Get rid of analysis paralysis

9 ways to get out of analysis paralysis

Feeling overwhelmed, scattered, frozen by indecision, and difficulty focusing? So sorry to hear that– but glad that you’ve found your way to this article. In this blog post, we’ll go over what analysis paralysis means, the symptoms associated with it, subtypes of analysis paralysis, the related concept of ADHD paralysis (and the fact that it’s not an official DSM-5 diagnosis), and the relationship between analysis paralysis and executive dysfunction. In the second part of this article, we’ll go over nine practical techniques and tips that you can use right now to get out of analysis paralysis and get your day back on track.

What is analysis paralysis? How is it related to ADHD paralysis?

ADHD paralysis symptoms in adults

ADHD paralysis as a term started to gain steam online in late 2020, and seems to be a popular term in the ADHD community on Tik Tok. Because ADHD paralysis isn’t an official medical diagnosis (please see more on this below), there are no official symptoms. However, people seem to generally agree that ADHD paralysis may include a wide range of symptoms such as:

  • Difficulty with task management
  • Difficulty with prioritizing tasks
  • Feeling frozen when trying to start a new task or project
  • Task avoidance
  • Moving quickly to another task before finishing the first
  • Getting easily distracted from the task at hand
  • Procrastinating on tasks
  • Difficulty with decision-making
  • Over-analyzing the next steps to solve a problem
  • Procrastinating with decision-making
  • Difficulty with organizing your time and space
  • Feeling overwhelmed by clutter or chores
  • Difficulty managing time, including experiencing time blindness
  • Mental and emotional dysregulation
  • Brain fog
  • Fatigue
  • Increased levels of anxiety
  • Reduced levels of self-esteem

Subtypes of ADHD paralysis

Some people further break ADHD paralysis into three different subtypes, by grouping together related symptoms. Here are some examples of the types of thoughts or experiences people have assigned to each subtype of ADHD paralysis:

Mental paralysis (aka brain crash)
  • You feel like you’re thinking through molasses.
  • Forming plans and strategies feels much harder than normal.
  • Completing a routine task feels mentally exhausting.
  • You constantly want to lie down and take a nap.
Choice paralysis (aka overthinking)
  • You spend time mentally spinning your wheels.
  • You make and re-make project plans, but don’t take action on any of the next steps.
  • Even making the smallest decision feels like it has huge consequences, so you feel too anxious to make a decision.
Task paralysis (aka procrastination)
  • You feel a deep revulsion to getting started on a task or project.
  • Even once you’ve started a task, you’re feeling pulled away from it at every turn.
  • You look for anything else you can possibly do to avoid working on this task.

The problems with ADHD paralysis as a term

ADHD paralysis isn’t an official, medically-accepted diagnosis

Here’s the thing: the term “ADHD paralysis” is a phrase that’s getting increasing amounts of use online, but doesn’t yet have any official grounding in medical literature. You won’t find the term ADHD paralysis in the DSM-5-TR, and there are zero hits for the phrase “ADHD paralysis” on PubMed at present. If you go into your doctor’s office to report feeling symptoms of ADHD paralysis, there’s no formal, agreed-upon diagnosis that encompasses exactly what that means. So even though ADHD paralysis can be a useful concept for many people, and expresses challenges that many people struggle with, it’s not technically part of the diagnosis of ADHD at this time.

Is it ADHD paralysis or analysis paralysis?

I prefer to use the term “analysis paralysis” over and above the term “ADHD paralysis”, as I find it more inclusive. Some people also like the term “task freeze” as a more inclusive synonym for ADHD paralysis. The term ADHD paralysis might feel exclusionary for some people– they might feel that only those with an official diagnosis of ADHD, or who meet all diagnostic criteria for ADHD, could experience this constellation of symptoms. And people with ADHD might indeed more prone to experiencing this group of symptoms, or fid that they experience them more frequently. But given the right combination of stressors, I believe that anyone (with or without a diagnosis of ADHD) can experience the symptoms of what we’re colloquially calling ADHD paralysis. So if you’re reading this article and resonate with the symptoms— but don’t have a diagnosis of ADHD— not to worry, you’re in very good company. That’s why I’m using the more inclusive term analysis paralysis throughout this article– but the principles are applicable to ADHD paralysis, too.

Important caveat: this is not medical advice

Please do note that I’m writing this article solely in my role as a productivity writer, with the goal of helping you get things done at times you might be you’re struggling to focus. None of this material is intended as medical assessment or treatment. This article specifically does not address, for example, diagnosis of ADHD, medication options, or other ADHD treatment options. If you think you might be experiencing symptoms of ADHD or another medical condition, please do seek out assessment and treatment from your own physician.

What causes analysis paralysis?

So why do we experience analysis paralysis (or ADHD paralysis, or task freeze)? This unpleasant group of symptoms tends to happen when we’re experiencing a few of these circumstances:

  • Physically depleted (i.e. fatigue, acute illness, chronic illness)
  • Managing a high volume of tasks or projects
  • Feeling pulled in competing directions
  • Emotionally depleted (i.e. grief, relationship discord, caregiving responsibilities)
  • Lacking autonomy in our work schedule
  • Lacking a supportive work environment

These stressors are cumulative— if you’re managing acute illness AND caregiving responsibilities AND an unsupportive work environment, for example, you’re more likely to experience the symptoms of analysis paralysis.

Analysis paralysis and executive dysfunction

I think that it’s easy to oversimplify the relationship between executive dysfunction and our prefrontal cortex at times. There’s an idea that our prefrontal cortex is a sourfaced, dour taskmaster who is dedicated to keeping the rest of our immature, emotionally-motivated brain on task. And our prefrontal cortex is absolutely in charge of our higher cognitive functions such as decision-making, judgement, planning, and anticipating problems.

But it lacks nuance to paint our prefrontal cortex as a joyless headmaster, corralling the rest of our brain. Part of the decision-making, judgment, and planning mode that our prefrontal cortex engages in is driven by information and inputs by the rest of the brain. When our amydala sends out a fear-based thought related to our tasks, or our hippocampus reminds us of unpleasant memories with a given task or project, our prefrontal cortex responds and takes this into consideration as we plan our days.

Our prefrontal cortex is part of us, and wants to protect us as well. When we’re in the mode of analysis paralysis, our brain as a whole (including our prefrontal cortex) is taking steps to make us feel safe and calm and secure. But taking those protective steps in the short term (i.e. by avoiding pain by procrastinating on an unpleasant project) has the unfortunate outcome of harming us in the long term (such as putting us at risk of losing our job or failing an exam or harming our credit rating) if we stay stuck in analysis paralysis mode. Happily, we can enlist our well-intended brains to help us overcome executive dysfunction and move beyond analysis paralysis, as well.

The relationship between analysis paralysis and procrastination

The procrastination element to analysis paralysis is an interesting one. You might simply be procrastinating because you’re tired or overwhelmed. But when your analysis paralysis is specifically focused on a particular task or project, it’s worth exploring whether it’s something about this task or project in particular that’s holding you up.

There are a few reasons that we might have tasks or projects that constantly sink to the bottom of our to do list (I call these tasks “rocks”). A few reasons we might specifically procrastinate on a given project include:

  • Resenting the task (it’s someone else’s priority, not ours)
  • This task being a poor fit for our lives right now (it’s for our ideal selves, not our current selves)
  • The task being too large and daunting (it’s actually a project in disguise, not a task)
  • Fear of doing the project wrong (fear of failure)
  • Lacking all the tools or supplies we need

If some of these resonate with you, check out this blog post on 5 reasons we get “rocks” on our task lists (and how to get rid of them) to explore more about each of these reasons, and questions you can use for reflection to find a potential solution for each of these roadblocks.

How to overcome analysis paralysis: 9 practical techniques

So you’ve come across the concept of analysis paralysis (or ADHD paralysis, or task freezing), and it resonates with you. Now you’re wondering— if maybe this is what’s going on, how do I get out of analysis paralysis? Here are 9 practical techniques and tips you can use to help get unstuck and out of the mud of analysis paralysis. See which one(s) might work for you:

Time block your calendar

Time block your calendar

What it is

Time blocking, also known as time boxing or time chunking, means dividing your daily calendar up into smaller blocks of time (most commonly 30-min or 60-min segments). You then assign a smaller list of tasks to each time block, or plan to work on one larger project during each of those time blocks. When the time is up, you take a pre-planned break, then switch to the next pre-scheduled block.

How it can help

It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re in the midst of analysis paralysis (and time blindness seems to be commonly accepted as one of the symptoms of ADHD paralysis). To combat this, setting up discrete blocks of time on your calendar can stop the unpleasant feeling when you look at the clock and it’s already 3pm. You’re less likely to lose track of time if you have a discrete block of time devoted to a single project— and if you know that you get a break coming up at an appointment time, your current task might not feel quite as overwhelming. Blocking our your schedule with time blocking can also help you get a more realistic view of what you can truly get done in the space of a day or a week’s time.

Cowork with a body double

Body doubling for ADHD paralysis with coworking

What it is

Some people, both folks with and without ADHD, find that they can focus more easily when they’re working alongside someone else who is also trying to focus on their own work. You can pre-schedule working sessions in a virtual coworking space like Focusmate, sign up for an in-person coworking space, plan a working brunch with friends, or just agree to work in the same room as your room-mate or partner.

How it can help

Many people feel that body doubling (aka working separately, but together) offers the right blend of moral support, camaraderie, and accountability to keep them on track.

Use a Pomodoro timer

Pomodoro timer for ADHD paralysis

What it is

The Pomodoro technique is a time management method closely related to time blocking. Schedule your work in regular reps of 25:5 (25 minutes on, 5 minutes break) or 50:10 (50 minutes on, 10 minutes off). You can find an infinite number of pomodoro study timers on YouTube, with or without music, and with motivating scenery to suit any taste.

How it can help

Similar to time blocking, using the Pomodoro technique can help you stay focused on the task at hand because there is a clear end and break in sight. Using this technique helps you remember what you’re focused on for this one block of work, rather than getting internally or externally distracted and chasing down a tangentially related rabbit hole instead.

Pick the low-hanging fruit

Pick the low hanging fruit (aka get the easy tasks done) to get out of ADHD paralysis

What it is

Picking the low-hanging fruit is a metaphor for giving yourself some momentum by completing small, achievable tasks. Go through your task list or calendar or inbox and pick one small task that you can get done in a short amount of time with the supplies you have available. Once you get that one done, choose another similar task. Keep going until you run out of time or you’ve plucked all the low hanging fruit in your inbox/task list.

How it can help

When we’re feeling overwhelmed by big tasks, it’s easy to get laser-focused on the largest, most complex, most insurmountable tasks and feel like there’s no way we have the energy or time or motivation to tackle those projects. But if we gain some momentum by getting smaller, more achievable tasks out of the way, we give ourselves the message that we’re competent people who are able to get things done— spurring us towards action on those larger tasks, too.

Seek out gentle movement

Add gentle movement to get out of ADHD paralysis

What it is

This isn’t the time for a massive workout— you likely either don’t have energy for it, if you’re stuck in analysis paralysis, or you’re going to use the time needed for a large workout as a way to procrastinate further on tasks. Instead, seeking out gentle movement means going for a 15-minute walk around the block (no special workout equipment needed) or putting on a quick office-friendly yoga break video you can easily fit into a lunch hour of coffee break.

How it can help

“ADHD couch lock” or “scrolling paralysis” is sometimes associated with analysis paralysis too. When you’re feeling overwhelmed and frozen, not sure of the next step to take, staying hunched in front of your computer screen or glued to the couch, scrolling just one more item in your feed, can feel like the path of least resistance. But interrupting that habit with some fresh air (if it’s nice outside) or some gentle stretching can help break the cycle of being stuck. The movement is kind to your body, and even a brief physical reset can help your mind feel a bit more creative, motivated, and encouraged.

Switch up your work mode or work space

Change up your work space or work habits to ditch ADHD paralysis

What it is

Be creative and look for small ways that you can change your work environment. If you’re having writer’s block while typing, try writing by hand or using voice dictation for your first draft. If you need to read a textbook, look for an audiobook version. If you usually sit at a desk, take your laptop to the kitchen table or decamp to a coworking space or library or coffee shop. If you’re doing chores or some mindless data entry, put on a new type of high-energy music.

How it can help

Our brains crave novelty. If you can make your task list feel different and new, you’ll often find that you have a fresh sense of motivation or renewed energy as you approach tasks in a slightly different way.

Give yourself genuine breaks

Give yourself a genuine break to overcome ADHD paralysis

What it is

Step away from the computer, and put down the phone. Even if you haven’t accomplished what you feel like you “should” today. Give yourself a proper chunk of time (15 minutes minimum; up to an hour would be lovely) to have a fully disconnected break. Engage fully in that break— watch a favourite episode of a TV show without also scrolling your phone at the same time. Read a chapter or two of a novel, entirely for fun. Go for a walk and immerse yourself in a favourite album or single audiobook instead of toggling, unsatisfied, between 5 different podcasts. Or go for a walk without any headphones on at all, and take in the world around you. Make a cozy pot of soup from whatever you have in the fridge. Lay down in a dark room and have a nap without any devices nearby.

How it can help

When we’re stuck in analysis paralysis, and not getting done what we planned to do, it’s easy to start feeling like we don’t “deserve” breaks. So we end up stuck in a productivity purgatory— we’re not getting high quality work done, but we’re not taking proper, restorative, discrete breaks either. By scheduling fully disconnected breaks— and a time to start up work again— we delineate between “work” and “play” in our brains so that constant semi-engaged-work mode (without ever having a full rest) doesn’t become the default. When our brains get the message that they will have a chance to rest and recover, it becomes easier to focus on the task at hand (because our brains trust there will be an eventual end in sight).

Figure out your 80% solution

Define your 80% solution to get ADHD paralysis out of the way

What it is

Think of whatever project or task is causing you the most grief right now. Now think of the perfect solution to this task. This 100% solution is probably what you’re carrying around in your mind at the moment. And no matter how hard you work or how much time and energy you put into the task, that Platonic ideal of the task probably feels entirely out of reach right now.

Now, think of the 80% version of that. The version of this completed task or project that’s demonstrably still good, and has all the basic elements, but not all the bells and whistles. The 80% version is entirely serviceable and certainly far beyond a fully basic, minimum viable product. But it’s missing that final, perfectionistic 20% where you start to enter the realm of diminishing returns and hyper-perfectionism.

How it can help

You’re a conscientious person— you don’t want to do subpar work at the best of times. And when you’re mired in analysis paralysis, a tendency towards perfectionism can become utterly overwhelming. Especially if you’ve been procrastinating on a task— you might feel that the extra time taken means that the eventual outcome has to be absolutely ideal. But done really is better than perfect. Getting your task to an 80% solution then calling it done will let you move onto the next task, gain a sense of momentum, and let you end your work day at a reasonable hour.

Write everything down in a personal knowledge management system

Capture everything in your personal knowledge management system

What it is

When your brain is overflowing with ideas and inspiration and creativity entirely unrelated to the project you’re trying to get through, you need a place to put it. When you build a personal knowledge management system, you create a trusted place to store those half-formed ideas, those inspiring quotes, and those plans for future-you to act on. Whether you build your note taking system in Obsidian Notes or another note taking app, creating a routine of capturing ideas in your PKM system helps you stay more focused on the task at hand instead of getting distracted by your own ideas and plans for the future.

How it can help

A quick caveat— building a personal knowledge management system can itself become a source of procrastination and over-optimization. So do try to avoid bike-shedding at all costs, and focus on building a creative note taking habit without the perfectionism instead. But when you create a streamlined, minimalist personal knowledge management system that fits your life and suits the way your mind works, you’ll find that you feel lighter, more focused, and more inspired.

You’ll stop feeling panicked that you’ll lose a great idea or solution if you don’t stop what you’re doing and act on it right away. Your mind can relax, knowing you have a system to track and use your inspiration, and that you don’t have to rely on your overwhelmed, over-extended mind to keep this idea uppermost at the expense of all other things. You’ll instead be able to smoothly capture the idea in your PKM system, knowing it will be waiting for you when you need it, and get right back to the task at hand.

If you’d like to learn more about how to build a minimalist, streamlined personal knowledge management system (without the overwhelm), check out these blog posts from my archives:

If you’re interested in a guided, step-by-step approach to building your own unique, tailored personal knowledge management system, you might be interested in my course, Calmer Notes: Personal Knowledge Management for Busy People.

Calmer Notes - Personal Knowledge Management for Busy People - Course by Elizabeth Butler

Wishing you all the best on your journey towards organisation, focus, and quiet productivity!

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