Science of Over-Thinking

The Science of Analysis Paralysis: How Overthinking Kills Your Productivity and What You Can Do About It

Let me start by saying that I’m a millennial. I can barely remember before the internet made all collective knowledge accessible for any question that crossed my mind.

Unfortunately, despite having more access to high-quality information to help us make life’s decisions, it hasn’t made decision-making any easier.  We can now research the pros and cons of each and every option available to us. A simple search can often open a time-sucking black hole of link clicking, article reading, video watching. That search may end hours later…with no new answers.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz coined the phrase “Paradox of Choice”. He says, while increased choice allows us to achieve objectively better results, it also leads to greater anxiety, indecision, and dissatisfaction.

Instead of making better choices, our unlimited access to information often leads to fear of making the wrong decision. This can lead to us spinning our wheels in analysis paralysis, all the while getting nowhere on our important projects.

Naturally, I was curious about what goes on in our brains when we experience indecision; and what we can do about it.

How overthinking decisions is holding you back

Delaying action while over-analyzing information doesn’t help anyone get things done.  In fact, a 2010 survey showed that employees spend more than half their workdays receiving and managing information. This takes away from time spent actually doing their jobs!
(Does this sound like you?)

Unfortunately, that’s just the start of the bad news. Studies in psychology and neuroscience reveal that analysis paralysis impact our productivity and well-being more than just the lost time.

Here are four not-so-obvious ways that overthinking your decisions is holding you back:

1. Analysis paralysis lowers your performance on mentally-demanding tasks

In short, our working memory is like computer RAM, allowing us to focus on the information we need to get things done. Unfortunately, our working memory is in limited supply. You can think of it like our brain’s computer memory. Once it’s used up, there’s not much we can do.

Studies have shown that high-pressure, anxiety-producing situations lead to lower performance on cognitively demanding tasks – the tasks that rely most heavily on working memory.  Furthermore, the more participants want to perform well on a task, the more their performance suffers. Researchers believe both anxiety and pressure generate distractions that take up space in our working memory.

When you overanalyze a situation, the over-analysis, anxiety, and self-doubt decrease the amount of working memory you have available to complete challenging tasks. This causes your productivity to plummet even further.

2. Analysis paralysis kills your creativity

A recent Stanford study suggests that over-thinking not only impedes our ability to perform cognitive tasks, but keeps us from reaching our creative potential as well.

“Participants in the study were placed into a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine with a nonmagnetic tablet and asked to draw a series of pictures based on action words (for example, vote, exhaust, salute) with 30 seconds for each word. (They also drew a zigzag line to establish baseline brain function for the task of drawing.) The participants later ranked each word picture based on its difficulty to draw. The tablet transmitted the drawings to researchers at the school who scored them on a 5-point scale of creativity, and researchers at the School of Medicine analyzed the fMRI scans for brain activity patterns.

The results were surprising: the prefrontal cortex, traditionally associated with thinking, was most active for the drawings the participants ranked as most difficult; the cerebellum [the part of the brain traditionally associated with movement] was most active for the drawings the participants scored highest on for creativity. Essentially, the less the participants thought about what they were drawing, the more creative their drawings were.”

These findings suggest that overthinking a problem makes it harder to do your best creative work.

3. Overthinking eats up your willpower

fascinating (and rather alarming) study published by the National Academy of Science looked at the decisions of parole board judges over a 10-month period. They found that judges were significantly more likely to grant parole earlier in the morning and immediately after a food break. Cases that came before judges at the end of long sessions were much more likely to be denied. This phenomenon held true over 1,100 cases regardless of the severity of the crime.

As a lawyer – this was important!

The judges were experiencing what psychologists call decision fatigue.  Each decision that we make, from whether or not to hit snooze to what outfit we’ll wear to what we’ll eat for lunch, draws on the same limited supply of willpower. You can think of willpower as a muscle (I like to think of it as MANA from a video game).
The more you use it, the more it wears out, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. That’s why so many dieters start out strong at the beginning of the day with a healthy breakfast and lunch, only to succumb to the temptations of junk food from the office break room in the afternoon.

Actions that we take automatically, like brushing our teeth, take little willpower. However, when we agonize over a decision, we deplete our limited supply of willpower much more quickly, causing us to feel exhausted and overwhelmed.

Not only does this decision fatigue inhibit our ability to clearly assess the situation at hand, it also makes us more likely to choose unhealthy food, skip exercise, and put-off working on side projects in favor of watching TV.  In short, analysis paralysis makes it much more difficult to make high-quality, long-term choices later on.

4. Analysis Paralysis makes you less happy

Essentially you are either a Satisficer or a Maximizer.

Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project says: “Satisficers make a decision once their criteria are met. When they find the hotel or the pasta sauce with the qualities they want, they’re satisfied.”

In contrast, “Maximizers want to make the best possible decision; even if they see a bicycle that meets their requirements, they can’t make a decision until they’ve examined every option.”

Research suggests that whether you’re a satisfier or a maximizer can have a huge impact on your happiness and well-being.

Maximizers are more likely to engage in social comparison. Counterfactual thinking (what if I had chosen option number 2 instead?) and experienced more regret and less happiness than satisficers.

Though analyzing every last option in the quest for the best choice may lead to an objectively better outcome in some situations, maximizing ultimately leads to more anxiety and regret and less happiness and satisfaction with your decisions.

Finding a valid and proven solution to overthinking becomes essential for anyone who wants to maximize their free time, without lowering productivity or effectiveness.

6 Simple, Science-Backed Ways to Stop Analysis Paralysis

Ok, so we know from science and experience that overthinking a decision increases anxiety and kills your productivity, but what can we do about it?

Below are a few science-backed, expert-approved strategies you can start using today to end analysis paralysis, make decisions efficiently, and get more done with less stress.

1. Structure your day for the decisions that matter most.

Because our ability to make quality, long-term decisions deteriorates with each additional choice we make, big or small, the most successful people structure their day to cut down on the amount of decisions they’ll need to make.

Don’t try to tackle big decisions in the afternoon. If you find yourself getting caught in a downward spiral of analysis paralysis late in the day, put aside everything and work on an unrelated task. Or simply call it quits for the day.  Come back to it in the morning with a fresh perspective and replenished willpower reserves. Eliminate as many decisions as possible is by turning them into habits that take little conscious thought to complete. Build strong habits and routines into your day as a way to conserve willpower for more important decisions.

2. Intentionally limit the amount of information you consume.

For any problem we face, there is a virtually limitless supply of information we could delve into.  I currently have 10 different tabs open for this webinar (well, mostly for this webinar), and that’s not even counting the windows I have open for other tasks. That’s why it’s important to approach your research with intention.

One of my biggest secrets to efficiently manage information is to first determine what you want to learn from it, then read for that specific information. Reading with a specific goal in mind allows you to get through large amounts of information without getting overwhelmed.

Another way to consume information without getting lost in endless analysis paralysis is to set a volume limit whenever doing research. Determine the number of resources you’ll use first.  Make this strategy even more effective by limiting yourself to only those number of tabs. Some people take this to an extreme and utilize a strategy called single-tab browsing.

3. Set a deadline and hold yourself accountable.

Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the amount of time you’ve allotted it. If you give yourself an hour to do a task, it will take an hour. If you give yourself 15 minutes to complete the same task, it will take 15 minutes. The same holds true for making decisions. Setting a time constraint can force you to make a decision more efficiently.

The catch is, as an entrepreneur, it’s extremely difficult to trick yourself into believing that self-imposed deadlines are real. (Believe me, I’ve tried.)  Find a way to hold yourself accountable to your deadlines.  

My favorite piece of advice: make your deadline as public as possible. Tell a coworker or friend who will help to hold you accountable to your decision deadline, or even commit to a deadline on social media.

4. Know your main objective.

Focus on one task at a time. Identify and stay true to one main objective until it’s complete – then move on to the next.

Set reminders to create recurring tasks or habits for yourself so that you can get the important creative-thinking or analytical projects completed early in your day. Eventually this will become a new habit.

What’s the most important thing for you personally and professionally? It could be a concrete goal (e.g., grow my email list) or a central value that you want to live out in your life (e.g., health, friendship, family).  Now write it down and find a way to remind yourself to review it regularly. When you encounter a tough decision, avoid analysis paralysis by asking yourself which option aligns best with your most important goal or value.

Postpone or eliminate anything that doesn’t align with your current goals.

5. Get out of your own head and talk it out with someone else.

In a TED Talk about analysis paralysis, psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains the cognitive biases that make us terrible at making decisions and predicting the choices that will make us happiest.

“People have been shown to overestimate how unhappy they will be after receiving bad test results, becoming disabled or being denied a promotion, and to overestimate how happy they will be after winning a prize, initiating a romantic relationship or taking revenge against those who have harmed them.”

In fact, studies have shown that other people, even complete strangers, are better at predicting our future satisfaction with a particular decision than we are ourselves.

“In many domains of life, the experience of one randomly selected other person can beat your own best guess by a factor of two… The differences between you and other people are so unimportant that you would do better predicting how you are going to like something simply by asking one randomly chosen person how they like it.”

When paralyzed by a particular decision, reaching out for someone else’s opinion, literally anyone else’s opinion, can lead to a decision we’re happier with than if we had made the choice by ourselves.

The next time you catch yourself over thinking a particular issue, schedule a meeting with a coworker, supervisor, mentor, or friend. Having to present your deliberations to someone else forces you to synthesize the information you’ve been collecting in a clear, concise way (or at least more clear and concise than when it was all bouncing around in your own head).

In addition, having outward validation of your ideas from someone who’s opinion you respect can be just what you need to overcome self-doubt and build the confidence to take action.

6. Make your decision the right one.

It’s tempting to believe that the best decision exists and we can figure out what it is by just researching deeper and thinking harder. The truth is that the options in front of you may be equally valid. You may never be able to determine which is the best choice. Don’t waste time and energy in analysis paralysis.

All too often, we forget that making the decision is only the first step.

“Before we make any difficult decisions, we’re anxious and focused on identifying the “best” option and avoiding being “wrong.”
But a by-product of that mindset is that we overemphasize the moment of choice and lose sight of everything that follows.
Merely selecting the “best” option doesn’t guarantee that things will turn out well in the long run, just as making a sub-optimal choice doesn’t doom us to failure or unhappiness. It’s what happens next (and in the days, months, and years that follow) that ultimately determines whether a given decision was ‘right.’”

It’s often our confidence in and commitment to our decisions that determine whether they are the “right” ones in the end. When faced with a difficult decision, ask yourself which option you’ll be more motivated to work at. Instead of getting stuck over-analyzing a problem to find the best solution, use your time and energy to come up with a concrete, action plan to succeed.

A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. —Herbert Simon

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