In the past few months I’ve wasted a bunch of time on decisions. There was the five hours spent shopping for a kettle; the half-day on TripAdvisor researching hotel rooms; and the meals eaten on my lap while I pondered which dining table to buy for my new apartment.
Indecision is my middle name, and yes, it can be painful. But according to clinical psychologist Louise Adams, I’m not the only woman driving her friends and family crazy canvassing opinions.
“Women worry more and have more anxiety,” Adams explains. “We’re always thinking in a multi-tasking way – and sometimes we see too much and just get stuck.” And it’s not something to simply dismiss as a personality quirk: Adams warns that chronic indecision can be damaging. “People are either worrying about making the wrong decisions, or regretting the decisions they’ve already made,” she says.
“That’s called ruminating, and it’s quite unhealthy because it’s related to depression and anxiety. It really just undermines your confidence in making your own decisions.” And that, in turn, only makes it harder.
Time to nix all the umming and ahhing! Here’s how to make the best choices for you – every time.
1. Keep calm
When we get stressed about making a decision, our bodies will switch into “fight-or-flight” mode, because our brains can’t distinguish between the fear we’d feel if we were facing a lion and the freak-out we have when trying to decide between peanut butter and Vegemite on toast.
“The fight/flight response is the physiological side of anxiety,” Adams explains. “Symptoms involve a racing heart, sweating, muscle tension, and your head racing.”
The first thing sufferers should do is breathe deeply. “The whole fight-or-flight response runs on excessive amounts of oxygen in the system – so tune in to slow breathing,” Adams says. “It’s like the ‘off’ switch. Once you have physically relaxed, people usually find their thinking slows, and the decision becomes less threat-related.”
2. Put it on paper
After you’ve calmed down, write down the pros and cons of your decision – thinking through both the short- and long-term effects. “It’s really helpful to get those thoughts out of your head and on to paper,” explains life coach Lisa Phillips (amazingcoaching.com.au). “Start by writing out the consequences if you do ‘this’, and then the consequences if you do ‘that’. Then ask yourself, ‘What can I cope with? What’s the worst that can happen?’”
3. Start small
Emma, 25, was so tired of being indecisive that she made 2012 all about making a decision and sticking to her guns. “I started out small, with food choices. I would walk into a restaurant, look at the menu, force myself to choose something, and then close the menu,” she says. “But now I do it with everything. I even split up with a guy who wasn’t on the same page as me relationship-wise, and haven’t looked back.”
If you want to get as far as Emma, start by giving yourself a deadline for day-to-day decisions. “Put a two-minute timer on your phone, and the last decision you come up with before the beep goes, that’s your choice,” Adams suggests. “That way you make yourself act, and once you get better at acting on decisions, you get more confident.”
Phillips says it’s important we don’t get too caught up worrying about the possible consequences of our decisions. “The people who find it easy to make decisions think, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ They know that if it doesn’t work out, they can just make another decision.”
4. Think for yourself
Decision-stress and people-pleasing tend to go hand-in-hand. “A lot of people find it quite difficult because they’re torn between what they want to do and what they feel other people want them to do,” Phillips says.
So if your friends are pressuring you to go for Friday-night drinks, but you’ve had a shocker of a week, Phillips says you shouldn’t fret about declining. “Ask yourself, ‘Is this an empowering thing for me to do for myself, or am I doing this to keep my friends happy?’” she says. It’s always wise to make your choice the one that’s best for you.
5. Trust your gut
After qualifying as a beauty therapist, Sharni, 28, realised it wasn’t the career for her, and spent months agonising about what to do. “I had thousands of ideas on any given day,” she recalls. “I wanted to jump at all of them, and got so confused about which direction I should head.”
Then, when she heard about an opportunity to volunteer in a South African primary school, Sharni had a strong feeling it was just what she needed. “That trip gave me so much perspective,” she says. “I decided to go back to university and pursue a career in community development. Now when I’m faced with a big decision, I wait for some kind of sign, and then follow my gut instinct. It’s actually made me enjoy the process – I’ve realised anythingis possible, so I try to enjoy the dreaming and the planning.”
Adams says we could all benefit from seeing decisions as opportunities, not threats. “We can’t get through life without making decisions,” she points out. “Stop waiting to make the right one, and start enjoying the process of decision-making. And remember that we learn from our mistakes.”
Words Kimberly Gillan