Do You Plan, Ruminate, Worry, Poke, Prod, and Fumble? How to Stop Overanalyzing Your Projects
Photo courtesy of Creative Ignition.

Do You Plan, Ruminate, Worry, Poke, Prod, and Fumble? How to Stop Overanalyzing Your Projects

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Productivity

I’ve been planning to write this post for approximately seven years. Every possible paragraph has been carefully researched. Each of my thoughts has been passed by a number of focus groups.

(In fact, the focus groups were themselves chosen by focus groups, although it took me several months of careful focus-grouping to discover that that was the correct strategy.)

As such, I am confident that this post is the very best it could possibly be, except-

Wait.

Maybe there’s an angle that I haven’t yet considered. I must give it some more thinking time and get back to you soon…

Trapped in Over-Analysis

I hope you don’t experience such extreme levels of over-analysis, but I think you’ll recognize this common trap.

In place of action, addiction to over-analysis leads us to endlessly plan, ruminate, worry, poke, prod, and fumble. (Note to self: are these the best possible words to use? Be sure to research this thoroughly!)

Here are some common symptoms of over-analysis, along with some ideas as to how each could be alleviated:

1) Needing to Have All the Answers in Advance

It’s easy to believe that you couldn’t possibly begin until every last question has been investigated, and every final detail has been decided. This eye for detail can, of course, be a strength, but when misused, it provides the perfect excuse for inaction.

Escape this trap: Only plan the most crucial details in advance and allow some details to be filled in on the fly. Trust your future self to handle it!

2) Asking for Endless Second Opinions

Okay, so your careful research has indicated that twenty people like the sound of your project. That’s great! But what if the twenty-first person doesn’t like it? Better keep asking… just in case someone, somewhere, doesn’t like it.

Asking others for their opinions is useful and important, but there has to be a stopping point.

Escape this trap: Have confidence in yourself and your ideas. Recognize that not everybody needs to like what you do; as long as somebody appreciates your work, that may be enough.

3) Perfectionism

“Every little detail must be perfect before we start. What color will the border be on the logo? Should it be two pixels wide? Or three?! WE CANNOT POSSIBLY LAUNCH UNTIL WE KNOW THIS.”

Escape this trap: Remind yourself that it’s better to have a product out there with an imperfect logo (or to have an imperfect job, or whatever) and then change it later if necessary.

It’s usually okay to make necessary course corrections later, and it’s better to have something than nothing.

4) Being Unable to Tolerate Uncertainty

Sometimes I get stuck because I’m seeking something I can’t possibly have: a cast-iron guarantee of success in advance.

Escape this trap: Remind yourself that crystal balls don’t exist, and that a little failure usually isn’t the end of the world.

(And if failure would be the end of the world, perhaps that’s a sign that you’re biting off more than you can chew on this project. Is it possible to scale it down to a level where failure doesn’t mean certain doom?!)

5) Overuse of Lists, Systems, Tools

Systems are great, but we’ve all heard of the student who spends all their time making a revision timetable and never doing any actual revision.

Escape this trap: Review your use of time. A good rule of thumb could be that no more than 10% of your time should be spent making systems; 90% should be spent using those systems.

(Of course, pick a percentage that works for you. A good rule of thumb is never to blindly copy anyone else’s rules of thumb.)

The Main Thing: Act!

All of these ideas push us towards action and away from rumination. Planning is wonderful, but when it becomes endless and unproductive, we need to escape the over-analysis trap and get started.

Once you’ve determined that you’re doing analysis unnecessarily, take your first step of real action, and trust that the preparation you’ve done will make the second, third, and following steps smooth enough for you to handle.

Your Turn

Do you have any tips for breaking out of endless analysis? Share with the community in the comments!

neil_authorbioNeil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at www.walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

37 Comments

  1. chilli says:

    thank you for this one. It really matches my behaviour like a glove.
    I’m gonna print it out and add it to my “check before release”-list. ;)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Fantastic! I feel privileged to have made it into an actual real-life process! (It makes me so happy when ideas get translated to action, so being part of that is a real honour. Good luck!)

  2. Jay says:

    Thank you Neil for the awesome tips!
    Yes. I’ve been putting off pretty much every single project throughout my whole life, because I felt like things weren’t perfect. I was always so afraid that people wouldn’t like my stuff. For example, last year I produced and mixed a record for my former band and it felt so unfinished at the time of launch that I didn’t even want to advertize it to the world. In the end I only got great comments from everyone who listened to it, but still, I didn’t feel too confident about it.
    These days I feel like I’m more ready to expose my work even though it makes me feel more vulnerable. I’m launching my website this week and am committed to publish most of my work on the web. Puttylike has helped me a lot with the process.
    Thanks again to Neil for the great article.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks Jay, really glad it fit with you. It’s interesting that even with the great comments about the record, you still didn’t feel able to release it. I think it’s good to do things to our own standard, but we have to also recognise when those standards are too high, or impossible to meet. Vulnerability is so important, good on you for chasing it :) Really happy to have played a small part in helping! Thanks :)

  3. Nikki says:

    Excellent post, especially “trust your future self to handle it!” – I have the bizarre gift of being both an over-thinker AND a doer, so while I often just get on with things I over-analyse my personal projects and don’t do them enough to practice and therefore get better (i.e. writing).

    I enjoy the benefits being critical can bring, but not the crippling anxiety ;)

    • Lesa says:

      Same Nikki! It is like I maintain 2 persona’s, the one that rips the band aid off and dives in and the one that is paralyzed with the idea of making sure I am “doing things right” before I start. I think all of this is stemming from my fear of being vulnerable, I use my aggressiveness and my fear as shields. Finding the happy medium is still elusive but I am trying.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Ahhh that sounds like such a familiar combination…! We are definitely in the same boat there. Thanks Nikki, glad the thoughts resonated with you :)

  4. Hello Neil,

    A very quick response to you marvellous piece. My ladder of escape is not to feel responsible for the views and queries of others. They are not responsible for you. If others don’t want to swim against the current, means they’re dead.

    happy greetings
    Hans

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Fantastic! Taking responsibility for your OWN stuff, and ONLY your own stuff is so hard, but so important. Great reminder to let go of it :)

  5. Sarah Elgradawy says:

    My favorite part was- “Recognize that not everybody needs to like what you do; as long as somebody appreciates your work, that may be enough.” I really do get stuck in making sure that anyone and everyone approves a decision before I can make it- and when someone doesn’t, I second guess the decision all together, and sometimes don’t do it just because of that one person. It’s like I’m SEARCHING for that one “no” to prove that I was wrong.

    Especially in creative ventures, this is such a terrible way of thinking. I have to remember that I can’t please everyone! And I have to be okay with that. People have different tastes, and that’s what makes art great.

    What I want to try and start doing (and the first time I practiced this it was such a success) is have a small goal. I’m not saying shoot low, but just don’t create this giant expectations to then be disappointed. For instance, the first time I sold my jewelry, my goal was just to sell one pair of earrings. It would be more than I’ve ever sold and it would still be progress! I ended up doing really, really well that night and was elated. So- what I’m saying is, at least at the beginning of a project, don’t try and project yourself into this super successful person. Just put it out there, and look for feedback (good and bad).

    I’m done now, but thank you so much for the article! Over-analyzing is such a handicap sometimes!

    Much love,
    Sarah

    • Neil Hughes says:

      It’s so easy to fall into that trap of only listening for negative voices… as you say, even SEARCHING for one, because it validates that negative voice in our head. Absolutely right – we can’t please everyone, and if we try we will definitely fail. But if we try to please SOME people, those who like what we naturally create, then we can get into our own flow and enjoy creating things for that audience, however small or large it may be :)

      Love your example of the earrings! :)

  6. Thank you! This was right on time for me! I was in an overthinking spiral this morning but I decided to make a decision and go with it. Then I clicked on your article and felt so much better. It’s good knowing we are not alone.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yay! I’m glad it was relevant and it helped you to feel better. You’re definitely not alone – from the comments, this is incredibly common!

  7. Deb H says:

    OMG! This exactly what I do – thanks for the proverbial smack-alongside-the-head. Now, to learn to stop myself!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Hehe, I hope it was more gentle than a smack on the head ;p but I’m glad it helped you to recognise a tendency! Good luck changing it in future :)

  8. Kisha says:

    I love this! Thanks so much…I didn’t realize I overanalyze until someone pointed it out to me recently. I’ve had the success of completing projects but often I don’t launch them until I’ve overanalyzed myself to death…I say “forget it” and throw myself out there and let the response for the service I offer drive me to go for it. What a way to create even more anxiety, but it works! However, I’d like to be a little more deliberate and conscious about launching my products. This was very helpful! Thanks!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      It’s amazing how invisible our own habits can be to ourselves, yet others can point them out! Good luck recognising your overanalysis in future – once we’re aware of it, we can change it! Glad it helped :)

  9. Melissa B says:

    Wow!!! I truly thought I was the only one like this. I LOVE coming up with systems but I rarely use them and wonder why my projects or goals never get done! I also feel crippled by wanting to have all the angles worked out before I actually attempt anything and I get so frustrated when opportunities pass me by because of it. My perfectionism stems more from wanting to have all the details sorted in my head and less about the details of the product being perfect. Great tips here and they made me chuckle too which is great! Thanks!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Comments like this make me so happy – I always hate feeling like it’s just me with a problem, so it’s amazing to discover it isn’t. System addiction is so crippling – I hope now you can see the habits you can notice yourself doing them and try to act differently next time :) Good luck! (And I’m glad about the chuckles too :D)

  10. mar says:

    It really resonates with me, i have allways suffered from perfectionism and every time launched too late and done the project so slowly that most of the time missed deadlines or couldn’t complete my projects! even about ordinary tasks in my routine i have this problem! so i procrastinate most of the time and guess what would a multipod feel when has a lot of interests and potential project and talents and this extreme perfectionism and procrastination!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Perfectionism is so toxic because it SEEMS so positive – who doesn’t want to be perfect?! But it prevents us from ever getting anything done. I have to keep reminding myself that something imperfect which exists is better than something perfect that doesn’t! :D

  11. Emily says:

    Totally me! Love the opening paragraphs. :)

  12. Joel says:

    Excellent post, Neil. I will let you know what I think as soon as I complete the final draft of my comments and put them through two or three rounds of pier review. :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I am scheduling several sessions to dwell on them once they’re posted so I can truly appreciate them ;p

  13. Kristin says:

    I knew I was going to be able to relate to this just from reading the headline, haha. Thanks for the excellent advice, especially allocating 10% of time to creating systems and 90% to actually doing stuff. This is really helpful, especially considering I often end up tweaking my system once I get started. But it takes getting started to figure out what to tweak. New fan!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Aw, that’s great to hear – I’m glad the practical advice resonated with you. I find I spend so much time making – and remaking – the same productivity systems, or exercise plans, or diet plans, or… and very little time DOING the things. Pleased I’m not alone! Hope you manage to get some things done :)

  14. Mitch says:

    This post speaks to me in spades. It talks to my perfectionist procrastination on all my creative endecours because I can see success to clearly in my mind that if the real world product does congruently click into the mental image, it is agony and more bearable to avoid and not create than to release a “half told story”. But this is absolutely the sign of a gift becoming a curse. It is my OCD and anxiety winning. “Exposing” myself (psychologically speaking) to imperfection and uncertainty is THE only remedy for moving back into the gift.. moving back into health. To truly rewrite your brain to sit with the pain of a perfectly imperfect masterpiece. In yourself, and in your work. Thanks for the reminder, Hughesy!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      :D
      Cheers, Mitch! Really pleased it spoke to you. Hope you manage to do that brain rewriting – as you say, it’s tough work, but it’s so worth it!

  15. Lovely article. I love how you seamlessly integrated elements of “revision” (really doubting) and questioning that we multipotentialites often suffer from
    I find I may be that student you alluded to. I spend so much time researching and planiing that taking action takes a very long time. I have found much value in this. Thank you.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Glad to hear it was valuable to you Devrhoid! Hope it helps you to let go of the questions and be more productive :)

  16. moa po says:

    It is funny because yes I still live these periods of uncertainty but the more I grow (even if I am 41 years old) the more easily I manage to control these aspects. Perhaps it is the fact of being a mother. My children made me understand a lot. I think the multi-potentialist reach their potential just a little later than the others. You have to be patient. that’s all!

  17. Howard says:

    “Paralysis by analysis” is my biggest ailment in my personal projects. My combo of creativity and analytical aptitude serve me well in work, but that’s because deadlines mean things HAVE to get done.

    Personal projects? Ehhhhh…not so much. It took me years to finish my first novel and I just renewed my domain registration for my liveasfire project which, of course, has not been properly launched. Heck, I even purchased Emilie’s “Renaissance Business” plan ebook-thingie more than a year ago.

    Having said that, I am (slowly) learning that just as is the case with work, it is better to complete an imperfect project than to never launch. So I plan and analyze and consume near-lethal levels of coffee, but I also simply the must-haves and accept that many of my projects can be improved post-go-live.

    Attempting to completing a perfect creative project is a failure waiting to happen. Completing a well-done one is not. The latter is far more valuable.

    Now, back to that website I’m supposed to be working on.

  18. Sara says:

    This is something I experience almost any time I start a new project. Some of it is just plain old procrastination, but overanalysis is definitely a part of the problem. When I have to write a paper, I spend so much time researching, reading, and planning, that I don’t end up writing anything until the last minute. Then, of course, all my meticulous planning goes out the window as I’m forced to write my whole paper in a day.

    Somehow, I usually end up getting good feedback and grades on these papers, likely because in my rush to finish, I HAVE to get to the point in the most concise way. Now I just have to train myself to do that WITHOUT subjecting myself to the misery of that last minute scrambling. Maybe I should just keep a copy of this article nearby :P

  19. Terri says:

    Thanks for the poke. I’m a huge list maker. And the lists are usually long with every possible errand, task, or ToDo that my mind creates. I feel I need to get to that level of “organization” so that I can be sure I’ve accounted for everything. Of course, it delays action. But when I do complete something on the list, wow, crossing it off feels great. So here’s my solution–make two lists!! One contains everything my brain can create, like adding skylights to my house one day. The other list is much shorter with only a few items from the big list that CAN be accomplished in the week ahead. The last item on the short list is DO IT!

  20. Maria says:

    This.is.me.
    Oh, finaly someone can understand me!I feel really unconfortable when I start to ruminate, dismember the stuff I’m doing.
    Several times, when I’m wtiting an article, I give up, thinking that it’s impossible to say all the things that I believe are important. Because of perfectionism I quit journalism, since about one year. Sometimes I try time management plans, but after few weeks, I feel sad and frustrated and I fall in procrastination again.
    I’ll print these hints.
    Thank you so much.

  21. Christina says:

    Thank you for this post. I too am part of the “analysis/paralysis” club. It’s encouraging to see that I’m not alone. Will try to work on my anxiety over being wrong or making mistakes.

37 Comments Trackbacks For This Post

  1. Follow the 10% Rule When Creating Systems for Your Work | KrazyWorks
  2. Follow the 10% Rule When Creating Systems for Your Work | Intelligent Jamaica
  3. Mad Hookups for Tarotpreneurs - March 2017 - The Tarot Lady