top of page

Overcoming Analysis Paralysis

If you have ever seen a chess tournament (or a recent tv show that features chess) you know that a chess clock is used in each match. It is a timer that limits the amount of time each player may spend on their turns.

Why is such a thing even necessary? Why not let the players take as much time as they need?

Anyone who has ever played chess (or Scrabble, Go, or Catan) is familiar with the player who takes forever to make their move and can transform a fun game into a maddening slog. It’s called analysis paralysis (A.P.). As a strategy game enthusiast, I see A.P. frequently and cannot claim immunity from it myself. My group can turn what is typically a one hour game for most people into an all-night thinkfest.

A.P. occurs most often when the number of options is large or there is the potential for a huge negative impact from a bad decision. Note that A.P. it’s not much of a problem in games of Uno or Monopoly.

Also called choice paralysis or decision paralysis, A.P. can cause bigger problems than just annoying your friends and family on game night. It can affect your day-to-day decision making and erode confidence, cause you to miss important opportunities, and keep you in the default status quo.

Choice Complexity

In the film, Moscow on the Hudson, Robin Williams’ Russian character was in America for the first time and needed to buy coffee at the grocery store. Back home he had to wait in line for the one kind of coffee that was available, but here he had dozens of choices. Instead of being happy with all the options, it made his head swim and he ended up in a confused clump on the floor - an extreme case of analysis paralysis.

In a 2000 study from Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, consumers who were shown 6 flavors of jam were 10 times more likely to make a purchase than those that were shown 20 different flavors. Too many choices created a freezing effect on their decision making engines and it felt better to choose nothing than to pick between 20 options.

Fear of making the wrong choice underlies A.P. When the decision maker is in the throes of prolonged stress, such as in the face of major disruption, fear is increased and mental resources are reduced, compounding the problem.

Think less by thinking more

Counterintuitively, a little more thought may actually help fix the problem of thinking too much. Here are some strategies for overcoming analysis paralysis:

1) Keep goals and values at the forefront - During A.P. we are often trying to consider a large number of criteria. Immediate costs and benefits, long-term impact, emotional response (our own and others), and many other considerations can all exert pressure on us from different directions. While all of those need to be considered, the top criteria in deciding between options should be:

- The option that will best help you reach your primary goals for the decision

- The option that best reflects your values, both personal and organizational

2) Build confidence through process

An in-place decision making process can help you bust right through analysis paralysis. Having defined steps to follow reduces ambiguity and increases confidence that you will be making the best decision with the available information, no matter what the outcome.

3) Match your resources to decision impact

Some decisions have a much smaller impact than others, yet we often treat the less consequential decisions as if the weight of the world is on our shoulders. Think about the potential impact of the decision and allocate your resources accordingly. Conserve your time, energy, attention and money for the big ones.

4) Evaluate the time constraints

Perhaps your A.P. is due to putting too much undue pressure on yourself. Is it truly important to make a decision quickly or can a wait period be beneficial? The added stress of needing to decide in a short time frame may outweigh the benefits of deciding quickly.

This or that

Decision making involves a series of trade-offs and balances, including trading quality for timeliness. From my experience, under-analyzing decisions is more often an issue than over-analyzing, but we need to be alert to the potential for either in any given situation.

Do you tend to think too little or think too much?

In any case, think well and be well!

- Steve Haffner

Want to learn more about improving your decision performance?

Click here for my free book, 7 Strategies for Making Better Decisions


bottom of page