How to Overcome the Dread of Decision-Making

How to Overcome the Dread of Decision-making. Man leaning on his side with an x, a ? and a √
Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Making decisions can be hard. It can be both mentally and emotionally exhausting. Sometimes, we worry about making the wrong decision. Other times, we make impulsive choices. Periodically, we make decisions that we regret, the memory of which undermines our confidence when we have to make new ones. All of this leaves us wondering how to overcome the dread of decision-making.

Dread is definitely worth overcoming. Dread manifests as anxiety, fear, worry, and trepidation. The consequences of dread are equally unappealing, presenting as resistance, avoidance, procrastination, and equivocation. When we dread something, it is hard to make ourselves press forward, and even if we do, we can expend a lot of energy fearing we’ve made a mistake.

Unfortunately, decision-making is part of life. I’ve heard that the average person is estimated to make somewhere around 35,000 decisions a day. I don’t know if this is accurate, but I certainly think it is possible. The good news is, most of our daily decisions are not very difficult: what to eat for breakfast, should we have two cups of coffee or three, should we bring an umbrella, etc. However, we all have decisions that we would rather avoid making.  The “tough” decisions – the ones we dread – tend to have a few characteristics:

Lack of Knowledge and/or Information

“I don’t know how to even begin.”

“I’m overwhelmed and feel ill-prepared all at the same time.”

“I have no idea how to figure out what the right decision is.”

Uncertainty

“I am not sure what will happen if I do this.”

Time Pressure

“I have to decide, and I don’t feel ready.”

Significant Consequences

“If I choose wrong on this, it could have a serious, negative impact on my life.”

Pressure from Other People

“My parents/siblings/boss/coworkers/children will be disappointed in me if I do/don’t do this, but I’m not sure.”

Conflicting Inner Voices

“On the one hand, I want to do this, but on the other hand, I don’t.”

Potential Financial Impact

“This is going to cost me a lot and I can’t afford to have it go wrong.”

Making things worse, many of the decisions we face feature more than one these characteristics. The result is that we may not really know why we are hesitating, only that we feel a bit ill every time we think about it whatever it is.

Concern about making a bad decisions can leave us feeling stuck. Rather than make a bad choice, we make no choice at all. Or at least, we think we are making no choice. The truth is, when we don’t make a decision, we are actually making a decision to face the issue at some point in the future. Yes, every now and then, a decision will be made “for us,” and/or a situation will resolve on its own. However, more often than not, delaying a decision too long only exacerbates time pressure.

The good news is, there are tangible things we can do to make decision-making easier and less painful. Here are a few tips to try.

Allocate a sufficient, but limited, timeframe to decide.

Few like having to make decisions when they are being rushed. Marketers know this. Have you ever been told you need to “buy now” because the offer is expiring soon? Frequently this isn’t even the case, they just want you to act before you’ve really had time to think things through.

At the same time, unlimited time can undermine our ability to make a decision. We just keep pushing off deciding indefinitely, which rarely leads to a good outcome.

Instead, acknowledge you have to make a decision, and make a mindful, intentional decision about how long you will allow yourself to make your choice. Put the date on your calendar. If you think you will “hit snooze” and dismiss your deadline, ask someone else to hold you accountable. Children and other family members can be great for this task. They love reminding you of what you are supposed to be doing LOL.

Invite someone else into your decision.

Repeated spinning about an issue in our minds is of limited value. We need to think things through, but not over and over. If we are stalled on a decision, we may need the injection of a fresh perspective and/or new information.

For example, I have a client who has been thinking about selling her home and downsizing. She’s been stewing on this idea for years. One of the stumbling blocks has been her house full of stuff. She has been wanting to get rid of things, but the whole idea feels sad and stressful.

Recently, she took a step and sent me an email. I was able to visit her and talk about her project. Since I do this work all the time, it doesn’t feel intimidating to me. In fact, because of my experience, I know that this can be a very positive process. We had a great conversation and made a plan. As I was leaving, she told me that sending her email was a big step for her,  that it felt good to have the ball rolling, and that having someone involved with resources made the process feel less stressful.

Add context to your decision.

Vague decisions are hard to make. The variables are fuzzy, the costs are hard to define, the steps involved are muddled, and the impact of the decision is difficult to quantify. It’s much easier to make decisions about clear, concrete, facts.

For instance, I worked with a client who had a lot of accumulated artwork that her children made when they were little. The art was in boxes that were taking up a lot of space. She wanted to reclaim the space, but felt bad about getting rid of the artwork, fearing she would regret this decision in the future.

I suggested we take a couple of steps.

  1. Unpack the artwork and take a look at what she actually had.
  2. Group the artwork by child, and then within each child’s grouping, divide the contents into piles by rough age (we broke it out by preschool and elementary school).
  3. Within these piles, further group the art by type (e.g., all of the rainbow drawings together, all of the art that was simply assembly pre-cut pieces together, etc.)

This exercise, which sound tedious but actually only took us about an hour, was very fruitful. First, it was a fun walk down memory lane. Second, it was easy to remove the pieces that had deteriorated. Third, we were able to identify what was worth keeping and what had little emotional value.

After about another hour of reviewing, we had narrowed the collection to a reasonable amount. I suggested she now decide if she wanted to keep the original pieces (still in boxes, labeled by child), or take photos of the art that could be uploaded and made into photo books. She wasn’t sure, so I said I would give her some time to think, and we could decide the next time I saw her. To the next appointment, I brought some examples of photo what the photo books looked like. She liked this idea and decided to take photographs of the collection and pitch the originals once the books were completed.

Establish decision-criteria in advance.

One of the challenges of making decisions is that we second guess ourselves throughout the process. We decide to go one way, but then start thinking of the reasons to go another way. This process is draining and can result in no decision being made. A better approach is to draw up your decision criteria before you begin the process. This is especially helpful when you must choose between a number of options, such as universities to apply to, cities to live in, dresses to wear, cars to buy, etc.

The benefit of setting your criteria in advance is that you tend to be better at identifying your values better when your emotions under control.

For example, I worked with a client who needed to plan a vacation for her family. She was having trouble getting started and felt overwhelmed by the process. There were “too many choices,” and yet she felt if she made the wrong one, her family would be upset. [She shared about a previous time when this had happened.]

I suggested that, before we started looking at options, we make a list of what would be the criteria for a successful vacation. We came up with:

  • Within driving distance
  • Fit the budget (including lodging, travel, activity tickets)
  • Offered activities for the kids that would free the adults to have a few times together alone.
  • Could accommodate the grandparents, if they decided to come.
  • Offered at least one activity that would appeal to each family member.
  • Was available on specific dates, that weren’t too close to other activities they had already put in place for the summer.
  • Had good reviews on TripAdvisor or from her friends.

Once we had these criteria established, we started to consider options. Some of the ideas she had been contemplating immediately fell from the list because they didn’t meet the criteria. We were able to narrow it down to a reasonable number of choices, for which she could get a fair price estimate.

We also researched what steps she would need to take within the week in order to secure reservations and get needed tickets, and exactly how she would go about doing that for each one. I also suggested that she put a note in her dated to-do book to remind her to make dinner reservations a couple of weeks beforehand, as this can be hard to do if you wait until you arrive. After our session, she planned to discuss this list of possible vacations with her husband, and then follow through with the one they thought best.

Make the decision as physically comfortable as possible.

Some decisions are hard simply because they are physically uncomfortable. Things that we need to review or consider may be up high, down low, inside a crawlspace, in a hot attic, at the bottom of a stack of boxes, etc. Additionally, there may be objects that are sharp, hazardous, heavy, or otherwise tough to manage.

If you have been avoiding dealing with a decision because you believe it will be physically unpleasant, make a plan to minimize the discomfort as much as you can.

For instance, I always suggest that we bring items that need to be reviewed and potentially decluttered to a sorting surface. I prefer that this surface be cleared of other objects, and well-lit. Often this means that I spend some time hauling items out and doing some pre-sorting. I might wear gloves, put down a tarp, wipe off dirty pieces so they can be examined, etc. It is always the client’s job to decide what to keep and what to shed, but I try to make this as easy as possible.

You may be able to do this “physical” work yourself, but if you can’t, this is an easy one to get assistance with. Whether it is a professional organizer, a family member, or some young people home from college, offload the physical aspect to someone else so you can invest your energy in making decisions.

Pregame the next steps of your decisions.

Some decisions are saddled with the weight of “what I will have to do next” if we make them. We might have already made a decision, but then avoided following through because we either weren’t sure or didn’t want to move forward.

Frequently I work with clients who will tell me that they know that they no longer want a specific item, but that it is still in their space because they’ve never followed through to the next step.

For example, clients may not be sure where to donate their unwanted items. Or, they need to ship an item to a family member, but they don’t have a box or packing materials. Often, they just keep forgetting to put an item in the car so they can drop it off where it belongs.

Whenever I work with clients, similar to the way I suggest establishing decision criteria, I often recommend that we decide in advance where and how things that they don’t want will go. We set up various “exit zones,” depending on the action that will be taken with them after our session is over (e.g., take to the dump, deliver to someone else by car, drop off at a charity, photograph and email to a reseller for possible sale, etc.) If clients don’t know where things should go, I help them review their options. I have found that it is much easier to let go when you feel good about where things will end up.

* * *

Since we can’t avoid making decisions, we might as well do all we can to ease the process.

What decision do you need to be making? Might these tips be helpful?

Seana's signature

16 thoughts on “How to Overcome the Dread of Decision-Making”

  1. Pre-gaming the decision and making a slight adjustment to making a decision usually help me and my clients make a decision that is happy. A pre-game including criteria for a decision helps frame the decision and keep the end in mind. Knowing what a good conclusion feels comfortable. A slight adjustment to a decision, such as making a baby step decision along the way to the eventual decision helps you correct as you go.

    1. Love that idea of a slight adjustment. That should always be an option, as life is perpetually changing and morphing, so we should be pivoting to achieve the best result. 🙂

  2. You are so right! About all of this! Here’s a tip I picked up from comedian Louis C.K. that has to do with perfectionism, which can trap you into painful ambivalence. It can apply to both big and little decisions. The 70% Rule. He says, “So my rule is that if you have…something that gets 70 percent approval, you just do it. ‘Cause here’s what happens. The fact that other options go away immediately brings your choice to 80. Because the pain of deciding is over. And, when you get to 80 percent, you work. You apply your knowledge, and that gets you to 85 percent! And the thing itself…will always reveal itself…to be more than you thought. And that will get you to 90 percent. After that, you’re stuck at 90, but who the fuck do you think you are, a god? You got to 90 percent? It’s incredible!” LOL.
    Hazel Thornton recently posted…The AI Gold RushMy Profile

    1. What a funny quote! 90% truly is incredible. Nobody is batting 100 all the time, so letting go of that illusion is a very worthwhile effort indeed!

  3. Organizing, decluttering, and planning all hinge on decision-making. Even if you get to making decisions, decision fatigue can quickly set in. So, it’s another variable to consider. If possible, don’t make decisions when you’re exhausted.

    You made excellent points about why we can be so decision-challenged. And often, as a result, like you said, no decision gets made. The weight of not-deciding can be heavy. Or, time will decide for you, which doesn’t always work out in your favor.

    I find that some clients have an easier time choosing, and some vacillate between one option and another. In those circumstances, we need to tease out the options, put some parameters or boundaries around them, and work towards choosing. Patience and understanding are essential, as are helping my clients get enough information to make the best possible decision given the situation, time constraints, etc.

    1. That’s so true what you say about the weight of not-deciding being heavy. We can carry this weight of indecision around for years and not ever realize how burdensome it is!

  4. 35,000 seems a lot, but if you take every single move you do during the day, and think about the result, then that number might be correct.
    Sometime we need help deciding, especially when it comes to bigger projects or spending shall I say. Might be even buying an expensive shoe and you need mom or sister’s opinion to decide.
    We are seeing a lot of the “hard making decisions” when it comes to downsizing. It is much harder to see your whole life being downsized and your belongings being gifted, donated or trashed.
    Great post Seana, I loved all the details.
    Janet Schiesl recently posted…Do Everything a Little SlowerMy Profile

    1. I’m seeing a lot of hard decisions for downsizing as well. It is challenging for sure. Hoping these tips help a little. Going through a whole house is not a minor endeavor.

  5. As a person who dreads decisions, I found this very insightful, both in terms of what I do and what I could do differently. For example, I have a pretty structured routine. I eat basically the same breakfast every day, have the same number of cups of coffee and tea at the same times, do laundry the same day and time every week, and so on. This works well for me, but I never considered that it might be that no decision making is required! I wonder if I can make this work in other areas…

    1. I think I take a similar approach, Janet. I’m happy to reduce decision-making where I can. That is another tip that should be in this post!

  6. This is a great topic. Setting parameters or criteria to use when making decisions is so helpful. I love the concrete examples you provided within your blog. It’s great for people to read how these situations can play out.
    Making decisions is tough work. This is one reason I tend to keep my working sessions to two hours. The short timeframe prevents decision fatigue from setting in.

    1. I work in 3 hour blocks for the same reason, and even within that 3 hours, clients are only making decisions for probably 2 hours. It’s a lot easier for me to work than it is for those making the decisions, right?

  7. So much good stuff here. I have often suggested taking pictures of children’s artwork – especially large pieces or structures – but never thought of making a book.
    I always like to put a deadline on making decisions and also remind myself that many of them can be later reversed if it doesn’t seem right.
    I also put a money amount on my time – usually my working fee. That helps me decide if I want to spend time returning an item that isn’t what I expected or just put it in my Goodwill box. So a $400 item may deserve my time – a $20 item no.

    1. I’ve used that thought about your “hourly rate” as well. So if you estimate it will take you 12 hours to fix something, ask yourself what you could be earning in that amount of time. That can help people see whether an effort is smart or not!

    1. At first I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to help her, but we just sat side by side and thought through the entire process. When I left, she had a list of to-dos, all scheduled to days when she could do them. It really worked out!

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