options and analyzing information is essential for smart decisions. 

However, when you take too much time analyzing, it can delay or prevent action.

The problem of choice overload

Research supports the idea that having too many choices can be at least as challenging as having too few. 

Business owners and marketers have studied this issue, coining it "choice overload." 

If consumers have to choose between many brands of soft drinks, laundry detergents, or paper towels, they may have trouble deciding. 

The same applies to insurance policies, cars, vacation destinations, and other products and services.  

A similar effect occurs when a person or team has to decide between multiple options. The more variables to choose from, the more complex the decision.

The paradox of choice

Psychologist Barry Schwartz identified the paradox of choice. While people like having as many choices as possible, too many choices diminish our well-being. 

He found that too many choices make decision-making difficult, and we may regret our choice. 

Schwartz tied the paradox of choice to the brain only being able to process a limited number of items at a time in short-term memory. 

Other research has found that too many choices diminish performance on tasks requiring mental effort. 

Choice overload vs. choice deprivation

Not all researchers believe that choice overload is a more serious problem than choice deprivation. 

Behavioral Scientist published a study with 7000 people from six countries. It found that choice deprivation generally impacts consumers more than choice overload. This was especially true in non-Western countries. 

However, this doesn't negate the potential harm of choice overload and analysis paralysis. It only suggests that neither extreme is good.

How does analysis paralysis affect decision-making?

Analysis paralysis can affect decision-making in several ways:

  • Overthinking can delay or prevent decision-making. 

  • Thinking too long or considering too many options can lead to the wrong decision. 

  • If you postpone a decision until the last minute, you may make a poor decision because you are stressed.

Imagine you want to set up a business, but you’re unsure what niche you’d like to focus on. And taxes are confusing. You spend years researching different industries, products, and tax advisors but never launch your business. You’ve spent too long overthinking it, and decision paralysis has long set in. 

Common causes of analysis paralysis

The most obvious cause of analysis paralysis is having too many choices or too much information. However, it's a little more complicated than this.

Several factors contribute to the point where choices impede your ability to make a decision:

Information overload and endless research

Information overload is a common symptom of living in the digital age. It's easy to continue researching beyond the point of usefulness. 

For example, someone writing a book may never get around to writing as they’re stuck in the research stage.

Unclear priorities

When considering multiple options, they usually have pros and cons. 

For example, one piece of software may offer more features while another is cheaper. Some of the features are more useful for your purposes than others. 

To make a decision, you need to identify what’s most relevant to your needs.

No deadlines 

Analysis paralysis can be a factor even when you have a clear deadline, such as when a project is due at work or a paper is due at school. 

Without an external deadline, making a decision can be even more challenging.

Set a deadline to hold yourself accountable for projects or goals that demand self-motivation. 

Effects of analysis paralysis

Analysis paralysis can have several harmful effects:

Diminishes performance and clear thinking

Research indicates that having too many choices has a detrimental effect on our ability to process information and make decisions. A University of Chicago study of 95 people found that performance declines when too many choices overload short-term memory. 

Reduces creativity

Research conducted at Stanford University reveals that overthinking negatively impacts creativity. Researchers monitored 30 students' brains with an MRI while they created complex drawings. The more thought they put into the tasks, the worse the results. 

Undermines willpower

When you get into the habit of overthinking, you lose confidence in your ability to process information and make good decisions. You may start avoiding change and taking responsibility. 

Negatively impacts your health and well-being

Overthinking can harm your well-being and your physical and mental health. It can lead to insomnia, anxiety, elevated blood pressure, headaches, and other physical symptoms. 

How to identify analysis paralysis

How do you know when you or someone else has analysis paralysis? How can you differentiate this from a reasonable decision-making process? 

Some signs that you may be overthinking and suffering from analysis paralysis include:

  • Constantly second-guessing decisions you've already made

  • Imagining worst-case scenarios, even when they are very unlikely

  • Experiencing stress, anxiety, or physical symptoms when you consider your options

  • Going over the same possibilities in your mind without making a decision

These can also be signs of anxiety disorders. If you feel overthinking is getting in the way of enjoying your life, it’s worth speaking to a medical professional. 

How to overcome analysis paralysis

Here are some ways to prevent and overcome analysis paralysis:

Reduce your options

Too many options easily lead to confusion and feeling overwhelmed. Limit yourself to a few. 

One cause of analysis paralysis is unclear priorities. Setting rules allows you to easily eliminate options that don't meet your criteria. 

For example, if you're considering a purchase, set a budget. Then, you can eliminate anything that exceeds the budget. 

If you're considering buying a tool or software package, decide which features are essential. 

Set deadlines

A deadline is one of the most effective antidotes to overthinking. When you have no firm deadline to make a decision, it's too easy to put it off indefinitely. 

Even if there's no external deadline looming, always create a deadline for important decisions.  

Practice making small decisions

People who struggle with analysis paralysis and overthinking often have difficulty with even minor decisions. 

Choosing what to have for dinner, what movie to watch, or which route to take home is unlikely to have life-altering consequences. 

Making small decisions quickly can train your brain to make larger ones more efficiently.

Find useful tools and processes

Several tools can help you make decisions more effectively. The simplest is probably a list of pros and cons. Writing these down can clarify how you feel about your options. 

If you want to get more thorough, try a decision-making matrix. 

There are many ways to construct a decision-making matrix. You can create a table listing the main categories and how different alternatives compare. 

For example, a software product’s categories may be price, features, customer reviews, and ease of use. You then rate each alternative in every category. 

It's still up to you to decide which criteria are most important. 

A fun way to gamify decision-making and shake you out of analysis paralysis is with a random number generator (RNG). This option is great for trivial stuff, like which chores to do, what film to watch, or where to get takeout. 

Write a list of choices and number them. Plug the number into a generator and take the first number that appears. That's your decision! Accept it, and don't fight with RNGesus.

FAQs

What's the difference between analysis paralysis and procrastination?

People sometimes use analysis paralysis and procrastination interchangeably, but they aren't the same. 

Procrastination is putting off or delaying a task or decision. Analysis paralysis can cause procrastination, but there are many ways to procrastinate. Who doesn’t want to scroll through a cute subreddit instead of doing laundry?

With analysis paralysis, you are intently focused on the task at hand but can’t make a decision. 

What is the opposite of analysis paralysis?

Making decisions and taking action is just as important as thinking, planning, and analyzing. The objective is to find the right balance. 

The opposite of analysis paralysis is making rash decisions without thinking them through.

Some people believe in following their gut or instinct. This can sometimes work, especially when there's no time to think. However, it's usually better to research, consider relevant facts, and review the likely consequences of different choices. 

How do you know when you're overthinking?

When making decisions involving many choices or significant consequences, thorough consideration is crucial.

If you’re continually thinking about something and getting more confused and stressed, you’re probably overthinking it.

Productive thinking generally makes you feel clearer and more confident.

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