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What is career paralysis and how to overcome it

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
London skyline. Photo: PA

Faced with an endless choice of possibilities, many of us will flounder – which can result in making no choice at all. We might struggle to decide what to watch on Netflix or what to eat for dinner – neither of which are life-changing problems – but indecisiveness can become an issue when it affects your work.

If you’ve ever hated your job but felt stuck, anxiously going over the alternatives before disregarding them and staying put, you aren’t alone. Career paralysis, the inability to make any career decision for the fear of making the wrong one, is a common problem.

Not only is it frustrating, it can take its toll on confidence and wellbeing and leave us trapped on a career path we don’t want.

“Career paralysis is a common phenomenon in millennials but not only, whereby the person feels such an overwhelming volume of choice, that they are paralysed, thereby avoiding making any choice to move forward,” says Evelyn Cotter, founder of SEVEN Career coaching.

“It’s possible at any age, and happens when there is an overemphasis on needing to always ‘get it right’ and a dominant perspective of ‘failure is bad and means I’m bad’.”

We tend to think that more is better, but overchoice is a well-documented phenomenon. Essentially, we have trouble making a decision when faced with many options – and the problem is exacerbated when we throw in risk factors, too.

Quitting a job you don’t enjoy or switching careers is a daunting decision that has the potential to impact the rest of your life.

“This barrier to taking action is compounded by the heavy weight of expectation that we place on major life decisions,” says career expert Jacqui Purdy, a member of the Life Coach Directory. “Anxiety about outcomes can be disabling – how will this impact my finances, relationships and overall welfare in the short and long-term?”

Career paralysis is a problem cited by many young adults, who know the importance of making the right moves early on in their careers. External factors play a big part, too. Millennials are well aware of the need to pay their way amid rising rents and living costs, as well as the risks of living in an age of job insecurity.

Crucially, though, career paralysis affects people of all ages. Those with mortgages and children may be trapped in jobs they fell out of love with years ago, over the fear of losing everything.

There are obviously number of practical barriers when it comes to a career change, but these are possible to overcome. Working out how much you need to earn to cover your living costs is key, and you may need to consider factors like lifestyle changes or commuting times.

Purdy recommends a three-step approach to making a career decision. “In the first – Reflective Mode – listen carefully to yourself about what you value, what motivates you, and what skills and personal attributes you want to use and develop,” she says.

The second thing is to consider no more than three potential “paths” at a time, so you don’t feel overwhelmed. “Work on gathering the information you need to evaluate and sense-check the options so you can narrow down the possibilities,” Purdy adds.

In the last step – which Purdy calls “Action Mode” – you should be decisive in how you move forward. “Make a plan and execute it, accepting that it may bring some discomfort – and remembering that if it doesn’t turn out as you’d hoped, you’re not tied to your decision forever,” she says.

It’s also important to remember that change isn’t a bad thing, and that human nature means we are all prone to dwelling on risks rather than positives. In the UK, a worker will change employer every five years on average, according to research by life insurance firm LV=.

Perfectionism can also be a hindrance when it comes to a career decision, too. “The need to be right and always make perfect choices is perfectionism and it’s a rigid way of living that stems from low self-worth, the more we need to control, usually the lower our confidence,” Cotter explains.

And it may be a cliche, but making mistakes helps us learn. There are scores of big names who have overcome setbacks, only to reap huge success later down the line. Oprah Winfrey, one of the 500 richest people in the world and the first black female entrepreneur to make it on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, was fired from her first television job.

“Failure teaches us far more than success and when you look back, you will see it was necessary to be successful,” Cotter adds.