Dealing with Cognitive Quirks

I have a confession to make. I suffer from a debilitating condition that affects hundreds, if not thousands, of data analysts on a daily basis. It is a serious condition and it leads to many an unpublished viz and countless hours of unnecessary calculations. We call this condition… Analysis paralysis.

Over the last few months, I’ve been feeling stagnant in my creativity. The problem is, I get a little too excited when I see data. My brain automatically conjures up a thousand ways I could investigate, analyse, and extrapolate. But there aren’t enough hours in the day and more importantly, not every one of these ideas deserves investigation. We know from cognitive psych research that too many choices can lead to a lack of action (see Barry Schwartz – The Paradox of Choice). And this seems to have become my theme song lately – too many choices, not enough vizzing.

In addition, I crave my gold stars: If I create something, I want it to be perfect and I want my gold star of praise and bright shining acknowledgement. But when you’re already dealing with analysis paralysis, throwing a gold star fixation on top is a recipe for complete brain freeze, and not the fun kind that comes with chocolate chip ice cream.

I’ve dealt with this in a few ways, and if you’re dealing with one or both of these awful cognitive grips, maybe this will help you break loose:

1. Know Thyself

Everything I’ve written above has come from a lot of introspection and monitoring, as well as non-judgment. I’m not proud of my flaws, but it is foolish to pretend they aren’t there. The first step is to watch yourself, know what makes you tick and know what makes you stop in your tracks. My problem is too much inspiration, maybe yours is the opposite? Or maybe you don’t care for other peoples’ opinions, but no one likes what you’re producing and you need to learn some foundational skills? I’m not saying bend to others’ will, but being aware of what is stopping you from growing as an analyst is necessary to dealing with the problem.

2. Challenge yourself (based on what you know)

The second part of this is critical, and it’s why I emphasize self-awareness so much: Others’ challenges might not be yours. What I mean by this is that challenges are only helpful if they help you grow, not if they completely burn you out. You have to push your muscle to stretch it, but you don’t want to throw yourself out of commission. For example, I normally work on vizzes for HOURS. My challenge is not to spend more time working on vizzes, but to spend less. So I limit myself to 1 hour of work on a viz. It gives me enough time to get something satisfactory done while still pushing me to break a sweat. For some people, the challenge might be 2 hours, or even 10 minutes. You know you, set appropriate challenges, make sure they’re challenging, but don’t overdo it by using someone else’s metric.

3. Expect the expected

At the end of an hour of work, I am rarely 100% satisfied. My inner perfectionist is a whiny nagging worm and as they say, you are your biggest critic. Expect criticism, not only from yourself but from people reading your work as well. You cannot satisfy everyone, sometimes not even yourself. The way I deal with it? Just put it out there. No excuses. Don’t fear criticism, it can shape your growth in ways you couldn’t have come to own your own.

An example:

This weeks Makeover Monday (and any Makeover Monday really) provided a great opportunity to put these goals into action. Part of the challenge this week was to create a visualization based off of two numbers (and only two numbers, see link here and try the challenge yourself!). When I sat down to flex my data brain, I set my clock for an hour and just let things unfold. I ended up creating a visualization to give some context to an inconceivable number for US debt – $19.5 TRILLION. I added some measurements for things we typically think are astronomical in cost, but that are only a fraction of the current US debt. I had data, I dug deeper, I found a story that I thought deserved telling and it was told because I challenged myself to tell it. Unfortunately, I missed the mark on the original challenge and received some well-deserved criticism. So what now? Well, the benefit of my system is that because I committed to my own challenges based on my own needs (and succeeded!) I still get my gold stars. But gold stars on their own are meaningless unless they help me push my muscle further. So even though I failed the challenge this week, I have a new challenge set for myself next week! As cheesy as it is, remember:


And stay tuned for my next successful gold star 🙂



2 thoughts on “Dealing with Cognitive Quirks”

  1. Really like this post Nai! Glad you’re learning more about yourself, your limitations and, most importantly, you are developing along the way. Keep up the great work!


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