Opportunity Paralysis

I am one month into this new season of my life and am actually amazed at how hard I’m finding it.

All the time that I was working in a full-time busy job I would fantasise about the possibility that maybe one day I would have the freedom and opportunity to focus on reading, writing and thinking. Well, thanks to the Oxford DPhil, and my very supportive wife, we have been able to move to one salary and my full time ‘job’ is now to read, write and think.

Like I said… it’s not going great.

There are some obvious culprits in all this: procrastination, lack of vision, moving to a new work environment and therefore needing time to find my feet. But I’d like to talk about one particular aspect of this new working situation which I have been surprised by: Opportunity Paralysis.

As I’ve been experiencing it, Opportunity Paralysis feels like this: “There are infinite things I could do, but nothing that I must do.”

Should I write a blog? Well yes, I could do that but I could also start work on rewriting my Master’s dissertation… well yes I could do that but shouldn’t I read that interesting book first? Maybe actually I’d better spend some time meeting people and making new connections in this city? What about dedicating a few days to work on that youtube video which has been half edited for 8 months… no you idiot that’s a lost cause, just get a blog done so you can tell people you’ve been productive today.

– Welcome to the inside of my head

The Paradox of Choice

Opportunity Paralysis in the consumer world is called the “Paradox of Choice” and has, for a number of years now, been a recognised psychological phenomenon. Choice in itself is good and so you would think that more choice is better than less choice. However, once you reach a certain threshold choice becomes overwhelming and it actually becomes harder to choose. Choice is good, too much choice is bad! If you have 100 different types of olive oil and 50 different types of balsamic vinegar in your local supermarket it actually becomes harder to choose what you want, not easier. And after you’ve made a choice two things are likely to happen:

  1. You’ll be left wondering if you made the ‘right’ choice.
  2. If the salad dressing is anything less than incredible you will be left with the sinking feeling that if you’d made a better choice you wouldn’t have poured a mediocre sauce all over your mother-in-law’s salad. That example isn’t based on a true story.

Opportunity Paralysis in the academic, artistic, self-starter, entrepreneur or ministry world is similar but different and I think it’s harder to deal with. For people who have for whatever reason been given the space to do what they want (writing and thinking for the academic, building companies for the entrepreneur, leading churches for the minster) the challenge is not just that you have infinite things you could do, but also there’s nothing that you must do. There is no playbook, no rules, you just have to create, build something, lead somewhere. And for me, I’ve found that all that opportunity actually led to paralysis.

So what to do about it? I’m still working on that but I’d love to hear from you what work arounds you’ve found and I’ll keep you posted as I reflect on this further and develop a working framework for this new season of life.

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