You know you should really get started but you can’t. What if you make the wrong choice? What if you start it out the wrong way, and it all gets ruined? You start to feel that weight in your stomach, that tension in your chest, as you feel a little panic about the idea of going forward.
Maybe it’s best to just hold off for a bit. Sleep on it a little more. Get some more feedback. Figure out what the “right” thing to do is. Plan it all out, until it makes sense. That tension you were feeling starts to melt away.
Analysis paralysis is a specific kind of procrastination. You feel some aversion to going forward. You convince yourself that the problem is that you haven’t given it enough thought, done enough research or really figured things out enough to get started. As you mentally shift the idea of taking action into the future, your tension subsides you delay it some more.
Analysis paralysis is also really hard to overcome because, it’s not always harmful. Sometimes you do need more research. Sometimes you shouldn’t make a decision out of haste. Sometimes holding out for the best possible option is really better than jumping out right away.
But, of course, rationalizations that work some of the time are the most seductive. If something were always a bad idea, it would be hard to use it as an excuse.
Why Do You Get Analysis Paralysis?
Why do you experience this kind of pernicious procrastination?
I would like to make the case that analysis paralysis actually has the same root cause as all forms of procrastination. The difference isn’t in what is causing the procrastination, but that features of the situation allow you to use a different rationalization to cope with it.
All procrastination, analysis paralysis included, is caused by the desire to avoid something unpleasant (either real or imagined). At a visceral level, you don’t want to get started, so you start searching for excuses to justify avoiding the unpleasantness.
What makes analysis paralysis different is that often there really are fears, uncertainties or doubts, which make doing more research an attractive excuse. While I usually can’t claim the need to do more research when I’m putting off going to the gym, I can do it before I start writing an article I haven’t figured out how to start, or I can put off starting a project that sounds scary, or a decision that might go wrong.
The way of dealing with analysis paralysis, has to cope with these two realities: the rationalization and the underlying fear.
First the rationalization: You need to deal with your rationalization that you need more time to think, plan and research by preventing this excuse from working.
Second the underlying fear: Even if you convince yourself that you are engaging in procrastination and your paralysis is unhelpful, that may not stop you from doing it. Now you need to turn to strategies that will push you past it.
Only by tackling both of these two aspects, can you cure your paralysis.
Overcoming Rational Excuses to Getting Started
You know you want to start a business, but what kind of business should you run? Should you be a consultant or make products? Should they be physical goods or digital ones? Should you market yourself online or person? What should you call your company? Should you raise funds?
None of these are easy decisions with an automatic right answer. Any one of them (or their combined weight) can easily become a source of analysis paralysis.
Clearly spending some time analyzing the possible options is good. However, an indefinite amount of time is going to be bad. We want to spend enough time thinking about these choices to make good ones, while avoiding the trap of endlessly repetitive analysis.
The way to get past this is to set constraints. If you set these constraints in advance, then you can undermine the rational part of your mind from using them as a justification for further procrastination. As mentioned before, this won’t necessarily stop your procrastination, but at the very least it will strip it bare so that it will be obvious that this is what you are doing.
Here are a few constraints you might try:
1. Set a decision deadline with a default.
If you’re choosing between options, pick a default (in order to not recursively procrastinate over this, you may want to pick the default choice randomly). Then, set yourself a deadline for doing all research, thinking, investigating, interviewing and anything else you might do to figure it out. When the deadline passes, you’re stuck with the default unless you changed it beforehand.
2. Start blindly, change later.
Another option is to flip the protocol. Give yourself a default, and force yourself to work on it for a certain amount of time, before you can go back to research. This works well when you want to explore options, but can’t really learn more about them without actually trying them out.
3. Leave hard choices open-ended.
Sometimes you can procrastinate about a huge thing because you can’t decide on a minor detail. You may procrastinate on studying, because you’re not sure which major to choose. However, there may be plenty of classes and topics you could study that will work for both, and so you can get started without making the decision you’re fearing.
All of these strategies work on a principle of removing the rational objection to getting started. In the first, you’ve assigned some reasonable amount of research time, so you can’t really complain that you didn’t have time to think about it. In the second, you give yourself the option to back out, so you can’t complain that the decision is too weighty to get decided yet. In the third, you get started on the stuff that would be the same for either option, so you can’t use research as a reason to procrastinate.
Unfortunately, even employing these strategies, defusing your excuses doesn’t mean you’ll get started. You may recognize that you’re procrastinating, and still do it. To overcome this too, you need to take aim at the root emotions underlying your responses.
Overcoming Emotional Resistance to Getting Started
Most emotional resistance that causes procrastination is usually something like this:
When I think about doing X, I imagine bad things happening.
I feel those bad things now, and so I move away from doing it.
When I think about not doing X now, and waiting, I feel relief, so that pattern becomes easier.
To really overcome analysis paralysis you need to escape from this cycle. You need to remove the anxiety and fear of doing the thing you’re avoiding. Second, you need to remove or invert the pleasant feeling you get from stalling.
I already spoke about the first step. Overcoming your rationalizations is important because as long as you feel justified procrastinating, there’s nothing else to do. It’s only when there’s conflict between reason and feeling that you can create some change to the latter.
How do you start to change yourself to overcome your feelings to get started?
A simple answer comes from the psychology of dealing with phobias. Exposure therapy, where you give yourself small doses of the thing you’re scared of to diminish the fear it generates, works for phobias of spiders or clowns, but it can also help with getting started.
Say you need to write an essay, but you’re not sure what topic to do it on. You’ve implemented the suggestions above, and picked a default topic and a deadline. Now the deadline has passed, and you’re supposed to get started on the essay, but you’re still dragging your feet. Now what?
Here, you can start by giving yourself a task that is small enough to be manageably unpleasant. Instead of telling yourself to sit for several hours writing the essay in the library, only ask yourself to write one paragraph. After which you can take a break.
Writing one paragraph will overcome your initial resistance and make the built-up aversion to getting started slightly less. Once you’ve done this, you might try sitting for thirty minutes to write, no expectations on accomplishing anything. Later, you can keep expanding until the essay is done.
You might have dealt with a similar problem with starting a business. But what if you just had to get one client, or sell only one thing? What if you just had to make something, and not try to sell it? Breaking down your fears into atomic parts can make them something you can overcome.
Exposure therapy is just one tool. Another can be pairing taking action with a reward, so overcoming your procrastination becomes positively reinforced.
Another can also be punishing yourself for failure to act. I knew someone once who forced himself to only take showers with cold water if he missed any of his goals, the day before. The thought of cold water started to motivate action.
In all these cases, the key is that you’re resolving your procrastination not by thinking about it obsessively (which only makes it worse), but by retraining your emotional reactions to make them manageable over time.
If you can do both types of strategies—eliminating the rational excuses for analysis paralysis and reducing your emotional reactions that prevent you from doing what you know is right—you can start moving forward on even the toughest goals and projects.