This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians.
Some decisions are just not easy to make—they are agonizing by nature, like leaving a bad marriage or dead-end but comfortable job. Eventually, people can pull the trigger.
But some people feel paralyzed at the enormity of making a meaningful move. And yet others run and hide when asked to pick a paint color. These people procrastinate … and procrastinate some more. Which makes for a frustrating, misery-inducing status quo.
Luckily, there are techniques to help the hopelessly indecisive emerge from that mental logjam and move ahead with their lives.
A major reason some people have trouble making important decisions is because they put more emphasis on the presumed needs of others, versus focusing on what they need.
For years my patient Tim* couldn’t commit to an action without pondering and pondering and pondering what other people might think of him based on his decision. “I was raised to be a people pleaser so I chose jobs, hobbies, clothes, even a pet, according to the dictates of others.” He said ruefully, “It might have made me Mr. Congeniality, but it also put me into a chronic depression.”
We worked together to help him figure out what would make him happy—initially an alien concept—versus continuing to allow his life to be ruled by external factors such as status or prestige.
It is important to figure in your intrinsic needs when debating life choices. It feels much more organic to make a decision when it’s based on a genuine desire and/or interest, but if the move you are contemplating is to placate someone else, it is much harder to be definitive.
Once Tim began to factor in what he wanted, it was easier to make choices. “Instead of agonizing over what my brother might think if I switched jobs to one with a lower salary but more potential to make me feel what I was doing mattered, I made the choice to do what was in my heart. My wife was on board and she really was the only one whose opinion should’ve mattered.” Voila—he began doing so well that within six months Tim won a raise that exceeded the salary at his old job. The sweetest victory: his brother said he wished he were brave enough to take such a risk.
Sometimes even making decisions that have little consequence—i.e., what movie to see or where to eat—can seem impossible. Give yourself 60 seconds max and just choose Wonder Woman or Rough Night. This helps you exercise the muscle of picking something and sticking with it. Regretting bypassing sushi in favor of the Mexican food you chose during the 60-second window? Keep to the decision even though your craving has changed. Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you eat a tortilla or rainbow roll. The only lasting resonance is that you are not backtracking. After all, what is the worst that can happen if you don’t love one particular meal?
With wavering comes frustration. A study conducted by Harvard professors found that the more you keep to a decision despite a strong impulse to change course, the happier you will be.
That is because once human beings consider something irrevocable, they work harder to focus on the good features, like, “well, even though I don’t eat Mexican food a lot I’m glad I went out of my cuisine comfort zone,” and ignore the bad.
After a month of regularly forcing herself to make small decisions, my patient Dale* came to see that making wrong decisions is “sometimes inevitable but that it is survivable.” Becoming proactive rather than passive due to a fear of messing up was very freeing to her. “I trust myself and like myself more. I’m finally moving forward in my life.
Your body knows. One patient remembers being so wracked with tension the day before her wedding, she wished the next morning would never come. But she went through with the ceremony and stayed in the marriage for five unhappy years. Leaving was still hard but the moment the decision was made, she felt lighter than air.
Groundbreaking research by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio looked at people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. Although their mental functioning otherwise seemed fine, with an impaired ability to feel, the study’s participants could no longer easily make even simple decisions like whether or not to have chicken or turkey. Meaning, emotions do play a large part in decision-making.
Still, important as it is to listen to your gut, it’s also wise not to make a snap decision. Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center found that decision-making accuracy is improved by taking a fraction of a second (50 to 100 milliseconds to be precise) to give your final answer. This pause allows the brain to focus attention on relevant information while blocking out distractions.
So take a moment to reflect and refresh, then jump off the fence!
*Names are changed to protect patient privacy
Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, is a NYC-based therapist and editor of the anthology How Does That Make You Feel? True Confessions From Both Sides of the Therapy Couch.