the anxiety of decision making

How to Be Decisive

Bypass paralyzing anxiety with the guide to choosing wisely.

From how we want to work out to how we’re going to vote, even the fittest of minds belabor decisions.

It’s more common than you think. As humans, we tend to dislike uncertainty; it makes people anxious, says Sonia Bishop, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Science shows us, she says, that even when it’s not optimal to do so, we tend to make choices in which the risk is known rather than unknown. It’s a phenomenon called ambiguity (or uncertainty) aversion.

We don't like ambiguity because it’s harder for our brains to to compute, she says. “We can’t just say, ‘we know this action will have this outcome.’”

The bigger we perceive the consequence of our decision to be, the more we worry about making the right call, says Reid Wilson, Ph.D., author of Stopping the Noise in Your Head. And, he adds, thinking the consequence of our decision is great, questioning our ability to problem-solve, and dreading being wrong is the perfect storm for a freeze-up.

There’s more: Anxiety can lead us to make worse decisions, says Bishop. Research from the University of Pittsburgh found that rats given an anxiety-inducing drug made worse decisions than animals who didn't receive the drug. The anxious rats also saw less activity in their prefrontal cortex, a brain area key in decision-making.

“When you are making decisions, you need your prefrontal cortex neurons,” says Bita Moghaddam, Ph.D., the lead author of that study. “These neurons are constantly monitoring your actions and the environment and the instant you get the sign that something has changed, they start firing to make sure you make an optimal decision.” In the presence of anxiety, the prefrontal cortex might power down a little bit so that more primitive areas—good for survival—can fire up, she says.

Despite all of this, the task is still at hand. So how to make the right choice amidst mounting pressure and emotion?

1) Don’t Discount Your Worry

“You are anxious for reason: You’re not sure what the best option is, and you don’t really want to make a mistake. It is incongruent to require yourself to relax while you face an important decision,” says Wilson. So allow yourself to be anxious. If you tend to be in tune with your body, pay attention to your gut instinct. One study published in Psychological Science found that the link between a gut feeling and wise decision-making was stronger in people who were more aware of their own heartbeat.

2) Zen Out Your Environment

If you can make your environment less threatening, you might be able to cool down that primal survival instinct and make a better decision, says Moghaddam. Research from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania supports this idea: One study found that a brief 15-minute stint of mindful meditation helped people make better decisions, avoiding losing strategies.

3) ID the Problem and the Potential Results

Often, there are different components to each problem we try to solve, and that can cause confusion and angst. If your issue is multifaceted, bring about more clarity by listing all the factors at play and outlining the pluses and minuses of each decision, says Wilson.

4) Keep a Log

Often, the last example of something isn’t a great gauge of what actually is, says Bishop. For example, if someone is normally pleasant but your last interaction with them was nasty, don’t overreact just yet—they may have just had an off day. Instead, create some data. Log your interactions with the person or keep a diary. If they’re nasty most every time you talk with them? That might signify a true issue. Anxious people have trouble computing one-off blips and report feeling stressed or paralyzed by them, says Bishop. They focus on the negative. Documented data can help you build a more objective outlook.

5) Accept Your Decision

When you’re second-guessing yourself after doing all the prep work to make the right call, act as though this is the right decision for you, says Wilson. It’ll help you come to terms with it. Ask yourself: “What would I do right now if I trusted myself?” “How would I be thinking right now, feeling right now, acting right now if I believed I have made the right decision?” Live in the way that you answer those questions, he says.