How to Make Any Decision
Stymied by a tough choice? Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen has an easy technique to beat analysis paralysis.
This witty phrase was introduced to me by my friend Anita. Anita is a smart, insightful stay-at-home mom who somehow manages to remain smart and insightful when she has dried mac-and-cheese stuck to her pants. Mighty Mommy would be impressed!
What Is Analysis Paralysis?
A few months ago, Anita’s youngest child was nearing preschool age and Anita was struggling with whether or not to go back to work. She felt guilty about leaving her kids, but was antsy at home. She also wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted to do, but felt a craving to contribute to the professional world. Her thoughts spun around and around. Monday she searched job listings. Tuesday she resolved that raising her girls was her true calling. On Wednesday she bought What Color is Your Parachute, but on Thursday she read every online “opt-out” article she could find. By Friday she had a migraine.
After a few weeks, she considered having another baby just to delay the decision. “I can’t think about going back to work if I have a newborn!” she rationalized. That’s when she realized she had analysis paralysis. Indeed, when passing a small person through your pelvis is easier than making up your mind, you’re seriously stuck.
There was a much better solution than procrastinating via procreation.
A Technique to Overcome Analysis Paralysys
To help herself decide, she removed the choice and pictured each possible outcome. First, she imagined that she had to go back to work. She pretended her husband was abducted by aliens, her savings vaporized, and a law was passed decreeing all moms with pasta-encrusted pants must take a job. In short, she took away all the ambiguity. Here’s the important part: then she asked herself how she felt. Removing the distraction of choice and all the associated pros and cons allowed her to focus on her own emotions. With the choice hypothetically made for her, Anita could clarify her reaction to each possible outcome.
Then she examined the other side. Anita imagined she could not return to work. She pretended she was under house arrest. She imagined all the businesses she hoped to work for were acquired by Big Tobacco and Baby Seal Clubbers, Inc. Then she asked herself how she felt.
She found that imagining staying home made her feel relieved but dissatisfied, and imagining going back to work made her feel anxious but energized. She realized that deep down, she wanted to go back to work, but felt anxious and intimidated after her time away from the professional world. Now, at least she knew what she wanted. Feeling anxious and intimidated could be chipped away at, because now she knew where to aim the chisel.
When trying this approach, an important caveat is to ensure the decision is not swayed by anxiety. Anxiety, though well-intentioned, can often lead one astray. Anita could easily have been spooked by feeling anxious and intimidated about going back to work. Misreading her anxiety would have muffled her true feelings. So if anxiety wells up, notice what other feelings—excitement, resolve, disgust, conscientiousness—might be bubbling behind it. Listen carefully to them, not your anxiety.
In summary, when waffling over a decision, remove the choice. Pretend you have only one option, and see how you feel. Then change sides: pretend you have only the other option, and see how you feel then. The results will give you information you need to be honest with yourself and make the right choice. Paralysis be gone!
Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Ellen graduated from Brown University, earned her Ph.D. at UCLA, and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. In her clinic, she treats everything from depression to trauma to panic, but she has a special place in her heart for anxiety disorders. Ellen is also an active research scientist and develops therapy programs for individuals and families living with chronic illness. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two sons, ages 5 and 2.