Are you having trouble making decisions?
If so, it’s a far more common problem than you might think – and there may well be a good reason for it.
In this article, you will learn a little about the science behind decision making, and find some advice around what to do when you’re having trouble making decisions, both big and small.
A Quick Bit of Background
I’ve spent lots of time researching this subject, because in recent years I’ve come to realise that having trouble making decisions can be a BIG mental health warning sign.
If I’m descending into depression, or having a spell of (worse than normal) anxiety, I can sometimes arrive at a place where I struggle to make even the simplest decisions. I’m talking about really basic things such as what to wear and what to eat for lunch. Trying to choose something from the Chinese takeaway menu at times like this can feel completely overwhelming!
Joking aside, it’s can be a genuinely scary feeling. It leads you to question why your brain isn’t working right. But it turns out that it is a natural and normal phenomenon.
The Science Around Making Decisions
I’ve already mentioned anxiety and depression, so let’s begin there.
Doctors confirm that struggling with decision making can be a symptom of both conditions. I suspect that comes of little surprise to the people that suffer from them.
One thing I find challenging about depression is that many people who don’t suffer from it really don’t understand it. For me, feeling “down” or “low” is only a small part of depression, and certainly not the worst part. I most hate the emotional “numbness,” the inability to get excited or inspired about anything and – most relevant here – the “brain fog.”
When it comes to anxiety, it also inevitable that that can impact our ability to make decisions. Anxious people don’t generally want to get things wrong! That can make us thorough and conscientious (something that’s enabled me to get plenty of praise in my working life), but – yes – it means it can take us longer to make decisions.
But what about when you’re having trouble making decisions, and it really doesn’t seem to be linked to anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues?
I can certainly relate to that too. Sometimes this mental block still happens when it feels like you’re firing on all cylinders – so what’s up with that?
It turns out there’s some solid science there too. An increasing body of social science research discusses something called “decision fatigue.” It suggests that the ability to make decisions is a finite resource. So, for example, you might be able to instantly decide what you want from the Chinese if you’ve had a slow-paced, relaxed day, but really struggle with it if you’ve already spent the entire day making other decisions.
Questions to Ask Yourself
With the above in mind, here are a few things it’s worth asking yourself if you’re struggling to make decisions:
- Might I be depressed or anxious? Am I suffering any other mental health symptoms?
- Have I been going through a period where I’ve been having to make lots of decisions?
- Am I burned out? When did I last have a break?
- Is this inability to make decisions a new or one-off problem, or is it just the way I am?
The answers to those questions will certainly help you along the way. If you answer “yes” to any of them, you’re already some way to understanding why you’re having trouble making decisions.
But what do you do about it? That’s what the next section is all about.
Tips for When You’re Having Trouble Making Decisions
1. Allow Yourself Some Downtime
It seems counterintuitive, but when you’re struggling to make decisions, the best thing is often to give up on trying to make them for a while.
A quick anecdote:
I have a well-refined process for setting my personal and business goals. I go through it every three months, and it’s been so effective for me over the years, I even created a YouTube video explaining what I do.
Recently, the time came to sit down and define my goals, and it just wasn’t happening for me. I ended up with lots of notes, no clear plan and a rising feeling of agitation and anxiety.
After battling against this for several days, there was one decision I did manage to make: I decided to shelve it all for a week. I trimmed down my to-do list so that it only contained the tasks I absolutely HAD to do, and resolved to spend a week walking, decluttering, and generally going easy on myself.
The outcome: After that week, I was brimming with ideas and inspiration. Some of the things I decided to focus on were things I wouldn’t have even thought about had I not given myself time and space where I wasn’t even trying to make decisions.
The big lesson here is that the science is right! In the run up to this period of time, I’d already been having to make LOADS of decisions. I’d had a huge amount going on in both my work and personal life, including periods where Covid isolation had meant having the children unexpectedly at home, requiring us to constantly reschedule and reprioritise. It just wasn’t the time to be deciding priorities for the months to come.
You simply cannot FORCE it – after all, how are you supposed to make the right decisions under the wrong pressure?
2. Work Out If You Have All The Information You Need
Another thing that can give you real trouble making decisions is trying to make them with incomplete information.
It would seem incredibly obvious that we can’t decide things without all of the information we need. However, it can be human nature to want to do it so we can get started and move forward. In addition, sometimes we have to move on because we can’t simply “spin our wheels” and wait.
I now realise that this problem also fed into my own recent spell of having trouble making decisions. There were various things I didn’t know – and I still don’t have all the answers at the time of writing. I was waiting for my annual accounts to come back from the accountant, so didn’t know the size of my next tax bill; I was uncertain how much work a couple of clients needed from me, leaving me uncertain of how much time I actually had for my own projects.
There’s no one simple answer to problems like this. In my case, I decided – for the first time in years – to only lay out my goals for the next month, rather than the next three. I “took the power” back, and made decisions based on the information I did have.
The key is finding a balance here. You can’t make every decision with an incomplete set of information, but nor can you delay everything until other people are ready.
3. Don’t Get Stuck in “Endless Browsing” Mode
Nowadays, we’re blessed / cursed with almost infinite choice: thousands of movies and shows on Netflix, millions of books on Kindle, dozens of takeaways on Deliveroo. And we can have all of these things almost instantly too.
The trouble is that that’s not always a good thing. We’ve all been in that situation where we don’t have the energy to watch a whole film by the time we’ve spent an hour scrolling down the Netflix menu and reading reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we’d probably all far rather enjoy a whole film, eat dinner earlier and have time to digest it, or just curl up with a single book. That “endless browsing” isn’t actually all that enjoyable.
I LOVE being on holiday in an Airbnb apartment, with only the book I bought at the airport, and with CNN being the only English-language channel on the TV. It’s RELAXING to have less choice. Yet as soon as I get home I’m back into that “endless browse” mode, and worrying that there might be a slightly better movie to watch.
Is it any wonder, with all this choice, that we end up afflicted with brain fog and and an inability to make decisions? Remember the science of decision fatigue?
It doesn’t have to be that way, but you do need to work at it. Something I’ve started to do is make certain decisions in advance.
There are many different things I enjoy doing in the evening once the children are in bed: catching up on TV shows, auditioning music for my DJ sets, making music of my own, reading one of the many books on the ever-expanding pile by the bed, playing video games, the list goes on. But if I don’t decide on one, I can easily find that I’m still staring at Twitter on my laptop as midnight clicks by.
So what I’m trying to do now is decide which thing will be my focus: “After I’ve had dinner and been for a walk I’m going to watch THAT show / read THAT book / listen to THAT playlist / play THAT game.”
I’m always happier when I manage to do it, and more likely to be able to decide what I actually want for dinner!
4. Trust Your Instinct – Not Your Impulse
You don’t always get things right when you “go with your gut” but you usually do.
That might sound a bit bold, but it’s another thing that’s backed by science. A study suggests that relying on instinct will mean you make the right call 90% of the time.
I can think of one very specific business decision where I went against my instinct. I churned my options over for months and agonised about it with anybody who’d care to listen. I missed the boat, made the wrong call based on what other people thought, and ended up losing out on a very significant amount of money.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that you you just leave everything to instinct but – let’s face it – the science suggests we probably should do it more often than we do.
Of course, a very important thing here is to learn the difference between instinct and impulse. The latter means making emotional decisions – and decisions you might regret later. Looking back on that business decision, I think that all it would have taken to make the right call would have been for somebody to ask me (or for me to ask myself) whether I was deciding based on instinct or impulse. I would have known the answer and made a different call.
5. Accept You Won’t Always Get it Right
You are going to get some decisions wrong. It’s human, and it’s inevitable.
The decisions you get wrong could be small (“I wish I’d just ordered from the normal Chinese takeaway instead of trying out the one with the sketchy reviews,”) or big (“I should have sold that business when my gut told me to.”) But we all have regrets, and you can be certain you still have plenty more to come!
Are you having trouble making decisions? Are there any strategies that have helped you? Let me know in the comments below.
Recommended Reading: The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results