On Option Paralysis - The Thing You Actually Do

post by Neel Nanda (neel-nanda-1) · 2020-10-03T11:50:57.070Z · LW · GW · 4 comments

This is a link post for https://www.neelnanda.io/blog/37-option-paralysis


  The Error


I recently encountered a problem in my life I found interesting. I noticed that I was fairly unfit, that my energy levels were lower than I wanted them to be, and so I was considering starting to exercise more as a solution to this. And I knew that exercise is ridiculously important to longevity and general health, and had been thinking about this for at least the path month.

So I brought up this issue with my coach, and it became obvious to me that I’d never actually done anything about this - it felt aversive, and I felt highly reluctant to take any action. And when I introspected on where that reluctance came from, it turned out to be coming from a desire to find the optimal form of exercise. And because I am deeply confused about the science behind exercise, there were many different options for how to get into it, and it wasn’t obvious what the best one was, I was caught in analysis paralysis and procrastinating about it. And her advice for this problem was “the best kind of exercise is the one you actually do”.

I knew on some level that I was making an error, but I thought this articulated it excellently. Most of the value comes from doing any exercise, and finding optimal forms, durations etc should not be the priority. And since seeing it like this, the problem has felt basically solved! I decided to pick Couch to 5K as an obvious and available exercise plan, and have systematised doing it 3 times a week: I have a clear time in the mornings to do it, reminders, and owe a friend of mine £20 for each session I miss (for bad reasons). And at this point, it now feels like the default action is to do some exercise, I’ve kept it up for the last month, and this is no longer a burning priority.

When articulated like this, the problem feels obvious. But this is also deeply weird. I procrastinated for months on a problem, found a slight change in perspective, and near instantly solved it to my satisfaction, to the point where the solution now feels like the default action. And getting better at resolving problems like that sounds like a major win!

This kind of perfectionism-induced procrastination and analysis paralysis is an example of a far more general problem in my life, and in the lives of the people around me. In this post I’m going to dig into to exactly what the error is and where it comes from, how to identify it in practice, and then how to find the thing you will actually do.

The Error

This problem comes up everywhere in my life when I actually look for it, and the lives of my friends:

The core problem here is one of perfectionism. I want things to be optimal. I’ve anchored myself to a perfect outcome, and anything that falls short of it is a clear and visceral cost. And thus I fall prey to the illusion of doing nothing, and this feels safe.

And this is clearly an error! Often, my standards are far too high, and the “perfect” outcome is utterly unrealistic. And, even if it is attainable, I am still failing to optimise correctly. I’m failing to account for opportunity costs - everything else I could do with the time I spend obsessing, tweaking and perfecting - and computing costs - all of energy I spend thinking about it, the draining stress and anxiety.

From another perspective, this is an error of prioritisation. I’m pouring all of my effort into optimising the final details of a task, which represent maybe 20% of the value. But the vast majority of the value, perhaps 80%, comes from doing anything at all! There’s no upside to doing nothing. So I pour all of my effort into the final part and neglect the thing that actually matters, rather than learning to 80/20 it.


By far the most important step here is to identify that this is a problem. Lest you be eternally caught in the trap of things not feeling urgent, costs feeling salient and painful, and not seeing all the value you’re throwing away. I think there are some common risk factors here:

Exercise: Set a 5 minute timer, and generate examples of this for you. What are you currently being a perfectionist about, and missing out on?

Even better than just identifying the problem is to ensure it feels important - that when you notice it, alarm bells start ringing in your head, it feels worth doing something about. If it’s a frequent enough occurrence in your life, and you have enough examples, I recommend trying Noticing [LW · GW]on it


So, you’ve identified that this is a problem in your life. You feel motivated to do something about it. What can you actually do?


If this post resonates, think about where you can apply this in your life.

Where are you currently misallocating effort, and missing the forest for the trees? What are you being a perfectionist about? What are you putting off until it feels just right?

What is this costing you? What else could you being doing with this effort? What are you missing out on?

And, when you’ve found something, realise that you are procrastinating about it. Why do you want to take action on this? What is a next step that you could actually do? And what is something you could do, right now, to make that the default next action?


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Viliam · 2020-10-03T19:38:04.146Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"the best kind of exercise is the one you actually do"

...two months later...

"except for the ones that damage your joints, of course... and the one that dislocated your spine disc, obviously"

comment by Jalex Stark (jalex-stark-1) · 2020-10-03T22:43:09.239Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Once you've got a method of exercise you actually do, then you should apply some optimization pressure to making it more fun and safe and rewarding.

comment by Viliam · 2020-10-04T00:05:53.862Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To make it safe, you could probably just pay someone to observe you doing the exercises you chose to do, explain the risks and correct your mistakes. Because sometimes just bending your back can make a big difference in safety. And an expert can tell you immediately whether you are doing it wrong.

Just make it clear you want their opinion on safety, not anything else, lest they design you a new "perfect" system that you won't follow anyway.

comment by davidspies · 2020-10-04T18:02:10.931Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is why I play Beat Saber. Despite being a form of exercise, it's never stopped feeling like a video game. And I've found I can keep up a video game routine much more easily than I can keep up an exercise routine.