How to Stop Small Choices From Stressing You Out

No choice is perfect, and any choice is better than letting anxiety rule the day.

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Decision-making shouldn't always lead to anxiety.
Decision-making shouldn't always lead to anxiety.

Are you going to the gym after work today? Who are you going to eat lunch with? Should you buy this handbag or that one?

Do those choices stress you out? They shouldn’t. Life might require lots of decisions, but most of them don’t actually matter. 

Your rational self knows that. Unfortunately, the ancient, reptilian part of your brain that’s responsible for emotions like anxiety does not. And once it’s stressed out about something, it doesn’t like to give up the reins.

To that part of your brain, decisions are scary. Instead of getting them over with, it draws a different conclusion: Why make them at all?

How to Beat Analysis Paralysis

While choices around your career, family, and friends deserve careful consideration, most don’t. To take the mental load off everyday decisions:

1. Try the rule of twos.
Stress has a way of limiting your perspective. If you can’t seem to make a decision, zoom out: Will the choice you’re facing even matter in two weeks’ time? If you say “no,” why stress? Ask a co-worker to make the call for you, or just flip a coin. Devote your energy not to the decision itself, but to its execution.

What if you answer “yes”? Give yourself two’ hours time. Get an expert opinion. Find content online. Whatever you need to do to make the decision, do it. And if you’re still not sure? Comedian Louis C.K.’s 70% rule is a smart solution: If you’re at least that confident when the timer goes off, move forward. 

2. Think like an executive.

Your job title may not be CEO, but you’re the executive of your life. Even when things feel chaotic, you have to take the initiative and be decisive. Take a business-minded approach: Write down the challenge you’re facing, brainstorm potential solutions, and decide how you’re going to accomplish them.

Fortunately, you don’t need a fancy business degree to do this. Start with a smaller choice: If you can’t figure out what to do this weekend, just focus on Friday night. Do you want to go out, or does a quiet night in sound better to you? And if your lizard brain still can’t let go, write your fears down on paper and tear them up. Executive function coaching is sometimes used to treat ADHD and other learning challenges, but it doesn’t make sense for everyday indecision.

3. Let yourself be imperfect.
In the real world, perfection is a myth. Every knife in the store will cut your steak: Do you want to pay for the set with studded handles and carbon fiber blades, or will the dorm-room special do it for you?

Instead of wasting your time with a pros-and-cons list, consider consequences and loss: If you buy the pricey knives, you’re probably spending more than you’d like. But if you go with the cheap ones, your dinner parties might be a bit less flashy. Neither choice is “perfect.” Accept that you’re giving something up one way or another, and choices tend to get a lot easier.

4. Ask for help.
As important as it is that you make choices on your own, outside motivation can be awfully helpful. Do you ever blow due dates that your boss gives you? If your mother asked you to make dinner, would you hesitate to turn on the stove?

You don’t necessarily need an authority figure to tell you what to do, either. One amateur painter who sometimes has trouble mustering the motivation creates accountability by inviting her peers to come paint with her every Saturday. To make sure she can’t back out, she asks them not to tell her in advance whether they’ll attend. Sure enough, she shows up every Saturday so she doesn’t let others down.

5. Put the focus on others.
If you like to help others make decisions but can’t seem to make your own, think like a utilitarian. Utilitarianism says the best decision is the one that’s the least harmful and most helpful to everyone involved.

Say you’re trying to decide with your spouse which family to visit over the holidays. You only have time to see one this year, so which should it be? While you might be tempted to simply give in to your husband or wife, that’s not how healthy couples make decisions. The best solution for everyone might be to see the family you didn’t last year, ensuring you don’t shortchange either for two years in a row.

Don’t let small decisions become big headaches. If you have to pick randomly at times, do it. No choice is perfect, and any choice is better than letting anxiety rule the day.

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