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Decision Paralysis: How To Stop Overthinking Choices

If we want to find out why people procrastinate, then it's important to understand the phenomenon known as decision paralysis.

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Decision paralysis

A lot of complicated choices result in many postponed decisions

We choose our future scenarios in life. We decide what we want to achieve, but we also determine the actions that should lead us there. In both cases, we face an insidious enemy – the decision paralysis.

Decision paralysis occurs when we have to select from some choices that are incomparable at first glance. And what’s worst, the more options we have in front of us, the more complicated it is to choose one. Has it ever happened to you that you stood in front of an aisle of yogurts at the supermarket, and you couldn’t decide between the 50 different kinds of flavors?

The more complex and important the decision is, the more energy it takes out of us. The timing of selecting the final decision brings negative emotions. This aversion leads to a postponement in making a decision. In many cases, decision paralysis exhausts the decision maker so much, that he or she doesn’t have any energy left to carry out the action itself.

Simply stated, decision paralysis can be described as choosing between action A or B, and these variables are hard to compare, so we tend to pick action C, or do anything at all. When we're supposed to do two important things, but we don’t know which to start first, we often don’t start either one and instead do something that’s not very important at the given time.

We start procrastinating. We start watching a television series, browse through the statuses of our friends on Facebook, or we head out to join our friends at a pub. Instead of filling out a tax return, we walk around the office and water the plants. Have you ever wondered why students have the tidiest rooms during exam periods? When we don’t know where to begin, then even cleaning seems like a good idea.

“People don’t make decisions based on what’s the most important, but based on what’s the easiest to evaluate.”
- Barry Schwartz, psychology professor

Study: How American retirees procrastinated on their retirement plans

Researchers from Columbia University have analyzed more than three-quarters of a million Vanguard clients, an investment group, and found that the higher amount of retirement saving plan options decreased the number of people who started saving towards their retirement plans. The more saving options employees received, the lower the percentage of people chose a certain retirement saving plan.

Every new 10 options lowered the number of people that chose from the plans available by about 2%. When there were 5 options, then 70.1% of people managed to pick one. When there were 15 options, only 67.7% chose one. And when there were 35 options, only about 63.0% of employees chose a saving plan.

The general trend in the US market, however, doubled the number of retirement saving options from 1998 to 2002. That led to employees postponing their decision on what saving plan to choose. This procrastination brought many problems to people. As it turns out, it could have been one of the possible causes of the financial crisis in the 21st century.

Study: Slightly frightening procrastination in doctors


In another study about the human decision-making process, about three hundred physicians were introduced to a patient that had osteoarthritis, a hip problem. The doctors were told that the patient tried all the well-known medicines. The researchers asked the doctors what they would do. The doctors sent the patient to surgery for a total arthroplasty hip replacement.

In the first scenario, doctors were told just before surgery that one more medicine existed that wasn’t used by the patient for the existing hip problem. The doctors were asked how they would proceed in the light of this new information if it were a real-life situation. In this case, most of the doctors canceled the surgery operation and advised the patient to try the new medicine.

In the second scenario, the doctors were once again told right before surgery that there’s one more option available, other than surgery. This time, there were two forms of medicines that the patient didn’t try yet. In the later case, many more doctors still proceeded with patient’s surgery. Only half of the doctors decided to try the other medicines.

Perhaps by adding one more medicine to choose from would have resulted in a significant increase in the number of doctors that proceeded with the surgery. This research shows that a common cause of higher procrastination rate is due to an increase of more variables and challenging decisions. People in such cases often choose the default option, which in this study was a very unpleasant surgical operation.

“The more a decision problem seems complex, the more we tend to choose the default option.”
- Dan Ariely, psychology professor

It’s not only about the difficulty in choosing, but also the regret that comes later

The deceit in decision paralysis isn’t just about the difficulty in making a choice. Another unexpected problem is that if we are choosing from more options, there’s a bigger chance of regretting what we initially chose.

When you choose something, we tend to think about what would have happened if we chose something different before. We think about the other option, which leads us to be far less satisfied with what we chose. It isn’t very ideal when we think about what college to go to, or what job or life partner to choose from.

As it turns out, regret presents itself mainly when the option can be changed retrospectively. When a certain choice cannot be changed, people are on the contrary happier with the choice they made. It could be a possible reason why an increasing number of partners are unsatisfied and divorce. The easier it is to change the partner, the less we are satisfied with the selected partner. Even if he or she does everything perfectly.

“The greater amount of choices we have, the easier it is to regret and find imperfections in our past decision.”
- Barry Schwartz, psychology professor

Study: Discontent pictures

Dan Gilbert from Harvard University and Jane Erbert from MIT conducted a research study finding to what extent did people regret past decisions. The study was carried out in a Harvard photography course. Students took many photographs throughout the course, and at the end, they were allowed to choose and frame two of their favorite photographs.

The core of the study lied in the fact that students had to face the decision of choosing one of the two photos. They could only keep one. Some of the students had to choose right away without the option of changing their decision later. In this case, the other photograph would be sent out of the country forever.

The other group of students had to choose one photograph, but they were offered the opportunity to change their decision later. The other photograph would be sent out of the country in a week. Students could change the chosen photograph whenever they pleased throughout the week.

Throughout the course of the experiment, the student’s satisfaction of their chosen photograph was measured across the two groups. The conclusion of the study showed that if the students had the opportunity to change their minds, they were significantly less satisfied regarding their selected photograph. And those that couldn’t change their decision were, on the contrary, much more satisfied in the future than they were right after selecting their photograph.

The second part of the experiment tested how close people could predict their future satisfaction. Another group of students had to choose what course they would rather attend the following year. One course offered would give the students the option of choosing two photographs, and keeping one without changing the decision. The other course gave the option of changing the decided photograph.

Most of the student chose the second course: The one that allowed them to change their decision. It shows that students have the tendency of leaving the back door open. Even though the first part of the study revealed that having a loophole, in fact, lead to dissatisfaction in the future. People voluntarily decided to choose the scenario that would lead to significantly less satisfaction in the end.

How can you use this knowledge about decision paralysis? How can you win against decision paralysis and increase your effectiveness?

Further reading about decision paralysis

You can read more about decision paralysis and procrastination in the first chapter (31 pages) of the book The End of Procrastination which is available for free.

Download the free chapter

VIDEO: Surprising Science of Happiness

VIDEO: Why do people procrastinate now more than ever?

See more lessons

This video is part of an online course. If you want to learn more about how to procrastination and be more efficient, check it out.


  • Research: Huberman, G.; Iyengar, S.; Jiang, W: Defined Contribution Pension Plans: Determinants of Participation and Contributions Rates. issue 31, 2007: pg. 1--32.
  • Research: Redelmeier, D. A., Shafir E.: Medical decision making in situations that offer multiple alternatives. Jama The Journal Of The American Medical Association, issue 273, no. 4, 1995: pg. 302--305.
  • Research: Gilbert, D.; Ebert, J. E. J.: Decisions and revisions: The affective forecasting of changeable outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, issue 82, no. 4, 2002: pg. 503--514.
  • Book: Ludwig P., Schicker A.: The End of Procrastination: How to Stop Postponing and Live a Fulfilled Life. New York: St. Martin's Essentials, 2018, ISBN 978-1250308054, 272 pg.
  • Book: Schwartz B.: The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005, ISBN 978-0060005696, 304 pg.
  • Book: Iyengar S.: The art of choosing. Twelve, 2010, ISBN 978-0446504102, 352 pg.
  • Book: Gilbert D.: Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Knopf, 2006, ISBN 978-1400077427, 336 pg.
  • Book: Ariely D.: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. New York: HarperCollins, 2008, ISBN 978-006-135323-9, 294 pg.

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