Paralysis by Analysis

By Anna

How to Change the World for Over-thinkers

Do you ever find yourself awake at 3 a.m. thinking about all the things you would like to change in the world? How come there are so many problems – social, environmental, and more? And how you are supposed to solve any of them? Of course you could only eat regional and seasonal produce, but aren’t there also people depending on you buying European produce, for example? Plastics are bad for sure, but are biodegradable plastics any better, if the current system is not attuned to them – not even considering the dilemma bio-based products offer? As many of you probably do, I see myself as an over-thinker, but at the same time I would say I am a problem-solver. This can definitely get difficult at times, if not impossible. I haven’t found the perfect solution for it yet, but I surely won’t stop looking.

This overthinking is not only a personal and individual problem some people face. The so-called paralysis by analysis is well spread in the sustainability community, with scientists’ oftentimes inflated preference to analyze problems just for the sake of analyzing. Accumulating and creating knowledge about incredibly wide-ranging, profound and frustratingly complex sustainability problems is what we do every day. We focus on collecting information about problems and when we consider solutions we tend to captiously overthink every aspect of them.

Highly complex sustainability problems make in-depth analysis undoubtedly necessary. Yet, these kinds of problems also call for immediate action. However, scientists sometimes seem rather discouraged to take action and implement what they preach. With the possibility of over-generalizing, I would assume one reason could be that this is somewhat related to science trying to be as objective and neutral as possible and fearing that taking action would be considered blunt activism or too unprofessional. That being said the reason could also be on a far more personal and individual level, sustainability scientists after all, are only human.

As far as I am concerned, I sometimes feel that we tend to transfer the excessive analysis of problems into our personal life, i.e. the sphere we can actually control a bit and be active in. This sometimes leaves me feeling paralyzed, and small, and insignificant. I start overthinking not only problems, but also solutions. Questioning how good, good really is. Every change for the better (obviously highly subjective) suddenly seems to have so many downsides, that sometimes doing nothing feels like the best option. The world is so complex that wanting to change it, wanting to actually leave a positive instead of a negative footprint, feels impossible.

So, I procrastinate. And put it off to change even smaller things. Change – real change – goes beyond simple everyday changes. It needs to reach so deep and far, that we would actually have to reconsider culture, tradition, and values. Realizing this often seems overwhelming and inconceivably daunting, not even as far as for society, but already for ourselves as individuals. And even if you start changing your way of life, the small world you have any power over, you soon realize that there is no end. There is no final stage, where suddenly every problem is solved, no goal that can be achieved. So if there is no point where you are finally doing everything right, why even bother at all?

This leads to the question of how to actually achieve change. How can we as individuals implement change on a personal level and thereby maybe trigger change and transformation? I think the first step should be to accept the complexity of sustainability problems and, instead of being completely overwhelmed, actually embrace it and see that as a chance. The fact that there are endless factors that are relevant in the big picture also means that there are endless ways for transformation. Some of them might be big and others rather small. All of them are certainly important and valuable. Pragmatism is not always the best option, but I know from my own experience that it certainly cannot be the worst.

Does that mean we should stop questioning the different possibilities for change? Certainly not! We could however stop making each other feel bad about the choices we make. I am not saying we should stop critically researching them or stop having passionate discussions about them; but maybe we could also start celebrating, or at least appreciating the fact that some people are brave enough to make a change.

By now you probably realized that this text is not going to give you THE answer on how to change the world. However, I hope it helps in giving you some perspective in case you find yourself in the same dilemma from time to time. After all, we are in this together. Sometimes we struggle together and forget the benefits of having a community, but sharing struggles also means we get to succeed together – but only if we allow opportunities for it.

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The thing is, you will never find the perfect solution for a problem. Collecting more information and data only helps so far, because you can never know it all. There simply will always be more to know. So why not give yourself a break and just do something instead of overthinking it – don’t let yourself become paralyzed by analyzing. The fact that there is no one prefect solution, after all could mean that there are many!

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