Mind-blowing. Decisions.
October 6, 2011 7:05 AM   Subscribe

Somehow, I seem to have lost the ability to make confident decisions - and the trivial ways in which this happens is having a non-trivial impact on my life. How can I address this?:

Please note - I am already in therapy, group psychotherapy if this is relevant.

A few years ago, my dad died and I went to the supermarket to buy food. I literally did not know how to do this, and I came home with a loaf of bread, washing powder and paracetamol. This is the first time I remember that paralysis of choice, and it's stuck around since.

I have hoarding/spending tendencies and finding myself in this situation doesn't help at all. I can't decide what to get rid of. If two sweaters are on sale, I end up buying both. I go to the supermarket, and, unable to apply a more useful criterion than 'I will buy what is reduced to clear', I come home with three boxes of cakes or four sandwiches because I am unable to choose what to have. It's making me poor, overwhelmed by stuff and, frankly, fat.

I tried a meal replacement plan recently thinking that as well as the effects on weight it would remove the need to choose what to have for lunch. Unfortunately, it reacted very poorly with the medication I take and I realised it wasn't worth that. I went out to buy a sandwich from the shop over the road. It took fifteen minutes. I don't understand why it was so difficult for me to think abotu what I wanted and take it.

I also have a job that requires making decisions, and my line manager has told me that I don't seem as confident as I could be in doing this. I'd like this to happen too - but if I struggle to choose a sandwich, giving a viewpoint that might turn out to be wrong or have an effect on the clients I deal with is scarier. Sometimes when I come home I feel this anomic 'I don't know what to do' and end up just sitting in front of my laptop all night.

Is this a common situation? How do you do it?
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
How do you do it?

One trick I've seen from people with conditions similar to yours is that once they come to a decision they then eliminate decision from the equation. Take sandwiches, for instance. You say it took you fifteen minutes to decide on a sandwich. OK, great! Next time you get a sandwich, get the same sandwich. This has the additional benefit of being much easier for the person behind the counter; they'll see you in line and say, "The usual?" That's a shitload of time you just reclaimed for your life.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:24 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Assign some of your lesser-impact decisions to chance. Sandwich choice? Roll a dice. TV program to watch? Flip a coin. Brand of cereal to buy? Close your eyes and take the first one you grab on the shelf.

This may help free up your idea that every decision is life-changing. When you realize that the consequences of choosing the wrong sandwich aren't going to significantly impact your life (or really, your afternoon), this may help to relax the tensions you feel with the bigger, more important decisions.
posted by xingcat at 7:42 AM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

There's a reason I plan out meals and make grocery lists, and that's so I don't end up buying only beer and ice cream once I get to the store. Then make a game of going in, getting the stuff on your list and getting out as fast as you can. And I just went through my wardrobe and made a list of things I need to replace or to get to fill in gaps in my outfits. Then if I see sweaters on sale, I know that I need to look for a white one and that's it. Planning ahead helps me make better choices (when I'm sitting at home it's easier to decide to get apples instead of cookies. when I'm standing in the store looking at the cookies...not so much.) Then realize a lot of little shit doesn't matter. (I'm pretty sure one guy I know doesn't buy dental floss without doing a half hour of research online and reading the consumer reports. That's excessive.)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:49 AM on October 6, 2011

This recent NY Times article on decision fatigue might help you. It's a common phenomenon.

Sometimes, when I'm presented with too many options, it helps me to think about what I want in terms of the decision, not the thing I'm actually deciding about. Instead of "should we go out to dinner or stay home," I think "I want to be done thinking about this," or "I'd actually really like this to be decided for me." Usually we're deciding from a selection of things that would all be totally fine, but it's the decision that exhausts us.

Whenever you can, set things up so you don't have to make a decision in the moment. Plan your meals out ahead of time. If you're going to the store, take only cash. Lay out tomorrow's clothes the night before.

It sounds like, in your case, this is partly tied up in food. Trying to figure out what to buy for lunch or make for dinner, day after day, is exhausting. It can get even more so if you put a significant emotional value on food. I used to have a lot of trouble with trying to figure out what I really wanted to eat in the moment, and I'd end up eating a little of everything and still feeling unsatisfied. Or I'd go through phases where I tried to take the opposite approach and just eat the same boring stuff day in and day out, because thinking about food was just so exhausting. You might benefit from talking with a dietitian and/or streamlining your meal-planning process - e.g. stocking your pantry and fridge with healthy and relatively non-perishable snacks, finding a few basic ingredients that you can reuse for multiple recipes, making something in bulk on the weekend so you can eat it all week. It requires a little more initial effort but will save you decision time in the long run.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:55 AM on October 6, 2011

I really enjoyed reading The Paradox of Choice. One of the main ideas is that when there is a choice between two items, a person is more likely to feel satisfied afterwards with the one they choose; but when the choice is among a huge array of options, there's often an underlying feeling that maybe one of hte runners-up would have been better. It's a fascinating read, but is this book going to help you? maybe, maybe not. I'd say the take-away message is, it's perfectly normal to come away from even minor decisions feeling like you picked the wrong thing, so if you just pick something, and if you have niggling feelings of doubt, that's normal, and means you're doing just fine, not that you're making bad choices.

Also, on a practical level: If you tend to freeze up when presented with a decision, do the decidiing ahead of time. Make rules, make lists.
Oh, time to grab some lunch, I will get a turkey sandwich. Then you go into the shop and they have a list of 20 sandwiches, but too bad, you already said you're getting turkey, so the only choice is turkey club or turkey-cranberry. A choice! Nope, you've got rules for that. Take whichever is written first on the menu boards.
LISTS! What do you get at the grocery store? Well, every time you finish a packet of something and think you'll want to have another in a day or two, write it on the list. If it's not something you're glad you bought (box of cake) don't write it on the list. If you think "gosh, I'd like to eat lasagna for dinner sometime!" write it on the list. Then go to the store, and buy what's on the list, only the number of items you wrote that you need.

Basically, make up some rules, and follow them strictly. If you realize the structure you set up totally isn't working, you can change the rules, but only AFTER the situation is over. No changing them in the middle of a decision.
posted by aimedwander at 8:01 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was thinking along the same lines as aimedwander. Try to decide upon the criteria you will use for making decisions on x ahead of time and when you are not actually engaged in chosing x. Interestingly, I had a similar problem precisely with sandwiches, and at some point I decided (!) I didn't want to spend half of my lunchbreaks in a shop aisle chosing what I would munch on in the other half. So, I zoomed in on: whole bread, no eggs, no tomatoes (soggy), no onion (smelly), preferably healthy, no sausages etc. A second criterion is price: cheapest wins. Third criterion (introduced later): most environmentally friendly packaging wins. And so on. The benefit of this is that it allowed me to also figure out what I really felt like in the moment - since I had a decision-making procedure, I knew when I wanted to step out of it cause the break-away impulse presented itself with full force against this backdrop. So I'd know as soon as I walked into the shop if I felt like, say, a white-bread bacon and egg sandwich.

Similar with work - if you analyse past situations, what kind of criteria tend to be used for work decisions? Speed? Thoroughness? Client status? etc., you'll know the stuff, and in much more fine-grained detail. Just build up a hierarchy/list of criteria ahead of time, maybe even of the type "If x, then y is leading criterion" . Once you get really comfortable, you will find it easier to be flexible etc.

Good luck
posted by miorita at 8:40 AM on October 6, 2011

Honestly if you can handle the monotony, just rotate through three meals or so. In university I only ate pasta with tomato sauce for dinner every day for each semester for a year. Makes it very easy to shop. Also, do the 3-1 idea that I learned here, just give yourself three options. Also, don't ever wander around a grocery store...be like that kid on sesame street walking down the street reciting what his mother told him to buy 'a loaf of bread, a pound of butter and...'. Know what you are planning to buy before you walk in. Same as with video stores- being overwhelmed and indecisive in the face of two many choices is pretty common. Make small steps and take Civil_Disobedient's advice, routine and ordering 'the usual' is where it's at. (And I know video stores are mostly a thing of the past- it's just an easy example!)
posted by bquarters at 9:03 AM on October 6, 2011

("Too" many choices! And I previewed! Sigh!).
posted by bquarters at 9:05 AM on October 6, 2011

Use what's termed "marginal decision-making" by asking yourself what additional benefit will you receive spending $xx.xx more dollars on the particular item. This takes your focus off of the item itself and places the emphasis on what you will gain from the transaction. This forces you to weigh your desire for the additional benefit/cost and not simply the item under consideration.
posted by yoyoceramic at 9:53 AM on October 6, 2011

Hello, I am the OP. I was wary of putting my name to this in case I over-explained!

Here's what happened at lunch:
I went to the sandwich shop. I picked up the salad. Then I thought I couldn't justify the price. So I looked at the baguettes, but I couldn't work out which looked nicest. So I went to a different shop, repeat action, then back to the first, same again, except with 'which of these is likely to be better for me'. After a lot of dithering I came out with a brie, tomato and basil baguette. (Sandwiches aren't made to order pretty much anywhere but Subway where I work.)

Imagine this applied to getting rid of stuff, choosing other retail items, deciding where to eat after a night out etc. and you get the idea. I have cupboards and a freezer and a wardrobe and fridge showing the perils of such things.
posted by mippy at 10:00 AM on October 6, 2011

I know, it's anxiety. Have you talked to your therapist about feeling anxious, or about your dad? Lists are supposed to be great for anxiety: in the morning, sit down with a cup of tea, and make a list: what I will have for lunch (sandwich at x cafe), what groceries you'll buy, what the plan is for the night.
posted by biscuits at 10:55 AM on October 6, 2011

You are not alone in this, I often suffer from "analysis paralysis" and anxiety in trying to make an optimum decision. This can be in big things and small. I don't mind when it's a big decision but when it comes to what kind of peanut butter to buy it becomes a bit of an issue.

It sound like you've got a system built where when you're faced with options you take "all of the above" in an attempt to optimize or avoid a wrong choice.

This is what works for me: I make my goal to be making a "good enough" decision and stick to it. What I have to avoid is the temptation to grind over the optimum choice. A place like a restaurant or a coffee shop is good practice becasue the question of "what would you like" is so explicit and imediate while the consequences of a "good enough" decision are fairly low.
posted by jade east at 11:19 AM on October 6, 2011

A friend of mine who has this trouble makes herself a two-week framework of dinners (she has to cook dinner for four every night). She puts three dinners of pasta, two dinners of chicken, one with mexican flavors, one night eating out, two nights leftovers, one night breakfast-for-dinner, etc. Having a framework means she just goes, "Okay, I need three pasta recipes" not "WHAT FROM AMONG THE LIMITLESS WORLD OF RECIPES COULD I EAT, REPEATED FOURTEEN TIMES?"

Having ANY kind of framework like this can help. When I had to come up with lunch every day when living abroad, I decided I'd make basic boring sandwiches two days, have yogurt and crackers two days, and on Wednesday, when I had a really long class day, I'd get to buy a bacon sandwich at the nearby shop. Always the same one. It stopped me dithering either when making lunch or at the supermarket.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:24 PM on October 6, 2011

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