Our society exalts thought and reason but in some cases thinking too much can be counterproductive, leading to what is known in Psychology as “Analysis Paralysis”.
The concept itself is not new, it even inspired one of Aesop’s famous fables, a story that perfectly reflects what can happen to us when we have too many options to choose from.
Once a Cat and a Fox were traveling together. As they went along, picking up provisions on the way—a stray mouse here, a fat chicken there—they began an argument to while away the time between bites. And, as usually happens when comrades argue, the talk began to get personal.
“You think you are extremely clever, don’t you?” said the Fox. “Do you pretend to know more than I? Why, I know a whole sackful of tricks!”
“Well,” retorted the Cat, “I admit I know one trick only, but that one, let me tell you, is worth a thousand of yours!”
Just then, close by, they heard a hunter’s horn and the yelping of a pack of hounds. In an instant the Cat was up a tree, hiding among the leaves.
“This is my trick,” he called to the Fox. “Now let me see what yours are worth.”
But the Fox had so many plans for escape he could not decide which one to try first. He dodged here and there with the hounds at his heels. He doubled on his tracks, he ran at top speed, he entered a dozen burrows,—but all in vain. The hounds caught him, and soon put an end to the boaster and all his tricks.
This fable shows us that sometimes it is better to know something useful than to consider a thousand options that do not serve us. It also shows us that when time is short, thinking too much can be harmful, leading to analysis paralysis.
What is analysis paralysis?
It is said that during World War II, Winston Churchill, after hearing that boat designers spent most of their time discussing design changes, sent them this message: “The maxim, ‘Nothing prevails but perfection’, may be spelled PARALYSIS”.
He was referring to analysis paralysis, which consists of thinking too much about a situation, so that we never reach a decision or take action. When the decision is very complicated or there are too many options, we do not choose because we get stuck in the analysis phase, looking for the “perfect” solution.
The problem is that analysis paralysis leads us to a situation in which the cost of that reflection exceeds the benefits that we could obtain if we simply choose a path. In other words: we lose more by getting stuck than we could lose by making a decision, even if it was not the best. In life, analysis paralysis can lead us to lose great opportunities and can represent high emotional or economic costs.
Why is analysis paralysis occurring?
– Fear of making mistakes. Every day we have to make dozens of decisions, some are important and others inconsequential. All these decisions generate anxiety, depending on the impact they have on our lives. The fear of making mistakes not being able to go back once we have made a decision, is one of the main causes of analysis paralysis. We want to be sure, but given that we can never have the absolute certainty, we are paralyzed in the analysis phase, incubating that fear of error, analyzing again and again the consequences of the different options without opting for any.
– Too much information. In modern society, the capacity to choose has been overestimated, to the point that the amount of options available simply overwhelms us. In fact, it has been shown that the more options a consumer has, the less likely he or she will be to buy and the longer it will take to make the decision, if he or she takes it. In these cases, the problem is that we lose ourselves by valuing more and more details to differentiate one option from the other and, in the end, we end up exhausted and frustrated, which reduces our capacity for deciding.
– Tendency to perfectionism. In other occasions we get stuck circling in circles because we pursue perfection, we want to finalize all the details before making a decision because we want the result to be perfect.
– Aversion to the opportunity cost. The opportunity cost is a concept used in economics to designate the value of the not chosen option. It refers to what we lose choosing another alternative. In many cases, focusing too much on what we renounce, instead of focusing on what we gain, prevents us from making a decision and condemns us to paralysis. In practice, we are blinded by losses and we forget profits and gains.
The worst of all is that in many cases we make excuses to explain that analysis paralysis. For example, we say that we need more information to make the decision when in reality what stops us is the fear of making mistakes. In those cases, it is important to be aware of what causes decision paralysis so as not to run around in circles, worried uselessly and wasting our psychological energy.
How to overcome decision paralysis?
– Establish deadlines. When you have to make important decisions, establishing a deadline and respecting it will help you take the step. Determine a prudential time frame to get informed and then make a decision. Remember the words of Harold Geneen: “Better a good decision quickly than the best decision too late”.
– Restrain your curiosity. The details are one of the main culprits of analysis paralysis, that desire to dig more and more into each new information that you discover. At a certain point you need to stop because that desire to deepen can lead to paralysis because there will always be something that you can not know.
– Assume that the planets will never line up. Conditions will never be optimal. Therefore, you must assume that you have to make a decision with the knowledge and data that you already have. Do not wait to know everything or to reach the perfect moment. Delaying the decision by waiting for the planets to align can be just an excuse for not taking the step.
– Do not look for perfection. “Perfection is the enemy of the good”, wrote Voltaire. If you insist on everything to be perfect, you will end up being a victim of decision paralysis since it is practically impossible to control all the details.
– Take one step at a time. Instead of taking the decision as something definitive, assume it as small steps that you can correct as you go. Taking small decisions will help you feel more comfortable and safe, as well as getting you out of the state of paralysis. In the army, for example, it does not matter in which direction you move when you are under a mortar attack, you just need to move. Do not think that you are making a big decision, as it can be scary, think you are making multiple small decisions.
– Limit the number of options. If you reduce the number of options, it will be easier for you to make a decision. Start by choosing the most interesting alternatives and discard the rest. It will be easier to choose between three options than ten.
– Add or eliminate the emotion. In certain cases, you must add a bit of rationality to the decision making, in others you need to add a bit of intuition. The best decisions are those thought with objectivity but validated by intuition. Therefore, think if you are paralyzed because you are being too rational or, on the contrary, too emotional.
– Prioritize the decisions more important. Sometimes we suffer what is known as decision fatigue, which is caused by having to make many decisions in a very short time. Therefore, it is important that you structure your day in such a way that you can make the most important decisions with a fresh mind.