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How do I get better at / get over anxiety making small decisions?
July 1, 2014 11:35 AM   Subscribe

I agonize over making small decisions (what should I eat for lunch, should I start a new series or re watch an old favorite). When information is available I will spend an hour or so researching before I decide (Yelp). When information is not available I will put off the decision. It's getting worse and I'm unhappy living life paralyzed.

Once I make a decision, I don't normally second guess myself or regret it. Even if it turns out wrong I have a pretty healthy ability to shrug it off. I am okay with my decision making process for big important decisions - I think deliberating works quite well and have been happy with my major decisions so far. I obviously also feel anxiety when making decisions for groups like when I plan events, but I'm okay with that as that is a fairly common anxiety and easy to deal with. I'm struggling with decisions made for myself. I didn't have problems making small decisions growing up. I think this has been caused by 1. My job is to analyze tons of data and make recommendations, and I enjoy my job but it has obviously changed me 2. The advent of the web and the ability to Google and Yelp things. When I Googled this, results were all about making big decisions, or about how to address the guilt/anxiety afterwards, so neither advice applies. Also, I probably have some minor anxiety disorder. In my teens I used to have a lot of "what if" anxiety - i.e. my boyfriend left an hour ago and was supposed to call me, what if he got into a car accident, omg tears and panic - but I learned to meditate and have stopped my pointless anxiety about what ifs.
posted by puertosurf to Human Relations (15 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I was going to say it sounds like anxiety. Have you discussed it with a doctor? Therapy and drugs can help.

Tell your doctor, "this anxiety is getting worse and adversely impacting my life. It makes me unhappy."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:51 AM on July 1 [2 favorites]

I was also going to suggest that this might be a form of OCD or anxiety. Out of curiosity, what would happen if you released responsibility for these decisions with, say, a couple of sets of dice or a quarter and flipped or rolled to make minor decisions like where to eat lunch or which grocery store to go to, etc?
posted by DarlingBri at 11:56 AM on July 1 [1 favorite]

You want to be googling "analysis paralysis" and how to deal with it. (Here's an article that sounds helpful.)

I do this too, so's you know (and about food and what to watch on Netflix, coincidentally). I don't think it's terribly uncommon. But yes, it can be really annoying, and it can leave you feeling stuck.

With regard to lunch, I'll realize at 11:00 that I'm hungry and start thinking about my lunch options. What's in walking distance? What sounds good? I haven't been there in a while, let me read what Yelp says. Oh hey, that Yelp reviewer's name is hamburger. Man, a hamburger sounds good right now.

And that goes on and on, with several decisions made before they're replaced by other decisions. And you know what finally happens? I get really hungry and realize that if I don't make a decision soon, I'll pass out from hunger on the way to wherever I decide to go. (Not really, but close.)

I think what you need is a point at which YOU MUST MAKE A DECISION. With lunch, it's a pretty easy one. Your body isn't going to wait for you to analyze for two more hours, so there's the point at which you must make a decision.

With Netflix, I'll find myself with two hours to kill, decide to watch a movie, and then proceed to Instantwatcher to, again, see what sounds good. And then I will spend 75 minutes of those two free hours flipping through movie synopses, deciding that this sounds good, but maybe I should watch that one instead.

But you know what? The thing is, in the end IT DOES NOT MATTER.

I now limit my Instantwatcher time. If I sit down to watch something at 7:45, I set an 8:00 showtime. Decision must be made by then. It gives me some time to choose, but not enough to agonize and become over-invested.

So, I'd suggest two things: First, set for yourself an un-crossable line at which a decision must be made. (Set a timer if you have to. Or plan on leaving the office at noon on the dot when you go out for lunch.) When you come to that line, make your decision. Don't question it. Just make it.

Two: Remind yourself all along, and especially once you make the decision, that there are no high stakes here. There's no 'wrong' decision when it comes to what to eat for lunch or whether to watch Orange Is The New Black instead of Breaking Bad. You can't be wrong. So, there's no reason to be anxious about it.

A lot of dealing with anxiety is recognizing it for what it is -- anxiety. Acknowledge to yourself that you're anxious (this is where your meditation comes in), and let it go. Tell the anxiety you don't need it. Then set your timer, do a little thinking (but not too much) about which you'll choose, and when the timer goes off go do that thing which you have chosen.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:59 AM on July 1 [9 favorites]

If they are indeed minor decisions, you may find some solace in giving yourself an out. For instance, if you are thinking of going out and you start to obsess over the process of deciding where to go, give yourself 5 minutes to decide, and if you haven't, then you're going to eat a sandwich at home. For the movies, if you don't decide within a timeframe, pick up a book or go for a walk or just sit and stare at the wall in comfortable silence.

The thing with minor decisions is the idea that if you make the right one, you'll somehow delight yourself if you happen upon the perfect thing, but generally, it's just another way to distract yourself. It's better (in my opinion) to train yourself to realize that they're minor things and you can decide to not decide, if spending time deciding takes the fun out of the thing you're deciding upon.
posted by xingcat at 12:13 PM on July 1

This is definitely anxiety/analysis-paralysis. I get it so badly!

One thing that's helped me is to be super proud of myself for making decisions. Sometimes I write it down, or telling someone I'm close to who knows that it's hard for me. Recently I had to buy a new pillow and was totally overwhelmed at Bed Bath and Beyond. When I was done I called my friend and told her about it and she congratulated me!

I have this thing where I get weirdly self-judgy about what decision I make. Like "it's unadventurous to eat lunch at the same place all the time so I shouldn't go to the place downstairs" - even though I like that place and they're nice and the service is good. So finally I was just like "fuck it, I'm going there if I feel like it" and stopped worrying about it. Hell, I often get the same damn sandwich there, but who cares?

mudpuppie is right about acknowledging your anxiety. It feels instantly better to recognize that something is your anxiety talking.
posted by radioamy at 1:32 PM on July 1 [3 favorites]

After a while, I just started keeping a window in my phone browser open to, and when I really can't choose, I'll assign each option a number and roll for it.

It doesn't really solve the root problem, but it does get you some of your time and headspace back.
posted by kagredon at 1:52 PM on July 1

I do this too, but for both large and small decisions. For me, this is about anxiety and perfectionism. I went to therapy for it, and what has helped the most is forcing myself to make a decision and then reflecting on it. Where I got stuck before was in not learning from my experiences.

So, for example, say I got stuck on buying the "perfect" pair of shoes, and was doing all kinds of research and agonizing over making the "right" choice and whether spending $60 on shoes was the right thing to do. In this case, my therapist had me order the pair of shoes I'd been agonizing over, which I'd been feeling terribly anxious about and was unable to do for like months, seriously.

It turned out, in this case, that I hated the shoes. So, in my old model of thinking I'd made the "wrong" choice and was therefore a terrible human being. My fear of being "wrong" is what caused the analysis paralysis in the first place, since if you pair making the "wrong" choice with being a terrible human being at core then of course you'll never make a single choice ever.

What my therapist has me do now is reflect back on my choices, and essentially desensitize me to the feelings I have when I make "wrong" choices. So, in the case of the shoes, I felt like shit about them, but it's not like the world ended, right? No one outside of myself thought me buying those shoes made me a horrible person, and after time, neither did I. By making a series of choices when I wasn't 100% sure they were right and reflecting back on the non-catastrophic consequences of those small choices, I was able to desensitize myself to the anxiety I felt when making decisions. I was able to harness a skill that seems fairly obvious, but I didn't have, which was to say "well, in the past when I've tried to decide what kind of shoes to buy/lunch to have/movie to watch, I've made a choice I've been happy with 80% of the time and 20% of the time it wasn't so great." So this kind of thinking helps me realize that the odds are that I'll made a choice I'm mostly happy with, and if I don't, nothing catastrophic has resulted from that "wrong" choice in the past and so likely won't in the future either.

In the new model of thinking I'm trying to cultivate, 80% satisfaction is what I'm after, not 100% perfection.

I think coping with anxiety is all about building up the confidence that, whatever happens, you can deal with it. So just choose, and then reflect back on the results of that choice and use that information to inform future decisions.

You might also benefit from reading about the maximizer/satisficer difference.
posted by megancita at 2:27 PM on July 1 [6 favorites]

An old English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, had this to say about making decisions. I paraphrase, from memory:

If analyzing the choice between A and B tells you that one is remarkably better than the other, the decision is easy.
If analyzing the choice between A and B tells you that one is not remarkably better than the other, the decision doesn’t much matter.
posted by yclipse at 6:03 PM on July 1 [8 favorites]

Someone told me that the root "-cide" in "decide" means "to kill" - like "homicide," etc. That's why decisions are so hard - you have to "kill off" your other options.

Somehow it makes me feel better understanding why making decisions is so hard - it feels like decisions are murder!
posted by radioamy at 8:46 PM on July 1 [4 favorites]

Another thing you could try is making a bunch of your small decisions ahead of time.

You probably have 7 lunches every week, 5 at work and 2 at home. If you pre-plan even 4 of your work lunches (maybe even by making a big batch of chili or burritos on the weekend and sticking stuff in the freezer), that's 4 decisions you won't have to make later.

I don't have a lot of analysis paralysis, thank goodness, but still, there are SO MANY decisions to make every day. Especially in areas where I'm trying to be healthier (eat better, exercise more), I find that making my decisions ahead of time saves me aggravation and makes it easier to act in accord with my intentions.
posted by kristi at 9:17 PM on July 1 [1 favorite]

Thank you all! I will definitely use a timer, and try making decisions in batches. These are the simple fixes I was looking for. If it doesn't work or gets worse I'll try therapy.
posted by puertosurf at 9:26 PM on July 1

I ask myself

Will this matter in 5 minutes? 5 hours? 5 days? 5 months? 5 years? 5 lifetimes?

Then I spend as much time deciding as how far-reaching this decision is.

The big decisions in life are: who to marry, where to live, what job to do. Those are the ones that deeply and noticeably impact your life.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:29 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]

The big decisions in life are: who to marry, where to live, what job to do. Those are the ones that deeply and noticeably impact your life.

This is true, although you often learn a lot about what you do and don't want from having had experience of jobs, relationships etc that are not necessarily ideal for you in the long term, so even these are not the be-all and end-all.

I have the same problem to varying degrees, depending on how much my anxiety and OCD are flaring up, and would definitely agree with the value of increasing your anxiety management skills, whether that is via therapy, meditation, exercise or even medication (I have had success with all of these).

However, to answer your question a bit more specificially, something that really helped me with this was reading the decision-making chapter of Susan Jeffers' book Feel the fear and do it anyway. I'd recommend the whole book actually, but that specific chapter seems to be summarised quite well in this blog post. Basically, it's a movement away from the 'right or wrong' mindset that often leads to paralysis, and towards the idea that whichever way you go with a decision, you will be walking down a route that will undoubtedly have both positives and negatives, but will always have new things for you to discover, and new opportunities to learn and grow. For me, that reframing really helped to take the pressure off a bit and lower the stakes of decision making. Hope it helps in some way for you too!
posted by amerrydance at 10:05 AM on July 2 [3 favorites]

I have the same problem with small decisions, especially stuff like what to eat, because the longer I think about it the hungrier and more impatient I get. I call this the problem of "asking the stomach" which clearly isn't a brain. Instead, I sit down once a week and decide what I'll eat for each meal each day. It's best to do this when I'm not hungry! Usually, I just get on with doing what the list says, but if there's any particular reason I don't fancy it (has to be a concrete other option) then I do that instead. Perhaps this would help with Netfix etc too?
posted by london explorer girl at 5:01 AM on July 4

Radiolab had a superb show on precisely this. Titled "Choice", you can listen to it in its entirety here.

Another Radiolab show, equally worth listening to is "How Much Is Too Much?".

"Turns out, Robert is more impulsive than Jad, and Jad is more analytical than Robert. Shocking, right? Sadly for Jad, Robert's style may help him better navigate the overwhelming number of choices available throughout modern life's expanse of options, which may also lead him to a greater sense of well-being, according to psychologist Barry Schwartz. Jonah Lehrer helps us understand why by introducing us to George Miller's classic paper "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," which explains the ability of the average human to hold about seven pieces of discreet information in working memory at any given time. Any more than that, and, as researcher Baba Shiv demonstrates, our good judgment can be overwhelmed...a problem Oliver Sacks overcomes by allowing himself only limited options and a strict routine."
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 3:51 PM on July 10

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