How to overcome indecisiveness

It’s a common misconception that more information means it’s easier to make decisions. While the breadth of information readily available via the internet these days certainly means we can make more informed decisions, it doesn’t mean reaching a conclusion is easier.

We make decisions every day. These can be as small as picking what flavor of ice cream to eat to as challenging as choosing which marketing strategy your business will follow for the coming year. However, whether a decision has high or low stakes, the same challenge applies; having too much information or too many options available increases the difficulty of decision-making.

Decision paralysis can be characterized by an inability to make decisions. You may have also heard the terms analysis paralysis or indecision paralysis used — these are the same concept. The notion was popularized by psychologist Barry Schwartz in his book ‘The Paradox of Choice,’ which details how having more options to choose from leads to higher levels of anxiety and disappointment.

If you struggle with decision paralysis, it’s likely impacting your work life. Let’s discuss what decision paralysis is and practical ways to overcome it.

What is decision paralysis?

Decision paralysis is the state of indecision when faced with multiple options that we struggle to compare. Returning to the ice cream example, it’s what causes your stress levels to elevate when finding it hard to choose between salted caramel or white chocolate. If this goes on too long and you get overwhelmed by the choice, you could end up leaving with no ice cream at all.

This comes down to simple psychology. When we are faced with lots of options, we experience anxiety as we want to choose the right option. This can mean we decide it’s better to choose nothing at all than to face the disappointment of choosing ‘incorrectly’.

While there is no right or wrong when it comes to choosing ice cream flavors, we face higher stakes when making decisions at work. That means decision paralysis can have more severe consequences.

What causes decision paralysis?

There are multiple factors that lead to decision paralysis, including:

  • Multiple good options available: Simply, it’s difficult to make decisions, especially when there isn’t a clear ‘correct,’ or ‘optimal’ route to take.
  • Fear of making mistakes: At work, it’s common to be fearful of making errors. After all, a slip-up can affect the outcome of your project and your performance. Consistently making good decisions is critical to avoiding negative outcomes.
  • Fear of regret: One of the most significant factors that influence decision paralysis is the fear of regret. People will often procrastinate making decisions over concern that they’ll regret their choice in the future. However, we’re more likely to regret our decisions when it is easier to make a change retrospectively; if the decision is final and can’t be changed, we’re more likely to be satisfied.

How can you identify decision paralysis?

Indecisiveness is an incredibly common behavior, but we may not always notice when we’re unable to make a decision. Learning to quickly recognize decision paralysis can help you avoid it. Here are some key signs that you may be paralyzed by indecision:

  • Procrastination: Procrastinating, which is when you put off starting or completing a task. At work this could be a sign that you’re struggling to make decisions. A common cause of procrastination is concern over perfectionism, which feeds into a fear of regret.
  • Overthinking: While procrastination often takes the form of avoidance — think fixating on other tasks to avoid thinking about the decision you need to make — overthinking is the opposite. When faced with a decision to make, you obsess over the issue, turning over all the possible outcomes in your mind. While analysis is helpful, it becomes a problem when it goes on for too long yet doesn’t lead to a decision. Overthinking is also commonly associated with anxiety, so nipping this behavior in the bud can help support your mental health at work.
  • Delegating decisions:  If you regularly feel there are too many choices you need to make, you may find yourself delegating decision-making to your colleagues. This is likely a sign that you don’t feel confident or empowered to make good decisions.

What are the impacts of decision paralysis?

Unfortunately, failing to make decisions has real-life consequences that go beyond missing out on enjoying ice cream. Here are some examples of the impact decision paralysis can have on your work.

Reduced productivity and delays

Delaying decision-making, or failing to make decisions altogether, can lead to delays at work. If you’re frequently procrastinating and delaying action, you’re not being productive

This can have a serious impact when others’ work is dependent on the outcome of your decision-making, or when the next task in the project can’t begin until you’ve chosen between two competing routes. This can impact your performance and potentially cause problems for the business.

Anxiety and mental health

Besides impacting productivity, decision paralysis can have repercussions on your mental health. We don’t have endless willpower, and spending too long on decisions can be incredibly mentally draining.

More specifically, decision paralysis can trigger anxiety. People can be split into two categories, ‘Satisficers’ and ‘Maximizers’. The former is more concerned with choosing an adequate solution, while the latter won’t accept anything less than perfection.

Overthinking your choices and examining every possible option is not only mentally draining but can lead to increased anxiety, with concerns over regret and poor outcomes. What’s more, Maximizers are more likely to be unhappy with their decisions, suggesting finding an adequate — not perfect — solution is the best course of action.

Overthinking reduces creative thinking

In many jobs, being able to think creatively is imperative to your success. A study by researchers at Stanford University found that overthinking can make it harder to be creative.

Using brain imaging, they noticed that the “less the participants thought about what they were drawing, the more creative their drawings were.” This suggests that overthinking your decisions reduces your ability to think creatively and can lead to higher chances of error.

What to do when you can't make a decision

So, how can you overcome analysis paralysis? Here are six practical tips for managing your inability to make a decision.

1. Implement a decision-making framework

Sometimes we need a little bit of help to aid our decision-making process. That’s where frameworks come in.

The key here is to make objective decisions based on your end goal and key criteria. Keeping these in mind can help you keep focus and better analyze your options.

One way to do this is with a decision-making matrix. Using a spreadsheet (or even a pen and paper), draw out a graph with your options along the columns at the top, and your key factors along the rows on the left. Then, assign each option a number from one to five based on how well it meets each of your key factors. Add the numbers up for each option, and voila — the option with the highest number of points wins the decision-making game.

2. Don’t consider too many options

As mentioned, we have a wealth of information available to us thanks to the internet. Yet, this amazing resource can turn on us when we find ourselves spending hours researching our different options rather than making decisions.

Instead of falling into endless research rabbit holes, set a limit to how many options you’ll consider and how much information you’ll gather for each option. You’ll make a decision faster and be less likely to regret it in the future.

3. Use deadlines

When struggling with procrastination paralysis, you need to be strict with yourself.

Setting inflexible deadlines introduces a time constraint that forces you to make a decision faster and limits the amount of time you have to overthink. To create greater accountability, share this deadline with a colleague.

4. Accept that mistakes will happen

A good way to stop overthinking at work is to accept that mistakes will happen. While this is easier said than done, you can take small steps to accept that perfection usually isn’t possible. The first step is to manage your and your team’s expectations and get comfortable with uncertainty.

In reality, holding back progress due to fear of errors doesn’t benefit anyone. Not all your decisions will result in perfect outcomes and may even lead to problems. Yet, we’re confident these will be few and far between. 

5. Get a second opinion

While it’s important to avoid delegating all your decisions, sometimes it’s worth getting a second opinion. If you’re a ‘Maximizer’ type, identify a ‘Satisficer’ on your team to become your sounding board. Together, you can do the work to find a good solution without spending too much time overthinking.

6. Base decisions on data

When your lack of decision-making is affecting your work, it’s time to take drastic action. Rather than relying on your own analysis skills, take a step back and look at the data. 

One easy way to do this is with a project management tool, like Forecast. Using our Advanced Analytics tool, you can pinpoint the activities that are aiding or preventing business growth, helping you learn from the past and make better decisions in the future.

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