If you’re like me, you’ve suffered from decision paralysis plenty before.
Decision paralysis is when you just can’t seem to make a decision, either because the stakes are extremely high or extremely low.
Decision paralysis on low stakes decisions isn’t that big of a deal — the stakes are so low that you can’t even be bothered to have an opinion. Worst case scenario is that your ambivalence to what you eat for dinner might mildly annoy your spouse, or something similar.
But decision paralysis in high stakes scenarios can be excruciating, and leave you stuck in a muck of your own grey matter. When the consequences of each available choice are both severe and similar, decision paralysis sets in.
Overcoming this problem has been quite the struggle in my own life. I spent months waffling around on whether or not to leave college, trapped in a void between leaving and staying, doing nothing to commit to either decision. I wasn’t doing my schoolwork and I wasn’t looking for a job.
Eventually I made a decision, and just feeling the weight of my own indecision lifted was euphoric — I’m sure you’re familiar with the feeling. Since then, I’ve run into decision paralysis again and again, but each time it’s been a little easier to overcome. That’s because I began to unravel the system at work in my own decision making. The idea was to boil the process down to its core components in order to better understand it, then use that knowledge to beat decision paralysis before it rears its ugly head.
You’ve likely heard life compared to a game before. It’s a common analogy because there’s a lot of truth in it. Life has rules and we all live by them whether we know it or not. Gravity is a great example. Humans still stuck to the ground before we understood gravity, but once we unraveled the system, we began to use it to our advantage, and now we can fly!
This pursuit of discovering the rules that we already play by is a large part of philosophy. Just like in a game, once you properly understand the rules, it becomes much easier to work around and within them to win.
So, what is the system that underlies our decision making? I’ll spend the rest of this article breaking down each part to give you a complete understanding of the process. Then, I’ll tell you exactly how this can cure your decision paralysis.
The objective of everything we do is to create or arrive at a more positive circumstance than we started at. The positive part is up to the individual to define — what you consider to be a positive and desirable circumstance might be defined by another as a negative circumstance to avoid.
The first piece of this equation is the collision with a new circumstance. This happens on a very small scale in every moment of our lives — little changes occur that affect our circumstances. We usually register and react to these changes subconsciously.
The bigger changes happen less often (though still hundreds of times a day) and cause a conscious reactions.
To take a big example, I’ll use my experience with leaving college. The circumstance is pretty straightforward — I was in college.
Value assessment is an extremely important and complex system that merits its own article and I intend to give it the proper attention at a later date. Until then, all you need to know is that value assessment is the process that goes on in your head every time you encounter a new circumstance. The value assessment is a (usually) subconscious examination of the circumstance and subsequent comparison to your preferences and goals. Then, a determination is made on whether that circumstance is tolerable. If the circumstance does not interfere with, or in fact promotes your preferences and goals, you conclude that it’s a positive circumstance. If it does interfere with your preferences and goals, you conclude that it’s a negative circumstance.
After settling in at college and experiencing the first semester, I was left disappointed. I wasn’t being challenged. I was being taught brain-rotting crap and I was surrounded by people that I didn’t like and they didn’t like me either. It was just like highschool, except now I was paying $60,000 a year for the privilege!
The value assessment in this circumstance was a pretty quick and easy one — this was undoubtedly a negative circumstance that needed to be remedied immediately. Thanks to decision paralysis though, no remedy was found for months. I’ll get into what caused the decision paralysis in a bit.
Unlike my negative circumstance above, there are also plenty of circumstances that we run into that are assessed as positive — in fact, most circumstances are assessed as positive since they do not interfere with our preferences. When this is the case, the equation ends there, as a positive circumstance is the end objective. In a way, you have won that tiny instance of the larger game of life.
It’s worth noting that while, more often than not, we’re existing in positive circumstances, the recognition of a positive circumstance is often not brought to our conscious attention, unless it’s an abnormally awesome circumstance. The recognition that you’re usually existing in a positive circumstance is a great way to improve your mood!
Decision paralysis threatens to set in upon arriving at a negative circumstance. When the repercussions of all available choices are significantly dire and significantly similar, decision paralysis takes hold.
When I realized that college was slowly sucking the life out of me like a vampiric coven, I knew I had to leave. Unfortunately, leaving also held dire consequences — the disapproval of my family and peers, and of course potential joblessness and lifelong misery (or so I had been convinced).
At the time, the consequences of staying and the consequences of leaving seemed almost equally unbearable, so I suffered in limbo.
Eventually, this suffering became worse than either consequence and with the support of those that love me, I finally decided to take action.
This is a fairly self-explanatory part of the equation. Action is just that — taking action in an attempt to change the negative circumstance into a positive one. This can either end in failure or success, leading either back to negative circumstance or to positive circumstance respectively.
So, steeled against the worst possible outcome with a firm belief that it couldn’t be worse than staying, I moved to leave college behind. With a combination of luck and perseverance, I came out of the ordeal pretty well. I overcame the fairly dire social backlash and I discovered that the world was far less harsh to a college drop-out than I had thought. I had arrived at a positive circumstance.
Unfortunately, our choices of action do not always land us in a positive circumstance. Failure is guaranteed to happen, even for the best of us. If failure occurs, we usually return to the negative circumstance, and usually then embark upon a new action.
I want to emphasize that failure does not always land us in a negative circumstance. Whether through luck or some consequence of our own actions, failure can fairly often land us in an unexpected positive circumstance. Don’t forget to be open to this possibility, as a positive circumstance can come and go if you don’t notice it.
It’s also important to remember that while failure doesn’t always land us in a positive circumstance, it always has positive consequences. Even if it’s something as small as teaching you what doesn’t work, failure gets you a little closer to your goal every time you encounter it. Failure is reaching a dead end in the maze — now you know which way not to go, and you can return to where you made a wrong turn and try something new.
There are times when failure seems an inescapable part of our circumstance. This is when we arrive at the last stop on our tour of this system . . .
When we encounter a particularly stubborn negative circumstance, there comes a point when the resources or consequences necessary to change the circumstance are so high that it’s no longer worth the possibility of arriving at the previously desired positive circumstance.
In these stubborn, unbeatable circumstances we take the last path available to us — acceptance. Acceptance occurs when we recognize a negative circumstance that we cannot reasonably change through action. At this point, reaching a positive circumstance is impossible, and we’re trapped in a negative circumstance.
We then choose to accept the negative circumstance. What happens next is borderline magical.
Our ultimate objective in every moment of life is to arrive at positive circumstances, by any means necessary. Fortunately, the label of positive or negative circumstance is entirely internal and individual — which means we ultimately have control over what we define as positive or negative. In accepting that we’re going to remain in a negative circumstance, we trick our value assessment into re-defining the negative circumstance as a positive circumstance, performing an alchemical transformation more impressive than turning coal into gold.
How does this trick happen? When the action necessary to change a negative circumstance would create an even more negative circumstance, you are faced with a choice between bad and worse. However, when compared to worse, bad is good. With worse set as the standard against which bad is compared, the value assessment defines bad as good, and suddenly we are perfectly content in what we once saw as a negative circumstance.
Yet this isn’t even the most miraculous part of acceptance. Acceptance does not have to be a product of desperation. It’s usually a last resort because we don’t realize that it’s an option. But acceptance can be used consciously, at any time, and to potentially great effect!
Acceptance can be trained just like a muscle — start small, and work your way up to bigger stuff. In time, you’ll find yourself content with circumstances that once drove you to the edge of sanity. Of course, I’m not saying that you should, or could, just accept all of life’s slings and arrows as they come. Being able to accept some circumstances frees up time and energy to deal with others. Ultimately, acceptance is a tool to allow you to more effectively change other, more important circumstances.
Acceptance was an important part of my decision to leave college. I had to mix a little acceptance into my action in order to make it worthwhile. I had to accept that my action might lead to social ostracism and financial hardship, and once I did, I was able to march forward with overflowing confidence. Most importantly, I was able to focus on what really mattered — getting out of a terrible environment.
Here are the bare basics of what you need to know.
You encounter a circumstance.
You perform a value assessment to determine if that circumstance is positive or negative.
If it’s negative, you can either take action to change it, or accept it.
The end goal is always to arrive at a positive circumstance.
This process is repeated over and over from the moment we’re born to the day we die — it’s the fundamental roadmap of life. Before you knew about this, you followed it, as does everyone in the world. Now that you understand this rule of life, you can begin to use it to your advantage.
How exactly? Well, this system tells us that at every crossroads in your life, you have three basic choices. You can either take action to change your circumstance, accept your circumstance as it is, or suffer (decision paralysis).
When you consciously realize that these are your fundamental choices, you’re almost immune to decision paralysis. When your options are simply to either move to a positive circumstance or suffer in a negative one, you will be driven to make a choice.
As you use this simplification more it will become intuitive. It may not eliminate your decision paralysis completely overnight, but it will significantly shorten it. And, in time, you’ll be amazed at just how decisive you can be!