The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

corbis_rf_photo_of_dog_chasing_tailYou know what it’s like…constantly seeking more data. More data leads to more analysis. More analysis brings up more questions. More questions provoke the need for more data. And so it goes, round and round…like a dog chasing its tail. It wastes your time, your organization’s time and staff time.

How do you break out of analysis paralysis? Neuroscience holds the key to understand over-thinking and to find the way out.

Here are the basics. The cognitive part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – houses the working memory and executive control function. While powerful, it is slow (in brain time) and can process only limited amounts of data at a time. Research shows you can hold only four specific pieces of information in your brain at a time. While the prefrontal cortex makes up only 3 to 4 percent of your brain’s volume, it requires substantial amounts of energy. When you’re faced with a decision with many factors – uncertainty and non-quantifiable variables (like people) – there is simply a limit to what this part of your brain can do alone, plus it’s exhausting. So you get stuck. It’s the way your brain is wired.

Here are three tips to help you break free of analysis paralysis once and for all.

1. Simplify the problem. While analysis paralysis can happen at any time, it is particularly prevalent with situations that have many facets to the problem. Because the cognitive part of your brain is like the RAM in your computer, when capacity is succeeded – wham! – you’re stuck. A good first step is to simplify the problem. Break it into no more than four main issues – the number your brain can comfortably deal with. In interviews with leaders, I have found they are skilled at deconstructing the complex into simpler parts. That helps your brain get its “arms” around it.
2. Notice the nagging feeling. Even though the cognitive part of your brain has limited capacity, there are other parts of the brain that hold wisdom from your experience. These parts of your brain don’t function at the cognitive level nor do they have access to language. Consequently, when the pre-frontal cortex struggles, you will notice a nagging feeling that tugs inside. Here’s what one leader said about over-thinking, “It’s kind of like there’s something inside of me that’s just not sitting right. It’s just agitating.” That gnawing feeling comes from the intuitive parts of your brain that are trying to tell you that there’s something more to look for. This part of your brain is part of your wisdom…if you let it be. Next time, pay attention to the nagging feeling. Delve into it and name it. Naming the feeling brings the unconscious into consciousness. That makes it actionable. The feeling points to places where more questions need to be asked and more discovery is called for. Hear more in this month’s podcast, Want to be an Effective Leader? Discover Five Reasons Why Feelings are Essential.
3. Silence the rationalizing voice. When you pay attention to the self-talk in your head, you realize that there are two competing voices. One is familiar – the analyzing, rationalizing voice that is loud and vocal. The other voice gets less airtime. It’s subtle and brings information from the intuitive brain. It’s like having a loud, bullying friend and a quiet, unassuming friend. When you pay attention to the quiet friend, the bullying friend becomes insecure and wants attention….now! It’s the same with rationalizing. When you recognize the nagging feeling you may notice that rationalizing kicks in. The thinking part of your brain desperately wants to be heard…and to be in charge. There is some scientific evidence that the logical brain overrides the intuitive brain more easily than vice versa. And, the business world idolizes logical thought. We want the decision to be logical so that it makes sense. We want the answer to be rational because it’s easier to justify. But, sometimes, the rational answer isn’t the best answer.
4. Accept that it’s not always about logic. Some decisions can be figured out easily. Others are complicated but can be calculated with effort. But for leaders, your decisions are likely to be less clear cut; otherwise, someone else would be making it. Its decisions that exist behind a fog of uncertainty where the logical choice may not be optimal. It’s time to accept that logical doesn’t equal correct. If you face a complex decision, it’s time to give weight to both fact and feeling. It’s the only way to use the full capacity of your entire brain.
The next time analysis paralysis sets in, try these tips.
• Simplify the problem and reduce it to no more than four factors.
• Notice and name the nagging feeling then probe the questions the feeling raises.
• Observe when rationalizing starts and make a point to quiet the booming voice to hear the quiet voice.
• Accept that your complex situation may not lend itself to logic alone… and that’s okay.

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