In any situation, every person can be guilty of overthinking matters. Especially in a world where we’re inundated with information, it’s easy to look up similar scenarios and find out about bad things that happened when people in your shoes made the wrong choices. But overthinking can be counter-productive and even more harmful than taking action; here’s what you can learn from unintended consequences to improve decisions and outcomes.
The law of unintended consequences
The idea of actions leading to unintended consequences is hardly new; sociologist Robert Merton wrote the first article about it in a 1936 publication. Yet prior to that, Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ and the debates of philosophers such as Kant and Locke discussed the concept extensively. Today, it can be seen in action from the highest levels down to small-scale decisions. A series of financial mistakes and moves made out of self-interest by various parties ultimately leads to the unintended effect of a recession in 2008. When a distributor invests in new garage door installation for its Utah warehouse, the contractor must have 24/7 emergency services; otherwise, loading operations could grind to a halt in the middle of the night. At some intuitive level, you probably know that the saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ applies to many situations; small actions can shake up the status quo, and not always in a beneficial manner.
One problem with the law of unintended consequences is that it can lead to paralysis in decision-making. Individuals and organizations alike can be so afraid of hidden risks that they hesitate too much. Taking no action also has its own set of consequences, such as missed opportunities or letting situations spiral out of control. While all of us can face such paralysis, you can avoid overthinking by using a process to simplify decisions without resorting to snap judgments. Figure out roughly the range of scenarios, from best- to worst-case. Prioritize the issue based on its potential long-term impact and how it aligns with your objectives. Above all, don’t aim for perfection in every respect; we can’t foresee every potential consequence, and getting an ideal result takes time and effort – both are limited resources for everyone. Conserve yourself for when a decision is truly critical – and in that scenario, go all-out in analyzing before choosing the path leading to an outcome you’re most comfortable with.
Minimizing the impact of errors
Getting over the problem of ‘analysis paralysis’ can help you move past the worries of unintended consequences. In itself, though, that doesn’t reduce the risk of things going wrong; further changes can help you improve and mitigate the impact of errors. Modern philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb proposes that decision-makers need to have ‘skin in the game’ to make better decisions and less costly mistakes. Doctors, for example, are bound to seek the best solutions for their patients – not just because they are sworn to ‘do no harm’ but since every poor outcome reflects badly on their practice. Decision-makers who don’t stand to lose anything personally when unintended consequences prove disastrous are more likely to make critical errors with a negative effect on others. Besides having skin in the game, prepare contingency plans and retain flexibility to backtrack or make the necessary responses to reduce the fallout in case something goes wrong.
Taking these reflections to heart, you can not only overcome the pitfalls of overthinking, but use the awareness of unintended consequences to make better decisions and mitigate the unforeseen impact of mistakes made.