When making a decision, especially an important one, most people take some time to consider their options. This is completely normal.
But what if, when weighing your options, you can’t get the scales to balance? Instead, you spend so much time thinking through choices you could make and end up not coming to any decision at all.
Sound familiar? This type of overthinking has a name: analysis paralysis.
With analysis paralysis, you might spend a lot of time researching options to make sure you’re making the best choice.
This happens even with relatively small-scale decisions, like which microwave to purchase or what pastry to buy at the coffee shop.
When it comes to high-stakes decisions, like whether to accept a certain job offer, you might worry you’ll still make the wrong choice even after carefully considering the pros and cons.
Trapped in an endless loop of “what if this, what if that” scenarios, you eventually become so overwhelmed you end up failing to make any decision at all.
Analysis paralysis can cause a lot of distress. But the 10 tips below can help you manage this thought pattern and break the habit of overthinking everything.
Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to think through big choices and their possible impact on your life.
So how can you tell the difference between healthy decision making and analysis paralysis?
Here’s what Vicki Botnick, a therapist in Tarzana, California, has to say:
“Usually, our decision making process involves quickly building a list of a full range of possibilities. Then, just as quickly, we begin narrowing this list down, crossing out outliers and choices that feel obviously unsuitable.”
She goes on to explain this process of elimination tends to take place in a relatively short period of time.
A typical timeline might be a few days, perhaps a little longer for significant decisions.
But with analysis paralysis, she explains, you might feel mired in possibilities. “They feel ever-expanding, endless, and all equally probable,” Botnick says.
It’s pretty understandable to feel overwhelmed when you believe you must separate one correct choice from many other options.
If you believe these options all have merit, the need to consider them equally can shut down the decision making process.
It often helps to understand why you have trouble making choices.
Did a previous decision not pan out so well? If that memory still resonates, you might have trouble trusting yourself to make the right choice this time.
Maybe you worry about others judging you for making a certain choice.
You might also worry the “wrong” decision will affect your future or relationships with loved ones. (It can feel particularly tough to make a decision that affects other people.)
Most people will find a decision challenging on occasion.
But if you find yourself stuck researching and analyzing options for nearly every decision you make, increasing your awareness around why this happens can help you take steps to break the pattern.
If you struggle to make any decision without a lot of consideration, start making decisions without giving yourself time to think.
This might feel terrifying at first, but the more you practice, the easier it will become.
“Test your ability to make quick decisions in small ways,” Botnick recommends. For example:
- Pick a restaurant for dinner without reading online reviews.
- Follow your impulse to grab the brand-name cereal without talking yourself out of it.
- Take a walk without choosing a specific route. Let your feet lead you instead.
- Choose the first show on Netflix that grabs your attention instead of spending an hour considering what to watch.
“You might feel some anxiety, but allow it to flow through you,” Botnick says. “Allow yourself to play with the idea that quick, decisive actions with small consequences might have fun, even revelatory, results.”
Practicing making small choices can help you get more comfortable with bigger decisions.
Prolonged thinking might seem like the best way of getting to the right answer. But overthinking can actually cause harm.
“Analysis paralysis can affect the nervous system and increase overall anxiety, which can contribute to symptoms like stomach issues, high blood pressure, or panic attacks,” Botnick says.
You might have a hard time focusing on school, work, or your personal life if you devote most of your mental energy to decision making.
A more helpful approach involves setting some limits around your decision timeline. You might give yourself a week to decide, then set time aside to think each day.
Use that time to focus on your decision: Do research, list pros and cons, and so on. When your daily time (say, 30 minutes) is up, move on.
Who knows you better than anyone else?
You, of course.
If some of your previous decisions have had less than positive outcomes, you might have a tendency to doubt yourself and worry that all of your decisions are bad.
Try to set this fear aside and leave the past in the past. Ask yourself instead what you learned from those decisions and how they helped you grow.
Don’t look at this new decision as another potential for failure. See it as an opportunity to learn more about yourself.
Boost your self-confidence by:
- encouraging yourself with positive self-talk
- thinking back to decisions that turned out well
- reminding yourself it’s OK to make mistakes
Not everyone has an easy time trusting their instincts. But those “gut feelings” can serve you well… if you let them.
Instincts typically relate less to logic and more to lived experience and emotions.
If you usually rely on research and logical reasoning to make decisions, you might feel a little doubtful about letting your feelings guide important decisions.
Factual evidence should certainly factor into some decisions, like those that relate to health and finance.
But when it comes to more personal matters, like deciding whether to keep dating someone or what city you want to settle down in, it’s also important to stop and consider how you feel.
Your specific feelings about something are unique to you, so have some faith in what your emotions can tell you about any given situation.
When it comes to analysis paralysis, the process of acceptance has two main parts, according to Botnick.
First, accept your discomfort and sit with it. Your brain is pushing you to keep thinking and analyzing, but this can be exhausting.
Failing to interrupt this thought pattern will only lead to more frustration and overwhelm.
Instead of continuing to struggle for the “right” solution, acknowledge that you aren’t sure what that answer is.
Say you can’t decide on the perfect location for your anniversary date. Remind yourself there are plenty of good locations but not necessarily one perfect spot.
Then take 1 minute (and only 1 minute!) to choose a location from the places you’ve considered, no matter how uneasy this makes you feel.
There! You’re done.
Now comes the second part: accepting your resilience. Even if the place you chose has some flaws and your date doesn’t go flawlessly, it’s OK.
You’ll recover — and maybe you’ll have a funny story to share.
Many of the decisions you need to make in life will have several good options.
Making one choice prevents you from knowing how different choices might have turned out — but that’s how life works. It’s full of unknowns.
It’s not possible to plan for every outcome or possibility. No amount of research can give you a complete picture of what you need, right now, for yourself.
Uncertainty can be scary, but no one knows how decisions will turn out in the end. That’s why it’s so important to trust your instincts and rely on other good decision making strategies.
Analysis paralysis involves ruminating, or spinning the same thoughts over and over, Botnick explains.
But this overthinking typically doesn’t lead to any new insight.
Continuing to analyze possibilities when you already feel fatigued and overwhelmed is what eventually triggers the “paralysis,” or inability to decide.
Your brain says “Keep thinking,” but instead, try the opposite.
Get some distance from your dilemma by finding an enjoyable distraction that helps relax you.
Your goal is to avoid thinking about the decision for a while, so it may help to do something that requires some mental energy.
- reading a good book
- spending time with loved ones
- tackling a project you’ve been putting off
Mindfulness exercises, like yoga and meditation, or physical activity can also help distract you.
A regular mindfulness practice can counter overthinking by helping you learn to observe distracting or distressing thoughts without criticizing yourself or becoming overwhelmed by them.
Analysis paralysis typically happens as an anxiety response, Botnick explains.
It can trigger a cycle of worry, fear, and rumination that can be hard to disrupt on your own.
If you’re finding it tough to stop overthinking, a therapist can help you:
- identify underlying causes or triggers
- create an action plan to change this pattern
- work through any anxiety or depression symptoms making overthinking worse
It’s especially important to get professional support if the inability to make important decisions begins to affect your personal relationships, work success, or quality of life.
There’s nothing wrong with thinking through options before making a decision.
But if you consistently find yourself stalled by indecision, it can help to take a closer look at the reasons why.
When you really need to make a decision, challenge yourself to try out a little impulsivity. Decide on the path that feels right and follow it through.
Remember, if things don’t work out how you hope, you can always try something else!
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.