What is analysis paralysis? How to deal with it?

Avoiding analysis paralysis when starting a new project.

What is analysis paralysis? How to deal with it?

When starting something new: a task, project, company, or even just a new day, there's always a little bit of planning involved.

And yes, adequate planning is crucial for success, but when is it too much planning? When are we overthinking instead of just executing? In this small blog post, I want to tell you the story of when analysis paralysis prevented me from starting this blog for almost a year and how I would go around that now.

The Story

December 2020

After teaching Linux and programming in C and Python at the University of Costa Rica for 5 years as a part-time job (in addition to my full-time job as a developer), I decided to quit my part-time job at UCR and invest that time in another activity.

And in a somewhat silent night of that December, I began to plan the project that "in my own words" would be:

A blog dedicated to teaching in my own practical fashion, everything related to the programming languages and tools I've used since 2013 in multiple jobs. The project will also include a YouTube channel to complement the blog, making it more attractive and discoverable for people who prefer watching/listening instead of reading.

That night, the long period of what I thought at one point was procrastination began. And maybe it was a little bit, but I realized that I was in the presence of a slightly more specific problem known as analysis paralysis.

This phenomenon consists of an infinite loop of overthinking and a lack of decision-making and taking action to achieve the desired or needed result. In my specific case, it was the overanalysis of the dependencies and infinite time spent researching the best tools that currently exist to start the blog.

I was about to start something entirely new for me, making me feel overwhelmed by the decisions I needed to take: choose a platform on which to start the blog, see the payment methods that I had in my country (Costa Rica) to add a section of members and exclusive content, create my own YouTube mini studio at home to record the videos, take into account the lighting, the position of the camera, the topics to be covered, the scripts of the videos, the writing of the blog posts,... you get the idea.

Thus the infinite list of things in my head began to pile up, and the only thing I actually did was "think" about this every night after work. I watched dozens of YouTube videos to help me decide upon every detail of my project. Spent whole afternoons and nights learning, but I wasn't making any real progress.

Without realizing I was trapped in the abyss of paralysis by analysis. I knew where I wanted to be, but I wasn't really doing anything that would bring me closer to my goal.

Real analysis

The analysis of all the things that I mentioned needed to be done. But in moderation and in an orderly manner, not simply analyzing ten thousand times if I had to start the blog in Squarespace, Webflow, WordPress, Blogger, Medium, or Ghost. (Spoiler alert! I ended up picking Hashnode, and it is incredible, click here if you want to start your dev blog completely for free).

I really don't know how many pros and cons videos or articles I went through. And the worst thing is that what helped me out of this infinite loop was not a specific video or article. It was to clearly state my highest priorities and see which platform was the one that best covered them. (For the curious, the priorities are: that it allows me to grow a community, that it be flexible to customize it but not so complex as to have to spend too much time developing rather than creating content, and that its cost structure is simple, scalable and that it did not go out of my budget.) And this led me to the first lesson:

Lesson # 1: DO NOT look for "the best tool" (endless search). Look for the one that best suits YOUR NEED (seems a bit obvious but, is super common to have lots of time wasted on this, especially in software projects)

Another thing I spent nights on was analyzing which camera to buy. If it was a Canon, Panasonic, Sony, Blackmagic... In the end, the answer was much more simple. I don't need to buy a camera (for now). I do not have the budget to buy a $600+ camera to start a project that I do not know how far it will go. I'm currently motivated, but nothing assures me that the motivation will last long enough and that the investment of the camera will make sense. Therefore, the best move is to use my phone's camera. Even though the phone camera has limitations, it can give acceptable video quality to start. Also, YouTube videos are not the first step, so this is a concern for my future self. Several lessons emerged from this:

Lesson # 2: divide the project into milestones. Just be sure that these are clear and achievable in the short term (once you start to execute them). Milestones are easily measured, and reaching goals continues to give you momentum and raise your morale.

Lesson # 3: focus only on what is needed to start and improve with time. I fell into the trap of thinking that everything was essential from the very beginning: the space has to look professional, I have to adapt the room, buy a new desk, paint the wall, buy more lights to improve the lighting, buy a piece of furniture to that the shot does not look empty and that the video is more attractive. None of this matters yet. Put your effort into creating quality content, then think about ways to do better.

Lesson # 4: Minimum Viable Product (MPV). Create something simple in which your audience, users, or clients see a lot of value. Let them use the product, consume your content, etc. They will surely come back with feedback to help you iterate and improve. Apply agile methodologies in your life. (I'll post an article about that).

Lesson # 5: do not compare yourself with people or companies with years of experience doing what you want to do. We don't all have access to the same resources, and furthermore, the role models you're looking at probably didn't start out that way. If at any time you have a doubt about this, see the image of how YouTube started:

YouTube in 2005 Source: webdesignmuseum.org/timeline/youtube-2005

When the excuses begin

The worst part is when you start making bad excuses for not doing what you (in theory) want to do! I guarantee you that, somewhere down the line, you will come up with empty excuses to justify what you are not doing. Things like:

  1. I don't have time
  2. I don't know if I'm good enough to do it. (Imposter syndrome, later we will have a blog post exclusively for this problem)
  3. What happens if I fail?
  4. Is it worth my time? Is there something better I can do? (FOMO, we will also discuss it in another post)
  5. What will people think of me? Strangers, my friends, my family.

Here are my answers for each of those:

  1. If you have time to read Facebook, Twitter, browse Instagram, watch 3 YouTube videos a day, you have time to do whatever. With just 15 or 20 minutes a day, you can do many things.

  2. If you have been doing an activity for a long time and now you want the world to see it, but you think you are not good enough because there are other better ones... guess what? Other people might be worse than you, and they'll benefit from what you have to tell them. Even though you might think the market is filled with similar solutions/products, someone with a taste similar to yours will resonate with what you are doing.

  3. Why think negatively? If you like it and think it has potential, give it a shot! It might just be what you envisioned or turn into something else, or it may not work at all. If you don't start, you will never know.

  4. Visualize your long-term goals and invest time in what you think is the best at the moment. Just do it! If something better happens to come along, great! Then, and just then, you'll have a choice to make. Don't hold your breath waiting for "something better."

  5. Don't waste time pondering about what other people think. Feedback is important. It's okay if you seek to validate your idea before moving forward. But if you simply worry about what they will think or say about you, cover your ears and get started.

These are definitely not all the questions, nor all the answers. They may not even be the best answers. But remember that the important thing here is to get out of the paralysis, eliminate all the excuses, and make progress.

Final thoughts and tips

Getting out of this cycle seems impossible at times. You might be stuck looking for ways to improve even when you haven't started. Excuses arise: I'm not good enough, I don't have time. And worst of all, you may not quickly realize you're in that cycle until a long time has passed. If you think you might have this issue, I want to help you. Here is a summary of what I consider the best approach to tackle this invisible problem:

  1. Analyze what is strictly necessary to get started.
  2. Limit the number of data sources you will consult or the amount of time you invest in the analysis.
  3. Divide your project into milestones. Make them clear and short-term. And if the goal is 100% under your control, define a target date. This will make sure that it doesn't extend to infinity.
  4. Do not compare yourself against others who have been doing what you want to do for a long time. Remember to start with an MPV and then improve over time.
  5. Don't worry about the uncertainty of the future. Seize the day. Don't be afraid to fail.
  6. Eliminate excuses from your life. If there is something that you are passionate about and you really want to do it, there is no excuse. Start today to do what brings you closer to your goal.

This is my way of dealing with the problem. Although it is not scientifically proven, it allowed me to get out of my paralysis by analysis. I hope it helps you too.

See you next time!

PS: If you enjoyed the story + tips and want to hear more of me in the future, consider following me on Twitter!