Pie or cake? Netflix or a movie out? Stay at your job, or look for a new one? From little stuff to life-changing choices, we must make decisions every day. While some people are eager to make choices, others can become paralyzed by even seemingly simple decisions.
Lauren’s friends from college have been bugging her about their beach trip next weekend. She just can’t decide if she wants to go or not. She isn’t much of a beach person, but she usually has fun hanging out with this bunch. Every time she’s on the verge of committing to going, an uncomfortable “What if…” thought pops into her mind: “What if we don’t all along anymore and it’s awkward all weekend? What if I get sunburned? But what if I stay home and then my friends stop asking me to do stuff?”
If you recognize Lauren’s challenge, you may find that you also struggle with certain kinds of choices. Maybe, like Lauren, you have trouble making decisions about your social life. Or maybe you get immobilized thinking about whether to look for a new job or change your career altogether. Some people get so overwhelmed by both personal and career choices that it can get in the way of doing what’s important to them.
Making choices is hard and it’s gotten harder.
In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz concludes that increased choice leads to anxiety and distress. “Learning to choose is hard,” he writes, “Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”
If this is you, you are not alone. It can take a lot of mental energy to make a decision, and the internet and proliferation of choices just make it more difficult. We increasingly receive the message that our lives can be creations of own design. So, if your life is totally up to you, why not make it perfect? It is easy to feel the growing pressure around cultivating a social media existence for ourselves.
Don’t believe everything your mind tells you.
“Ok, so decision making can be hard,” you say, “but why am I totally paralyzed?” If you are stuck in the midst of a decision-making process, it is probably because your mind is playing some very cunning tricks on you. It has you convinced that you need to make the best choice, and definitely avoid the “wrong” choice at any cost (even the cost of not making any choice at all). It has also told you that you need to feel absolutely sure that everything will work out before you make a choice. And finally, your mind has repeatedly reminded you that you’re really “going to regret it!” if you screw this up.
Fortunately, you can learn to recognize your mind’s tricks for what they are. Here are some concrete steps you can take to respond to these tricks and get unstuck.
1. Realize that there might not be a “right” or “wrong” choice.
Our minds can get stuck in a trap of trying to select the best option. On the surface, always aiming for the best choice may seem like a good idea. But in reality, we can’t try out — or even know about — all of the options available, or their consequences. Which means that it isn’t ever possible to be certain that we have picked the best choice.
Instead, we can remember that there are many ways we can accomplish our goals, nurture our values, and feel happy. Searching for the best option leads you to believe that if you can pick the right choice, you can avoid disappointment, pain, or failure. The truth is that we can make a great choice and something can still go wrong. It is also true that we can recover, or even thrive, in the aftermath of a choice that doesn’t work out the way we’d hoped.
There is more than one route to most destinations. And even if we take a circuitous path there, it is much better to get out on the road than just sitting parked in our driveway.
2. Learn to increase your tolerance of uncertainty about yourself and about the choice.
Don’t buy into the myth that you’ll “just know it” when you’ve made the right decision. In fact, making a difficult choice involves accepting the ambiguity and uncertainty that come with it. And, for some people, uncertainty can be particularly uncomfortable.
Research suggests that people’s ability to tolerate uncertainty may have an important impact on how they make decisions. One study found that intolerance of uncertainty causes some people to “perseverate, worry, and become anxious but not act, while others may act quickly, even accepting negative consequences, in order to resolve the uncertainty.” In other words, in an attempt to manage the fear of uncertainty, people might either avoid decision making or make an impulsive choice to just get it over with.
Clearly, neither of these responses are very helpful. It’s important to understand that avoiding anxiety and uncertainty may come at the cost of making a good choice. While your anxiety may be telling you that you need to be certain, it’s just not true. Moving forward with decision making may actually require you to move toward a feeling of doubt, instead of away from it. This means that if you decided to move forward with looking for a new job, you can expect some anxiety and doubt to come up each step along the way – from reading job ads to negotiating a job offer. These are normal feelings and not an indication that you’re headed down the wrong path.
3. Get grounded in the real options before you.
Is it possible that you feel unwarranted fear or unfounded fantasy because you haven’t yet taken a cold hard look at actual choices in front of you? Sometimes when I’m struggling to make a choice, I realize that I am comparing a real option with a hypothetical one that has all the qualities I want but none of the ones I don’t. For example, when planning a vacation, I might try to decide between Florida and some imagined destination that is quaint and relaxing, but with tons to do and not yet overrun with other visitors. As my mind diligently weighs the options, it fails to tell me that one of them does not really exist!
One way our mind manages uncertainty is by trying to distract us with all sorts of red herrings. It tells us that we need to sort through our confusion or figure out all of the possible outcomes before we can make a choice. As long as we are confused, stuck in our imagination, or trying to address unanswerable questions, we are not making decisions, and then we don’t have to face our fears about making the wrong one.
Try to notice if your mind is playing one of these tricks on you. It might be telling you that you just need to work things out in your head a little more before you move forward. If so, it is essential to get out of your mind and into looking at real possibilities out there. Gathering information may be very anxiety provoking and time consuming, but it’s a necessary step to gaining clarity on the choices in front of you.
4. Stop beating yourself up about every little thing.
Discover how being compassionate with yourself can help you to problem solve and make better choices in the future. Many of us are caught in the trap of believing that being hard on ourselves will make us better in the end. It’s like we have a critical coach in our heads, yelling and throwing chairs every time something goes wrong. Think about how much pressure that adds to our decision-making process.
Increasingly, research shows that self-compassion — not self-criticism — is helpful for building motivation and resilience. In numerous studies, scholar Kristin Neff has found that self-compassion can reduce anxiety, increase initiative, and foster our ability to cope when things don’t go our way.
You can start today by noticing and letting up on yourself when you begin to beat yourself up about regrets. When you hear your mind telling you “That was such a stupid mistake!,” you might try to add, “Ok, this sucks. But I’m doing the best I can.” This is true! While we all make bad choices at times, we always do so with the hope that it’s going to work out for the best.
Putting It All Together
Difficult choices usually involve uncertainty about the future and doubt about our own abilities. It’s not easy to decide what to do next, especially in a fast-changing world full of options. But each decision avoided is also an opportunity missed. Growth and success require taking healthy risks. We can think of each choice as a step toward the life we want to be living.
Gilbert, D. T., & Ebert, J. E. J. (2002). Decisions and revisions: The affective forecasting of changeable outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(4), 503-514.
Iyengar, S. (2011). The art of choosing. New York: Twelve.
Luhmann, C. C., Ishida, K., & Hajcak, G. (2011). Intolerance of uncertainty and decisions about delayed, probabilistic rewards. Behavior Therapy, 42(3), 378-386.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: William Morrow.
Schwartz, B. (2005). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: Harper Perennial.