Are You Experiencing Paralysis by Analysis?

Research explains how making fewer and wiser decisions boosts our well-being.

Posted Sep 30, 2020

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It’s common to feel overwhelmed and out of control with so much going on in our lives. So many things are competing for our attention: family, work, household duties, and the list goes on. And on. Naturally, it’s hard to focus on what to do.

Additionally, we may feel that we need to do everything perfectly. Between all the choices and this unrealistic goal of perfection, we may feel extreme pressure, freeze up, and end up doing nothing at all. 

Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. 

Fortunately, social psychologist Barry Schwartz’s research can help us get unstuck, be proactive, and make positive choices. He has helped countless people (including us) understand how to make wiser decisions in order to increase our well-being. 

Are you a maximizer or a satisficer?

One of the first things we suggest you do is find out whether you’re a  “maximizer” — someone who always strives to make the best possible choice or a “satisficer” — someone who’s happy with “good enough.” Schwartz devised a test to help you determine which one you are. 

Suffice it to say, when I (Suzie) first took the test over a decade ago my results didn’t surprise me. According to Schwartz’s scale, I was a solid maximizer, which matched my own personal narrative of never being satisfied with “good enough.” 

While I didn’t have a name for it at the time, I always prided myself on being a “maximizer” and never “settling” in life. I was beaming at having apparently aced the Maximizer test. Until I learned that it wasn’t necessarily such a good thing. In fact, I learned that my natural tendencies might actually decrease my well-being. 

I discovered that the greatest maximizers are the least happy with the fruits of their efforts. They also tend to brood or ruminate more than satisficers do. Yikes! 

Compounding this problem of maximizing is living in an increasingly multiple-choice society in today’s world. When I took the test, I was living in New York, the city with probably the most number of options than anywhere else in the world for what you want. Based on my newfound discovery, I was determined to try to change my decision-making ways and incorporate some rules into my life in order to increase my overall satisfaction and well-being.  

The paradox of choice

The concept of choice in a society with limitless options is a double-edged sword. While autonomy and freedom are qualities essential to happiness, sometimes having to make so many decisions actually decreases our happiness by adding undue stress.  

After all, just how many options do we really need when it comes to simple things like ice cream flavors? Or shampoo types? Balance is key.  

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Having so many choices sometimes decreases our enjoyment because we may fear we made the wrong decision.
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Too much choice “no longer liberates but debilitates,” Schwartz argues.  

He eloquently describes how choice is essential to autonomy but people often don’t know what to choose. The good news is that through information and training we can help make better choices about “the things that matter.”  

What matters most is “how we feel about the decisions we make” not necessarily the decision itself. And what counts when we assess the quality of the decision is our subjective, not objective experience.  

Armed with this knowledge at the time, I set out on a mission to only spend more time on making choices about the things that matter in my life and worked hard to transition to becoming a satisficer in most areas of my life.   

At the time, I was someone who tended to put high expectations on myself and always set the bar incredibly high in all areas of my life. Having always prided myself on being “the best,” I often felt what I did accomplish was not enough. I often focused on all the options rather than on being in touch with what I truly wanted.  

Schwartz had mentioned that he doesn’t know what makes one a maximizer but perhaps it is impacted by where someone lives. New York City prides itself on choice. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want — whether it’s Greek or Thai food you’re seeking, or belly dancing or bowling, you can do it at midnight, or later, in Manhattan. 

Even when it comes to yoga, my personal respite from a life in overdrive, I’m presented with so many options. Do I take Bikram yoga, Vinyasa, Power, or Ashtanga? The energy it takes to make the choice is almost not worth the trouble. But it sure keeps the yoga studios in business since restoring “peace of mind” is what is needed after evaluating all of our choices.  

I often ended up doing nothing because of all the energy I exerted on just deciding, a concept Schwartz refers to as “paralysis by analysis.”

How can we make better decisions? 

Fortunately, in addition to being a natural maximizer, I’m also an optimist. If this were not so, I might be in deeper trouble dealing with regret, and opportunity costs, according to Schwartz. I learned the value of implementing “second-order decisions” — deciding to opt out of deciding in some areas of my life — which helped me limit how much I think about the alternatives I passed up. As a result, my mental distress plummeted.  

Additionally, I learned the importance of integrating rules into my life like “no snoozing” in the morning, which preserves mental resources by cutting down on the anguish of having to weigh the pros and cons on a daily basis. Since snoozing isn’t an option, when the alarm goes off, I will get up. I don’t have to make a decision on whether sleeping longer or getting up is more appealing.  

Another example of a rule that we can all institute into our lives is deciding, for example, to only visit two stores when we begin our holiday shopping each year. This rule will prevent us from running ourselves ragged going to a dozen stores searching for that “perfect” gift.  

These a priori decisions help us retain mental energy that can be used on other things in our lives that really matter, like spending time with loved ones. And that’s a great thing, since nurturing our relationships and building strong connections with others is foundational to a flourishing life.  

Choosing when to choose is key

In sum, while happiness depends in part on the choices we make in life, it’s important to decide which choices in our lives really matter and focus our time and energy there. “Choosing when to choose,” is key, says Schwartz.  

By making more informed choices and managing our expectations, we may decrease the gap between “expected utility” (our expected happiness) and “experienced utility” (our experienced happiness) — and in the end, actually become happier. 

Further, practicing gratitude can help us in our decision-making endeavor. By reframing a situation and looking at what we have to be thankful for, rather than what we lack, we can decrease our tendency to always seek the best, be satisfied with what we have, and accept “good enough,” when appropriate.  

Finally, the next time you are confronted with so many choices instead of overanalyzing or completely shutting down, remind yourself to take a pause. Next, heed some advice from Schwartz and practice learning to become “a conscious, intentional satisficer” in some areas of your life in this “complex, choice-saturated world we live in.”

By doing so, you will likely move closer to obtaining “peace of mind,” which is arguably something to strive for in this ever-changing and unpredictable world.

References

Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice:  Why More Is Less. New York:  Ecco.