This Is Your Brain on Analysis Paralysis

Analysis paralysis is proof that you can have too much of a good thing. Good research and analytical skills are, of course, an essential part of the business decision-making process. However, you may be courting trouble if you rigidly insist on thinking through every available option before reaching a decision. You can get to the point where additional research and analysis makes you feel like you need more information to reach a decision, triggering a cycle that leaves you ever hungrier for more data and analysis, yet less and less confident about reaching a decision - analysis paralysis.

False Beliefs

Analysis paralysis interferes with your ability to make decisions. It is, in part, the result of the erroneous belief that you have to acquire or analyze every last bit of information to reach a desired outcome. This belief is often based on the notion that a 'perfect' solution exists for every problem.

Analysis paralysis also springs from the notion that it is possible to get all the answers you need purely from research. However, as many entrepreneurs know, the results of this kind of research are essentially unproven hypotheses: they may turn out to be completely off in practice. That fact cannot be changed with endless research and analysis.

Ironically, analysis paralysis can slow you down so much that you miss the very business opportunity that led you to start researching in the first place! In other words, analysis paralysis can seriously dull your competitive edge.

Brain Freeze

It's unsurprising that analysis paralysis impairs judgement, considering what it does to the brain. The anxiety, self-doubt, and repetitive thinking that accompany the problem interfere with the brain's working memory, making it harder to deal with cognitively demanding tasks.

The overthinking that underlies analysis paralysis also blunts creativity, note Manish Saggar and other researchers from Stanford University who studied the neurological basis of creativity in a 2015 study. Endlessly agonizing over decisions also taxes your mental resources and corrodes your willpower, a phenomenon that psychologists refer to as decision fatigue.

Interestingly, overthinking is more likely to make you unhappy with your decisions, findings from four different studies by the Swarthmore College show. This is because you are more likely to engage in counterfactual thinking ("What if I had gone with option X rather than Y?"), which often leads to post-decision regret. In other words, if you are in the habit of overanalyzing, you are less likely to be satisfied with your decisions despite expending extra brainpower and time. If ever there was a case where more is less, this is it.

Slaying the Beast

So, how do you slay the beast of analysis paralysis? Know your primary objective, and from this derive a set of priorities. These will guide you wherever you need to conduct research and analysis. More importantly, they will narrow your focus enough so that you can process a large amount of information without getting overwhelmed.

Deliberating over a decision with someone whose opinion you trust is another effective way of tackling analysis paralysis, advices psychologist Daniel Gilbert in a 2005 TED Talk. As he notes, other people - friends, colleagues at work, and family members, to name a few - are generally better at predicting our long-term satisfaction with a particular decision than we are.

Taking an iterative approach to problem solving can also help ease some of the uncertainties that you would typically attempt to assuage by overanalyzing. This approach, common in the software industry, allows you to test concepts in the real world without going all in on an idea. You can then use the resulting feedback you gather to refine your ideas. If necessary, the process can be repeated until the required results are attained.

Finally, cultivate what economist Herman Simon calls the 'Satisficer' mindset. Rather than seek perfect answers, Satisficers look for good-enough solutions. They make a decision once their criteria are met. In contrast, Maximizers, as Simon refers to them, seek to examine every option, even if they find something that meets their criteria early in the research and analysis process. The 'Maximizing' mindset, as you may have guessed, will tend to result in analysis paralysis.

Closing Thoughts

Analysis paralysis is a big problem. The deadlock it creates can blunt your competitive edge and leave you unsatisfied with your decisions - once you make them, that is. However, by mulling over your decisions with trusted colleagues, taking an iterative approach to problem solving, and cultivating a 'Satisficer' mindset, you can conquer the problem. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, recommends another interesting approach: starting before you feel ready. It works for Richard Branson, and it may just be what you need to overcome analysis paralysis. All the best!