Decision paralysis is real. Sometimes when I have a huge decision looming ahead of me, it's hard to figure out what to do. Right now, I'm about four weeks away from taking maternity leave as a founder, and setting up my business to work while I'm gone has been a next-level challenge.
Just the other day, I met with my operations planning team, and we reviewed the pile of work that I had on my plate ahead of me. My lead operations person looked at me and said "Sarah, you have to make some tough decisions here. You no longer have time to complete all of this."
I was racing against the clock, trying to squeeze one more project--one more article--into the time I had left, but unlike some other deadlines, this one (the birth of my baby) is non-negotiable. I was now down to the wire.
She forced me to get real about making tough decisions, and emphasized that at this point, making a decision was better than floundering in uncertainty.
Here are four recommendations I leaned on for pushing decisions forward faster when you feel overwhelmed or stuck.
1. Don't ask yourself what the perfect outcome is
Instead, ask yourself: "Which choice will teach you more?"
Instead of evaluating what will work, and what won't work, and trying to make the best possible decision based on your estimated guess of an outcome, remember that we can't control the outcomes. If we could, planning and marketing and making would be far more boring.
Instead, I like to ask: What will teach me more? Which option will give me more data or information to build a foundation upon?
So as you're evaluating your decision-making process, consider not just the desired outcome, but what position it puts you in for taking the next step, after this one. Often times decisions and next steps are as much as about data and information gathering as they are "getting it right."
2. Differentiate between "difficult" and "unpleasant" situations
Phil Libin, the former CEO of Evernote, gave a talk at Stanford called "No Exit Strategy For Your Life's Work," and in it, talked about the difference between difficult and unpleasant decisions. Here's what he said:
"There are decisions that are difficult in that you don't know what the right answer is, and then there are decisions that are unpleasant in that the consequences of making them are deeply unpleasant. Almost everyone thinks that those two things are the same. In fact, when we say 'That's a really hard decision,' a lot of the time we mean, 'No it isn't, it's easy to see what the right answer is; it's just really unpleasant.'"
Knowing the answer but struggling to do it (because it's unpleasant) is different than not knowing what to do. Once you know where you're heading, swallow, dive in, and do the difficult work.
3. Use your body to help test the decision.
We have wisdom in our gut brains, the "third brain," that we can tap into. In this physical exercise, first write each possible decision on a piece of paper. Next, put the pieces of paper on the floor in front of you.
For example, if you're thinking about leaving your job, you could write "Quit," "Stay," and "Go to Part Time" on three sheets of paper on the floor.
One by one, step forward and stand on them. Then, watch what your body does in response. Do you feel relief? Do you feel dread? Sometimes our minds can spin too much and rationalize everything. Often there is a subtle "yes" or "no" response from our bodies as a physical response to information.
4. Reframe your inquiries from passive to active questions
Michelle Florendo, a decision engineer I've interviewed previously for this column, reminded me to switch the language of the questions we're asking from open-ended or passive to more active questions. For example, when we're running through scenarios in our heads, she said, sometimes we get stuck in the fear of "What will happen if...."
Instead, she recommends shifting the question to "What will I do if/when..."
By adding yourself as an active participant to the situation, and activating the question around what you will do, you can change from a fear-based eddy to an active strategic mindset.
Remember that being stuck is normal at times, but change requires action.
Try any of these four strategies to help you move forward, faster.
Figure out what you can learn from the situation, acknowledge whether or not you're avoiding a decision because it's unpleasant, and try activating your body in the process. Finally, notice the language you're using to frame your worries and fears. Each of these tools can jolt you out of being stuck, and back into a path of progress.