“Extreme fear can neither fight nor fly.” This William Shakespeare quote is an excellent depiction of the phenomenon known as analysis paralysis. If you’ve ever been too anxious to make even the most basic decisions, this quote likely hits home for you.

While analysis paralysis may not literally impact basic human instinct as Shakespeare’s quote might suggest, it can keep you from making decisions you need to make to be successful for fear of making mistakes. 

In this blog post, we will explain analysis paralysis, why it happens, and how to overcome it to succeed. Let’s get started. 

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What is analysis paralysis?

Analysis paralysis is a phenomenon where one’s fear of making a mistake outweighs the value of making any decision. People feel overwhelmed and experience the inability to choose anything. Of course, it’s rare to encounter a scenario where making no decision is the best decision. So, why does analysis paralysis persist? 

For many of us, we can trace the basic idea of analysis paralysis to a crippling sense of perfectionism. Those with a perfectionist attitude put more weight on their mistakes. When they encounter a situation where they don’t know the best path forward, they’re tempted to stagnate instead of potentially making a mistake.

Trying to find the perfect solution puts you under high pressure and can lead to greater stress.

Now that we’ve defined the term, let’s look at some areas where analysis paralysis can occur. 

Analysis paralysis in different contexts

Analysis paralysis stunts our decision-making process, but that’s not even the worst of it. It can creep up on us through ruminating thoughts in virtually any area of our lives, like:

  • Work. Creative decisions, project scoping, forecasting, software development, and other work-related decisions are primed for analysis paralysis. If you factor in that your income, health care, and overall well-being can depend on your job, it’s basically a lock. There’s even the phenomenon of analysis paralysis trading, where stock traders freeze up.
  • School. Like work, school is ripe with decisions that could impact the rest of your life. Decisions on what courses to take, what to major in, and where to go to school could lead to analysis paralysis.
  • Romantic relationships. When two people love each other, they value each other’s opinions so much that it can be crippling. Analysis paralysis could appear anywhere from major parenting decisions to the classic “Where should we eat?” debate.
  • Personal life. Outside of school and relationships, we need to make plenty of huge life decisions. For instance, you might have analysis paralysis over buying a house or car, adopting a pet, or moving to a new city. 

You’ve probably experienced some analysis paralysis across all areas of life. Unfortunately, once you’re experiencing it, it’s often too late to escape it alone. 

man holds head in frustration when facing a decision and analysis paralysis

That’s why it’s crucial to look for symptoms.  

Recognizing the symptoms of analysis paralysis

It can be hard to spot the symptoms of analysis paralysis, but knowing what they are can make it easier. There are a handful of analysis paralysis symptoms to look out for, like:

  • Prolonged research. Maybe you’re constantly gathering information, spending too much time in the discovery phase on projects, or conducting research to make even the smallest decisions. 
  • Missed deadlines. If you’re missing deadlines, sometimes it’s because you spent too much time making decisions at earlier stages, worrying about making the wrong choice. 
  • Increasingly pessimistic view of outcomes. While it’s good to be realistic and open to all possible outcomes, sometimes focusing too much on negative outcomes signals that you could soon become reluctant and delay decisions.
  • Physical reactions to decision-making. If anxiety, stress, or panic attacks begin to plague your decision-making, you’re definitely experiencing analysis paralysis. 

A personal analysis paralysis example

Exploring the different contexts and symptoms surrounding analysis paralysis isn’t always enough. Sometimes, you just need an example. Fortunately, I have one that hits close to home: choosing quarterly OKRs.

At Hubstaff, we set Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) at the start of each quarter. We’re each responsible for setting and meeting these goals by the end of the quarter.

Getting to set your own goals sounds great, right?

That’s what I thought at first. But the more I’ve done it, the more I feel a bit of analysis paralysis around setting my goals. My head starts to fill with questions like: 

  • Will I set them too high and put strain on my teammates? 
  • Will I set them too low and look lazy? 
  • What if my goals don’t align with company-wide goals at all?

I don’t think I was alone in feeling this way, especially as meetings carried into the quarter. Some of our fears and my inexperience in setting the goals led to delays that made for more work. 

Addressing analysis paralysis

Tackling analysis paralysis is challenging, but having discussions helps.

The core lesson I learned is to be vocal about your concerns from the start. If a goal is set too high, speak up, but start working towards it anyway. When you can, break down what you’d need to do to reach a lofty goal and show that you’re already planning to accomplish it. That work goes a long way in fine-tuning your goals. 

If you start by spending more time fighting the goal than actually working towards it, you dig yourself a hole. No matter the metric, the OKR isn’t going away. Don’t freeze up; ask for help. Keep chipping away at it and show your work while making your case for changing it.

Analysis paralysis and mental health

We’re not psychologists here at Hubstaff, so this section is not intended as a diagnostic tool or anything more than a presentation of research from reputable sources. If you have concerns over any issues discussed below, please seek assistance from a knowledgeable source who can review your specific needs. 

Analysis paralysis is a bit of a buzzword, but the phenomenon has psychological backing. Many experts believe it could be linked to mental health challenges like ADHD and anxiety.

The Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA) talks of analysis paralysis ADHD, which happens when one experiences a sensory overload based on an excess of choices. In this case, it’s not so much fear of making the wrong choice as it is the sheer volume of choices that leads to paralysis.

This alternative of analysis paralysis leaves us with an important question. 

Is analysis paralysis linked to ADHD or anxiety? 

The short answer likely is both. 

Analysis paralysis comes in a few different forms, some of which may wade more into different mental health conditions than others. According to Medical News Today, symptoms of analysis paralysis may also indicate ADHD or anxiety issues.

For instance, anxiety-producing situations may show themselves in the form of panic attacks and feelings of dread. Analysis paralysis tied to ADHD may display itself through hyperactivity and overanalyzing.

If you think you may have ADHD or anxiety, seeking professional help to find the root cause of the issues could prove helpful.

stylized woman balances two options for a decision, potentially causing analysis paralysis

Who suffers from analysis paralysis?

Analysis paralysis affects virtually everyone at some point in their lives, so it can be hard to quantify precisely how many people suffer from it. Some analysis paralysis can affect those with: 

  • Limited job experience
  • Extensive experience
  • Mental health conditions
  • An excess of data at their disposal

That last point is particularly interesting. Studies like The Decision Dilemma by Oracle and New York Times bestselling author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz show that almost 100% of people prefer to look to data to help them make better, faster decisions.

However, organizations like Route 50 have connected the dots in these studies to show some interesting findings. 

  • Despite 97% of respondents looking to data to solve analysis paralysis, it often does more harm than good. 
  • 72% cited that the sheer volume of data has kept them from making decisions.
  • 91% of business leaders believe that increased available data has limited the success of their organizations.

Note: Oracle has removed the Decision Dilemma report from its website. However, many business-focused sources still cite its data.

Without longitudinal research, it’s hard to know how data overload connects to analysis paralysis. However, experts have debated the working memory capacity of adults. The concepts may be linked, so it is helpful to review related psychological perspectives.

A psychological perspective

We’ve now seen how analysis paralysis can manifest in those who struggle with ADHD, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. But what do psychologists say about reducing the impact of analysis paralysis? 

Portrait of Blaise Pascal who coined the mechanics of choice

(Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

The Association for Psychological Science (APS) is quick to cite 17th-century psychologist Blaise Pascal for helping forward the “mechanics of choice,” which we now know as the theory of expected value.

According to Blaise, you can always turn to math when making a decision. Start by determining the positive and negative values of all possible outcomes and their probability. Then, multiply the two to find the option with the highest number. 

We’ll get into the theory of expected value a bit more later. For now, let’s look at some less complex ways to overcome analysis paralysis. 

Strategies to overcome analysis paralysis

Now that you understand analysis paralysis, here are a few ideas and strategies to help you overcome it. 

  • Be aware of perfectionism. Perfectionism is a form of anxiety that can make prioritizing tasks extremely difficult. Not all tasks carry equal importance and need to be done to perfection. Work to identify which tasks are which.
  • Be bold. Psychology Today stresses the importance of not walking on eggshells. Analysis paralysis often stems from not wanting to disappoint those we seek approval from. Your spouse, significant other, boss, and others sometimes need to hear what you need.
  • Practice decision-making. Decision-making is a skill like any other. In the same way you practice your hobbies, learn new skills, or take on job responsibilities, you should practice making quicker decisions.
  • Utilize decision-making frameworks. Surrounding yourself with the right people, time management techniques, and tools can go a long way in preventing analysis paralysis. Try the GTD method, a time tracking tool, or even shadowing great decision-makers. 

Ready to practice a decision-making technique? Let’s take a look. 

Decision-making techniques

If you’re looking for a more tangible way to overcome analysis paralysis, it’s worth looking into some decision-making styles and techniques. We can start by revisiting Blaise Pascal’s theory of expected value concept we touched on earlier. 

Applying the theory of expected value for decision-making

To practice using the expected value theory, think about purchasing a warranty. Let’s consider weighing the cost of forgoing the warranty on a new laptop. 

  • Cost of laptop: $2500
  • Cost of warranty: $300
  • Cost of repairs: $600

Now, let’s assume that the chances of the laptop breaking are one in five. This framing will help us calculate expected costs for repairs or no repairs:

  • Expected cost of repairs: $120 (0.2 x $600)
  • Expected cost of no repairs: $0 (0.8 x $0)
diagram of using expected value to prevent analysis paralysis when buying the warranty of a laptop

The values and elements of the decision tree are described in full in the copy around this image

Assuming you have accurate odds on whether or not your laptop breaks, the expected cost of repairs is lower than the warranty cost. Therefore, it might be worth the risk of skipping the warranty. 

Using tools to make decisions

One big decision businesses make is what tools to use in their day-to-day operations. Sometimes, when we love a tool so much, we can rationalize paying for it — even when we don’t actually use it all that much. 

Enter Hubstaff Insights. We designed this add-on to help you identify productive and unproductive apps so that you can make better purchase decisions and give your team the tools they need to be successful. 

Insights can also help you with decision fatigue around issues like: 

  • Balancing meeting and focus time
  • Gauging utilization 
  • Classifying work hours

With the right tools, you can avoid analysis paralysis. Let’s take a look at some real-world scenarios.

A reflection on real-world scenarios

Analysis paralysis plagues people every day. In fact, countless people are asking about the issue on forums, Facebook groups, and Reddit communities like r/productivity.

You’ll encounter discussions on analysis paralysis, how to avoid making a wrong decision, how to avoid expending too much mental energy, and more. More specifically, you’ll see it appear in decisions like: 

  • Applying for jobs
  • Making purchase decisions
  • Choosing where to go to college
  • Deciding to learn a new language
  • Learning new skills
  • Dating

But what can we learn from these real-world analysis paralysis scenarios? I think one Redditor summed it up best with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut: 

Kurt Vonnegut quote: "Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them." from a post on Reddit

(Source: r/GetMotivated)

When it comes to overcoming analysis paralysis, sometimes backing off a little during the research phase goes a long way. Accept that you won’t be an expert the first time you set OKRs, apply for your first job, learn a new language, or choose your major.

Removing that burden from your shoulders can help you embrace the beginning of your journey of learning something new without freezing.

Overcoming analysis paralysis

While analysis paralysis isn’t a proper clinical diagnosis, that doesn’t mean it can’t be harmful. In this post, we hope you’ve learned some tips to overcome analysis paralysis and prevent it in the future. We touched on strategies like:

  • Reducing perfectionism
  • Limiting the need for validation
  • Finding a decision-making style
  • Practicing decision making
  • Utilizing expected value
  • Embracing failure and finding joy when learning new things

Many other options may work for you. Remember that your best first step is just giving one a try. Self-doubt is a challenge that you can overcome. Focus on acting instead of making the right choice, and you’ll be on a path to moving forward successfully on those important decisions.

Category: Employee Productivity