Analysis Paralysis

Maybe it's me, but I've noticed that as people get older they begin to over analyze every situation. Whether it's a new purchase, a child's behavior, or personal relationships. As we age we begin to put more focus on the risks and reduce focus on the rewards, and thus stretch out the decision making process as long as possible. In some cases this stretching allows the decision to be made for us; someone else making the decision or the set of circumstances changing and the opportunity is lost.

I see the struggle regularly. I see people who defer starting a relationship or defer making a career change for fear of missing out on something important. With relationships they look at "the big picture", they analyze the potential merits of the relationship; the giant "Pro's and Con's" list, even if it's just a mental one and not a physical one. Not only that but when others see people struggling with such decisions they very often reinforce the idea of making such lists.

The problem with such lists, whether mental or on paper, is that we suck at defining any kind of weight or importance to the items on the lists. For instance if I'm looking at a car and I make my pro and con list; Pros: Red, Fast, Leather interior, great gas mileage Cons: No moon-roof, little cramped. We tend to see 4 pros and 2 cons and lean toward the pro side. Sometime we do have that "killer" con that we weight mentally, but that tends to only happen with objects not people. People we're much more willing to treat each pro and con as equal in weight.

So why do we do this if we're so bad at it? We think that it helps us sort out all of the relevant information and come to a better conclusion. If it were a science experiment or an engineering process that might be true. However, for personal decisions the subconscious likely already has access to all of these facts and in reality has already made the decision. That boyfriend that's a great guy but is an angry drunk, our subconscious has already decided is bad news. That car that's not so great looking but has great gas mileage, our subconscious has already decided is the car for us.

Creating the lists is just our mechanism of explaining the decision that we've already made. It's our mechanism of proving we're not wrong in our "gut". But that process can also lead to overriding the good decision making that our subconscious already made while we slept. We might make that list about a boyfriend or a friend and force ourselves down a path that says "well the pros outweigh the cons, I guess that means..." Then we keep the drunkard boyfriend, because underneath he's a great guy and he can stop drinking. Or we buy the better looking car because maybe the resell value could be better down the road. In the mean time, while we wait for the benefit to come to fruition, we are stuck with the negatives of a drunken boyfriend or paying more for gas every month. What's worse is we could end up not making a decision either way and also dealing with the stress of feeling out of control.

One could argue that all this data we have about cars and washing machines and relationships helps us to make more informed decisions and avoid bad experiences. To some degree that's true. But there's a cost too, because it also lends credence to our fears, it insulates us from risk, it gives us a false sense of control and predictability in a world that is not under our control and not 100% predictable. That data is really about averages and not individual experiences. Yes, the likelihood is that most women won't be able to get that drunk boyfriend to stop drinking, but does that mean that all women with drunk boyfriends should dump them? I think when we make hard and fast rules like that we negate nuance, we throw out the idea of struggle being worthwhile, and people lose out on valuable relationships and important experiences.

As children decision making was easy. Whatever gave us the most immediate pleasure was what we chose. We didn't think about consequence. We didn't think about risk or downstream impacts. We didn't think about how our decisions impacted those around us. We were selfish and impulsive and ignorant of risks. Consequences are something we could deal with tomorrow or the day after. We had all the time in the world. We were immortal.

But at 40 thoughts of immortality have slipped away beneath warnings about heart attack risks and yearly breast screenings. Consequences hang around our hips and weigh heavy on our minds. We look not just days into the future about decisions, but we look decades forward. "If I get into this relationship how long will it last?" "If I buy this car how much will it be worth in 10 years?" "How much will this washing machine cost me in repairs over it's lifetime?" Some of those questions might help us avoid cancer, or live a healthy life, or save some money, but at the same time it might make us put off taking a job that would improve our happiness but reduce our income, or put off taking that trip until it's "more convenient" and miss out on making memories with your loved ones.

That's the analysis paralysis. When we begin to weigh some decision against the entire future of our lives and start looking at how that decision will affect the next 20 years, that's when we give pause. That's when we quiet that "gut" reaction that says "DO IT!" and we start trying to rationalize, assuming that rational decisions are the best decisions. But they're not always.

Think about that great lifelong friend and think about how you met and then put those circumstances in the context of your life today. If you met that person and created a pro and con list for them and took on that relationship solely based on that list, would you still have pursued a relationship? If you knew when you met your wife that it would end in divorce after 10 years and 1 beautiful daughter would you still have courted her? We can look at the data and analyze it to death, but we cannot accurately predict the course of human events.

I think about the friends I have now and realize that I could never have found them or even really chosen them. I couldn't put an ad in the paper and get the same kind of people in my life that I have today. I think that's a problem people have today. They have this list of ideals and that list conforms to who THEY want to be, not who they NEED to have in their lives or who necessarily meshes well with their personality. It's an ideal and as such it's unrealistic. The friends you have you have by happenstance and hard work. You may have met them under less than ideal circumstances. You might not have everything in common. But you've shared experiences that bond you together and you've learned the nuances of how to work together. That only happens through work. You can't just put in an ad, you can't just analyze a group of candidates and pick the one that is guaranteed to work.

So let's learn to give up some of the analysis, realize that not everything is within our control. Control is an illusion. And with that understanding let's go forth and live our lives. Let's go out into the world and engage the world and live within it, really live! Take some risks, get hurt, get healed, be loved, be hated, learn new things, and have experiences that we can tell stories about!