If you struggle to make decisions, you’re not alone. Trouble with decision-making is especially common in today’s modern world, where tools like dating apps, online shopping, and job boards can make it feel like everything is available at all times.
“Access to so much data is a spectacular tool, yet it can be incredibly overwhelming," notes Alexa Pena, LCSW, a psychotherapist in New York, "In addition to all the information and options on the Internet, we are also flooded with social media that can portray Instagram-perfect expectations. This can result in a sensory overload that can trigger our fight-flight-or-freeze response when faced with choices.”
Decision-making can be especially difficult for high achievers or perfectionists. The pressure to optimize every decision—that is, to make the absolute best choice—can mean that even small choices (like choosing a meal or a drink from a menu) might feel like high-stakes challenges.
Feeling overwhelmed with choices? Try out these simple strategies to ease anxiety and streamline your decision-making:
1. Gather any missing information
Sometimes, decisions are hard simply because you’re missing information.
For example, if you can’t decide whether you want to get a dog, maybe it’s because you don’t have a clear enough picture of what having a dog would look like. Try gathering all the details you might not have yet: How much do veterinarians in your area cost? What times would you walk the dog? What kinds of activities would you enjoy doing with your dog? Asking questions like these and finding the answers can help you get the clarity you need.
This can be helpful for decisions large and small—sometimes, spending an extra five minutes reading online reviews really can help you figure out which restaurant you should go to tonight.
2. Know when to stop researching
Even though gathering information is important, knowing when to stop researching is often just as essential.
If you have all the crucial information about the decision you’re trying to make, added data might just make your choice harder.
For instance, if you’ve already learned all about two cities you’re considering moving to—costs of living, jobs in your field, public school options—and have a sense of which you prefer, now might not be the time to ask all your friends to weigh in. Other people’s opinions can make you second-guess your own, even when you have a strong feeling about what makes the most sense for you.
3. Physically get distance away from the decision
If you "catch yourself going ‘down the rabbit hole’ or notice that you are mentally/emotionally fixating on a decision," Pena recommends physically getting some distance away from decision making.
Here are some of her recommendations for refocusing your attention and energy:
- Going for a walk
- Listening to your favorite song or podcast
- Completing an easy task
- Engaging in a breathing exercise
If you find it difficult to make this time, Pena suggests "setting a timer on your phone for 5-15 minutes to keep yourself accountable.”
By adding in that sense of distance, you may find yourself able to come back to the decision with a fresher mind.
4. Learn to trust your intuition
In many cases, learning to trust your intuition and go with your gut can help improve decision making significantly.
“Mindfulness affords us time and space to examine and recognize the full range of thoughts and feelings we have without prioritizing or judging one over the other,” Dr. Yoon says. “Instead of jumping to conclusions based on what you think is right, consider tapping into what your emotions and physical sensations in your body are telling you.”
Dr. Yoon also notes that mindfulness can help you learn how to “go with your gut.” She notes that this practice can be quite literal, “because those feelings in your stomach can be a good indicator for whether something feels a bit off (so perhaps you should stay away from that choice) or feels right and exciting (so perhaps this choice is worth exploring).”
Stretching your mindfulness muscle can help you tap into your intuition and trust your own desires.
5. Rely on habits to make fewer decisions
Another way to more easily make decisions is simply to make fewer of them.
Research has shown that “decision fatigue” can set in when you have to make too many choices, so try relying on habits to pare down to the number of decisions you have to make each day.
Here are just a few new kinds of habits that you might consider building:
- Clothing: Set a few different outfit combinations to rotate through, stick to one color palette, or set aside just a few times a year to buy new pieces. Even Barack Obama once told reporters that he wore only blue and gray suits while president, since his job required him to make so many other important decisions every day!
- Food: Eat the same thing for breakfast every day, or set up weekly grocery shopping lists (onions, mushrooms, spinach, and pasta, for example) to simplify your daily dining and meal prepping.
- Schedule: Instead of deciding on a daily basis when to do certain essentials (like waking up, taking a shower, or going to bed), pick an option that will generally work with your schedule—say, setting a recurring alarm for 7:30am or showering right before bed—and stick to it every day.
- Workouts: If there’s a yoga studio or running path you love, don’t feel bad about using it often. Tell yourself you’ll always hit that favorite trail on Thursdays, or buy a prepaid pack of classes at your favorite studio so that the decision is already made for you.
6. Let “good enough” be good enough
Remember that in almost every case, your decision doesn’t have to be perfect—it just has to be good enough. Give yourself permission to focus on the factors that matter most and let the rest go.
As you consider your options, ask yourself which factors are really deal-breakers for you. For example, if you’re considering a career change, maybe you’re willing to be flexible about your title or even your salary if you have a short commute and good working hours.
Set specific parameters for your top deal-breaking factors and write them down. In this example, you might note exactly how long a commute you’ll accept (Do you want to be able to walk to work? Or would a short drive be okay too?), along with what compromises you’re willing to make in exchange.
Then when you find an option that meets the criteria you’ve set for “good enough,” take it! Most decisions are compromises one way or another, and you’ll likely give yourself more peace of mind by setting rules for those compromises ahead of time.
Dr. Yoon notes that this kind of practice can be especially helpful for perfectionists. “By not being able to accept a level of ‘good enough,’ often perfectionists run themselves ragged trying to achieve an unattainable standard of ‘perfect,’” she says.
Rather than burning yourself out by focusing on perfection, Dr. Yoon recommends letting go of “black-or-white perspective (e.g. ‘Good’ vs. ‘Bad’ or ‘Perfect’ vs. ‘Failure’).” Instead, she says, you can “practice adopting a more nuanced perspective that includes the grays and is on a spectrum. Focus on the benefits of adopting this kind of ‘good enough’ mentality rather than getting caught up in whether ‘good enough’ means perfect or not.”
7. Set a deadline for your decision to avoid rumination
Especially when you’ve already tried the above strategies, sometimes the best thing to do is simply give yourself a deadline.
Once you have all the information you need and have already put in plenty of time considering your options, pick an exact day and time by which you must make a choice.
In more short-term situations—like deciding what to do after work today—this might mean telling yourself at 3:00 pm that you need to choose by 3:15 pm.
In many cases, knowing exactly when your waffling has to end can bring new clarity to your thought process.
Pena adds that “these time limits and deadlines can feel uncomfortable, but they can prevent further rumination on the decision. Ruminating can burn through your limited energy for the day and increase anxiety sensations.”
8. Learn decision-making and intuition strategies in therapy
If you consistently find that you struggle to make decisions, working with a therapist might also be helpful. This is especially true if you have a mental health condition like anxiety or OCD, which can make choices even more challenging.
In therapy, you can learn new strategies for working through decisions, and you’ll also have professional support in processing any underlying worries and getting to the root of your challenges.
Pena explains that with so much coming at us in our busy day-to-day lives, it’s especially important to “create space to pause, reflect, and connect to what we want and need in all aspects of our lives. In therapy, we have the opportunity to cultivate curiosity about how we view ourselves, others, and the world around us.”
She adds that “by strengthening this connection to ourselves, we are better equipped to move forward in a way that is aligned with our personal values and ethics.”
Dr. Yoon also emphasizes that therapy can also be a great way to clarify the values you want to prioritize.
“Your values will help guide what your priorities are and what qualities are most meaningful to you," she says. "When you have a clearer sense of these important pieces of information about yourself, making choices can become easier. Rather than it becoming a running list of pros and cons, you can get more clarity by seeing how well a possible choice aligns with the values you hold important in your life.”
Ready to build your intuition muscle, identify priorities, and improve your decision making skills? Use Zencare to search for specialized therapists in your area and get started today.