Overcoming Analysis Paralysis

Don, a computer programmer and amateur saxophonist, spent the better part of a year driving his long-suffering family all over the Midwest in search of the perfect replacement for his aging horn. After a particularly memorable trip involving carsick twins and pursuit by an outraged Rottweiler, his wife finally demanded he buy a sax, any sax, or he and his old horn would end up sharing a rented room with a hot plate.

choices, decisions, woman standing in front of five doors, maggie mcreynolds blogMichelle, a statistics professor, is the go-to gal when her friends are in the market for anything from a microwave to a labradoodle—because whatever it is, she’s exhaustively researched it. Ironically, Michelle rarely buys anything herself—in fact, her dishwasher bit the dust three months ago, but she just can’t commit to a new one when she suspects that with just a little more digging, she’ll nail down the perfect choice.

Lisa, an engineer for a major consumer products firm, was among several staffers tasked to determine whether musical disposable diapers could be the Next Big Thing. She spent five days detailing every possible reason why the product was too impractical and expensive to manufacture (not to mention just plain annoying). She also put in overtime computing exactly how much money it would lose over the course of the next fiscal year. In the meantime, one of her colleagues gave her boss the yes-or-no answer he was really looking for after just one day.

Don, Michelle, and Lisa are born researchers—and in their chosen careers, their passion for digging deep often serves them well. But when decisions need to be made on the fly or with limited information, they choke.

Kathy Kolbe, a pioneering researcher in the study of action and decision-making, calls people like this Fact Finders: those who are only comfortable taking action when all available data has been gathered and weighed.

Kolbe’s deceptively simple online questionnaire (www.kolbe.com) identifies four different action styles:

  1. Fact Finders, or the researchers and engineers of the world;
  2. Quick Starts, who think fast on their feet and make their best decisions intuitively;
  3. Follow Throughs, natural organizers whose spice racks are alphabetized; and
  4. Implementors, who think best when working hands-on in 3-D.

The two biggest takeaways from Kolbe’s research are these: that no one style is superior to any other, and that we all have some degree of capability in each of the four categories. Even the most impetuous Quick Start has some organizational skills, although they may not believe that filing cabinets and flow charts are their friends. Similarly, even off-the-chart Fact Finders have gut instincts, although they may not be able to hear or trust them.

But by learning to tune in to those faint intuitive cries, a Fact Finder can gain forward momentum. Note: listening to your intuition doesn’t mean going with the first stray thought that drifts, cloudlike, through your head. It means using gut instinct as a starting place, then selectively researching until you have just enough information to confirm or contradict your original hypothesis.

It’s hard to hear your inner voice if you drown it out with the “noise” of too much information. Before you start researching a decision, take a moment to imagine that you already know the answer. Hearing what you already know may be as simple as paying attention to your body as you consider the alternatives.

If you’re trying to decide between vacationing in Mexico or Las Vegas, mentally try on each experience and do a quick body scan. Are your muscles loose and relaxed? Are you shoulders beginning to creep up around your ears? Are you clenching your teeth, or holding your breath? It’s relatively easy to trick your brain into believing you want something you don’t; it’s much harder to get your body on board with a decision that just feels intuitively wrong.

Once you’ve learned to hear your intuitive self, it may still take some time before you’re ready to trust it—and that’s okay. If your son had just gotten his license, you probably wouldn’t hand him your car keys and send him on a cross-country road trip. You’d help him build his skills—and our trust—on smaller excursions, like a drive to the store.

Similarly, begin earning your own trust by going with your gut on small decisions whose outcomes are of minimal consequence: Paper or plastic? Chinese or Thai? Try seeing a movie that sounds intriguing without reading any reviews, or buying a book because you something about the title or the subject resonates with you. In other words, let your intuition take the wheel one short trip at a time, until you develop some sense that it can handle the open road.

If you’re having trouble going it alone, team up. Think of people you know who are excitable, talk quickly, have big ideas, and get bored easily. These are the Quick Starts of the world, and when you’re trying to make a fast decision, they can be your best friends. Their Quick Start energy will give you a kick in the pants; your Fact Finder sensibilities will keep them from running amok.

By listening to his gut—and the sound of each sax he was checking out—Don probably could have found a great sax in two months instead of ten. By leading with her intuition, Michelle could have focused on two or three brands, made a decision, and be happily loading her new dishwasher instead of lamenting her dishpan hands. By brainstorming with a colleague, Lisa might have had the courage to go with the little voice screaming that musical diapers were non-starters, and have spent one day confirming her hypothesis instead of five days compiling data her supervisors didn’t want or need.

So the next time you’re find yourself unable to make a decision and drowning in input, consider these words from Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine, and doubtless a solid Fact Finder: “Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next.”

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