Decision-Making

When not knowing what to do makes you crazy.

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There’s a specific mental loop that I get stuck in at times and it goes like this:

I don’t know what to do → I should know what to do → I need to do something now → but I don’t know what it is!

Sound familiar?

I ran around this loop constantly when I was trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life, and then again after I'd started my business and was blanking on my next steps.

If I’m not careful, I find myself going in circles, getting wound up tighter and tighter, until I get to the point where even if there is a good decision to be made, there’s no way I’m going to know what it is.

Today I want to break down this loop into its components and explore some of its implicit assumptions, which will hopefully make it a little easier to deal with (and eventually get out of!).

There are three parts: the initial thought, the judging thought, and the urgent thought. 

Part 1: I don't know what to do.

This thought is actually pretty neutral when taken by itself. It's a statement of fact. I'm pretty sure there are times when you didn't know what to do and it was no big deal.

Therefore, it's not the thought itself that makes us anxious, it's the judgments and assumptions we have about the thought. This leads us to the next part.

Part 2: I should know what to do.

This is what takes the first part and turns it into something to get stressed about.

These anxious feelings tell me that it's a really good thought to question, like so:

  • Is it true? Should I know what to do?
  • Who says? 
  • How is this thought trying to serve me? (And isn't that an interesting question!)

The reason I'm having the thought in the first place is that it’s trying to protect me, albeit in its own not-very-enlightened way.

Its purpose is to motivate me to look for new solutions and to supposedly keep me from giving up. If I don't know what to do, the reasoning goes, I need to keep working until I do.

Unfortunately, it doesn't really work that way. I usually end up just getting paralyzed and feeling ashamed, frustrated, and anxious.

Part 3: I need to do something right now.

What we want to question here is that sense of urgency. It feels like the clock is ticking, like you're wasting time. If you're a millennial like me, maybe you grew up hearing about your potential and then at some point became terrified of wasting it.

There's an implication that there's a right way to be spending your time and if you're spending it in the wrong way, you're letting it slip away. Time is a precious thing in this loop and it feels very scarce.

Again, the “helpful” reason that thought is there is to keep me moving forward and keep me from giving up or settling.

Instead, I go straight into sympathetic shock, which is a fancy way of talking about the fight-or-flight response. I start running around, doing lots of different things but not really making much progress on any of them. Nothing really gets done, and if it does, I'm more apt to make mistakes and things tend to take longer.

What you want to do when you're stuck in this part of the loop is to ask questions like these:

  • How urgent is this, really? 
  • Will someone die if I don’t act immediately?
  • Do I have to figure out the whole thing now, or just the next little piece of it?

Getting Out of the Loop

So, to recap, what we've done so far is 1) notice we're in the loop and 2) start questioning the judgments and assumptions. Now, we're going to do something about it.

1. Come up with some alternative thoughts.

What "better-feeling" thoughts can you offer your anxious, worried, harried brain?

  • I don’t know what to do yet, but I'll figure it out.
  • I have plenty of time.
  • All I have to figure out is the next step.
  • I’d like to figure this out soon, but it’s not imperative that it happens right now.
  • I don’t know what to do this minute, and that’s okay.
  • I have lots of different options, even if I can’t see them right now.
  • Relaxing helps me to see my options.
  • I’m exploring my options.
  • I’m learning about my options.

2. Give yourself a 10-minute "worry break" and reconnect with your body.

When you're in that fight-or-flight feeling, you're completely dissociated from your body and your pre-frontal cortex (the part that makes decisions and regulates emotions) goes completely offline.

Meditate, do some stretches, or take a walk. Even just feeling your feet on the ground, paying attention to your breathing, and putting your hand on your heart or your abdomen can help.

I've written a whole blog post about some other things you can try. Just give yourself a brief vacation from having to deal with your stressful situation.

3. Next, feel into your body and let this question bubble up into your brain:

"What needs to happen next?"

Like literally, the very next thing you're going to do. It might be to go get a glass of water or answer an e-mail.

But whatever it is, let it come into your consciousness without forcing. Just take that one next step, and then see what happens. Do you go back into your anxious loop, or does something else come up?

When you come from that quiet, calm place and ask what needs to happen next, you might be surprised at the answer.

If it's too anxiety-provoking to trust yourself that way, treat it like an experiment. See if you can do that for an hour. Just see what happens when you let yourself trust the part of you that knows how to answer that question.

I know this isn't easy.

The fact that you're here and reading this means that you're interested in changing your patterns. It happens a little bit at a time, so don't get discouraged if this doesn't come naturally at first.

I can tell you that if you stick with it, it becomes easier and easier to gently detach yourself from the doom spiral and trust that the answers will come.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to my newsletter and get notified about new articles. If you need a next thing to do, you'll also get my free workbook Anatomy of a Dream Job: Bring Clarity and Focus to Your Career Search.

Image credit: freeimages.com/William Ray

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Making a good decision (and why they don't matter so much)

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How often do you get tied up in knots over a decision, wanting to make the right one? How often are you presented with options that seem equally murky?

Given the nature of decisions, we’re making them almost constantly.

From the moment we wake up (get up now or hit snooze?) to bedtime (watch another episode or call it a night?), we’re constantly presented with a buffet of options, most of which we navigate without much thought or angst. So obviously some decisions are weightier than others.

I’m currently playing with the concept that none of the decisions I make have any more effect on my well-being than what I have for breakfast. If you think that’s ridiculous, stay with me for a minute.

I realized recently that I’ve been defining a good decision as one that doesn’t cause shame or regret.

I don’t want to look back at my choices and feel that way. Shame is one of the most painful emotions out there. Why wouldn’t I try to avoid it?

To protect myself against shame, I look at every possible outcome to see if it could result in me feeling that way. And then, when I’m lost in an imaginary disastrous future of my own making… guess what I’m feeling? The shame of imagining I’ve lost my life’s savings isn’t any less painful than actually losing them (and maybe it’s worse!). Not to mention the accompanying anxiety and paralysis.

This aversion technique keeps me stuck right where I am, unable to make a decision either way, and then...I feel ashamed of my indecision!

There’s got to be a better way.

My coach asked me yesterday, “What’s wrong with feeling ashamed?” and my head broke a little.

Shame means I did something wrong. It’s the crunch I hear when I back into something. It’s the curt reply to a well-meant joke. It’s the smell of burning food in the oven. If I don’t feel shame, I won’t know I did anything wrong and I won’t know better next time. Shame is good! It keeps me from doing bad things! </jerkbrain logic>

Shame poses as a helpful preventative, but it only ever shows up after the fact.

If I never know until it's too late which decisions (or lack thereof) will cause shame, there’s really no way to avoid it. If there’s no way to avoid it, I might as well stop figuring it into my calculations. I might get in a car accident on the way to the grocery store, but I’m not going to stop driving!

Shame (like anxiety, unlike a car accident) isn’t going to hurt me. It feels awfully uncomfortable for awhile, true. But eventually it will go away and I’ll still be here.

Okay, you’re here because you want to make good decisions.

I’m assuming the decisions you’re stuck on are of the murky variety, unlike “Should I go to work, or stay home and smoke crack today?” (If that is your question, I suggest going to work.)

First, set aside any pro/con lists you’ve made.

If it was that easy, you wouldn't be reading this, right?

Next, question any thoughts you have about urgency around the decision.

Is it true that you have to make this decision right now? Often, my stress comes from the perception that I have to decide IMMEDIATELY.

Can you remove yourself from the situation, even for a little bit?

Go for a walk. Listen to some favorite music. Watch the Sad Cat Diaries on YouTube. Get your head in a different space. You can’t think yourself into a good decision - you’ve already tried that, remember.

Let yourself go to your worst-case scenario, the one you're afraid to think about.

Ask yourself, gently, what you’re afraid might (or might not) happen. What if it came true? Would you still be okay? How long would it last? What resources do you have that you’re forgetting? Are you afraid of reliving a painful situation from the past, and if so, how are things different now?

Don’t spend too long scheming about every possible outcome - the point is to look at the thing you’re scared of and discover that it can’t hurt you. Do this with a coach or a friend who loves you, if it's too scary to face alone.

Once you’ve defused your worst-case scenario (or at least made it a little less nebulous and scary), check in with your body.

By that, I mean take some deep breaths, close your eyes, and mentally talk through what you know FOR SURE about each option (no speculating!).

  • Focus on those areas where you carry tension: maybe your neck, shoulders, or stomach. Do you feel constricted and tight, or expansive and relaxed when you think about your options? Be genuinely curious about what comes up, and if you find you're trying to "make" yourself feel a certain way, be curious about that, too.
  • Notice if there are certain aspects of the decision your body is reacting to. E.g., maybe your yucky feelings aren't about the money you'd have to spend on the conference - they're because you hate traveling.
  • To give yourself a benchmark, you can mentally revisit decisions that you know were right or wrong for you and observe how your body reacts to those memories.

If the choices still seem equally ambivalent, imagine an authority figure telling you that you MUST do X or CANNOT do Y. Do you feel angry? Disappointed? Relieved? Another gem from Molly: "Do you feel like you're trying to talk yourself into it or out of it?"

What decision would the person you'd like to be make?

In this TED Talk, philosopher Ruth Chang says, "We shouldn't think that hard choices are hard because we are stupid...Hard choices are hard not because of us or our ignorance; they're hard because there is no best option."

Her solution when there is no best solution is to decide who you want to become and let that version of ourselves direct our choices. "When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are."

But whatever decision you make, my dear, it really doesn’t matter.

(And if that statement makes you angry - good! Let’s talk!) Your life will go on whichever choice you make, or even if you don’t make one at all, and you’ll keep doing the best you can. Besides, science tells us that we tend to overestimate how much effect a situation will have on our happiness.

Let’s remember this together (because I’m writing this for me as much as for you) - in the end, you’ll be okay. In fact, you're already okay. You’re a resourceful, intelligent person who just forgot that for a moment.

**I feel the need to add: sometimes anxiety-brain or depression-brain jams the signal to such an extent that every option feels equally pointless, urgent or doom-filled (or that there aren't any options). My heart is with you if that's where you are, and my hope is that you're able to slow way down and take exquisite care of yourself until the fog lifts enough for you to hear your own wisdom.

If you're wrestling with a difficult career decision you can't seem to get clarity on, I invite you to connect with me for a free strategy call and learn more about working with me.

Image credit: freeimages.com/Thomas Pate

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