By Leo Babauta
I’ve been working with a few people who are very intelligent, very competent, and very talented — but they get stuck in indecision and analysis paralysis.
In effect, overthinking and getting lost in endless options reduces their effectiveness and intelligence by producing inaction.
Taking any action is likely to be better than inaction and indecision, but we can get so caught up in trying to find the perfect decision that we make no decision.
The answer is to cut through the indecision and overthinking with action.
Before we talk about that, let’s look at what’s going on with smart, competent people who get stuck in their beautiful minds.
The Trap of Overthinking
For someone who doesn’t see a lot of possibilities, sometimes a choice is easy — you just choose the one that looks obvious.
But for someone who has an abundance of intelligence, there are many more doors than that. And choosing can seem impossible. So this person starts creating a decision tree in their mind: “If I choose this, then this might happen, which means I need to decide if I want this, and then that might happen … but then this other option brings three more decisions …”
They also will research every option, which leads to more research. It becomes an endless cycle of thinking through options, researching it, and through the research finding even more things to think about. No decision can ever be made!
It’s also impossible to analyze so many endless options, because each option contains a lot of uncertainty — you can never know how each will turn out, how important every factor is, what the probability is of each possibility happening.
The uncertainty in this kind of thinking is what keeps us stuck in indecision. We fear the uncertain outcome, and would rather have cold hard data, and much more certainty.
But we can never have the kind of certainty we’d like. We’d have to run experiments or do scientific research on every single thing before taking action, which means we’ve just missed out on opportunities as we did that research! Spending a lot of time analyzing comes with opportunity cost.
So how do we deal with this? By cutting through the overthinking with action.
Cutting Through with Action
If overthinking can be a trap of indecision, an unsolvable knot … how do we untie it? By cutting through it.
There can be no solving this knot through thinking — it’s thinking that gets us into it. Now, I’m not saying that “thinking is bad” … I believe we should contemplate pros and cons, that we should take a step back from action and get some perspective, see the big picture, consider the deeper Why of what we’re doing. But at some point, we have to say, “Enough!” And then take action.
Setting a limit for thinking can be a good way to do this. “I’m going to spend the next 2 days thinking about it, and then make a decision on Tuesday.” You consider the merits, you do a bit of research, you talk to other people. Then you decide, and take action.
How do you decide when there is no certain answer? You have to just pick something that seems to be the best, given your limited information. It’s like poker — you never have complete information, but have to make a decision based on what you do know, and the most likely outcomes (the likelihood is based on what you know, but you can adjust your mental probabilities with experience).
You start by taking a step back, think about your deeper Why as it relates to this decision … and also what you’re basing this decision on. Is it based on fear? On instant gratification of a desire? These don’t lead to good long-term outcomes, in my experience. The place to come from is long-term benefit — is this a loving action for those you care about, or for yourself?
Then you think about the different factors that weigh into the decision, and how important each are to you. You think about likely outcomes of each possibility (don’t limit yourself to just 2 possibilities), and weigh the probable benefits with the probable costs.
And then finally, you just go with the decision that seems best. Do a quick review of whether this is for the best long-term benefit. And then pull the trigger. Step off the plank.
You cut through all the doubts and fears and hand-wringing that are holding you back, and just dive in.
Get good at this diving in by doing it in small versions:
- Write something short and publish it
- Take a small action to your long-term dream career or business
- Take a small action to be healthier
- Declutter one thing that’s easy to decide on, rather than getting stuck on things that are hard for you to make a decision about
What decisions are you stuck on? Can you make a small decision that’s easier, and take action? It might give you more information that helps with the bigger decision. And in the end, the real benefit is practicing taking action without getting caught up in indecision and inaction.