Sometimes it’s not the big life-changing decisions that throw you for a loop.
It’s often those everyday — mundane, even — choices that can leave us in an indecisive spiral. If you’ve ever wished you were more decisive, you’re not alone.
Maybe it’s what to order for dinner or the paint color in the guest bathroom or what to wear this weekend. If you’ve struggled with any of these decisions or similar ones, you may be what psychologists call a “maximizer,” somebody with FOBO (Fear of Better Options).
It’s not always bad, actually. One study found that graduates who look for the “best job” — maximizers — actually tend to land in higher paid positions than their counterparts. And while that’s definitely a silver lining, feeding FOBO can lead to a feeling of dissatisfaction and lesser happiness overall.
How do you overcome choice paralysis and the “what-ifs”, and actually feel confident about the decision you’ve made? Sometimes a simple pros and cons list will do, other times it’s a bit more involved, so let’s dive in.
Some reasons why you may struggle to be decisive
- Second-guessing. Do you feel insecure about your ability to make the right decision? Do worry what other people might think about every choice you make? When you let external factors overshadow your internal compass, it can lead to second guessing and feeling unsure of even the smallest choice.
- Perfectionism. You want everything to be perfect, or as close to perfect as possible. Striving for excellence is a good thing, but sometimes you have to look at a choice from a different angle. Maybe there isn’t a perfect option. What are you willing to live with or without?
- Avoidance. We’ve all been there: procrastinating a decision because we don’t want to deal with the potential consequences. In these cases prepare yourself as best as possible for the outcomes, and realize that in most cases, action is better than inaction.
- Guilt. Sometimes decisions are hard because of the people around us, especially if we worry about how our decisions will impact them or their opinion of us. Factor that in, but don’t let it overtake the process. It’s your decision for a reason.
Whatever the reason you’re indecisive, learning why can help you take the next step in the process, which most experts say is critical: working through the decision itself.
Awareness is essential for change. You might be surprised how noticing your own patterns and triggers can enable you to create new ones going forward.
Once you notice yourself falling into the same patterns of being indecisive, you can start approaching decisions from a more objective, fresh strategy.
Start by listing out all of the factors influencing the choice you’re making; this can help you foresee different outcomes and which elements you may need to weigh more than others.
Getting all of your ideas out on paper can help you feel more decisive by clarifying your options. It will most likely become obvious that some choices are better than others, and the process of eliminating bad options can boost your confidence for later choosing the right option.
This is how to be more decisive
Opposite of maximizers is what psychologists call “satisfiers.” These people often factor fewer things into their decisions.
Landing somewhere in between the two is probably your best bet, according to former New York Times Smarter Living Columnist Tim Herrera, who dubbed this strategy the “Mostly Fine Decision.”
“Your M.F.D. is the minimum outcome you’re willing to accept for a decision. It’s the outcome you’d be fine with, even if it’s not the absolute best possibility,” Herrera writes. It’s a method that’s good for those insignificant decisions that bog us down.
Set your criteria and go with the option that hits them all, or as many of them as possible. That is your M.F.D.
Experts agree that this method, or some degree of it, is actually great for indecisive people.
“I’m reasonably confident we’re operating with far, far more options in most parts of our life than we need and that serve us,” says Dr. Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice.
Perfection and indecision go hand in hand, he says. So, like Hererra points out, focus on the "good enough". An “only the best will do” mindset can be crippling, especially in inconsequential decisions. Limit your choices as much as possible. It can be a lot easier to make a decision when your options are fewer.
If you’re the type of person who over-prepares when making decisions, you could make things a lot easier on yourself by trusting the experts. That’s an approach Dr. Sheena Iyengar, the author of The Art of Choosing, encourages and uses herself, particularly when it comes to choosing a bottle of wine or deciding on a restaurant for dinner.
Don’t be afraid to outsource when you’ve become indecisive. If you’re really hard-pressed on a decision, big or small, consult the people closest to you or ask an expert. They may have an idea or opinion that you haven’t thought of yet or have missed in all of the analyzing - and you'll get to a good answer much faster than trying to work through it all yourself.
Sometimes making the decision isn’t even the toughest part. Sometimes it’s living with it, especially when it was a hard decision.
Remind yourself that you did the best with the information you did at the time. Sometimes even the right decision doesn’t validate the feelings that come along afterward.
“Try to identify and name what you are feeling — name it to tame it,” says psychologist Chris Germer, co-author of The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions. “Notice the body sensations associated with guilt, remorse, anger, sadness, shame, and see if you can make space for them.”
To become a better decision-maker is to become at peace with your decisions, even when they don’t turn out as ideally as you hoped.
Even small decisions that are off — like painting the bathroom a shade too dark — can be frustrating, because we think of all of the things we could have done differently, but it’s rarely the end of the world.
You’ll learn from the experience, and it’ll inform a better (and easier) decision the next time around. At the core of decision making is knowing that few things are as concrete as we make them out to be. A little bit of flexibility can go a long way when it comes to overcoming choice paralysis.