Decision Paralysis: What It Is & How Understanding It Can Help You Avoid Overthinking

Are you prone to overthinking things? When you have too many options, does it stress you out and make you not want to choose anything? If you answered yes to these questions, you may have decision paralysis, and you're not alone. According to Bernard Marr & Co., one global study showed over 80% of the 14,000 people included said they've experienced this dilemma of having too many choices and finding it hard to make any. Also commonly referred to as analysis or choice paralysis, this struggle with decision-making can come about at work, at home, or anywhere else where you're faced with a choice. It could even happen at the party store when you're trying to decide which beer to buy.

We are faced with a plethora of decisions every day. Should you work from home, at the office, or do some sort of hybrid? Can you make it on one job alone, and if you're juggling multiple jobs, which do you do first? Which household task should you tackle first, and how will you have the time to get them all done? And then, to top it all off, we start to wonder if we're making the right decisions: If I give this job more focus, am I going to let my other jobs down? Will I mess something up and lose one of them? All of this overthinking spirals us so out of control that we freeze — and then we get nothing done.

What exactly is decision paralysis?

The answer is pretty simple: When you're on information overload, it can cause you to shut down or become paralyzed, in a sense. You have a ton of work to get done, but you don't know where to start. Or, you have too many choices, you can't decide which one to make, and it overwhelms you so much that you don't want to make any decision at all. Sometimes we spend so much time trying to make a choice that we run out of time and the options are gone or the choice is made for us.

Let's look at a good example of this. Ivy works as a freelance writer. Most of her clients give her work with specific deadlines, but one of them gives her a list of short articles to write with no deadlines at all. She ruminates on which article in this long list she should work on first, then puts it off to work on a deadline piece. She comes back, but still struggles to make a decision and continues to focus her work on other clients ... until a couple of months have gone by and the client with the long list has moved on and hired a new writer in her place. Ivy's indecision on where to start with such a long list of projects lost her a client, even though there were some things she could have done to make it easier to choose where to begin.

What does anxiety have to do with decision paralysis?

When you find yourself overwhelmed with too many decisions, or even one huge choice to make, you're likely to slip right into flight or fight mode, which is a sure sign of anxiety. Ivy had too many options on that list of articles and the anxiety-induced panic she felt trying to decide which to tackle first made her go into flight mode — she opted to do none of them and focus on a different client. We can experience this same anxiety when trying to purchase a new home or a new car — any investment that costs a good deal of money can also cause decision paralysis as we try to determine if we're making the right choice before we sign a check for thousands of dollars or slide that credit card.

Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. HealthyPlace pointed out that someone already living with depression can find all of the daily decision-making even more difficult. You may see every single decision you have to make, from the moment you wake up and look in your closet, as a struggle — one so overwhelming that it makes you want to stay in bed all day no matter what is on your to-do list. Whether your decision paralysis comes from too many choices or depression, the same things can help you overcome it.

How to tell if you're experiencing decision paralysis

Like Ivy, if you find yourself overwhelmed with choices on your to-do list and you end up procrastinating by doing anything but that job, you are definitely on the road to decision paralysis. Some other signs to look for include worrying about whether you'll do the job perfectly or not, making your decisions harder than they really ought to be, and even being unsure of which priorities should be the most important — basically, anything that makes you procrastinate on doing what you should be doing.

Too many decisions can also lead to decision fatigue, which is when you've spent too much time making choice after choice, and now you are exhausted. Dr. Rashmi Parmar told Mindpath Health, "More often than not, it leads to one of two endpoints: You either give up and stop making decisions completely, or you'll make impulsive or irrational choices." If making decisions is making you tired, then you've crossed the line from analysis paralysis to decision fatigue — but you can still come back from it and learn to make deciding things less difficult. Don't let the exhaustion stop you from living your life or getting the job done, but don't push through without taking some time to rest your mind and body, or you could end up with full-blown burnout.

Decision paralysis comes with some negative effects

For Ivy, the procrastination from analysis paralysis cost her a client. Delaying decisions at work can greatly bring down productivity. The same can happen at home, of course. If you can't decide which cleaning or fix-it project to do and end up not doing any of them, your home will become a haven for clutter, which could quickly lead to problems in your relationship as well. You and your significant other or roommate may have agreed upon chores around the house, and if you're not fulfilling yours, conflict is bound to arise at some point.

Your creative thinking and critical thinking can also be affected. Both of these types of thinking are essential for a savvy business person, and if you're letting your inability to choose between tasks control your mind, you may be likely to make poor decisions or find it difficult to come up with unique ideas. The more you struggle with decision-making, the more it will seep into other areas of your life — like your mental health. Verywell Mind pointed out that you could experience more fatigue, find it harder to get to sleep at night (likely because you're kept up by thoughts of all of those decisions you need to make), even more anxiety, and added symptoms of depression, like losing interest and trouble focusing.

Pinpoint exactly where your paralysis is coming from

For Ivy, paralysis came directly from having too many choices, too many clients, and not enough deadlines set by someone other than herself. This can happen to anyone, but it's not the only thing that can cause decision paralysis. Aside from having too many choices or too much going on, we can also be frozen by our need for perfection and being right, as well as not being happy with our options.

Ultimately, we are the ones holding ourselves back when it comes to being paralyzed by our choices because we let our insecurities get in the way. We spend too much time worrying about getting things perfect or what others are going to think of the choices we make. The thing is, mistakes help us grow and teach us how to do things better the next time. Failure is good, really. Without it, there would be no chance for success, really. Most successful people fail a few times before they get things right.

Get in touch with your feelings

Anxiety is a response to fear, so what are you afraid of? When it comes to decision paralysis, we fear making the wrong choices, not getting our to-do lists done on time, and more, but what you need to start doing is looking at what is causing these feelings. Understanding why you feel the way you do about certain things, including decision-making, can help you tackle them when they stand in your way. MeaningulHQ suggests taking the time to get in touch with whatever feelings are holding you back and not just avoiding those feelings, which can lead to even more procrastination and fear.

We suggest taking some time to meditate on the issues at hand: Get deep within your mind to unlock your paralysis. Once you know whether it's anxiety over doing something wrong or struggling with too much work to do and an inability to pick what to do first, you can come up with some affirmations that will help you mentally deal with your analysis paralysis. A couple of good ones to start with include "Even the mistakes I make are lessons that will help me do better next time" and "I don't have to complete all of these tasks today; some can wait for another day."

Lessen your load

You can lessen your load in a few ways, including delegating tasks to other people so you have fewer things to do on your own if you have others who can help. When you're overwhelmed with things at home, ask your family or roommates to assist you. At work, ask your coworkers for help, if you can. 

However, if you're at work and feeling swamped, and your work is your own with no one else to pass things off to, there are still some things you can do to ease up the stress of your decisions. Asana suggests prioritizing your tasks so that the important things are done first and you can look at a list that is more streamlined and less anxiety-inducing. For Ivy, a good way to go would have been grouping some of her projects into smaller tasks, instead of looking at the list of due articles as a whole.

If you're at the grocery store faced with too many choices in the chip aisle, consider picking a specific brand or flavor (or two) that you like the most and narrow your choice down to just those two. The fewer options you give yourself, the easier it will be to pick one of them.

Set sturdy deadlines

Asana also advised utilizing things like calendars to keep track of tasks and deadlines. With a calendar like the one from Google, you can also set up gentle reminders about what is coming up. No deadline for the job you need to do? Set one yourself. Ivy could have benefited from this and saved herself from the loss of a client. 

Deadlines can help motivate us. However, if you don't ensure it's achievable and leave room for error, you could add to your stress! Fellow offers some great tips on how to set deadlines that are less likely to add to your anxiety, which includes ensuring you write those deadlines down and come up with ones that you can achieve in the timelines you set for them. Think Marketing Magazine suggests sharing your deadlines with others so that you can have someone else help hold you accountable.

It's also important to consider the fact that some of these may be too much pressure for someone with decision paralysis, but they may help as well — try one out at a time if you feel anxious about it. If one new step help, then add in another one, and another one, until you're defeating your analysis paralysis without even realizing it.

Change how you make decisions

Decision-making doesn't always have to be difficult, and with choice paralysis, we're our own worst enemies. To change the way you make decisions, Effectiviology suggests distancing yourself from the decision and looking at your choices with a different view — mainly putting aside any biases you have and being your own devil on the shoulder. Break down the list by those things that you absolutely have no interest in doing or those that make you cringe. (If you do those first, the rest will seem that much easier to choose from and complete.) When it comes to shopping choices, sometimes it's easier to see fewer options when you pick out what you don't want first.

You can also make decisions quicker –- don't ruminate, just pick one and do it. This is a trick that would have worked well in Ivy's case. She could have slipped even just one of those articles for that client in between the other work she was doing and stayed on their radar instead of avoiding the entire list until it was too late.

Leave room for mistakes

Perfection, yuck! So many of us get stuck on that hamster wheel of wanting to make everything perfect when it's honestly impossible for everything to meet that high of an expectation. If you're finding yourself held back from making decisions because you're afraid you'll make the wrong one or afraid you'll mess up on the project you choose to work on first, you're just getting in your own way. The experts say it is time to have more compassion for yourself. As Dr. Madeleine Ferrari told Medical News Today, "[S]elf-compassion, the practice of self-kindness, consistently reduces the strength of the relationship between maladaptive perfectionism and depression for both adolescents and adults."

Everybody makes mistakes. So what if you make the wrong decision? It's not the end of the world. Mistakes help us grow, and you may find the right answer only after you make a mistake. Making errors helps us learn and adapt.

Don't be afraid to step away (but not for too long)

If you're struggling with making a decision, put it out of your mind and do something else for a while. We all deserve a break now and then. Consider this time away from decisions making an act of self-love, and come back when you're feeling more confident. Do something that takes your mind off of the decisions at hand, whether you go for a short walk outside to get some fresh air or enjoy nature; take some time out for mind work through meditation or yoga; read a book; watch an episode of one of your comfort shows on streaming; talk to a friend; or simply sit in silence enjoying a calming warm beverage. 

However, you don't want to put the decision off for too long for fear of procrastination setting in. Delaying decisions can sometimes make you not make them at all in the long run — much like Ivy did when she set aside that list of articles she needed to write and went about her other business. Inaction can be just as bad as overthinking. Give yourself a specific amount of time to move away from the choices, and set a time to come back from your self-love break when you must make your decision.