One needs to anticipate and plan for problems before starting a large project. What is it called when one becomes so caught up with planning for possible problems that one never sets out?

"Negativity" or "defeatism" is very close, but imply a kind of depressed state of not even trying in the first place. I'm looking for a phrase or idiom about applying mental effort or planning to try to solve all possible problems, and then becoming overwhelmed by all the possibilities of failure such that one does not actually try to solve the problem. Something like "tripping over a rock that's far down the road".

The antithesis of this concept might be "a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step" or "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

A commonly-recognized American English phrase or idiom would be perfect, but I'll take something else that's reasonably intuitive.

Wow, so many great suggestions! If it helps, I'm visualizing Wally from Dilbert, "agreeing" to a project for the PHB, and then rattling out a thousand ways it could go wrong until the boss says "never mind" and leaves Wally to go back to surfing the web.

The idea is that someone is being obstructionist, specifically by citing all the infinite possible risks. It's a kind of passive-aggressive behavior seen in technical settings.

  • Hmm, premature optimization taken to the extreme?
    – Marthaª
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 21:37
  • 1
    Crushed by the weight of prospective problems!
    – user66974
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 22:00
  • 4
    "Borrowing trouble" also comes to mind.
    – Jace
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 22:39
  • I'd call that "Quitting".
    – Geeky Guy
    Commented Sep 4, 2014 at 14:21
  • 2
    There is a term risk creep that effects projects but you overcome by dealing with potential risks.
    – ermanen
    Commented Sep 4, 2014 at 17:23

19 Answers 19


Practicing strategic incompetence

This often involves intentionally doing things poorly or incorrectly so as to have unwanted responsibility taken away, but a more subtle form is to plan for so long that failure comes as a natural outcome.

For example, if you really don't want to have the responsibility for planning office parties, you could start talking about your plans for decorating with orange and yellow teddy bears, serving anchovy pizza with no sauce (one large per person, right?), and entertaining with live organ or polka music. Plus everyone will have to dress as a person from history and also go by the name of an animal (Aardvark and Lemur, please come help me carry these 172 pizzas!).


I think the perfect phrase to describe your situation is analysis paralysis.

Wikipedia defines this as:

Analysis paralysis or paralysis of analysis is an anti-pattern, the state of over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome. A decision can be treated as over-complicated, with too many detailed options, so that a choice is never made, rather than try something and change if a major problem arises. A person might be seeking the optimal or "perfect" solution upfront, and fear making any decision which could lead to erroneous results, when on the way to a better solution.

  • That is very close, yes. There's a certain component of deliberation I'm trying to articulate in addition to that; there are certain people who use analysis as an way to avoid having to try (and risk failing).
    – user9383
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 23:34
  • If the intentional nature is important, than I think you're back to defeatism and negativity, probably more the latter as I'd think of "defeatism" as more of a personal, depressive state as you note, but "negativity" fits the description well. "Analysis paralysis" is more the nature of entering with enthusiasm and then overwhelming yourself by taking the entire volume on at once rather than dealing with each step in turn.
    – Jason
    Commented Sep 4, 2014 at 18:39

The word that comes to mind is overthink

TheFreeDictionary describes it as

to spend more time thinking about something than is necessary or productive


Give up before you start or Quit before you (even) begin are expressions that are, indeed, the antitheses of a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

Both of these expressions suggest that there is a fear of proceeding before the true difficulties that might occur are known.

A related thought from a Chinese proverb is:

Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up.


Given your comment about how "there are certain people who use analysis as an way to avoid having to try (and risk failing)", you may be talking about self-handicapping. Wikipedia says:

Self-handicapping is a cognitive strategy by which people avoid effort in the hopes of keeping potential failure from hurting self-esteem


I've always used "the perfect is the enemy of the best" for this --- you're waiting for the perfect solution (which doesn't exist) so you never apply any of the workable solutions.


Self-fulfilling prophecy might work for you here.


a positive or negative prophecy, strongly held belief, or delusion—declared as truth when it is actually false—may sufficiently influence people so that their reactions ultimately fulfill the once-false prophecy.

In such a case, said, feelings of failure will cause a person to head towards failure to prove their feelings/prediction is/was true.


Your question contains a non-negated form of a possible answer: “Don’t cross the bridge until you come to it”.  More to the point, “cross[ing] a bridge before one comes to it” refers to worrying about a potential, future situation before it arises – although it doesn’t specifically address the paralysis that might result from such analysis.

  • If I were to use that, it would end up phrased like "he's the kind of guy that tries to cross a bridge before he comes to it," which seems awkward and implies enthusiasm rather than cynicism. "He's a hell of a naysayer" or "he's terribly prone to analysis paralysis" fits my target better, though neither is quite perfect.
    – user9383
    Commented Sep 4, 2014 at 16:50
  • So you want something that implies cynicism? I didn't get that from the question. Commented Sep 4, 2014 at 17:49

A person who points out problems with the conscious or unconcious goal of delaying a project can be called a naysayer. The verb to naysay might convey your meaning.


The person who points out all the likely or unlikely events that can cause a project to fail is a prophet of doom.

It doesn't assume any genuine anxiety on the part of this person, which makes it suitable for a character like Wally who has an ulterior motive for discouraging a project (ie. laziness).


An individual in this state of mind may also be called a Worrywart. From the free dictionary

One who worries excessively and needlessly.


Being one who suffers from this type of over-thinking-to-the-point-of-never-doing problem to an extreme degree (but without any intentional cynicism), you might consider looking at it from a psychological/mental-health perspective.

In my case, these behaviours (or lack of behaviours, perhaps) are due to Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and more directly from ADHD which is the root cause of my 'going off on a tangent and never coming back' mode of thinking.

At one time, before getting the ADHD diagnosis, I attributed it to a kind of procrastination on steroids, and I would imagine that other people may have attributed it to some kind of cynicism, intentional or not, on my part.

The specific behaviour you're talking about could, perhaps, be associated with any of a number of mental health issues. Some possibilities that come to mind are various anxiety disorders, ADHD of course, maybe something on the Asperger/Autism spectrum, etc. The wikipedia article on procrastination has some good info.

My main point is that the phrase/idiom you're looking for need not necessarily require that the procrastination be a person's character flaw, but rather might point toward an underlying mental-health issue instead.

Things I've used/heard to describe this: chronic procrastination, inability to follow-through, going off on tangents, easily distractible, building castles in the sky, etc.


What about FUD-- fear, uncertainty, doubt? We use that a lot in my programming shop-- "is that estimate a real estimate, or one padded by FUD?"

  • I think (spreading) FUD is more about defeating others by making them worry about potential future problems, more about inducing worry than suffering from it.
    – Thilo
    Commented Sep 5, 2014 at 2:57

Channeling Wally from Dilbert, I come up with "Counting unhatched chickens from hell."


A kind of close word to what you are looking for will be navel-gazing, which is defined as:

The act of spending a lot of time thinking about your own problems, or one issue, but not doing anything about them

(From Macmillan Dictionary)


Well I was going to offer a suggestion, but I thought it might be wrong. So you could say I was

Finished before I began?


Black sky thinking e.g. finding the negative in everything or only considering negative possiblities


If its doing somthing because of percieved future obstacles: it sounds like mid-life-crisis If its NOT doing somthing due to distant overpowering forces: - star struck - later's lament (just made this up) - dodging a train still being assembled (made up) - cold feet - pending pain (eh..) - Unsubscribe from Tomorrow (sounds more suicidal) - The Delphi Dodge (made this up, but sounds cool, like having the oracle yell you sothing bads gonna happen, so you dodge it)

hope this helps

  • I'm not sure anyone would intuit the meaning of these, but I gotta give you a +1 for sheer creativity. I hope some of these become commonplace; "unsubscribe from tomorrow" does sound like a perfect bleakly comedic description of suicide.
    – user9383
    Commented Sep 4, 2014 at 19:01

Being Biff Tannen. This phrase can also be used when your offspring are defeated by problems from the past.

Source: Back to the Future, 1985 by Robert Zemeckis and Universal Pictures.