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What is Decision Paralysis? How to Prevent in 4 Steps
April 18, 2022

You’re staring down a monstrous task list, still catching up on last week’s deadlines, with new project notifications pinging for your attention, a laundry list of personal to-dos running through your head, and you just – freeze. You don’t know where to start, so instead you find yourself anxiously procrastinating, doing nothing (or anything else) instead.

Sound familiar? 

Decision paralysis, aka analysis paralysis or choice paralysis, usually hits at the most inconvenient time – when you really need every single minute to be getting things done, but just don’t know how to choose, where to start, or what to tackle next. 

While you can’t avoid busy weeks altogether, you can limit this kind of overwhelm with the help of task prioritization, strategic time management, and a few mindset changes. In this post we’re going to share a 4-step guide on how to better prioritize your time and prevent decision paralysis in the future (because we know how much it sucks). 

What is decision paralysis?

You’ve likely already experienced the paralysis over where to start in a crazy task list, big decisions in your personal life, or even over your dinner choice at a restaurant with an expansive menu. But what exactly is decision paralysis? 

Decision paralysis is the lack of ability to decide out of fear of making the wrong choice. It can occur when you’re presented with too many choices that are difficult to compare, instead becoming overwhelmed by all of them and not choosing any of the options – effectively paralyzing yourself from making progress. Even if you do finally make a decision, battling analysis paralysis can sometimes be so mentally exhausting that you don’t have the energy left to follow through with action on your choice. 

The average person is estimated to make around a shocking 35,000 remotely conscious decisions a day! And while freedom of choice is generally to be celebrated, Psychologist Barry Schwartz argues the modern ‘Paradox of Choice’ has actually made people feel more paralyzed and dissatisfied, rather than free and happy. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated the issue of choice paralysis by fuelling stress levels and feelings of uncertainty. In fact, 32% of surveyed adults said in 2021 that they sometimes feel so overwhelmed that they struggle making basic daily decisions like what to eat, or what to wear. When you top that with increasing workloads for individual contributors, managers, and senior executives due to The Great Resignation, it’s unfortunately not surprising that 78.7% of people are stressed out by increasing task lists with even less time to get everything done. 

And the busier your schedule, the more overwhelming it can be to be decisive with your limited time. As your task list grows in “choices”, so does your risk of analysis paralysis. From getting through all of your work tasks, personal responsibilities, and finding time for your habits, hobbies, and rest – trying to make the best decisions can put a lot of strain on your wellbeing, despite being pursued in the name of productivity. Working to better prioritize your time can help you build out a realistic schedule that supports your goals, lets you get more done in less time, and takes some of the decision-making pressure off your shoulders. 

4 steps to prevent decision paralysis

If you often find yourself procrastinating and stressing out over an overwhelming to-do list and a busy schedule – follow these helpful steps to get clear on your priorities, reduce decision paralysis, and learn how to stop procrastination from derailing your daily progress.

1. Recognize decision paralysis

You might be wondering: why do I procrastinate? Sometimes just breaking ground on your task load is overwhelming because the insurmountable weight of decision paralysis makes it feel impossible to choose where to begin. Other times, deciding between two tasks that both seem urgent feels like too much pressure, so we procrastinate starting on either. When you notice your decision-making starting to feel more anxiety-inducing than usual, recognizing it as analysis paralysis in action is an effective step in preventing it from escalating.

Signs of decision paralysis:

  • Being overwhelmed by your task list
  • Doubting your capabilities
  • Procrastinating on starting a task
  • Overcomplicating your options
  • Not being clear on your priorities
  • Putting pressure on perfectionism
  • Dreading deadlines 

If you feel an onset of choice paralysis creeping in with these common symptoms, it’s time to do some preparation for success over procrastination.

2. Prioritize your choices

It's hard to make a choice without a clear look at your options. Outlining your objectives is a foundational first step in beating analysis paralysis. 

Writing out a master list – that is, a to-do list that covers literally everything you have to get done – is a great way to face the beast (if you will). This in itself is a smaller task that can feel more doable compared to everything else, and by brain dumping it all in one place, you can actually move some of that stress out of your head and create a visual overview of what needs to get done.

And a lot of times, making the choice of what to work on next is hard because everything on your to-do list feels equally important, but it actually isn’t. A great way to break down this misconception is to sort all the tasks in your master list in order of urgency and priority. Take a look at each task and set your due dates, estimate how long each task will realistically take, and assign whether it requires deep work vs. shallow work to get done. The end result will be a practical list of cognitively demanding tasks that will need bigger chunks of dedicated focus time, and smaller to-dos that can be handled more quickly – all in order of priority by when they’re due and how important they are to your goals.

3. Create an action plan & time block your calendar 

Now that you have an organized task list in place, it’s time for an action plan. You may be surprised to learn that only 53.5% of planned tasks actually get completed every week. This is in part because we often overestimate how much we can take on, underestimate how long our tasks are going to take, and rarely account for unexpected changes in our schedule or priorities. 

The practice of time blocking to-dos onto your calendar can boost productivity up to 80% by simply breaking your day into dedicated time slots to work on one particular task. It also allows you to defend your time through your calendar so you’re not overrun by meetings that may not be high-priority for you. Not to mention, time blocking reduces context switching as you’re limiting yourself to one task at a time, which can help you block those distracting complementary tasks from pulling your attention from what’s in front of you. 

So this also has to help with decision paralysis, right? Time blocking your calendar can significantly reduce decision paralysis because you’ve already put in the hard work of pre-planning how you’re going to allocate your time in the week. Instead of forcing yourself to make hard decisions all day about how to spend your time, you can just look at your calendar to see what’s up next and stick to this plan to meet your goals and deadlines. Time limits also make tasks feel more manageable because there’s a clear finish line, which is why approaches like the Pomodoro technique can be so effective.

4. Automate your decision making

Imagine you have a perfectly productive Monday planned out, but an urgent 3-hour meeting is suddenly scheduled over your afternoon, so now you have to spend an hour you don’t have to manually rearrange your overscheduled time blocks throughout the rest of your week. While saying “no'' to unproductive meetings is much easier when you can justify not having the time through an effectively time blocked weekly plan – it’s also necessary to stay flexible for when unexpected urgencies and high-priority meetings do arise.

If you’re already time blocking your calendar, you know how time-consuming it can be to manually readjust your entire schedule when things change. Fortunately, there are some pretty awesome automations you can set up to time block your calendar without sacrificing flexibility. 

The Reclaim.ai smart calendar app is a must-have for busy professionals as it automatically finds the best time for you to work on your Tasks around in your existing schedule, by priority and due date. And when something unexpected comes up, Reclaim auto-reschedules all of your time blocks around what you need to prioritize next so you don’t have to stress about replanning your entire week, and can continue to work off your updated schedule without the added pressure of decision making. 

Stop procrastination due to decision paralysis & get more done

Decision paralysis is a common challenge that can result from the combination of being overloaded with options, increasing workloads, added daily stressors, and the natural human desire to make the best choices and offer only our best work. 

Take some of the pressure out of decision making by getting clear on your true priorities, creating an action plan through your calendar, and implementing smart tools that help you create a flexible schedule that aligns with your goals. From here, you can begin to disarm procrastination caused by analysis paralysis, and be more productive every week.

Trend Reports

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Task Management Trends Report: +200 Stats on Managers vs. Individual Contributors

Productivity Trends Report: One-on-One Meeting Statistics

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