Paralysis by octalysis

Thinking too much leads to an inability to act. This is called “paralysis by analysis”. Gamifying and building up motivation can have a similarly negative effect. Since I did not find any literature on this, I call it “Paralysis by octalysis”. Below is a typical example and several antidotes.


Octalysis is a gamification framework that enables visualization of motivation according to eight parameters. Three parameters are “white hat” and deal with empowerment and creativity, three are “black hat” and deal with greed and fear, and two are gray area dealing with influence and ownership. All of these parameters are incredibly powerful motivators. We play our games, and this means that gamification is working.

What is the problem with that?

Being stuck in training

The issue is large and generic, yet there is a common example in speedreading training. A person trained the eyes and mind to read very fast, but not to remember what he reads. He does not want to slow down x10, yet his current speed is unsustainable. Now what? Typically the solution is complex and requires Anna’s coaching. But how similar situation can have in another contexts?

Being simultaneously over and underqualified

Suppose we have in a game power buildup dynamics and build the power too fast. We can get to a situation where we cannot pass the current level, but also cannot go back to the previous level. Basically. anything we do will generate a catastrophic loss. This is different from chess zugzwang since doing nothing will also introduce a catastrophic loss, maybe slower.

In a career, this can happen when you jump over several stages of the career ladder, for example from engineer to CEO. You cannot really go back a step and function as a team leader, because you are overqualified. But you cannot function as an effective CEO because you do not have enough leadership experience. Is it treatable?

Instant experience

How can you fix the paralysis by octalysis situation? In a game, you can use real money and buy the lacking tools, provided you have real money. This one of the monetization engines many games use.

In real life, we can use our money to get coaching, advisors, and assistants. Will that work? Occasionally. If we are quick learners and not poor, we will be able to overcome the gap. A powerful assistant may take our job, and then we may need to become creative with curriculum vita.

What if the gap is too large and we lose our job? Finding the next job becomes a nightmare because again we are both under and overqualified. Effectively this forces us into consulting positions, which eventually allows normalization as a stepping stone up or down the career ladder. This is an expensive life lesson.

Motivation issue

So how do we get into this position? The entire system of job gamification contributes. Several motivational powers contributed:

  1. With title we get power. Getting extra responsibility we get more influence and ability to realize our vision
  2. A higher total compensation that comes with a better job title is not something we want to miss. Especially if the job will go to our main competitor.
  3. A new opportunity is often feedback for a job well done. We may feel that we deserve it.
  4. Once we get into a new position, stepping down is an embarrassment we want to avoid. If we get a new opportunity we may feel that we need it, resulting in yet a larger gap.

Basically, we are too motivated to step down, and not sufficiently capable to perform at the current level.

Two carrots problem

A very different choice of paralysis is paralysis by analysis. A classical anecdote is simple and old. A donkey gets two equally good carrots. He cannot choose which carrot to eat first, so the donkey dies from hunger unable to choose.

Can this happen with a real donkey? Not really. A donkey might think for a couple of minutes but eventually will choose a random carrot.

If we are offered a promotion to a position we will fail at, or the position will be given to our main competitor and he will manage us. Which is worse? Should we choose randomly and deal with the results? Can we offer a third alternative, like bring a perfect stranger to the desired position?

Adding dimensions

The best solution to paralysis issues is adding new dimensions.  Quite often this is a randomization device. Like taking the carrot closest to the door, simply because the door is there.

If we can add extra dimensions and new creative solutions, we might be able to avoid uncomfortable gamification. For example, we can share the project with the competition, or bring an external consultant. It is much better to introduce new dimensions before we get stuck than after. We will get more respect this way.

Unrealistic expectations

An even better solution is going back through the decision-making chain to more basic expectations and motives. Why did we get unrealistically high expectations?

For example, in the speedreading example, a person might want to speed up x5 within three weeks, because somebody else told that this is possible. That other person conveniently did not mention that he took three years of memory training prior to speedreading course. And now you are pushing yourself faster than you can.

At work, this can be an example of a guy who went to the same class as you did and now he is a CEO. If he could, why not you? Notice, that the guy you compare yourself with could hold various leadership positions in various volunteering groups you do not know about. Or maybe, he is getting massive support from his family and mentors. And also, you might be a better expert but he might be a better leader. The gap for you is larger than the gap for the other guy.

Obviously, do not compare yourself with competition other than yourself… In theory, this will work. In practice, we are very competitive.

Destructive competition

The third film of “fast and furious” starts from a competition where both competitors race without a good reason. They are so pumped up by the competition that they totally destroy each other’s car. One gets mild notice from his parents and the other is sent to another country to avoid harsher actions. Why? Because they come with a different history record.

We get a certain professional credit. It is very similar to financial credit. We assume tasks slightly more complex than our current capability and borrow from the credit. As long as we succeed the credit grows and becomes cheaper. If we fail the credit gets more expensive and eventually disappears.

Do not waste your professional credit and do not borrow too much of it. Better to lose in a competition. Let your pride and ego take a blow. At least your career will progress.

Competition should bring the better sides in you. You should copy the behaviors that make your competitors successful and creatively generate new behaviors. Then the entire team benefits. If the competition is destructive, everybody loses. Change the gamification!

Gamification engineering

Rules are not given by gods. Someone engineers them for the best game, to get the most fun, and to benefit financially. If the game does not work this way, we have the power to change the rules.

This may require a lot of talking and compromises –  stuff alpha males hate. But the best leaders are flexible enough to overcome their limitations. Maybe the best way to avoid dangerous situations is simply removing ego from the equation and generating new rules?

Not that our politicians and businessmen play this game well… Women are exceptionally better than men in cooperative play. Let us hope that our workplaces and life get more diverse sooner than later.



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