I recently encountered a problem in my life I found interesting. I noticed that I was fairly unfit, that my energy levels were lower than I wanted them to be, and so I was considering starting to exercise more as a solution to this. And I knew that exercise is ridiculously important to longevity and general health, and had been thinking about this for at least the path month.
So I brought up this issue with my coach, and it became obvious to me that I’d never actually done anything about this - it felt aversive, and I felt highly reluctant to take any action. And when I introspected on where that reluctance came from, it turned out to be coming from a desire to find the optimal form of exercise. And because I am deeply confused about the science behind exercise, there were many different options for how to get into it, and it wasn’t obvious what the best one was, I was caught in analysis paralysis and procrastinating about it. And her advice for this problem was “the best kind of exercise is the one you actually do”.
I knew on some level that I was making an error, but I thought this articulated it excellently. Most of the value comes from doing any exercise, and finding optimal forms, durations etc should not be the priority. And since seeing it like this, the problem has felt basically solved! I decided to pick Couch to 5K as an obvious and available exercise plan, and have systematised doing it 3 times a week: I have a clear time in the mornings to do it, reminders, and owe a friend of mine £20 for each session I miss (for bad reasons). And at this point, it now feels like the default action is to do some exercise, I’ve kept it up for the last month, and this is no longer a burning priority.
When articulated like this, the problem feels obvious. But this is also deeply weird. I procrastinated for months on a problem, found a slight change in perspective, and near instantly solved it to my satisfaction, to the point where the solution now feels like the default action. And getting better at resolving problems like that sounds like a major win!
This kind of perfectionism-induced procrastination and analysis paralysis is an example of a far more general problem in my life, and in the lives of the people around me. In this post I’m going to dig into to exactly what the error is and where it comes from, how to identify it in practice, and then how to find the thing you will actually do.
This problem comes up everywhere in my life when I actually look for it, and the lives of my friends:
- When I started blogging, I spent about a month procrastinating, as I tried to find the optimal blogging, the optimal style, the optimal things to write about. Until I eventually solved it by committing to running with Squarespace, and making a daily commitment, so the default action shifting to doing things
- Fortunately, this made my original motivation of blogging - overcoming procrastination - feel way more justified!
- I’ve so far talked about 5 friends of mine into starting blogs - this problem has come up with all of them!
- Accordingly, my advice if you want to start blogging is to just do it! Start making a blog on Medium, it’s exceptionally low effort, and just copy your posts over to somewhere else if you ever decide to switch.
- When deciding which posts to write, I feel averse to writing ambitious posts, on topics I understand less well. I feel like I should only start a post if I have a clear view, even though by far the most valuable posts are the ones that clarify my thoughts
- When I identify a problem, and come up with a vague way to fix it, but there are many details, and I can’t see how to perfectly resolve all of them
- Eg, it took me several weeks to implement my solution to meaningful rest
- I’ve been procrastinating trying online dating for a while - there’s obviously massive upside risk, but so many questions: how to write a bio, which platform, which persona to affect, initiating conversations, etc
- More generally, basically anything that has strong upside risk triggers this - there’s vagueness, and high-uncertainty, and I want to clarify it
The core problem here is one of perfectionism. I want things to be optimal. I’ve anchored myself to a perfect outcome, and anything that falls short of it is a clear and visceral cost. And thus I fall prey to the illusion of doing nothing, and this feels safe.
And this is clearly an error! Often, my standards are far too high, and the “perfect” outcome is utterly unrealistic. And, even if it is attainable, I am still failing to optimise correctly. I’m failing to account for opportunity costs - everything else I could do with the time I spend obsessing, tweaking and perfecting - and computing costs - all of energy I spend thinking about it, the draining stress and anxiety.
From another perspective, this is an error of prioritisation. I’m pouring all of my effort into optimising the final details of a task, which represent maybe 20% of the value. But the vast majority of the value, perhaps 80%, comes from doing anything at all! There’s no upside to doing nothing. So I pour all of my effort into the final part and neglect the thing that actually matters, rather than learning to 80/20 it.
By far the most important step here is to identify that this is a problem. Lest you be eternally caught in the trap of things not feeling urgent, costs feeling salient and painful, and not seeing all the value you’re throwing away. I think there are some common risk factors here:
- The feeling of perfectionism - if you tend to be a perfectionist, if it feels really important that something is done right, even if you can’t quite put your finger on what that means
- When there are many options - a large, unbounded solution space, where there is no obvious Schelling point
- Uncertainty - It’s hard to tell which option is the best.
- There’s room to research, ask for advice, and try to gather more information, and this feels productive - further incentive to put things off
- There’s a perception of risk from choosing the wrong option - it feels important to get it right, else you lose out
- All of the risk factors of macro-procrastination - not having deadlines, not having any clear accountability mechanisms. It never feels high cost to push this out into the future
Exercise: Set a 5 minute timer, and generate examples of this for you. What are you currently being a perfectionist about, and missing out on?
Even better than just identifying the problem is to ensure it feels important - that when you notice it, alarm bells start ringing in your head, it feels worth doing something about. If it’s a frequent enough occurrence in your life, and you have enough examples, I recommend trying Noticing on it
So, you’ve identified that this is a problem in your life. You feel motivated to do something about it. What can you actually do?
- The core insight here is to put a major emphasis on action. The core mistake here is being caught by option paralysis, not doing anything, and thus missing out on most of the value. In order to find the thing you will actually do, you need to first become willing to actually do things at all
- To create a sense of urgency, it can help to quantify the costs. How much time and energy is this losing you?
- It often helps to put those costs into context. Eg, I know that I can write a blog post in 2-3 hours. So if I spend 10 hours agonising over fine details, I’ve sacrificed 4 blog posts for this! And that feels far more visceral
- Another framing: Are you surprised if it’s 2 months from now, and you still haven’t done this? And if not, are you OK with that?
- The implicit question you’re asking is “should I do this now or later”, but often the real question is “should I do this now or never”
- I outline my thoughts on various other ways to create urgency in my post on general procrastination
- It’s harder to do this by applying mental force to yourself, so I find it valuable to try to orient towards intrinsic motivation
- Orient towards excitement. How could doing this thing be awesome? Flesh out a concrete picture where it goes well
- Try to build it into your self-image. Strive to become a Person who Actually Does Things. Think about how overcoming procrastination can get you closer to the kind of person you want to be
- This is fundamentally a problem of option paralysis, and not having a clear next action. So how can you find a default next action?
- What is the obvious solution? Once you’ve come up with one, just do it! Life is too short to obsess over fine details
- Assume that you just get it done - within a few weeks you feel totally comfortable with it, and your anxiety and analysis feels silly in hindsight. What happened?
- Set a 5 minute timer and generate ideas. At the end, pick your favourite by gut feel and run with it!
- Ask a friend for advice, and go with their gut feel. It’s far easier to escape the trap of analysis paralysis from the outside!
- Bonus if you can then use that friend for accountability!
If this post resonates, think about where you can apply this in your life.
Where are you currently misallocating effort, and missing the forest for the trees? What are you being a perfectionist about? What are you putting off until it feels just right?
What is this costing you? What else could you being doing with this effort? What are you missing out on?
And, when you’ve found something, realise that you are procrastinating about it. Why do you want to take action on this? What is a next step that you could actually do? And what is something you could do, right now, to make that the default next action?