Overcoming ‘analysis paralysis’ in emergency preparedness

The concept of analysis paralysis (the condition of being so caught up in the process of analyzing, or over-analyzing, a situation that no action is ever taken) was foreign to me until my time in the Army. It did not take long until I realized the type of disaster that can come from inaction could be far worse than taking the wrong action, particularly when it came to the time I spent in combat in the Middle East.

Once I was familiar with the concept, I learned that there are many times throughout history where analysis paralysis is addressed. My favorite example comes from Aesop’s fable of the Fox and the Cat, where the fox bragged about knowing many ways of escaping while the cat only knew of one. The fox and cat hear the hounds coming and the cat flees up a tree, the only way he knows, and the fox is so confused by the myriad of options he has thought of that he is caught by the hounds. Aesop concludes with the moral, “Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon.”

This idea is one that can often be recognized in ourselves and others when discussing emergency preparedness, not to mention what would likely happen if things really did hit the fan (thankfully the election didn’t go Hillary’s way). Reflecting on my own experiences with emergency preparedness, I know that there have been multiple times where I was evaluating scenarios or looking for a solution where the more I thought about it, the further I got from an actual answer.

Of the many outcomes, here are some of the common ways that over-analysis impacts your thinking negatively:

  1. Over-analysis will lower your performance on mentally demanding tasks. Things tend to get more and more convoluted when I look at them for too long. It is like when you are writing a letter or paper for something and the more you look at the same word over and over again, the more it starts to look like it is spelled wrong (even when it is not). That is analysis paralysis creeping up on you.
  1. Do not get hung up in the weeds. Committing extended amounts of time to the details is one of the leading causes of analysis paralysis. One way to ensure that this does not happen is to identify what you need to know and decide now and leave the other things to be determined later, either when they must be decided or you have additional time to make those considerations.
  1. Your creativity suffers with overthinking. The longer you take to try to come to a resolution in a particular situation, the less creativity will be available to you. Our creative solutions and outside of the box thinking are not like wine, they come early on and don’t tend to get better with age.
  1. Accept the fact that the stars never actually align when it comes to your decision-making. Waiting for all the conditions to be exactly right for a key event pretty much just ensures that your key event will never happen. This is because all of the conditions will never be perfectly perfect for any given scenario. Survival is about making the best decision for the current situation. You may very well figure out later on that you should have probably tweaked a few things before but the fact remains that you took action.

My time in the military taught me that it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that when someone is shooting at you, the only wrong decision that can be made is to do nothing. You may later determine that you should have returned fire in a different direction first or run in a different direction but there was only trouble to be found if you didn’t do something. Always do something!

  1. Extensive analysis leads to decreased happiness. As a matter of fact, scientific evidence suggests that those who find a solution and are satisfied with that solution tend to be happy while those who find a solution but continue to look at every other option are much less likely to find happiness in the situation. That makes a lot of sense to me.

While there are a number of other ways that over-analyzing a set of circumstances can be detrimental to you in the long run, these were some of the ways that I thought fit in well with emergency preparedness.

If you are like me, you can look at the many options above and see situations in your past (or present) where you may have suffered paralysis as a result of your extended analysis. While the situation or issue may differ, here are a few solid approaches that can be taken to find the answers you seek while avoiding the pitfalls that come as a result of analysis paralysis:

  1. Start before you feel ready. There will always be reasons why now isn’t the right time to make a certain decision but also remember that there is never a right time for disaster. Knowing that, start looking at your emergency preparedness decisions as soon as you think of something. It does not mean that an immediate decision must be rendered but even adding an item to your list of future considerations will allow your mind an opportunity to focus on the current item at hand and not overthink things.

A location to bug out to is a good example of something that you should start evaluating before you feel ready to do so. Of course this is something that should be only be done once the absolute necessities (food, water, etc.) are already taken care of but you can start looking at specific areas, identify criteria and so on well before the stars align so to speak.

  1. Make a list. As mentioned above, when you think of something that you need to figure out, obtain, discuss with someone, plan future actions for, etc. add it to a running list that you keep. I like to keep my list on my phone. It is always with me so as soon as I have a thought cross my mind I can add it or make adjustments if it is something that I already have on my list.

A lesson I have learned over time is to make sure that I leave plenty of room for revision. The more items that get added to your list, the more adjustment may be necessary in the order and detail of each item. That is another reason that I like having an electronic list.

  1. Know what your main objective is. It is not only key to know specifically what you are trying to accomplish to avoid over analyzing a decision, it is also vital that you know what your limitations are in terms of resources available to put toward your objective. This can be helpful with identifying what resources you may need to obtain going forward to accomplish an objective.

Focusing on a particular objective is also beneficial to preventing extraneous or accessory decisions from creeping into your current decision. When these other things come to light, add them to your list and refocus on the current objective.

  1. Structure the time that you will use to make your emergency preparedness decisions by front-loading the most important decisions that you need to make.

Sometimes it can seem like a good idea to take care of all the simple decisions first and leave the harder decisions for later. This reminds of taking a timed test. The fact of the matter is that there will have to be a balance. If you focus on only the hard decisions, you can run out of time or become paralyzed in your analysis. If you skip to all the easy decisions and leave the tough stuff for the end, you may run into paralysis again. Break up your decisions into periods of time and within a specific time period, make the current big decision up front and then subsequent lesser and easier decision later within that period of time. Rinse and repeat.

  1. Prioritize and limit the amount of information that you consume. Finding the key pieces of information to make your decision is adequate for most situations. As circumstances arise and the situation dictates gather additional information and answers to your questions through further research and planning but don’t always worry about knowing the details about every little thing. The effort taken to do so can be a waste of time and further prolong the solution you’re looking for, ultimately leading to analysis paralysis. Even if you were to plan every small detail the nature of reality is that things will change and all of those little things you planned are likely to change anyway.
  1. Set a ‘no later than’ deadline to arrive at a conclusion and stick to it. Allowing yourself to go beyond your budgeted time can only lead to trouble for many reasons but your risk of over-analyzing also goes up exponentially.
  1. Don’t go it alone. Just like the idea of the lone wolf in a survival scenario rarely works out to be the best option, trying to make vital decisions when it comes to planning for, and surviving, an end of the world scenario is best done with at least one other person. While it is probably best to do this with others who are like-minded, don’t be afraid to consider the thoughts of those who may not always agree with you or take alternate approaches to things. This is the best way to ensure that you are also considering the other side of the coin. Having a sounding board is also a great way to make sure that your thought process stays within the acceptable boundaries of sanity.

This is an area where I particularly value online forums. You will find that they are focused on a particular area and you can benefit from the knowledge of others, avoid their mistakes and get immediate feedback on your situation.

  1. Look at your decision making process like it is a set of stairs, take the first step and then continue along one step at a time until you reach your goal. This not only simplifies the process, it creates a situation where there is forward momentum immediately.

Have confidence in your decision and commit to seeing it through.

In looking at how prolonged thought processes impact decision-making, I stumbled upon a very similar idea to analysis paralysis under the name decision fatigue. In many ways the two are very similar but I noticed that the latter of the two was specifically mentioned from a psychological background.

Psychologists refer to decision fatigue when referencing decisions that are made further and further along during a period of time. These late decisions are compared to muscles where the more they have been used, the weaker or more worn they get. Automatic actions (like driving a car with our eyes open) happen without thought where actions that require thought take greater amounts of willpower in short time to make the best choices.

In prepping I see this as shooting reflexes compared to the best route to take to Get Out Of Dodge with a hurricane coming toward you at the same time that martial law has been declared. (I know it is an extreme example but I’m not sure that I can be confident that it couldn’t happen with the ways things are some days.)

In short, the longer a decision making process is, the more likely you are to become exhausted which leads to a lack of clarity and poor decisions are then made instead of high-quality decisions.

All of this is not to say that the quickest decisions are always the best decisions. We already saw that a single solution was the quickest and best for the cat. But in some cases, a particular situation may dictate that more options are considered and they could be of a much higher complexity than whether or not to escape up a tree.

I wanted to finish up with a recap of the five ways that extended analysis can negatively impact your overall planning and decision making process and how they tie into emergency preparedness:

  1. Over-analysis will lower your performance on mentally demanding tasks.

If you were to find yourself in the middle of a difficult situation, taking a long time to analyze and weigh options will ultimately result in exhaustion if pushed too far. Following the decline of sharp decision-making skills, poor decisions (possibly even stupid decisions) can follow.

Imagine having to plan the night movement of your mutual assistance group from an urban to a rural area. It is not hard to become quickly overwhelmed with the details and contingencies. As that overwhelming feeling sets in and you become mentally drained, your decisions going forward will not be your best and could put the group at risk. Following a timeline and having appropriate rest is the best way to avoid this, if it is possible.

  1. Do not get hung up in the weeds.

The example that comes to mind with this point is a purchase decision that needs to be made to fill a specific need. I will use a water filter for this purpose. There are many good water filters on the market and I will even admit that I think there are some that are far superior to others.

Even so, there are many superior water filters available. The idea that someone may take so long to look at every little detail down to the difference of 0.0001 microns between one filter and another and the fact that it could ultimately lead to indecision or delayed purchasing is crazy.

If there is a good option that meets your needs and fits within the parameters that you set (size, weight, cost, etc.) then go ahead and make the purchase. It is better to have what you need on hand then to find yourself in a position where you delayed the acquisition because of over analysis and now do not have it when you need it.

  1. Your creativity suffers with overthinking.

The idea of creativity being important to emergency preparedness and survival may seem strange to some but it is not a stretch of the imagination by any means. The obvious answer is not always the best one and you could end up in a conundrum where the usual solutions (tools, personnel, etc.) may not be available.

In the worst of scenarios, if you ever found yourself against a government agency always remember that they only operate off of set standards and the ability to come up with creative ideas can be the difference between life and death.

  1. Accept the fact that the stars never actually align when it comes to your decision making.

We rarely get our way in life anyway so don’t expect that your plan will be foolproof when it comes time to execute. Whether it is your home defense plan or how you will educate your children post-collapse, things will go at least a little sideways. When making your emergency preparedness plans and goals, don’t leave out room for contingencies to account for some of the most common “accidents” that can happen along the way. Remember, don’t overthink it though; get a solution and move to the next thing.

  1. Extensive analysis leads to decreased happiness.

I’ll keep this one simple. If things have really gone south, the more happiness you can find the better off you will be. Easy to believe, right? Don’t overdo your planning and analysis and enjoy your happiness.

If you apply the principles outlined in this article I am confident that you can also skirt around the obstacles that can be placed in your way as a result of over-analyzing a situation. If nothing else, remember to take things a step at a time to avoid overwhelming yourself and always, always, always take action.

— Tom Miller

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Thomas Miller