Work Culture

Don’t overthink it: Use these 3 tips to get out of analysis paralysis


Published on September 06, 2017

"When you come to the fork in the road, take it," as the saying goes. If only decision-making were so simple. Instead, we spend countless hours comparing options, evaluating information, and sweating choices large and small. Eventually, we lose our perspective and our momentum. We come to the fork in the road and stand there, frozen by indecision. The antidote to this over-analyzing? A mindset that prioritizes speedy action over endless examination. As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos explained in a letter to shareholders, high-velocity decision-making is essential to a dynamic, successful business. Of course quality matters, but ultimately, it’s better to fail forward—choose quickly, learn from mistakes, and move ahead—than to grind to a standstill. The next time analysis paralysis sets in, try these three approaches to getting unstuck and back to your decisive self.

The issue: Painfully slow perfectionism

Go-getters and overachievers pride themselves on shooting for the stars and never settling. But when it comes to decisions, the quest for the best can carry high opportunity costs. Think of the profits lost while seeking out the perfect business partnership—or the market share captured by a competitor while your team obsesses every detail of a product launch. It would be one thing if overthinking options resulted in superior choices. But research suggests that excessive searching actually has a negative effect on decision-making quality, reducing selectivity and producing less-satisfying outcomes. Ironically, the search for perfection often ends with a subpar choice.

The solution: Aiming for acceptable

Economist Herbert Simon coined the phrase “ satisficing” to describe a decision-making style that focuses on satisfying requirements rather than optimizing benefits. A “satisficer” stops deliberating once the necessary criteria is met; a “maximizer” keeps evaluating options until they’ve found “the best one.” Of the two approaches, maximizers are more likely to avoid making decisions, and experience greater regret when they do choose. How to move away from maximizing? It helps to understand what often underpins such perfectionism—fear of making an irrevocable mistake—and to consider the likelihood of such dire consequences. As Jeff Bezos puts it, “many decisions are reversible, two-way doors.” By creating a culture of shared responsibility and acceptable risk, you empower perfectionists to pull the trigger on a “good enough” choice.

The issue: Overwhelming options

Limitless choice sounds delightful in theory. But in most work situations, endless options clog channels, slow momentum, and ramp up stress. As psychologist Barry Schwartz detailed in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, too many choices often leads to second-guessing and dissatisfaction. According to one study, when decision-makers are overwhelmed by options, they either choose poorly or make no decision at all. Part of the issue: A glut of options activates the law of diminishing returns—where added efforts net you fewer additional benefits. It explains why the new hire you quickly plucked from a handful of applicants seems great, while the one who took six months and 30 interviews to find, feels like a disappointing return on your investment.

The solution: Clearer goals, smaller pools

Avoiding option overwhelm requires discipline and proactive thinking. It starts by getting crystal clear on the result you hope to achieve. Is it “increased page views” or “increased page views from homeowners with children”? Whatever your end goal, nailing it down gives you firm criteria for evaluating—and quickly eliminating—options. Once you’ve established your filter, apply it to the smallest selection pool possible. Even if it feels arbitrary, set a cut-off point and stick to it. Instead of arguing the merits of 13 software vendors, evaluate three. Rather than an open-ended call for designs, cut off submissions after two weeks. Still daunted by choice? Try dividing your team into two groups—narrowing and selecting. The narrowing group vets a broad range of choices and creates a list of finalists; the selection group takes these top contenders and determines the best choice. The narrowers avoid the pressure of making the final decision; the selectors avoid the stress of overwhelming options. And everyone wins.

The issue: Too many decisions

Even if you’re a master satisficer, your decisiveness can falter when worn down by the demands of continuous choosing. It’s the last-meeting-of-the-day effect, when the debate goes ‘round in circles, and nobody has the drive needed to make a decision. In a study on car buyers, researchers noted the cumulative effects of this cognitive drain. As shoppers made decisions on more and more features, they increasingly settled for the default option, spending roughly $2,000 more than buyers who weren’t worn down by choice.

The solution: Strategic use of energy

There’s a reason big thinkers like Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs favored a monotonous wardrobe: Faced with a daily deluge of decisions, they couldn’t afford to waste precious energy selecting a shirt. By establishing rules around choices—essentially automating selection—you delete decisions from your cognitive load. From how often to conduct focus groups to who talks first at the morning scrum, the more decisions you can predetermine, the more brainpower available for important deliberations. Knowing how decision fatigue can impact the quality and speed of your choices, it makes sense to schedule high-stakes decision-making earlier in the day or after a break, when mental energy is highest. Low-impact decisions can be shunted into the remaining hours—or better yet, delegated to someone with fresh eyes and a sharp brain. With time and practice, sidestepping analysis paralysis will become second nature and your decision-making will gather speed. At the next fork in the road—knowing that moving ahead is far better than stalling out—you’ll take it.
A flexible workspace that brings people and ideas together
A flexible workspace that brings people and ideas together