Here’s the problem: in most cases, there’s no “capital R” Right decision, and life is not orderly nor predictable. The reason there’s no one right decision is that we cannot predict the future, and so what seems today a linear path may tomorrow be serpentine. What we prioritize today may be less important to us three months from now. And as for the external factors impacting the options we see today, well, they will likely also shift as time marches on. So, we usually take our best guess based on some combination of available information, trusted advice, and gut instinct.
There are many useful models for decision making, but what I’d like to highlight in this post are the patterns of thinking that often lead to decision paralysis in the first place. Do you tend to climb on that hamster wheel of information gathering, advice seeking, and pro vs con lists? Are you extremely concerned about which path is the most efficient, advantageous, economical, realistic, or otherwise the RIGHT decision? This post is for you.
Pattern #1: Perfectionism
There’s a high correlation between perfectionism and the search for the Right Decision. In fact, I’ve come to see the latter as a specific version of the former. That means that searching for the Right Decision is really about judging all available options as inferior in some way. As you search, or ask, or ruminate, you methodically convince yourself that all of the known options are fatally flawed in some way. In this frame of mind, no option presented is likely to appeal to you.
Antidote: Repeat after me, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Give yourself a time limit on information gathering activities. Take a break and do something completely unrelated. When you come back to consider your options again, tune into your body first. Letting your thinking mind rest, and take time to notice how your body responds to each option as you hold it in your mind. Use this feedback to help you move toward a decision that feels good to you.
Variation: Flip a coin or roll dice (if there are more than two options) and note your immediate physical response as the decision is made. (An automatic “oh no!” or “oh yes!” can give you a clue to your deeper desire)
Note: When addressing perfectionism, remember that this decision is one of many you will make in your life, and that you will have many opportunities to course-correct and adjust as you go. Sometimes, any decision is better than no decision, because it gets the ball rolling.
Pattern #2: Polarization
When we feel pressured to decide, many of us get stuck in black and white thinking: either door A or door B, the red pill or the blue pill. Polarizing seems to simplify the decision, and the thinking mind likes its resemblance to debate, but in reality, the either/or framework shuts down creativity and closes off many other options that might better serve our ultimate goal. The tendency to think in two extremes can increase our stress level and make a decision even harder.
Antidote: Press pause on A & B and go back to your bigger goal. What do you want, truly, in your life, work, or relationship? Get as clear as you can about this vision. Then, imagine ten ways you might move toward your goal. Really force yourself to come up with ten, even if they’re unlikely or whimsical. This exercise might make A & B irrelevant, but if they still require your attention, ask yourself which of them feels like a step closest to your true goal.
Pattern #3: Fear
Sometimes we have trouble making a decision not because we don’t know what we want, but because we’re afraid to go for what we want. These decisions, often coming at major transition points in our work or personal lives, can be the hardest ones to make. So hard, in fact, that deliberating over them can go on for years. Not that I know anything about that myself. (wink)
Antidote: If you suspect fear is preventing you from making a decision, a good way to start inquiring is by simply writing down exactly what your fear is telling you, in a completely uncensored fashion. “I’m afraid that if ____, then ______.” Allow these statements to be completely irrational, silly even. Fear is an imaginative catastrophist. “I’m afraid that if I turn down this contract, I’ll never work again in my life.” See what I mean?
Next: After you’ve let fear have her say, write a new set of statements: “But it also might be possible that if _________, then _________.” These are your positive scenarios. “But it also might be possible that if I turn down this contract, then I’ll have enough time to finish writing my book.” Oh, really? That’s interesting…
Final round: Assuming at least one of your positive scenarios is more inspiring than most of your fears, answer this question: “What’s one thing I can do this week to test the viability of this positive scenario?” You might share your idea with a friend, do some online research, or do a quick customer poll. Whatever you do, keep an attitude of curiosity and non-attachment to outcome. We’re just testing, not committing yet. Keep it light! “To do list: make outline of remaining book chapters, evaluate personal budget for next three months, ask writer friend to be accountability buddy.”