How overthinking causes creative paralysis (and how to fix it)

Paralysis by analysis is a frequent problem I find myself running into. I want so desperately to move my business and life forward, but feel stuck when deciding exactly which step I should take next. I’ve used countless hours reading, filtering, and searching for other people’s ideas for the right thing to do next — utterly inundated with information. What move should I make, and which direction is the right one?

I’m slowly realizing though, that all of this is just a waste of time. It’s also seriously difficult to quit. Feeding yourself with constant information is addictive. Creating busy work to ward off real, actual thinking, or worse — action. The irony is that this over-thinking is preventing us from doing what we need to do to move forward.

While listening to a recent podcast from some of the gang over at IDEO, I picked up a one-liner that I felt was a solid mantra when over-analyzation sets in. They say, “don’t get ready, get started.” The challenge with diving headlong into the unknown though is being open and vulnerable to failing. For many people, failing evokes massive amounts of fear, and fear drives us to do ridiculous things. Moreover, it drives us to do nothing at all.

To overcome this over-analytical slump many find themselves in, I’d like to suggest applying the power of design thinking to these circumstances.

When we are stuck, we usually can’t see the problem or project through any other lens than the one in which we are stuck behind.

If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
— Wayne Dyer

Changing perspective can provide opportunities to get back to the pace we need to carry on. So, how can we use design thinking to move through this? Apply design thinking at a micro level as well as a macro level. It can help us work through societal swings as well as day to day tasks. Here are five steps you can use to approach your next problem using design thinking.

Observe

Bring the problem into your awareness. Be completely open to the fact that you are stuck, and write down what the problem is. Notice how you feel because of it, and what is going on around the problem. Understand how this issue came to be. If you can identify any patterns or behaviors that fueled this problem or feeling of being stuck, reflect on them. If you write these down, it will help to get the problem out of your head and onto a piece of paper so that you can visually deal with it.

Ideate

Now we want to create as many ideas on how someone (anyone) could handle this problem. How would your mother fix this issue? How about the person you admire most? How about someone famous or successful? The idea here is to write down as many ideas as you can dream of, in a particular window of time. Think quantity here. Some ideas might be safe and calculated, and others might be completely off the wall. Remember, no-one is holding you to any of these ideas. Ideas are free! Write them down.

Prototype

The next stage in a typical design thinking workflow is called prototyping. Don’t over think this step. The idea is to produce something quickly with minimal effort that is “workable.” This is your MVP. Let’s take a look at a real life example. If you are trying to move your business to a new level and feel stuck on which step to take next, you can use prototyping to play out different ideas. Let’s say the problem you’re trying solve is to increase revenue in your design agency by 30% over the course of 6 months. Maybe you feel stagnant at your current revenue level and can’t figure out how to make that next jump. The ideation step should provide you with piles of ideas that can potentially increase revenue.

Next, Settle on a few ideas that seem promising, group the ideas into several categories. Maybe your problem is figuring out how to improve client outreach. So, you prototype a simple scripted message to use through email, LinkedIn, and Facebook. You set a micro goal such as reaching out to 5 contacts (new and old) 3 days a week for one month.

Review

Once you have your pile of prototypes in front of you, you must now review. In this step, you would evaluate your prototypes after you’ve tested them for a period. In our example, you could examine how many people respond to you over the course of 30 days and how many lead to new business opportunities.

Iterate

Once you have reviewed your progress (stepping past that initial stuck feeling), you iterate on the idea. If we look at the example from before, we might change the script. Modify the channels through which we do outreach, or change the follow-up sequence. What can you change and make better? Consider this a new system that is part of your bigger trajectory. How can you fine tune this system? A key point here is to identify if the system or prototype is worth pursuing. In many cases, you should scrap the idea since the feedback displayed no promise. In these situations, practice the art of failing fast. Don’t sink tons of time, energy, and resources into an idea that doesn’t work. Fail quickly and move on to another idea. I have forced too many ideas past the point of which I would later learn were not good ideas and not viable. Nix these ideas quickly, and focus energy on ideas that have more promise.

The root of paralysis by analysis is the notion that there is only one right answer, or one way to go, or one step to take. Sometimes there are several correct answers, and they may be wildly different from each other. The truth is, right and wrong are entirely subjective based on the task at hand, and more often than not you have to venture down a wrong path to understand what a right one will look like. There is also danger taking a stake in the failure or success of one of your precious ideas. The beauty of design thinking is that you create so many ideas in the prototyping stage that each good idea stops becoming “the one.” By the time you realize that one of your ideas is a failure, you will have created so many others with potential for success that your ego hardly suffers.

Conclusion

Design thinking is another powerful tool in a creator’s toolbox. I find by thinking creatively, using the methodology of design thinking instead of the default analytical thinking can provide additional ways to find growth.

Through observation, collaboration, and action we can step beyond the paralysis by analysis we get stuck in and find clarity.

Utilizing design thinking requires practice. Finding opportunities to apply design thinking to problems is a journey I am still discovering.

How are you using design thinking? Let me know in comments below!

Thank you!

Mike McKearin

About Mike McKearin

Owner of WE•DO Worldwide, a creative agency building brands that can be a catalyst for positive change through collaboration and action.

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