An enormous mental block exists whenever we hesitate too much and fail to act, thus missing out on opportunities. Like perfectionism, getting trapped in “analysis paralysis” is something that stems from an ordinarily useful human tendency. It’s only natural to want to delay making a choice until you have as much information as possible, so you can make the best decision. But this tactic can easily go too far!
Of course, it’s true that taking the time to critically assess your full scope of possible action means you’re better positioned to choose the right way forward. However, the fact is that we can only ever approximate the perfect decision—it’s not practically possible to act with complete certainty. Good decision-making is something we can do to a point, beyond which we have to acknowledge that some things are simply out of our hands.
You’ll know that indecision is a serious block for you if you often find yourself feeling unable to commit fully to any one path, delaying the moment of choice till the last minute, often incurring costs in the process. The costs of not taking the leap from thought into action can be high—and yet we seldom factor these costs in when we’re dawdling and scrutinizing the situation endlessly.
Being indecisive simply feels awful. The longer you remain unsettled, the higher your anxiety, and the greater the stakes. The more you delay, the bigger the choice actually seems to become, and the more you’re aware of not having chosen—a vicious cycle. We can lose all sense of proportion when it comes to assessing how important any one decision actually is… and risk ignoring the things that really do matter.
Indecisiveness has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, too. For example, you believe a decision is super important, so you take your time trying to make it. You don’t want to choose the wrong thing and mess up! But in taking so long to find the perfect way forward, the decision goes stale and you miss out, literally losing opportunities or defaulting to how things were before. Your indecision acts to bring about the very thing you were afraid of.
Analysis paralysis is just that: the paralyzed feeling of unpicking a situation to such a degree you have no idea what to do anymore, and no ability left to act. In this sense, someone who analyzes things less has a greater chance of success simply because they actually get things done. A task completed moderately well is always more valuable than grand visions that never materialize.
Sure, people who take a risk now and then may have a marginally higher chance of making the wrong decision, but they didn’t waste time figuring that out. In fact, they may be able to fix their mistake and choose again several times over before the paralyzed person has even managed to take a single action.
The Root of Indecision—An Intolerance for Uncertainty
Even if you’re unaware of it, your brain is constantly appraising and assessing the environment around you, making predictions, drawing conclusions, inferring from incomplete data and filling in the gaps given the existence of time constraints and limited resources.
Perfectionism and indecision are fed primarily by fear—a fear of the unknown. In many ways this is a remnant of our early days as hunter-gatherers, when an unknown factor could easily result in death. As such, from an evolutionary perspective, the fear of the unknown has kept us alive for centuries and millennia. Even in the modern day, the unknown can pose existential threats, but these are much less pronounced. Primarily, it exacerbates our fear of missing out, which is a form of social anxiety that disproportionately affects some people over others. This could be the fear of missing out on better alternatives, better outcomes resulting from particular actions, etc.
When we analyze the world, we are seeking to understand it. By cognitively grasping the details of the world we inhabit, we enjoy a degree of mastery over it. We orient ourselves in our surroundings and can structure and organize our lives. A lot of this rests on our assessment of probabilities and likelihoods.
We decide what actions to take based on our understanding of the risks and benefits involved. We don’t know the sun will rise tomorrow, for example, but we’re fairly certain it will. We trust most people not to rob us, we assume that the box we bought at the supermarket contains what it says it does, and on a grander scale, we trust that if we work hard we’ll probably succeed. We build our lives and actions around what we know, trust and can depend upon.
Anything new entering our worlds can be perceived as threatening, simply because of this fact: we don’t yet understand it. We don’t know where it fits into our world. It could be a good thing, but it could also be terrible. Until we know, we behave cautiously. And the way we can move from ignorance to understanding (and to the comfort of being certain again) is to gather more data.
In an ideal world, we’d approach the unknown with a curious, open mind, gather data and learn more about it, and move on with life. But what happens if we get stuck in the data-gathering stage? What about realizing that we can never actually learn everything there is to know about a phenomenon, can never predict anything with 100 percent accuracy, and can never have perfect understanding?
At some point, we have to act, even when we’re a little unsure.
Here we see that an intolerance for uncertainty is closely connected with perfectionism—the fear of the unknown causing us anxiety that we hope to relieve by somehow making the “perfect” decision. This is a question of trust and risk. Are we able to act despite never really having complete knowledge? Can we take the risk even though we can never guarantee what the outcome will be?
It’s normal to be fearful of doing the wrong thing, but when this impulse gets in the way of us doing anything at all, then it’s a problem. The cost is that we forfeit our natural intentional thinking capacity, and start to behave as though the world is one giant threat that we should dedicate ourselves to mitigating at all times. Not exactly the attitude of success!
We can improve on our decision-making process, but we can never be completely perfect. Every time we act, we take risks. The only way to guarantee never incurring any risk at all is to simply never act—to never live at all (which, in a way, is the logical outcome of analysis paralysis!).