Guy Winch Ph.D.
We typically make dozens of decisions a day–what to eat, what to wear, with whom to socialize, short term planning, long-term planning, small and large life decisions and the list goes on. But some decisions are harder to make than others, whether because of our mood, our motivation, the situation, or the specifics of the decision itself and its implications—we just become stuck. We feel paralyzed and keep putting off the decision, which makes us feel worse and more pressured, which makes us feel even more paralyzed.
Here are the steps to take when you are struggling to make a decision:
1. Define the decision and the steps required to make it. Example: You don’t know if you should go on a vacation because finances have been tight and you’re not sure you can find something in your budget that will be worthwhile. What you are debating is not Should I go on vacation? or Where should I go on vacation? But Will the best vacation that fits my budget be worth the expense? In other words, sitting down to define the decision will make you realize it has two distinct steps: First you have to find the best option that fits your budget and only then will you be able to decide if it will be worth the expense.
2. List the options. Remember to include non-actions as options. For example, you have to decide whether to invite someone you’re not super close with to your birthday party. There are three options: You can decide to invite them, you can decide not to invite them, and you can avoid making the decision. For those of you quick to point out that not making a decision is basically the same as not inviting the person (as they don’t get invited either way) that is true factually but not psychologically. Unmade decisions can be sources of distraction and stress and the more of them hover over us, they more we are burdening ourselves unnecessarily.
3. List the pros and cons for each of the options. Make sure to consider as many perspectives as possible. For example, when listing the pros and cons of going home for the holidays or staying put and celebrating with friends, consider your experiences of holidays past, both ones in which you went home and ones in which you did not. Consider whether you will then be obliged to visit at another time instead and whether that visit will be better or worse, consider the feelings of other family members, the feelings of your friends who will not enjoy your company, the logistics of travel or cooking, etc…
4. Come up with a decision deadline. Some decisions have time urgency. For example, deciding whether to accept a new job offer or stay in your current job, or deciding whether to join friends on an unplanned weekend trip when you had planned to catch up on schoolwork. Other decisions have more open timelines, such as deciding whether to go on a diet, clean out the attic, or join a social media platform. When dealing with non-urgent decisions, either impose an artificial deadline for making the decision or if you feel unready to do so, decide to defer the decision to a later (specific) date when you will revisit the issue (so it doesn’t hover over you as an outstanding task).
5. Visualize the different options. We often make decisions based on our gut but let’s make sure to give our gut enough information to work with. Find a quiet spot, close your eyes, and in your mind, play out each of the options before you in graphic detail (i.e., take the time to truly paint the scene—the more detail, the more real it will seem, the truer your gut read will be). For example, if you’re deciding whether to buy an expensive item of clothing you really want but cannot really afford, envision what it would be like to get the item and wear it in a specific circumstance but also envision looking at your empty bank account, having to forgo something else you might have wanted, or the stress of big credit card bills until you pay it off.
6. Put it all together. Now that your gut has a better read on what you should do, choose the option you are leaning toward most. If you suspect your decision was more emotional than rational (i.e., one made by your gut) proceed to the next step. If not—you have made your decision.
7. Sleep on it. If you think your decision was motivated by emotion (e. g., “I kind of shouldn’t but I really want to!”) get a good night’s sleep and go over the pros and cons again the next day to make sure you’re not succumbing to impulse.