Wellness necessitates calm in the storm of possibilities.
We live today blasted by stimuli from all directions, an unedending barrage of information and misinformation, products to buy and choices to make. And we love to have choices, don’t we?
- Do you sometimes get feelings of doubt and uncertainty when you make decisions, small or large?
- Are you one of those people who spend hours debating over any idea in your mind before coming to a final conclusion?
- Do you hate making decisions?
The point is simple. We love choices, but sometimes the cereal aisle just has too many variations! See our Yoga post for more detail on this phenomenon and a link to an excellent, entertaining video.
It’s not just that you can’t decide whether to change your career path (big decision) or which of your children you love the most (joking!), it can also be whether or not to go on a diet (which one??!!!) or where to go for vacation.
”Analysis / Paralysis” can be extraordinarily self-destructive, as it impedes the pursuit of your goals can make you terribly unhappy.
The concept is widely credited to psychologist Barry Schwarz’s Book, The Paradox of Choice, though my Dad – who lectured us children on this very topic – would have cited the more philosophical work of Erich Fromm in Escape from Freedom https://amzn.to/3m9uaiw
To avoid going down that rabbit hole here are 7 ways to avoid decision paralysis.
1) Know the Difference Between Big and Small
The first step to solving decision-making paralysis is to differentiate between big and small decisions, after which you give the decision the level of attention it deserves.
3 questions to differentiate between big and small decisions:
- How important is this decision?
- Will this impact me a year from now?
- What’s the worst thing that could happen?
If the decision isn’t going to make a big difference a year from now and there are no serious consequences that will come out of it, then it is a small decision. Spend as little time as you need to nail this. Then, let go.
If the decision will create a major impact after a year and there are serious implications from making the wrong choice, then it’s a big decision. Set aside time to think it over.
Few decisions are as important as you think. Most decisions have little impact on our lives.
Examples of small decisions:
- Which toothbrush to buy
- What color curtains to get
- What to eat for dinner
Examples of mid-term decisions:
- Whether to break off your 3 week relationship with Harry
- Whether to collaborate with someone on a project
- Which diet to go on
2) Identify Your Objective
Every option has its pros and cons. Without knowing your end objective, you’ll forever be debating the relative pros and cons of each choice without a meaningful conclusion.
Let’s give an example consistent with the theme of this blog.
You have 2 weeks free time budgeted. Your choice is:
a) 2 week mindfulness retreat
b) taking your kids to Disneyland
c) stay at home, save money and be with your whole family
- Before you dig into the options for your decision, ask yourself: “What Is my end objective? What do I want to get out of this decision?” Identify your top two objectives, maximum three.
- Evaluate your choices based on your objective(s).
- As you do that, you will find that some options will stand out more strongly than the rest. These are the options you want to look at.
3) ”OK” is Okay
Unless you are dealing with a fundamental, life-altering decision, a seemingly sensible choice is fine – and don’t look back. Your goal is to pick a moderately ”okay” choice in a fair amount of time, and then move on.
Shouldn’t we spend more time making the best choice? Simply put, no.
As we noted, every option has its pros and cons. Every option has its own set of considerations. The perfect choice is almost never immediately accessible for every decision — that takes time and effort that you can’t afford. Picking the perfect option comes at a very high cost, which means that making the best possible choice can be a costly process.
There’s another thing: you will have no idea what happy (or unhappy) byproducts come out of your ‘Okay’ choices: a new friendship, a sudden appreciation for good food, a meaningful talk with your daughter: you have NO idea and you cannot worry about what you don’t control.
The 80/20 rule comes into play: It takes 20% effort to achieve 80% of the gain of a decision. But to nail down the final 20% gain to achieve a 100% perfect outcome, you need to invest a huge amount of effort. This effort needs to be justified by the importance of the decision, which is why tip #1 is about differentiating between big and small decisions.
This means, either you
- Spend 10 hours for example to research and identify the best choice every time. 10 decisions will take you 100 hours. Never mind that all of us have a limited amount of mental energy for these tasks. This means realistically you only have enough brain power to make X good decisions each day, after which other decisions need to be deferred to the next day. OR
- Spend much less time to make a moderately okay choice. Then, move on. Work on making the best out of your choice.
Time saved can be used to create value in other life areas. Even if your choice turns out to be not-so-great, (a) the act of selecting and moving on will help you achieve 10X more than being stuck in analysis paralysis, and (b) you can use this experience to improve in future decisions.
Again, this only applies to short- to mid-term decisions, of course; a little more thought should go into marriage, for example or your new career path.
4) Eliminate the Bad Options
When you have too many options, it makes the decision-making process messy. List your options, then eliminate the obviously bad ones. You should be left with a handful of choices, which makes it easier to select.
Evaluate the remaining options against your end objective. If you’re looking for a rebound relationship (bad idea to begin with, but let’s go with it) after ditching Harry, you know you can eliminate Nate from the suite of contenders: yeah, he’s handsome, but he’s so needy! Then again, what’s your end objective there?
5) Forget the Past
Not literally. You can’t and don’t want to forget the past exactly – but you can control the harmful influences it may have on your behaviour.
A lot of things were drilled into your head at an impressionable age. Maybe your parents were especially frugal or generous or perhaps domineering.
Their defining characteristics would often come with pedagogical reminders ”Always turn off the lights”, ”Give to those in need” etc.
Those experiences stay with you and inform the choices you make. What if your frugal parents chastised you for buying the ‘wrong thing’ and wasting money – you will then start second guessing all your purchases and tell yourself that bad decisions are irrevocable.
In some cases maybe they are, but they’re also not that important. Even the adage ‘always be kind’ can set an all-too-common trap: people learn to run over you and prevent you from making your own, considered decisions.
You live in the shadow of your past. It’s absurd to think that you have made a bad choice just because you don’t like some things about it. Even if you have made a bad choice, there’s no need to dwell on it. Learn and move forward.
If you constantly freeze when making decisions, perhaps you have a childhood experience driving your behavior. Why does it affect you so much? How can you let it go?
6) Set a Time Limit
This is a critical point.
Parkinson’s Law says, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
That is, your work will take however long you allow it to take. If you set aside 15 minutes for a task, it’ll take 15 minutes. If you set aside 30 minutes, it’ll take 30 minutes. If you don’t set a time limit, it may take forever!
This is the same in decision making. When you don’t set a time limit for your decisions, each decision can expand to take up your entire consciousness as you find new details to analyze.
To solve this, set a time limit. Your time limit should be based on the importance of the decision Personally, I set aside no more than a few minutes for small decisions, and no more than a week for mid-level decisions. For big decisions, I take as long as I need, though I usually come to a conclusion in two months.
If you haven’t made up your mind by then, make the best choice based on the available information. Remember that this time limit is based on the importance of the decision. Spending more time than needed means letting the decision take up more time than it is worth. Close it and move on to other things.
When you obsess about little things, for whatever reason, you typically have excess energy that is not being put to good use. Try working on something bigger: the shift in perspective often helps you dispense with the little decisions.
7) When in Doubt Try This
Consider a decision you are facing right now. It can be a small or big decision.
What options are you considering?
- Imagine if you were to take Option A. What would your life be like a year from now? How about three years? Five years? 10 years?
- How about Option B? Fast forward yourself one, three, five, and 10 years into the future.
- And Option C? Repeat the projection for your remaining options.
- Which scenario do you want to be in? This is the option for you.
Imagine subscribing to our weekly newsletter. What are the reasons not to? In one year, could you be better informed and entertained? Yes! Is the writing snappy and the news interesting and helpful? Yes! And can you always unsubscribe? Yes! So, that’s an example of a clear decision 😄