Analysis paralysis: Choices, choices…

Paralysis by analysis or analysis paralysis, however you choose to say it, the effect remains the same. A complete mental freeze in your decision-making capabilities. Not exactly the infamous brain freeze that a slushee gets you but just as unpleasant, I presume. How do we go about this overload of choices?

Have you ever had that feeling where you were suddenly confronted with a wave of options? A wave so vast and consuming that it rendered you simply speechless and motionless? And on top of that, you were unsure of how best to proceed. Sounds like quite the dilemma. Well, this happens more and more in the world we live in. All thanks to an increasing number of options to choose from. Sometimes it’s nice to already be presented with a curated list or at least a filtered and ordered list of options to choose from. This can already take away a lot of the indecision and pressure that comes with filtering through an excessive amount of data.

Calvin and Hobbes – It’s a Magical World by Bill Watterson

Who would have thought, that one day people would be dealing with an over abundance of choice, rendering them utterly indecisive. Well, here we are. Without a doubt, for some, it is a more familiar feeling than for others. Mind you this is still a very fortunate position to be in. We will be looking at this mostly from a productivity angle rather than a life is not that bad stop complaining perspective. I’m here to encourage continuous improvement which is not something you can do if you’re stuck.

Post formal education

After the rules and guidelines of school/college/uni fall away you will find yourself facing an abundance of choice for the first time. There is no longer a set path or handbook that you can fallback on. Suddenly, people are looking to you and asking you: “what do you want [to do/ to be]?”. Maybe you are already one step ahead of the bunch and you know what direction you want to go in. You might even know which jobs to take to get you to where you need to go. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that is that.

On the daily, we are constantly bombarded with forks in the road and in order to continue we have to make choices. What to eat, how to get to work, how to get the work done, who to network with to get what we want etc..

Where do we start? How do we know if we have made the right decision? How do we know whether a decision we make is in line with who we are? Are we making decisions based on what we want to do or are we succumbing to the outside pressures of society telling us what we should do? Who knows what is best for us? My goodness a whole wave of questions and an internal monologue constantly on a loop in our heads. It’s surprising that we even get work done these days!

Strategizing vs Doing

Sometimes, we put so much pressure on making sure that we make the decision, that we never get around to actually making a choice. We can get so caught up in the process that we tend to not give the actual outcome the necessary attention it requires. We plan, we plan and we plan some more. To the point where there might not be an outcome anymore. What then of all the effort? We can put all this energy into being busy without an actual result to show for it at the end of the day. Talk about unproductive use of your time. Supposedly your most valuable asset even. I think we can do better!

Thawing our brain

How do we make sure that our head is on straight? At one point we have to give ourselves the proverbial mental slap in the face, in order to get a move on. After all, we cannot stay paralyzed forever. Decisions need to be made all the time, therefore don’t expect to spend a small lifetime trying to figure out what to choose every single time. You’ll only tire yourself out. Before you know it you’re completely exhausted from simply making a choice, let alone from actually acting on that choice.

From an inward-looking perspective, one way to ensure that making those decisions becomes easier is really understanding who you are and what your likes and dislikes are. When this is clear, you’ll be able to systematically remove options that are not in line with your interests. A decision is easier to make when you have a goal, a story, a context. Then it becomes like a puzzle and you try to see which piece fits best.

Looking outward, the following 4 steps can help you cut the cord.

1. Prioritize your decisions

We live in the age of everything is a high priority. Everything needs to be done right away. But there is no such thing. If everything has a high priority than nothing is really prioritized. The same applies to decisions that you need to make. For those moments when you just cannot quite figure out where to start, which decision to take first. Ask yourself the following four questions:

  1. Importance: How critical is it that I make this decision right now? Can it wait?
  2. Impact: What effect will this decision have on other areas of my life?
  3. Time: By when do I need to decide?
  4. Outcome: What will happen when I make this decision?

2. Establish your end goal

Once you have prioritized your decisions and figured out which to tackle first, ask yourself what you want to achieve by making this decision. Instead of just making a decision for the sake of deciding, try to be mindful of your intentions.

Why am I making this decision?

What do I want to get out of making this decision?

3. Create bite size steps

Similar to how we chew our food into small pieces that are easier to digest, so too can we make our decisions easier for our minds to process. Instead of staring at a mountain wondering how on earth can I move it, break it down into actionable steps. Move the mountain rock by rock, step by step.

4. Remember that perfection is overrated

Action over inaction. When perfection means that you end up thinking the whole time about how you will approach something, but never end up actually starting anything, it really is overrated. Better to have something to show for your effort at the end of the day. Ask any writer, I am sure they would agree!

Just remember that sometimes your 70% is more than good enough. And who is to say that your 70% is not someone else’s 100%?

Of course there are moments, where you do want to give it your all and aim for as close to perfection as you can get. However, not every decision you make will require perfection. Best to not waste your energy in the supermarket trying to decide which juice to get from a selection of 14 different types. Sometimes juice is just juice. Better to save that extra effort of reaching perfection for when it is really worth your while.

This is not to say that from now on impulsivity is your best friend. Not at all. Of course depending on your nature feel free to sprinkle that impulsivity here and there as you please 😉 (within reason okay).

Choices equal Freedom

At one point in time we have all heard it, the phrase freedom of choice. Barry Schwartz says it quite well in the following TED talk. We can maximize personal freedom by maximizing choice. If people have the freedom to make their own choices they can make choices to improve their welfare. So the logic goes, more freedom leads to more choice which leads to greater welfare. But somewhere there is a magical sweet spot between few choices and many choices. Just the right amount to avoid paralysis but just enough to still keep you moving forward.

TED Talks: Barry Schwartz – The Paradox of Choice

Takeaways

We all get stuck sometimes. We all feel overwhelmed and downright paralyzed from an abundance of choice. Yet, decisions still need to be made at some point. Do yourself a favour and do not get caught up in strategizing without doing, preparation without action. The all too common, ‘all talk and nothing to show for it’ dilemma. You are better than that!

Give yourself that mental slap in the face, thaw that brain freeze and start approaching your decision making process with more intent. Learn to prioritize your decisions, establish your end goal, create bite size steps and let go of that debilitating need for perfection in even the most uncalled for situations. Make a habit out of taking action. Let’s make an effort to reduce overthinking and underworking and start working towards obtaining that sweet spot of choices.

Keep in mind, even indecision is a decision.


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“There’s always an element of chance and you must be willing to live with that element. If you insist on certainty, you will paralyze yourself.”

― J.P. Getty

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