I was stuck.
I was a couple years into founding my company, Jotform. We had grown from one employee (me) to four. We had thousands of loyal users. People appreciated how our online forms made their lives easier. It was a simple concept, but it seemed to have legs. I was gaining confidence that my bootstrapped startup had real staying power.
Then, I received an email from an old friend: Had I heard? Google was tossing its hat into the online form ring. Turned out I wasn’t the only one who saw the potential for automated forms. Suddenly, I faced a dilemma: how to keep growing my company in an increasingly competitive arena. And more immediately: how to keep the lights on and not go under.
I wrestled with the various choices: I could follow the path of many founders and seek outside funding. I could tweak our product or our business model. Or, I could throw in the towel and find a cushy job as a programmer for someone else’s company. The more I tried to envision where each choice would lead, the more I struggled to decide.
At some point, it occurred to me that if we could do internally what we did for our customers — automate our busywork — then we’d have the bandwidth to continue the journey on our terms, that is, without VC funding. It might not have been the perfect choice — there would inevitably be bumps in the road — but I took it and ran. I doubled down on my scrappy startup and we began automating as many processes as possible. Spoiler alert: it worked. We survived that first obstacle and 17 years later, we’re continuing to grow.
Whether you’re facing a career-altering decision or a quotidian dilemma, analysis paralysis — overthinking a decision to the point where you find it impossible to decide — can leave you feeling stuck. Luckily, strategies such as automation, the subject of my new book Automate Your Busywork, can help you to overcome analysis paralysis for choices major and minor. Here, a closer look at some of the strategies that have worked for me in my entrepreneurial journey.
Defeating analysis paralysis
1. Stop searching for the ‘right’ one
When it comes to making decisions, we often presume that there’s one correct answer out there. Whether we’re deciding on a career pivot or a lunch invitation, we try to think ourselves into the ideal outcome, but end up thinking ourselves into a box.
According to Stanford professor Baba Shiv, rational analysis might get us closer to a decision, but it won’t result in a definitive choice. Analyzing the various options involves trading one set of outcomes for another and the complexity of each scenario makes it virtually impossible to determine which outcome will be the best. That’s why, in situations where you’re weighing trade-offs, Shiv recommends tuning into your gut.
And because there is no objective “right” choice, Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and author of “The Paradox of Choice,” advocates becoming comfortable with “good enough.” That doesn’t mean settling for mediocrity. It means making a thoughtful decision given the available information and not worrying about whether a better option exists. Schwartz also recommends setting boundaries for your research.
Let’s say you’re planning a vacation and researching hotels. Limit your research to three websites, and once you make a reservation, don’t ruminate on whether another hotel would have been better. Each option has trade-offs and no matter which Bahamian resort you choose, you’ll be far from the office and likely, having a great vacation.
2. Focus less on the decision, more on the actions that follow
Another problem with analysis paralysis is that it puts too much emphasis on the decision and not enough on what comes after. Paraphrasing Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, Harvard Business Review author Ed Batista writes, “It’s important to make good decisions. But I spend much less time and energy worrying about ‘making the right decision’ and much more time and energy ensuring that any decision I make turns out right.” Batista explains,
Merely selecting the ‘best’ option doesn’t guarantee that things will turn out well in the long run, just as making a sub-optimal choice doesn’t doom us to failure or unhappiness. It’s what happens next (and in the days, months, and years that follow) that ultimately determines whether a given decision was ‘right.’
Imagine you’re weighing whether to enroll in a graduate school program in order to take your career to the next level. While the decision is undoubtedly important, it’s what comes after that really makes a difference. If you choose to go to grad school, make it count. Study hard, build connections, and leverage your hard-earned experience. If you choose not to go, then maybe you can dedicate the time you would have spent to other enriching experiences. Or figure out different ways to get the training you need.
By merely advancing through the decision-making stage, you free yourself up to focus on doing the work that actually matters.
3. Automate as many daily processes as possible
By now, we’re all familiar with the concept of decision fatigue. Making decisions is tiring, especially when we find ourselves paralyzed and unable to pick a path. What’s more, research has found that the more choices you make, the worse the quality of your decisions — and sometimes the consequences can be far-reaching.
Automation is one way to consistently eliminate many of your daily decisions. As I explain in my book, the first step to automating your busywork is to analyze your daily tasks and identify the workflows — series of interconnected steps that produce a result. Let’s say you send out a weekly newsletter. The workflow might look something like this:
- Research newsletter topic
- Draft newsletter
- Send draft to editor
- Review edits and update newsletter
- Build newsletter
- Create newsletter design
- Manually add email recipients
- Manually send newsletter
It may be a single item on your to-do list, but in fact, there are various steps and multiple decisions. But if you automate — for example, by creating a design template, building an email list that updates automatically with new weekly sign-ups, and scheduling your newsletter to go out each week at the same time — you eliminate nearly half of the decisions in your workflow.
It’s worth taking the time to step back and identify the workflows throughout your day. Then, figure out how to automate as many steps as possible. Not only will you gain back the time spent, you’ll also store up your mental energy.
Personal experience shows (and research agrees) that overanalyzing a decision ad nauseum serves no purpose. It exhausts our mental resources and might even make our ultimate decision worse.
That’s why, instead, we can practice letting go of the idea of the “right choice;” dedicate our energy to guaranteeing success regardless of which choice we make; and utilize automation to eliminate as many superfluous decisions as possible.
As Patti Johnson writes for HBR, “There are rarely ‘right’ answers in business. But making a decision — even if it’s deemed imperfect later — has the benefit of reducing uncertainty for the rest of your company or team.”
Both you and your team will benefit from your capacity to defeat analysis paralysis.