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How To Stop Overthinking Decisions

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Overthinking decisions can prevent you from taking action. When you get overwhelmed by making a choice, when you can’t decide between A and B, you often settle for C or you end up paralyzed, procrastinating, or making no decision at all. In this video you’ll learn the 3 underlying causes of decision paralysis, and 2 keys to overcoming it. And I’ll give you a hint, it has to do with emotion regulation and executive functioning

Overthinking Decisions

There once was a woman named Frieda who struggled with making decisions. She was a perfectionist and was always worried about making the wrong choice. Whether it was what to wear, what to watch or where to eat, she would spend hours, if not days, weighing all of the pros and cons of every option before finally making a choice.

This tendency to overthink things became a real problem for Frieda as she got older. Decision paralysis was holding her back in life. She couldn’t commit to a career, a relationship, or even a simple outing with friends because she couldn’t decide what to do.

Her friends and family started getting frustrated with her, because they never knew whether or not she would show up to events or follow through on plans. She became anxious and depressed, and her relationships with friends and family suffered.

One day, Frieda had to decide between two job offers. One was at a large corporation with a higher salary, but longer hours and more stress. The other was at a small start-up with a lower salary, but a better work-life balance.

Frieda couldn’t decide which job to take. She weighed the pros and cons of each option, but no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn’t make a decision. She was so paralyzed by the fear of making the wrong choice that she ended up doing nothing at all.

The Effects Of Overthinking Decisions

Frieda’s story is the epitome of decision paralysis. Decision paralysis is when you get overwhelmed with a complicated decision, or a simple one. Deciding “What should I major in at college?” or “Where should we eat tonight?” might make you freeze up, you might avoid it, overthink it, delay it, or constantly second guess your choice.  This can lead to choice fatigue, you might feel exhausted or just give up on college or eating out that night. 

Or you might procrastinate, instead of just picking the topic for that one huge assignment, you do a ton of little tasks that aren’t important. Or you spend time watching shows or on social media- anything you can to avoid dealing with that overwhelming decision. 

This problem can happen to anyone. In one study, surgeons were presented with a pretty clear case where surgery was necessary, but when they were presented with a bunch of other options like medications that were unlikely to help…but might help…they ended up delaying the needed surgery. 

There are 3 Causes of Decision Paralysis

    1. It’s harder than it’s ever been to make decisions- because we, in the developed world, have more options than ever in history. 
    2. Making a choice comes with risk- a risk of disappointment, fear, or regret. And a lack of ability to regulate the emotional aspect of decisions impacts our ability to choose between options.
    3. Your brain struggles to make sense of important, complex, abstract tasks. The word for this is executive functioning. This is all about how your brain manages decision making, how it prioritizes what is important. The average human has a hard time evaluating so much information, but for many people with anxiety, depression, or ADHD, executive functioning issues can make it extra hard. 

How To Stop Overthinking Decisions

OK, so now let’s talk about how to stop overthinking decisions. 

So first, let’s address the problem with having too many options. Barry Schwartz has spent years studying this and here’s a clip from his excellent TED talk. Previous to this clip he describes how he used to just buy the only pair of jeans that were available- because there really was only one option, but recently he needed a new pair and was bombarded with all the options- tapered, straight leg, boot cut, slim fit, button fly or zipper, acid washed or distressed and on and on. So he spent an hour trying them all on, got the best fitting jean of his life, and was still less satisfied because these jeans weren’t perfect, there were so many other options.

So the more options we have, the less satisfied we may feel. When we become aware of this paradox, we can intentionally counteract it. You could say something like “I’ve got lots of good options. Every outcome will be ok”. And then practice appreciation for the good things you have, even if they’re not perfect. Like a startup job or a new pair of jeans. Even something as simple as a zipper is a pretty marvelous invention if you take the time to appreciate it. 

OK, second, If you’re struggling to make a decision, it’s very likely that you’re afraid of something. I’m a therapist so of course I’m going to say that the most important key to decision paralysis is to face the emotional problem first. In Frieda’s case, she was attempting to avoid uncertainty (which is an uncomfortable emotion) with endless perfectionism, future analysis, pros and cons lists. Going around in circles was simply an attempt to eliminate the fear around disappointment, failure or a poor outcome. So if we want to stop overthinking, we need to regulate our emotions. 

You can learn to regulate the emotions that interfere with making a choice. 

  1. Can you identify what you’re afraid of- are you afraid that you’ll regret your dinner choice? That you’ll choose the wrong career and be stuck forever? What is your fear? Get super clear on it. Write it down. 
  2. Then ask yourself, if that fear really happened, visualize how you would manage? If you ate someplace terrible- could you tolerate the regret? If you chose the wrong career, could you try a different one?
  3. Accept that there are no perfect decisions, making a decision comes with risk. Life comes with risk. Choosing to take no risks in life comes with a high risk of being disappointed and lonely. If you’re afraid to choose a major, you’ll end up working in the only available jobs at your education level. Life will choose for you if you don’t. 
  4. Delaying decisions, procrastination or getting frozen in indecision are actually all about risk avoidance. So when you’re uncomfortable, when decisions are uncomfortable you have two options to try to manage your discomfort.-– 

Option (1) Put tons and tons of effort into never making the wrong decision. (Like Frieda here). Try to be perfect with your decisions. Try to avoid all discomfort by doing everything right (does this sound a bit like toxic perfectionism to anyone?). Trying to never ever make the wrong decision leads to constant rumination, regret and paralysis about choices. 

Or option (2) get really comfortable with making imperfect decisions. Confident people aren’t more likely to be right, they’re more willing to make imperfect choices. Forward progress includes mistakes and less-than-perfect outcomes.  Tolerating imperfection is a skill that can be learned. 

So for example, Ryan and I often have a hard time deciding what to do on a saturday with our 4 little kids. Childrens’ museum? Too crowded. Out to eat? The kids will make a mess. Park? It’s like 40 degrees outside. We get stuck because we don’t really want to face the reality that doing things with our kids is going to involve discomfort. Some crying, some lost shoes, some messes, some cold kids. And some fun, some adventure, some memories and opportunities to grow. So in this situation, the solution isn’t choosing the perfect, easy comfortable outing with the kids. It’s actually just picking anything and getting really good at being resilient. Going with the flow. Accepting the messiness of it all as being fused with the joy of it. And when you have made a decision- Celebrate your good decisions. Remind yourself of them. This is how you build self-confidence. 

So here’s 3 little mantras to get you through the fear of making a decision.

  1. Any decision is better than no decision There is risk in making no decisions. Something or someone else will decide for you. Create power over your own life by choosing to make a decision. 
  2. Done is better than perfect
  3. Look forward, not back. People are actually happier when a choice is final, when they can’t go back and change it. When you constantly second guess a decision and  ruminate on the “what ifs” you make yourself miserable. Don’t look back. Look forward. If you didn’t like that restaurant- say “I’ll try Bombay House next time” If you stayed too long in a bad relationship? Say “I’ll learn from that to have better boundaries next time” 

So let’s get back to Frieda. One day, Frieda’s best friend sat her down and had a heart-to-heart with her. She reminded Frieda that there is no such thing as a perfect decision and that sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith and go with your gut.

Frieda realized that her friend was right. Making a decision was hard, but making no decision was worse. She decided to take the job at the start-up, and even though it wasn’t the perfect choice, it ended up being the best decision she ever made. She was happier and more fulfilled, and her relationships with loved ones improved. From then on, Frieda learned to accept uncertainty, and to just make a decision, even if it wasn’t perfect.

Ok so now that we’ve talked about the emotion regulation aspect of overthinking, The second key to stop overthinking decisions is about Executive Functioning. 

Making big decisions with lots of moving parts can overwhelm our brain circuits. Our brains are not quite prepared for the difficulties of the modern world. Executive function is the mental skill of organizing big pieces of information, it includes working memory which is how many ideas can we hold in our head at once, organization, planning, self-control, prioritization, time-management, and flexibility. Because Executive Functioning is a kind of complex topic, I’m saving it for the next video in this series. 

Summary

Ok. So I just gave you a ton of information about overthinking decisions. Let’s summarize:

  • You have more choices than ever, which leads to higher expectations, and more disappointment.
  • It’s hard to make decisions because you’re afraid of making the wrong choice and being disappointed.
  • You can develop the ability to tolerate that fear, done is better than perfect
  • You can learn the skills to handle imperfect decisions and still be ok, don’t feed regret
  • Remind yourself that you are resilient
  • Give yourself credit for the good decisions you have made
  • Practice appreciation for good things you have, even if they’re not perfect

In the next video we’ll talk about how to support your executive functioning. 

I hope that’s helpful, thanks for watching! Let’s get better at feeling!

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