Paralysis Analysis and the Paradox of Choice

I am at the point where I visibly cringe at the mere mention of corporate buzzwords such as “paralysis analysis”, “single source of truth”, or “low hanging fruit”. However, all of these phrases are rooted in tried and true explanations of important and complex situations. I think it may be simple for communication to summarize these situations with a succinct two or three word phrase, but I also believe it is important to first understand what you may be short handing when you employ a phrase like this.

I can think of no better example than “paralysis analysis” (or “paralysis by analysis” for the longer form). Even now, I struggled with picking up my laptop and writing a draft of this blog post because I’m thinking of the following choices:

• It’s 3:30AM and I need to get rest to watch the kids tomorrow morning (Saturday).
• I really should be working on my project at work to meet this crazy deadline and the project accounts for significant impact to the company and potentially my career there.
• I could be working on my side projects to start a company.
• I could be attempting to drum up side work or consulting time.
• I really should watch Pluralsight or some other educational material to continue learning and stay sharp.
• I should put together a presentation for work.
• I should put together a presentation for the developer group.
• Etc.

You may look at this and say, this is just a task list; but it’s a conscious decision that I have to make before I take action to write this post and for the entirety of writing the post until completion to decide whether this is the best use of my time right now (or whether I want to do it the most). I find this incredibly difficult the longer the task is, for example, reading a book is excruciating to me lately because the pace is so much slower and I wonder if I should be doing something more “productive” which in many cases leaves me with not finishing the book and not doing a good job at the next task because I am thinking about having not finished the book.

A really strong light was recently shined on this for me when I stumbled across a TED talk by Barry Schwartz titled The Paradox of Choice. It’s fairly short at only 19mins and it’s been around for a couple of years now, but I really applaud the content. In the talk, Mr. Schwartz discusses many points regarding the simple fact of having so many choices that it provides less pleasure and focus on any one decision made and produces a sense of buyer’s remorse of allocated time. Wow, talk about your first-world problems, but this hits home for me like few others I’ve read or seen in the past year!

When thinking back of examples on when I generally write (decent) blog posts, learn new topics, write my best code, or actually solve difficult problems, it’s often at times like this: late at night, everyone else is asleep, sitting in the dark – relatively single focused. It’s not that I am anti-social or a recluse. It’s not that I can’t prioritize and push through distractions. It’s because my options are limited at 3:30AM, the pressure of so many activities or demands are slightly farther away right now, and there is some higher percentage of my consciousness that is focused on less problems.

It seems obvious as well that a lack of focus directly corresponds to a lack of quality in executing any one task and I’ve noticed that as my responsibilities in life and work become more diverse and when I can only allocate small tidbits of time across a great many activities, I sometimes look back and feel unsatisfied with the job that I’ve done. What’s interesting about this to me, is that usually I’ve done a good job; I met the goal, the customer is happy, some positive outcome – but I know I could have done better.

Now, with everything there are tradeoffs, and my focus on individual tasks currently is being supplanted with an opportunity to discover a much vaster array of different experiences that one would hope would have a synergy in and of itself. Perhaps in a couple of years I will be able to write a similar post on whether at the time of this writing I actually understand “synergy” or if I am merely using another buzzword.

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