If you’ve ever felt confused by a decision, unsure of how to solve a problem, or so overwhelmed by the amount of information in front of you that you simply couldn’t come to a conclusion, you’ve probably experienced analysis paralysis firsthand. But what is analysis paralysis, really? What causes it, and what steps can you take to overcome it?
In his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, American psychologist Barry Schwarz described analysis paralysis as (you guessed it) the paradox of choice. Schwartz’s research found that having an oversupply of options led to people feeling paralyzed—and often unhappy, too.
Schwartz, and his predecessors, Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, all looked into how this affects consumer behavior. Their research found that consumers often felt overwhelmed when they were given too many choices. Instead of coming to a decision, they were likely to withdraw and didn’t buy anything at all. (While some studies have backed up this theory, others have argued that it’s not quite that simple.)
If you work in sales or customer support, you’ll want to understand how analysis paralysis can affect your customers’ decision-making, so you can help them out. And more generally, it’s useful to know what it’s all about and how to overcome it, since it can creep into our day-to-day decisions, too.
What is analysis paralysis?
Let’s define analysis paralysis upfront.
Analysis paralysis is when overthinking prevents you from making a decision or finding a solution to a problem. This can involve jumping back and forth between different options without being able to settle on one, or not being able to see the overall weighting of an issue when you assess the pros and cons. ⚖️
Some of the symptoms of analysis paralysis often include:
- Ruminating and cyclical thinking
- Difficulty sleeping
- Constantly feeling distracted
- Loss of productivity
- Lack of focus
- A drop in creativity
- Increase in heart rate
What causes analysis paralysis?
There’s no one specific cause for analysis paralysis, but one of the biggest contributing factors is anxiety. Worrying that you’re going to make the wrong decision can make it harder to make any decision. There’s usually a lot of “what iffing” that accompanies these thoughts: What if I don’t make the right call? What if things don’t work out as planned?
Ironically, the experience of being paralyzed by choice can often exacerbate feelings of anxiety, and lead to a vicious circle: anxiety = indecision = more anxiety.
People with certain personality traits are also more likely to experience analysis paralysis when they face a big decision. These traits are:
- Seeking perfection: If you find yourself wanting the best possible outcome in a particular situation, you might start to feel insecure in your decision-making. Searching for “the perfect hire” if you work in recruitment, for example, can be tricky, and it’s possible that you’ll never be 100% sure that your placement will work out. At some point, you have to trust your expertise and instincts.
- Trying to please others: If you think too much about how your decisions might affect others, you can easily feel overwhelmed. Customer service teams know this well, particularly when they’re dealing with rude customers who aren’t happy with any of the outcomes they propose.
- Tending to ask others for their input: While it can be useful to ask others for their input on a big decision, gathering too much feedback can be counterproductive. The people in your life are bound to have different perspectives and ideas, which can add to your indecisiveness. Be selective about who you talk to if you’re looking for advice and ultimately, try to go with what feels true to you and your needs.
- Dealing with ADHD: Paralysis by analysis can be a symptom of ADHD, too. What is ADHD analysis paralysis? Well, it tends to be closely related to other symptoms of ADHD, including difficulty concentrating, impulsivity, overthinking, procrastination, and difficulty setting priorities. If you struggle with ADHD, it could contribute to analysis paralysis in your decision-making, too.
What are some analysis paralysis examples?
There are many different situations that can make us feel paralyzed by indecision.
We’ve probably all experienced some smaller bouts of analysis paralysis. Ever walked into the toothpaste aisle to find your usual brand out of stock? Why are there so many other options and how on earth do you pick a new one? And we’ve all wasted half an hour watching two-minute trailers on Netflix without actually hitting play. 👀
In these situations, where you’re the consumer, your indecisiveness is relatively harmless to you—even if it is an inconvenience. But if you consider the same situations from the perspective of a business owner, this kind of analysis paralysis has big consequences for your bottom line. If your company sells lots of different products and services, how you package, market, and position them can affect the way consumers respond to your business.
Analysis paralysis can also have major consequences when you’re making decisions about your career, romantic partnerships, family, friendships, or finances. And it gets worse when you’re in situations that don’t have cut-and-dry answers.
When you’re deciding which university to choose, for example, whether to quit a full-time job to start your own business, or if you should leave an unhappy relationship when there are children to consider. In these situations, there are lots of factors involved, and the outcome can affect your well-being, your future, and the people you love.
Making the right investment, whether that’s buying or selling a house or picking an investment fund, is another common example. There’s a lot to think about when there’s more at stake.
How do you get over paralysis by analysis?
Fortunately, it’s possible to overcome analysis paralysis, escape uncertainty, and move forward with your life. The first step is to embrace the problem—if you know you’re prone to being paralyzed in your decision-making, you can take steps in advance to help you prepare for big decisions or tricky situations.
These steps might include:
- Narrowing down your options straight away. Try to come up with a logical way to quickly eliminate the least feasible options (maybe they’re too expensive, or would take too much time), so that you’re only dealing with viable options. For example, if you work in recruitment, you can establish pre-defined criteria for screening applicants and qualifying them along each round. You might start by using resume screening to narrow down your initial pool of applicants. Then, you might use a test to help you identify top performers, before inviting them for an interview to make the final call.
- Create systems and frameworks. If you frequently struggle with making decisions in certain similar situations, establishing a framework or a system for decision-making can help you out. If you’re a sales development representative, for instance, you might need to make decisions about when to send a prospect a follow-up, or whether to reach out to them on multiple channels or not. You can simplify these decisions by coming up with defined criteria. You might choose to always follow-up with a prospect after three days if they haven’t responded, or to reach out to someone on more than one platform if they seem to use both for business.
- Try making decisions on the spot. Start with smaller decisions where the outcome doesn’t really matter, such as which restaurant to eat at, and build your confidence up slowly.
- Writing a pros and cons list. This doesn’t work for everyone or in every instance, but occasionally writing out the best and worst aspects of each option can help you see which one wins.
- Establishing a deadline. Sometimes, introducing a timer can give you a much-needed nudge to come to a decision. Set yourself a deadline and do your best to stick to it. Maybe try being accountable to someone (who you’ve chosen carefully).
- Asking for help. If your indecision is making it difficult for you to take action, try asking someone supportive and experienced for help. For example, if you’re in customer service and a customer isn’t happy with any of your proposed resolutions, ask your supervisor to step in.
Similarly, if analysis paralysis is affecting your personal life and coming in the way of living your life easily and comfortably, ask for help. Speaking to a doctor, psychologist or other mental health professionals can help you to understand what’s at the root of your experience, and they will likely be able to give you tools or medication to make decision-making easier. If you’re looking for more detailed advice on how to overcome analysis paralysis, we’ve got you covered.
The bottom line
Analysis paralysis can be a mild irritant if we’re just trying to pick an outfit for the day, but if you can’t figure out an important decision it can be really frustrating, even debilitating. It creeps into both our personal and professional lives, so if it’s weighing you down, it’s important to acknowledge the problem and take steps to overcome it. And if you’re struggling, remember that you’re not alone. Reach out to people you can trust and ask for their help, and if necessary, look into getting professional support.