How are you when it comes to decision making? Do you spend a long time thinking over every single thing? Are you often afraid to make the wrong move? Do you feel the need to analyze every option? Do you sometimes miss perfectly good opportunities or waste time due to your meticulousness?
If so, congratulations — you “suffer” from analysis paralysis. Analysis paralysis is the state of over-thinking about a decision to the point that a choice never gets made, thereby creating inaction. A person faces analysis paralysis when he/she…
- is overwhelmed by available options
- over-complicates the decision when it’s supposed to be quite simple
- feels compelled to pick the “right” choice, thereby delaying any decision until he/she does due research
- feels a deep fear of making a wrong move, hence stalling any decision making to prevent the wrong choice from being made
… all in all, not able to decide at all.
My Experience with Analysis Paralysis
Even though I’m quite good at making big life decisions quickly (I share my frameworks for making long-term life decisions here), up until recently I sucked at making simple, daily decisions.
- Once I was buying a hard disk. Buying a hard disk should be pretty straightforward isn’t it — just grab one and go, init? Well no — the hard disks came in so many variations that I couldn’t make up my mind! In the end, I shut down (pun intended) and told my husband Ken to make the decision.
- Colors were my Achilles’ heel. If you gave me anything that came in various colors, I’d enter decision-making hell. For example I could be editing a graphic and I would spend a chunk of time thinking whether green shade #1 or green shade #2 looked better.
- I often bounced back and forth between what to eat because I couldn’t make up my mind. This meant backtracking to a shop I saw 10 minutes ago or spending a fair amount of time thinking of what to eat for each meal.
Needless to say, my indecisiveness was a huge waste of my time. I would feel panicky over having to pick the “right” choice and would get stuck. What should rightfully be a simple decision would explode into a sticky mess as I would go all out to hunt down all possible options and mull over their differences, hence making it impossible for me to decide on anything at all.
Interestingly, despite behaving this way all my life, I didn’t realize that I was experiencing analysis paralysis. I saw it more as “prudent reflection”… until I started preparing for my wedding in 2014. Faced with a gazillion decisions to be closed in a short amount of time, I realized, for the first time in my life, how my meticulousness would hold me and Ken back from closing our to-dos quickly, decisively, and most importantly — happily.
I began to tire of my behavior. Even though I would feel that I was being meticulous at each decision-making window, when I looked back at my days, I didn’t accomplish much from those minutes, hours spent anguishing over A and B. Instead, I felt that I was just wasting my time with nothing to show for. So I thought about how to break out of this behavior… and this guide is the result.
Ultimate Guide to Overcome Analysis Paralysis
Today, I want to share my 10 step framework to break out of analysis paralysis. After working through these steps, I no longer mull over little decisions like I used to. Tips #1, 3, 5, 6, and 7 have been particularly crucial for me.
1) Differentiate Between Big and Small Decisions
Firstly, differentiate between big and small decisions. Then, give the decision the attention equivalent to its importance.
A big part of my analysis paralysis came from treating all decisions as if they were life-altering when really, they aren’t. While my meticulousness helped with life decisions like finding my soulmate and discovering my life path, it was very draining with other decisions because I would invest much time and energy into them, even though I shouldn’t.
Example: My Wedding Preparation
A good example is wedding planning. Many brides obsess over every detail of their wedding, and I was no different. From deciding on linen colors to whether to have sashes on guest chairs to the color of sashes, these were a few of the countless decisions I had to make in a few months. I was very anxious about each decision as everything seemed critically important, and I was afraid that I would ruin my big day if I didn’t pick the “right” choice.
It didn’t help that there is this deeply entrenched perception that the wedding day is “the most important day of a person’s life.” This only made me more pressured to get everything “right.”
Yet when I thought about it, all these decisions didn’t matter in the long run. For example,
- Even if I were to pick an atrocious neon green table linen with pink polka dots (I didn’t, though it would be funny if I did that), this wouldn’t affect me after my wedding. The only impact it would have would be on the overall look of the event and the photos taken.
- Even if my makeup didn’t look exactly the way I wanted, that would be okay as it wasn’t like I would look this way forever. Most people don’t notice such small details to begin with. To my guests, what really matters is me entering a blissful marriage.
Rather than obsess over these little things, the bigger questions a bride or groom should ask are, “Am I marrying the right person? Is this the person I want to spend the rest of my life with? Do we have the right foundations to build a lasting marriage?” These are the real questions to ruminate on before walking down the aisle, not the decoration on the reception table or the color of the chair sashes.
How to Differentiate Between Big and Small Decisions
Stumped by a decision now? Ask yourself:
- How important is this decision?
- Will this seriously impact you a year from now?
- What’s the worst thing that could happen?
Give the decision only the time and effort that it deserves, based on its importance.
If the decision isn’t going to make a big difference to your life a year from now and there are no serious consequences that will come out of it, then it is a small decision. Chill and let go. Spend as little time and effort as you can to nail this.
If the decision will create major impact in your life even after a year and there are serious implications from making the wrong choice (such as marrying someone you no longer love), then that’s a big decision. Set aside proper time to think over it; delay if necessary. Use my guide “How to Make Life’s Hardest Decisions” to break out of this dilemma.
For everything in between, give it some thought but don’t let it drag on for too long.
Interestingly, as you evaluate your decisions, you’ll find that few decisions are as important as we make them out to be. Most decisions have little impact; only a small handful have the ability to affect our life in the long run.
Examples of small decisions:
- Which hair conditioner to buy
- What color cable clips to buy
- What to eat for dinner
Examples of mid-term decisions:
- Whether to continue or break off a relationship
- Whether to collaborate with someone in a project
- When and where to get your new home
Examples of big decisions:
- Whether to marry someone
- The career path to go for
- What to pursue as your life purpose
- Whether to have kids
2) Identify Your Objective(s)
Before you think about your choices, identify your objective(s) for this decision. Then, use them to guide you in your decision making. This will help you arrive at your desired answer faster.
For example, I get many collaboration requests for my business. Examples include to promote others’ products, to promote others’ services, to create a new product, and to publish my courses on some third-party platform.
When it comes to collaborations, my criteria is simple: exposure for my site, Personal Excellence. That’s because PE is the platform through which I pursue my life purpose. “Will I gain any exposure for PE from this engagement?” is the question I ask myself. I don’t care about how much money I’m getting or how famous the other person is. If I’m not getting any exposure for PE and these people are just trying to get free exposure with minimal work on their end, then it’s a “no.” It doesn’t matter what numbers they quote (“We have over 30 top bloggers working with us”), the gains they project from the collaboration (“We anticipate thousands of new customers”), or how “amazing” they are (“I’ve appeared on New York Times before”); none are as important as expanding PE’s reach to me.
By knowing my end objective, it helps me be quick and decisive as I can immediately identify the right option to achieve my end goal.
Read more: Keep Your End Objective In Mind
3) Perfection is not the key. “Moderately okay” is.
Unless it’s a life-altering decision, perfection is not the key. Your goal is to pick a moderately okay decision in a fair amount of time, and then move on after that.
Why do I say that? That’s because every option has its pros and cons, and it’s very hard to be in a situation where the perfect choice is available right there and then. While you can hunt down the perfect choice, it comes at a high cost. Making the perfect choice is costly for every decision, big or small. The 80/20 rule applies: to achieve that final 20% of value in your decision, you need to invest 80% of effort.
Now if you’re dealing with a life-altering decision relating to your career path or marriage partner, then you should invest all your resources into getting the best choice. But if the decision isn’t going to make a big difference in your life 1-2 years from now (see tip #1), then it doesn’t matter whether you make a lousy, a not-so-lousy, or an awesome choice — the difference between these options will not have far-reaching consequences. Even if you spend hours to arrive at the best solution, it will not amount to significant change in your life. Even if you do a thorough brainstorm to buy the best hair dryer, to get the best iron, or to buy the best bedsheet design, these will not make your life hugely different. Devoting this attention to your Q2 goals, however, will.
This doesn’t mean that you should just randomly select anything for all your decisions from now on: after all, negative effects can compound over time to create a huge negative impact. What it means is that you should go the 80/20 way and go with a moderately okay choice, not hunt down a “perfect” choice for every single thing.
- How to Overcome Perfectionism (series)
- Achieve More With Less In Life Using 80/20 Principle (series)
- Law of Diminishing Returns
4) Eliminate the Bad Options
Eliminate the bad options. Having a flood of options can clutter the decision making process, so eliminate the bad ones right away so that it’s easier for you to choose.
Refer to your objectives for making this decision (see tip #2), identify the options that definitely do not meet your objectives, and then get rid of them.
The options you have left should be fairly decent, which then brings us to tip #5.
5) Pick One and Go
If you are stumped by the options and you are not sure which one to pick… just pick one and go. Don’t look back after that.
While this may seem reckless, it actually isn’t.
- The reason you have shortlisted these options is because they are reasonably good. If they are really crappy, you would have eliminated them during tip #4.
- Each option probably has its unique pros and cons, which is why you can’t make a clear-cut decision. If one option is clearly better than the rest, then you would have picked that right away. Chances are Option A has its pros over Option B, and vice versa. Hence, no matter what option you pick, you will miss out on the benefits exclusive to the other choice(s).
- Hence, rather than agonize over which to choose, it’s more important to just select an “okay,” decent choice quickly and then make the best out of it. Like with tip #3, this applies to small-to-mid decisions — if it’s a serious long-term decision, then yes, spend proper time to deliberate.
When you select an Option A — even if it is slightly worse than Option B — the act of selecting it, moving on with your life, and focusing on making the best out of it will help you achieve more than if you get stuck deliberating between A and B, when B really isn’t that much better to justify spending all this time on deliberating.
6) Let Go of Your Childhood Stories Surrounding Decision Making
Part of the reason for my past analysis paralysis was because my dad would always tell me to be prudent and to only buy the things I need. He still does that actually. Even though I’m quite frugal, my dad always chides me over any new things I buy because he perceives them as wasting money. “钱很难赚，不要乱乱花” (Mandarin for “It’s hard to earn money; don’t spend it carelessly”) is what he has always said since young.
Such incidents built up over time led me to be (a) hyper sensitive about anything I had to buy and (b) self-reproaching if I ever made a wrong purchase decision. I grew up to see the negative side of every (purchase) decision I made, even though every decision has its pros and cons. I would also spend endless time flicking back and forth between purchase options, even though they had minuscule differences.
Of course, this wasn’t good. My analysis paralysis was a result of my childhood story with my dad and had nothing to do with the decisions I was facing.
Another reason for my analysis paralysis was because I grew up in a society and education system where there is no margin for error. In school, every little mistake we made would affect our results, which would in turn affect whether we could get A and ultimately, our career path, life path, and reputation. We were taught to perceive mistakes as irreversible and life-altering. Teachers would scold and punish us for making mistakes, such as asking us to slap ourselves, something that I shared in my article on shaming.
The belief I formed from this period was “Mistakes are bad, mistakes can never be erased, and I’m a bad person if I allow mistakes to happen.”
With these two childhood stories embedded in my consciousness, I became irrationally resistant to bad choices. Is this the best choice? I would always ask myself. Is there a better option? What if I don’t like this later on? What if there are hidden cons to this option? What if a better choice comes up later? That would mean that I have made a bad decision!
Hence I would always feel deeply conflicted over small decisions. Many times I would abandon the decision (such as walk out of the store if I was trying to buy something) just so that I wouldn’t make a bad choice and regret it later.
Eventually, I realized that I was living in the shadow of my childhood stories. For example, every decision has its pros and cons, and it’s unrealistic to think that I have made a bad decision just because there are one or two things I don’t like about it. Even if I have truly made a bad decision, it’s silly to beat myself up over it since everyone makes bad decisions at one point or another. It’s more important that I learn from my mistakes and focus on the positive side of the situation, rather than focus on the bad side.
If you constantly freeze in the face of decisions, and your paralysis seems to be irrational than rational, then it’s possible that you have a childhood story driving you to act this way. What is your childhood story driving your analysis paralysis? How can you let go of it?
More on childhood stories and how to let go of them: What Childhood Stories Are You Reenacting Today?
7) Set a Time Limit
Do you know the Parkinson’s Law? The Parkinson’s Law says that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” What this means is that your work will take however long you allow it to take. If you set aside 15 minutes for a task, it’ll take 15 minutes; if you set aside 30 minutes, it’ll take 30 minutes; if you don’t set a time limit, it may well take forever!
This is the same in decision making. When you don’t set a time limit for your decisions, each decision can expand monstrously to take up your entire consciousness and schedule as you find new options to mull over and new details to analyze. This is particularly true for those with analysis paralysis tendencies (that’s you and me yo! 😆).
To solve this, set a hard time limit for your decision. Your time limit should be based on the importance of the decision (refer to tip #1). Since time is relative and every decision is different, there is no hard and fast rule on the limit. Personally, I limit myself to more than two minutes for small decisions and no more than a few days to weeks for mid-level decisions. For big decisions, I take as long as I need, though I always come to a conclusion within a couple of months.
Remember, this is a time limit you must commit to by hook or by crook. Even if you haven’t made up your mind by then, just make the best decision based on the available information. Know that your time limit is based on the importance of the decision, and to spend more time than this limit means allowing the decision to take up more time and energy than it is worth. There are more important things to do than that.
8) Delegate the Decision to Someone Else
This tip is a little sneaky since you are removing yourself from the decision-making process and shifting the onus to someone else. However, it works if you trust the opinion of that person and you’re okay with not handling the decision.
I once put this at work in my business. After spending months in book writing hell, I realized that I needed to speed up the way I managed things in my business. The problem though was that whenever I got my hands something, I would want to tweak it to perfection. This included large projects and tiny tasks. To prevent this pesky behavior from ballooning out of control, I hired an assistant to take care of my admin work, including making admin decisions on my behalf. By doing so, I never got too involved in my admin tasks, which prevented me from over-analyzing them.
Delegating isn’t just limited to work. You can also delegate personal decisions. For example with the hard disk example in the opening, I left the decision to Ken since he’s more savvy with computer stuff and he can make a better choice than me. When it comes to household matters, I leave many of the decisions to Ken, though I give my ideas and we will discuss before closing them.
9) Get the Opinion of Someone You Trust
My tip #9 is to get the opinion of someone you trust. This is slightly different from tip #8 in that you still take ownership of the decision, just that you are basing it on someone else’s opinion.
I often do this when I’m buying something and can’t make up my mind. Usually I narrow it down to two options, after which I’ll consult the person I’m with or seek the advice of the store clerk. If their recommendation makes sense, I’ll go along with it; if not, I’ll pick the one I prefer. Either way, getting their opinion accelerates my decision-making process since I get more information to decide what I really want.
I recommend to consult someone who has insight in the area you’re consulting on. For example, if I’m buying a new video camera to film professional videos for my video channel, I’ll ask someone with knowledge of video cameras, not some random Joe. If I want to invest, I’ll seek the advice of friends who have invested before and made real money, not people who dabble in investments and lose money constantly, or people who claim to be rich from investments but come across as charlatans.
Check out Day 19 of Be a Better Me in 30 Days Program on seeking advice.
10) Channel Your Energy into Other Things
If you are still in analysis paralysis mode despite the 9 tips, it’s possible that you simply have extra energy and bandwidth to spare!
For example, I sometimes obsess about things simply because I have the bandwidth to do so. Because I have simplified and automated most of the tasks in my business, I avoid most of the stuff that a typical internet business owner deals with. I would spend all my time on the little tasks like pixel alignments and shade edits because I have done the heavy lifting elsewhere.
When this happens, I remind myself that my energy is not being channeled to the right areas. I’ll ask myself: Are there more important things I can do now rather than hyper-analyzing this decision? What are the more important tasks that I can divert my time and energy to? How can I get started? Be it writing a new article, replying important emails, or creating a new video, I’ll work on these things right away.
Interestingly, when I do that, the decision becomes smaller in comparison. By working on the big tasks, I gain perspective and see the small tasks for what they are, after which I can make a quick decision.
If your analysis paralysis is due to excess energy, then channel this energy into other parts of your life. Any goal you are procrastinating on? Work on that instead. Find more important tasks to devote yourself to. Not only will you be more productive, but you will gain new perspective as you spend time away from the small stuff that’s draining you.
What is Your Story with Analysis Paralysis?
Do you experience analysis paralysis? What decisions do you tend to over-analyze? How can you break out of your analysis paralysis using the tips above? 🙂
Be sure to read:
- How to Make Life’s Hardest Decisions: 3 Decision Making Methods to Solve Dilemmas
- How to Choose Your Battles and Win the Big War
- When Life Throws You Curve Balls: How to Manage Uncertainty