Seven Steps to Overcoming Indecision

11/01/2017 04:37 pm ET

One of the hallmarks of depression and anxiety is indecision. You may have a hard time deciding whether to exercise, get your work done, contact a friend, change your job, enter a new relationship or break off from your current relationship. Or you might be like a friend of mine years ago who would take forever to decide what he would order for lunch. Indecision keeps you frozen in your tracks and keeps you from taking the next step. But there may be a better way. Let’s look at seven tips that can help you decide what to do and what not to do.

1. Make decisions based on your goals and values, not on how you feel right now.

When you Mapquest your next trip they ask you for your destination. Let’s say your destination is East 57th Street and Lexington Avenue in NYC. That’s where you want to end up. The same thing with your decisions. But it’s not an address in Manhattan. It should be your goals and your values. For example, your goal might be to get some work done, exercise for 40 minutes, or eat a healthful meal. Your values might be to have success at work, be a good parent, be a healthier person, or act compassionately. Don’t think of your decisions as based on your mood or emotion—for example, “I am feeling tired, so I won’t exercise”. Think of where you want to end up. When we base our decisions on how we feel right now we often act impulsively, we avoid, we procrastinate and we lose sight of the endpoint. Start with the endpoint and work backwards.

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2. Consider the “search costs” and “opportunity costs” of indecision.

What else could you be doing in the time you spend researching a decision? What opportunities are you missing? Don’t forget that searching and waiting means that you have given up on pursuing certain options. If you are standing in line that goes on for years, you are missing something else in a shorter line. This is what is called, “opportunity cost.” What opportunities are you missing if you stay in a bad relationship? Not deciding is a decision, by the way.

3. Examine the longer-term and shorter-term trade-offs. Do you want to feel better for the next five minutes or the next five years?

A lot of times we make decisions for the short-term. That chocolate cake looks good—right now. I am feeling lazy—right now. I would like to google some nonsense—right now. If you are short-sighted you won’t get to where you eventually want to be. Think about where you want to be five years from now. More productive, successful, smarter, in better shape, good relationships, saving money. Reaching for the future means reaching beyond your present mood. Do a cost benefit analysis for the next hour, next day and next year. So, if you are trying to decide to exercise the costs and benefits might be that exercising right now won’t produce immediate results. But if you think of the costs and benefits of repeating exercise for a year, then the benefits in a year outweigh the costs. Think of your decisions as focused on an investment over time—not as something based on consuming pleasure in the moment.

4. Practice successful imperfection

As Salvador Dali once said, “Don’t try for perfection because you will never see it”. The Nobel Prize Laureate in economics, Herbert Simon, described the search for the perfect outcome—“Maximizing”. Unfortunately, maximizers are more unhappy, more indecisive, and more likely to regret their decisions. Aim for satisfaction--- something that moves you forward, that is practical and that is do-able. You don’t need the perfect workout to make progress. Your work today doesn’t need to be perfect in order to make progress on getting something done. I call this successful imperfection—it means, getting success in small, incremental, imperfect steps. Moving forward is a step in the right direction.

5. Don’t aim for certainty.

We often hesitate and seem to wait forever because we don’t have certainty. You don’t need certainty. You need progress. If you are constantly belaboring the idea, “But I don’t know for sure”, you can rest assured you won’t know for sure until after the outcome occurs. Constantly asking for reassurance might make you feel better for a few minutes but then you go back to wondering if you could get more information. There is no end to the information that you could demand. But you also need to know that more information is not necessarily better information. Know how much information is enough. Important decisions often involve doubts. Accept your doubts and act anyway.

6. See decisions as experiments.

What will happen if you try this or that? Will the world end, will you regret it forever?

Sometimes decisions involve testing the waters. Sometimes they can be experiments. It’s like trying a new food, a new movie, a new book. Let’s say that you are trying to decide to approach someone at a party. That’s the decision in front of you. What is the worst likely outcome? The best likely outcome? The most likely outcome? Some experiments have a greater cost—like breaking up or changing jobs. But even then you might learn something new--- like how to cope with a new reality, how to grow. The more experiments you carry out, the more you learn.

7. Realize that you can absorb some losses if your decision proves wrong.

People who are indecisive often think that they can’t handle the potential downside. But the reality is that most people are actually resilient. Research by Columbia University psychologist George Bonanno and others shows that people often bounce back after significant losses and traumatic events. We often predict that if something happens that we will be miserable forever. This is known as “affective forecasting” and the research by Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert shows that we often exaggerate in our mind the duration and intensity of future events. People who get divorced often end up happier in the long-term and people who have financial set-backs often find other ways of enjoying life. Have you absorbed losses before? Have you bounced back? The research on affective forecasting shows that we don’t realize that new relationships or new opportunities may actually make us better able to cope in the future—what is called, “Immune Neglect”. We don’t realize that we have the ability to cope. We often focus on our current negative emotion and don’t realize all the positive events or relationships that might emerge in the future. Those are experiences that may make us immune to further suffering.

So, when thinking about your decisions, think about where you want to end up. Set aside your current emotion, think about accepting uncertainty, be willing to tolerate doubts, give up on perfection and move forward imperfectly.

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For more information on my clinical work, visit my website here.

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