Analysis Paralysis: Why you can't make a decision

Madison Marcus-Paddison, LMSW on Apr 23, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

Have you ever spent so much time scrolling through Netflix that you end up turning it off because it’s been almost two hours and you still don’t know what to watch? What about trying 13 different ice cream samples before realizing you just don’t want ice cream anymore? How about researching new vehicles for months on end, only to decide to just stick with your jalopy? What’s going on?! Enter: Analysis paralysis.

Analysis paralysis (noun): The inability to respond effectively to a situation due to an over-analytical approach or to an excess of available information.

Analysis paralysis can present itself in seemingly trivial situations such as some of the examples mentioned above but can also rear its ugly head in circumstances that require more, such as re-entering a post-Coronavirus world. Have you been overthinking what that’s going to look like? What will be required of you? Of your partner? Your children? Your business? What will you need to tackle first? If you find yourself completely immobilized by all of the choices you’ll need to make, keep reading.

A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology separated people into two groups:

Satisficers – those who make decisions and settle for a “good enough option” but may not always result in the best outcome. These people often experience less regret even if a better choice becomes clear after a decision has been made.

Maximizers – these people frequently experience analysis paralysis. Maximizers aim to make decisions that are fully researched and informed. They are often disappointed by the decisions they do make because they set such high expectations. They repeatedly fail to achieve their goals or carry out the tasks in the manner they envisioned. This often leads to rumination on what could have been instead of focusing on what they do have or what went right. Overall, they experience lower levels of happiness, fulfillment, and self-esteem.

Spending time analyzing ≠ solving the problem.

Understand that the more time you spend researching and gathering information, the more likely it is that a decision will never be made. This is where procrastination comes into play. Sometimes, deciding something is better than not deciding anything at all. Multiple studies often correlate procrastination with reduced mental health, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of well-being.

Perfection.

Analysis paralysis happens when we want things to be perfect and the idea of making a “bad decision” is conceivably intolerable. As a recovering perfectionist, I empathize with the question, “What’s the harm of wanting to be perfect?” Well, it’s actually pretty dangerous to aim so high… A meta-analysis of 284 studies found that high levels of perfectionism were correlated with overwhelming distress, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, deliberate self-harm, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Don’t overestimate the consequences, positive or negative.

We have cognitive biases that impact our decision-making and influence how we estimate things will turn out in the future. Daniel Gilbert, a psychologist who presented the TED Talk “Why we make bad decisions” says it best: “People have been shown to overestimate how unhappy they will be after receiving bad test results, becoming disabled, or being denied a promotion and to overestimate how happy they will be after winning a prize, initiating a romantic relationship, or taking revenge against those who have harmed them.”

So how do you get out of decision quicksand?

1. Prioritize the decisions that are most important. Structure your day in a way where you are making big decisions earlier in the day. Our willpower, judgment, and capacity for decision-making significantly decrease with each decision we make throughout the day.

2. Set deadlines (and alarms)! Give yourself cut-off points to increase efficiency. I’m not implying that you go out and make impulsive decisions without any prior knowledge or research. It’s important to know what you’re looking for and to weigh the pros and cons of a decision — but not to the extent where it’s completely incapacitating. If you need to make a decision, set a reasonable deadline (one hour, the end of the day, the end of the week, one month). If you’re sitting down to do research of some kind, set an alarm, and when it goes off, step away. Without these parameters, it’s super easy to find yourself going down wormholes that lead to nowhere.

3. Set SMART goals. It can be difficult to make a decision because we’re not entirely sure why we’re making a decision or our reasons may be too broad. Align your decision with goals that meet the following criteria:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

4. Phone a friend. When you share your deliberations with someone else, you typically organize the information more concisely, rather than the ideas just swirling around in your head. Hearing yourself process out loud is helpful and can sometimes lead to solving the problems on your own. If not, it’s nice to hear validation of your thoughts from another person. Also, delegate! If it’s too overwhelming to decide, ask a trusted person in your life to make the decision for you. Including a fresh set of eyes may help you see things you missed or didn’t consider before.

5. Be assertive. Don’t wear indecisiveness as a badge of honor. This one is for the ladies in particular. It’s a much bigger conversation, but for a lot of us, myself included, there’s this ever-present worry of being perceived as aggressive; so many of us have put our leadership and assertive skills aside. We often hear ourselves saying, “I’m not sure, I don’t know... I’m just so indecisive!” It’s not cute, and it’s not true. You have unique experiences, opinions, and ideas, so use them! The consequences are your own, so think more about how you will feel after making the decision and less about what others will think.

Madison Marcus-Paddison is a Counselor in Farmington Hills, MI.
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