Avoiding Analysis Paralysis

Improve action, avoid analysis paralysis.

A great many of us are running around with no direction like chickens with our heads cut off. A great many more aren’t even running at all.

While the core of the Analytical Life is self reflective analysis, this is meaningless without action. You can understand your goals, values, opportunity areas, and lay out plans to execute against these–but you also need to execute.

I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about how to make everyone see how they can live analytically – if you already think about yourself as analytical, you might think you’re off the hook.

“Sure Nick, this is all fine and good, I’m great at analysis. I reflect constantly, maybe too much. I made a weighted list of pros and cons when I purchased my last pair of shoes.”

Whoa, even I think that’s a little neurotic, good for you! Good analysis should make execution as easy as possible, defining the path forward as clearly as possible. If you make better shoe purchase decisions that way, that’s awesome.

However, there’s a good number of us who will put off an important or unpleasant decision by over analyzing, commonly known as analysis paralysis. Am I saying it’s possible to be too analytical? On the contrary, we’re not being analytical enough. Living analytically means optimizing your time, and making sure your analyses are as efficient as possible.

Becoming Meta-Analytical: Analyzing Your Analyses

When faced with an important or uncomfortable situation, it’s human nature to put it off until it’s absolutely necessary (of course, there are also some of us who rush an important decision just to get it over with). We pretend we need more information, when the cost of gathering information outweighs the possible value it could add, or we think we need to look at the situation differently, when we’ve already analyzed it to death. To help kick start your analysis of your decision making processes I recommend thinking back to a time you think you overthought a decision and ask yourself the following:

  • What information was the deciding factor in your decision? How soon into your analysis did you gather this information, vs. the amount of time you spent analyzing?
    • If the deciding factors were identified in the first quarter of your nalysis, you’re likely over analyzing.
    • If the deciding factors were identified in the latter three quarters of your analysis, why did this happen? Was that a natural part of the process, or did you put off a google search, conversation with a mentor, etc. because you wanted to delay the process?
  • How much did the latter half of your information gathering / analysis impact your decision?
    • If you didn’t have this information, would the outcome have changed?
  • After your analysis, how important were the next steps? Was there an opportunity to change your decision after taking action?
    • Most of us think that decisions are more permanent than they are – that once committed to a course of action we’re bound to it. While that’s certainly the case in many decisions, many of us put up arbitrary guard rails in order to force a path of action. When we overweight the importance of a certain decision, we’re going to end up overestimating the amount of information required to effectively answer the question, and over analyze.

Strategies to Avoid Analysis Paralysis

  • Break down big decisions into small decisions.
    • We often assume that a decision is important because it has huge downstream implications. Ask yourself if you can make a decision as a one week / one month / one quarter pilot, and how hard it would be to reverse it afterward. If it’s easy to reverse / backpedal, you should be more confident in your decision and need less information, thereby avoiding analysis paralysis.
  • Practice the Pareto Principle and stop at 80% confidence.
    • The Pareto principle states that 80% of the outputs come from 20% of the inputs, therefore 80% of the determining factors in your decision making process will likely come from 20% of the information you gather.
    • If you think you’re 80% confident in your decision (odds are you’re underestimating anyway if you’re procrastinating), write down your decision and the main factors behind it, then continue as you would normally. When you finally feel comfortable enough to make the decision, write it down along with the new factors, and compare. If your decision ended up being fairly similar, you know that on your next decision you’ll likely need less information and can make it sooner.
  • Timebox your decision making to avoid going down the rabbit hole.
    • There’s always more information to gather and another angle to examine: by limiting yourself to a few hours of analysis (particularly on small but uncomfortable decisions), you’ll avoid the urge to procrastinate by over analyzing.

While The Analytical Life requires thoughtfulness and patience in order to perform the necessary reflection and analysis, we cannot allow ourselves to fall into habits of procrastination and analysis paralysis. I hope the flags and strategies I’ve outlined here can keep you action oriented and on the path toward a more analytical life.

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