Getting Unstuck from Too Much Data

In spite of all the technological advances in the world, many people long for a simpler time. A time when people answered the phone readily without knowing who would be on the other end. A time when, if you needed something, you walked to the other person’s desk and looked them in the eye when making the request (and thanking them for their work). A time when the decision to move forward with a partner or vendor was largely based on the trust and relationship built between individuals.

Today’s consumers make their decisions before contacting a supplier at all. In fact, 57% of a purchase decision is made before even contacting the supplier. And 67% of the work that went into that decision happened online. Consumers have millions of pieces of data at their fingertips. As an example, 15 years ago, if I was traveling, I would have asked the hotel concierge for dinner suggestions nearby. Last week, when I was in downtown Chicago, within 15 minutes my team searched for and made a list of all restaurants within a 10-minute walk, sorted it by price and categorized the cuisine. We narrowed the list by a few parameters, checked Yelp reviews, checked Google for peak times, and booked reservations, all online.

Of course, we made that decision within 15 minutes primarily because we were starving and reservations fill up quickly on a Friday evening. We were in a race to make the best decision possible on a short timeline. But with so many data points available, it’s no wonder how often we fall into the trap of analysis paralysis. We live in a world of choice-overload!

Analysis paralysis is “the state of over-analyzing (or overthinking) a situation so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome.“ When we get stuck analyzing available data and comparing possible alternatives, we get lost in the decision making process and become unable to act.

Analysis paralysis is most common when we perceive the need for perfection. Unlike making dinner reservations, high stakes decisions like investment choices, business partnerships, product development, creative direction, and career changes are highly susceptible to analysis paralysis. The logical fallacy is that if you just keep thinking it through, the answer will become more clear and all of the unknowns will become knowns. Further, analysis paralysis is common when we will be held personally responsible for the decision. In mistake-free cultures, this fear can be debilitating. This forces us into a state of excessively searching for more data. More data does not always mean better decisions. Often, instead of adding more data, you’ll find yourself adding more variables for consideration, this prolonging the decision itself.

If you find yourself becoming obsessed with searching for more information to make the perfect decision, it’s time to take action.

  • Set a deadline. The fastest way to stop analysis paralysis is to take action. Action shouldn’t be taken haphazardly, but it’s fair to say “I’m giving myself 2 days to investigate this, and at the end of that time I should have enough information to make the best decision possible with the information available to me.” Without a deadline, there is always more research that can be done.
  • Calculate risk. First, ask yourself how important is this decision? Is it life or death? Will a bad decision mean the end of your career? If not, then you’re probably over-thinking it. Next, when you define the list of knowns and unknowns, calculate any possible ranges for the unknown. For example, if you’re not sure what the production time will be for a new product, set a range. What would the outcome be if the product was produced at the same rate as your fastest recent product? What would the outcome be if you used the time for the slowest recent product development? This will allow you to move from analysis paralysis to strategic thinking and planning for consequences.
  • Ask for opinions. A trusted network of advisors will always work to keep your thought process on course, and they’ll be the most likely to tell you when you’re overthinking the decision. They can also help you build confidence in the decision-making process.
  • Check your energy. Is this decision fueling you or draining you? If the decision is dragging you down, you have to put a stop to the madness and redirect your energy to your bigger goals.

You’ve reached the point of diminishing returns when you sacrifice your vision, energy, and mental well-being for the sake of checking one more page of Google searches. More isn’t always better. In some cases, more choices, more data, more variables, just leaves you with less action and more stress. Mistakes will be made. But no decision is worse than making no decision.