Analysis paralysis – why choice isn’t always a good thing

When I was at university, I spent a few months in St Petersburg – in fact, it’s so long ago that it was still called Leningrad. Whilst there was a refectory in the halls of residence, we also had a two ring stove and a fridge in our rooms so we’d often cook for ourselves. A few minutes’ walk away was a small supermarket and on our way back from lectures, we’d call in for supplies. Shopping never took very long as there wasn’t a great deal of choice.

I arrived back in the UK just before Christmas. A couple of days later, I went to the supermarket with my mum. She asked me to go and pick out some cheese. I stood in front of the fridges and just gawped at the selection: there must have been fifty different cheeses on display. Mum caught up with me – ‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.

‘I just can’t decide – there’s just so much choice,’ I replied. After months of a simple choice between one cheese or no cheese, this was all rather overwhelming.

Today we have so many choices – and we have so much information to apparently help us make those choices. Want to book a hotel? Travel websites will offer you dozens of choices and then you can read all the reviews for each one. Want a coffee? Americano? Espresso? Macchiato? Pour over? Would you like milk? Full fat, semi-skimmed, skimmed, almond, soy, coconut? Buying insurance? I did so recently and the comparison websites offered me 53 different providers.

Just like with all that cheese, all this choice can get us stuck in analysis paralysis. Author of ‘The Tyranny of Choice‘, Professor Renata Salecl says ‘Privatisation of electricity did not bring the desired outcome – lesser prices, better service – however, it did contribute to the anxiety and feeling of guilt on the side of the consumers. We feel that it is our fault we are paying too much and we are anxious that a better deal is just around the corner. However, while we are losing valuable time doing research on which provider to choose, we then stop short of actually making the choice.’

It seems that an abundance of choice leads to us avoiding taking any decision for fear of making the wrong decision.

Psychologist Mihaliy Csikszentmihalyi says ‘The way to improve the quality of life is not primarily through thinking, but through doing’. Whilst my coaching clients do a lot of thinking in our sessions (after all, my company is called Thinking Space), they leave sessions with action points to fulfill.

In our coaching sessions, we move through thinking towards doing. As part of the process, we often come up with many choices. How do we move from an abundance (perhaps an over-abundance) of choices to some finite actions?

One key step is establishing my clients’ values. The more they know about what really matters to them, the easier it is to narrow down choices.

Another step to tackle analysis paralysis is to consciously choose to limit the number of options we have. You can read more about that in Tough calls.

A third step is to make a random choice from all the possibilities open to us. Simply embarking on a course of action means that we are moving forward and once we are in motion, it’s easier to correct our course. Think about how hard it is to turn the steering wheel on your car when it’s stationary compared to the ease with which you turn it whilst driving along.

Today’s pebble for your contemplation: are you stuck in analysis paralysis? Will you take one of these steps to help you move from thinking to doing?

Any thoughts?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to make space to think and come up with some actions to transform your work or your life, why not email me to see how we could work together?

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