Do You Have Decision Paralysis?

When making simple everyday decisions, do you end up stressed, exhausted and secondguessing yourself? You’re not just wishy-washy – there’s a reason for the anxiety.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

When making simple everyday decisions, do you end up stressed, exhausted and secondguessing yourself? You’re not just wishy-washy – there’s a reason for the anxiety.

There are indecisive people who mull over what to have for lunch, and then there’s my friend Kat*. When seconded to an office in another building, she found the sheer number of food choices so overwhelming that she ended up making a 10-minute hike back to her previous office for the tried-and-tested.

Kat gets anxious when making simple, everyday decisions. Grappling with them exhausts her. Weighing up whether to spend an evening doing yoga or grabbing drinks with friends can consume her entire day, as she bounces the merits of each option back and forth in her mind.

Sounds like a first-world problem? But Kat says: “I have a mandatory mental process, where I need deciding on the best course of action – I’m not willing to risk settling for a decision that’s second-best.”

Kat isn’t just indecisive, she has decision paralysis – the complete lack of ability to decide. She’s tried coping mechanisms like having go-to choices (for example, sets of clothes to wear to work), asking friends to decide on activities, or imposing a time frame for decisions. But the fact remains that when Kat is faced with too many options, she just can’t make a choice.

Vyda S. Chai, a clinical psychologist at Think Psychological Services, cautions that “difficulties in making decisions can be a sign of extreme stress, anxiety and depression”, and if to rationalise each left unchecked, could possibility before lead to self-doubt and low self-esteem. The stress of feeling inundated with choices can distort your perception of the world and yourself, she adds. So it’s important to realise that a so-called “wrong” decision isn’t all that bad.

Camille Ko, a counsellor trained in cognitive behavioural therapy, adds: “For something as simple as choosing lunch, technically, there’s no ‘wrong’ answer. Even if you regret your choice, so what? There’s always tomorrow.” Vyda points to a bigger issue. “If you have difficulty making decisions, there’s a high chance that you’re afraid of something. Think about where this fear comes from, and recognise triggers that cloud your mind.” Is it a fear of missing out? Or of failure? Or insecurities established the reason for your discomfort, ask yourself how much sense it makes. And if this reflection leads you nowhere, seek help. There’s never something “too small” to ask a professional for advice on.

It’s a huge mental shift from seeing options as “good” and “bad” to just choice A and choice B. “You need to train yourself to think of pros and cons without being emotionally affected,” says Vyda. This will only come with awareness, and constant practice in challenging your previous choice patterns. Decisions aren’t scary in themselves – we just make them out to be bigger than they are. Once you understand that, you’ll start reclaiming agency over your choices. about being second best? Once you’ve

*Name has been changed.


1. Start a journal

“Write down your thought process and what you’re feeling as you struggle with making decisions,” Camille says. “From there, you can establish patterns that help you find out what could be the root of the issue that’s causing you anxiety.” Some decisions will always cause more stress than others, so seeing your thoughts in black and white will help you identify your triggers.

2. Try something new

Lose the security blanket of sticking to your usual options. “People who are anxious tend to be more rigid, because they fear stepping out of their comfort zone and making the wrong decision,” says Vyda. “Challenge yourself by trying one new thing a week, and keep practising.” This will help recalibrate your fear of the unknown.

3. Download mindfulness apps

When your anxiety becomes overwhelming, you don’t realise how disproportionate it is. Staying mindful reminds you to think of what actually matters, and to look at what benefits you. Meditative apps such as Calm can guide you through mindfulness exercises.

4. Add structure to your day

Kat doesn’t have as many problems making decisions at work, where she follows a system of processes that guides her. Enforcing structure or a series of steps can help ease the strain when your mind is too crowded with options.