We make decisions all day long – what to wear today, what to have for lunch, what book to read – and we’re usually pretty quick to decide.
But sometimes we run into decisions that are hard to make or moments where we’re simply unable to make decisions. We get stuck in indecision, we struggle to choose and we get nowhere fast.
So why is decision making so hard sometimes?
Difficulty in making decisions generally results from a lack of clarity around the problem, being unclear on our priorities, not seeing all possibilities and struggling to evaluate our options. By using a decision-making process, we can eliminate many of the factors that interfere with our decisions.
Let’s look more closely at some of the things that could be preventing you from making a decision, and you might just find that making decisions gets a little bit easier.
Thirteen reasons why making decisions is so hard
You might be struggling with a small or a big decision, you might routinely struggle to make decisions quickly, or perhaps you just have problems with making decisions in one specific area of your life.
Whatever the decision you’re stuck on, you might find that one or more of the following factors is at play.
1. Sticking with what you know
Have you ever heard the expression “better the devil you know”?
When you’re making a decision, like which smartphone to buy or which type of bread to get, it can feel easier to stick with what we know. This is sometimes called “status quo bias” or inertia.
And because of this inertia, our current choice may appear more attractive than the alternatives, even if we’re not happy with it, simply because of the apparent effort and risks of making a change.
I fell into this trap recently when looking to change my internet service provider. I know we’re not getting good value for many, and we’re getting less in terms of features than we would from most of our competitors, but the idea of switching was such a hassle that I convinced myself that our current service was the better option (for now).
To counter this factor, pretend that your current choice isn’t an option at all. This forces you to look more closely at the alternatives and evaluate them more fairly. Also look closely at the downsides of sticking with your current option, to counter the positive biases you have towards it.
Even if you end up sticking with the current “devil”, at least you’ll know that you gave the other options a better chance.
2. Looking at it the wrong way
Sometimes, we get stuck in our decisions because we’re coming at it the wrong way.
Perhaps we’re relying too heavily on our first thoughts about the situation, and comparing every thought or option to that first impression.
Or perhaps we just haven’t framed the situation in the best way possible, and everything that happens subsequently is coloured by that viewpoint.
Sometimes called “anchoring bias”, the first ideas we have about a problem or decision can strongly influence how we view any additional information or options that are presented to us.
Have you ever been house-hunting and come across your dream home, except that it’s well out of your price range, but you go for a look at it anyway?
As much as you know you’ll never be able to buy that house, every house you look at after that – the ones you can afford – just won’t measure up to that dream house.
To counter this tendency, step back from the situation and ask yourself what might be colouring or influencing your viewpoint.
Can you try to reset yourself to square one, and put aside any assumptions, opinions and past experiences to let yourself see the situation with fresh eyes?
One trick that seems to work is asking how your future self would look at the current situation. According to scientists, we see this future self as a separate person, which impacts how we make our decisions.
3. Not enough information
With the advent of the internet and always-on technology, we have access to all the information we can eat – and more!
And yet sometimes we still try to make a decision without having all the necessary information at hand, because it seems faster and easier that way.
But we don’t really know what all of our options are, or the likely outcomes of our choices, or even what outside influences we should consider.
It’s a bit like someone asking you what you want to order from a new local takeaway place without showing you the menu.
You’re basically guessing, based on what you can glean from the name of the restaurant or the type of cuisine they offer, but you’re working blind, and most of the time your results will be very limited and less than fabulous.
To counter this, give yourself permission to spend time doing some research, asking questions or exploring options, so you have a better understanding of the situation and the likely consequences of your decision.
Just be careful not to overdo it, lest you find yourself dealing with the next problem.
4. Too much information
On the flip side of not enough information, is too much information, and this is a very easy place to end up in, for a few reasons.
Firstly, as a society we have accumulated more information than we have ever had access to in the entire history of humanity.
Secondly, much of this information is readily available to us at the click of a mouse button or the swipe of a finger, so it’s very convenient and easy to access.
And thirdly, doing research and finding out more, and more, and even more, about something can be a very effective way to avoid making a decision or taking action.
Having too much information generally leads to what is called “analysis paralysis” where we have so much information that we can’t possibly sort through it all or make any kind of sense out of it, preventing us from making a choice.
I have a tendency to do this myself, because I love the process of exploring new ideas and discovering new information, so I’ll happily spend hours combing through obscure search results and tiny forums looking for answers, ending up down a rabbit hole of related facts and fascinating stories.
To counter this, set some limits for yourself. Perhaps you can set a timer for one hour while you do your research, or perhaps you decide to stop once you have made two pages of notes – just pick something that seems like a good amount of information to you, without leading to overwhelm.
What’s important here is that you give yourself a way to break out of the cycle of ever more information, so you can make a “good enough” decision.
Here’s a great TED talk on overcoming analysis paralysis by Mary Steffel:
5. Too many options
Having too many options can result from having too much information or simply from the fact that there are just so many choices available to us as a society.
No matter what you’re wanting to buy, or where you’re wanting to go, or what you’re wanting to do, we are spoiled for choice, literally.
And as nice as it might seem to have endless choices, it actually makes it really hard to make a decision because there’s so much to consider, so more often than not, we don’t choose anything.
There’s a famous study known as the Jam Experiment, where shoppers at an upscale grocery store were presented with either 6 or 24 different flavours of jam.
Of the shoppers who had 6 flavours to choose from, 60% stopped at the stall and 30% chose to buy a jar. Whereas with the 24-flavours, only 40% stopped and 3% purchased.
And I know this myself when I’m choosing from a menu or trying to choose a new flavour of scented soap. If there’s too many options to choose from, I simply can’t decide.
To counter this, find a way to limit your choices. Either set a limit on your research process and stop when you’ve identified five to seven acceptable options, or find a way to artificially limit your options.
For example, at a restaurant, I’ll usually eliminate everything that isn’t vegan, which generally leaves me with one to three options, making my choice much easier!
With fewer options, it’s easier to keep them all in your head at once so you can compare them and decide which one’s right for you.
6. Fear of missed opportunities
We all struggle with FOMO, or the fear of missing out, and it can seriously hamper our ability to make a decision.
With so many options available to us, it’s natural to be curious about them all and be interested in experiencing more than one of them.
Unfortunately, the essence of decision-making is that we’re generally being forced to pick just one, and that leaves us feeling like we’ve missed out on all the other possibilities.
My son struggles with this each time we try out a new restaurant. Everything on the menu is brand new to him and looks wonderful, and he wants to experience so many of them, but in order to eat at all, he is forced to experience only one. It might seem like a simple thing, but it can present a truly challenging choice dilemma for him.
To counter this, you need to get clearer on what’s most important to you and take a very close look at what each option really is giving you.
Although it might be nice to have some of the things on offer, are they actually going to make enough of a difference that you’ve actually “missed out”?
Also consider ways to keep your options open, by rolling more than one solution into your final choice, or realising that you might be able to make a different choice at a later time.
I’ve also taught my son to tune into his intuition in these situations, using his gut feeling about each option to help him figure out the best choice for him in this moment.
7. Feeling stressed
Stress can be a huge obstacle to making a decision, even if it’s not directly related to the decision at hand.
Making decisions, especially ones we’re struggling with, takes a lot of energy and focus, so if we’re feeling stressed about anything in our lives, we may not have the resources available to us that we need to make a choice.
Personally, when I’m under stress, my ability to make decisions is one of the first things to go.
Maybe I have a really long “to do” list, and I’m feeling anxious about my ability to get it all done on time.
The last thing I want to have to do is decide what to eat or what music to listen to. I just don’t have it in me.
To counter this, you’re going to need to find a way to reduce your stress levels, or possibly just distance yourself from them, at least temporarily.
Easier said than done, I know, but to address this challenge to decision making, you’re going to have to carve yourself out a brief respite from your stresses.
Find a quiet place somewhere, delegate some tasks, resolve some other situations, and you should find it a little easier to make that choice that’s been hanging over you.
8. Dealing with uncertainty
Making decisions in the face of uncertainty is challenging, no doubt about it.
Uncertainty is akin to having too little information but usually, the issue here is that we just don’t have access to the full story, for whatever reason, so we have to make a decision with only half the facts.
Maybe we’re not sure how each option will turn out, because we can’t see the future after all, or maybe we just can’t figure out what options are available to us, or perhaps we just don’t have access to the information we need.
And when we’re feeling uncertain, we tend to second-guess ourselves and question everything, making us very indecisive.
To counter this, we need to reduce uncertainty where we can, while accepting that full certainty may not be an option.
Do research and ask questions to fill in any gaps in your knowledge, brainstorm with others to create possible outcomes for different choices, and map out the risks associated with each unknown.
And then reconcile yourself to the fact that uncertainty is a part of every decision-making exercise – and a part of the human experience – and have faith that you’ve done the best that you can do in the current circumstances with the information that you have.
9. Choices with serious consequences
More commonly, the decisions that we struggle with are the bigger ones. The ones that could change our lives or have a serious impact on those around us.
So it’s not surprising that we hesitate to make a decision in these situations.
But even with the simple decisions, we may struggle to choose because we’re afraid of getting it wrong, of making a mistake and having to live with the consequences.
As a recovering perfectionist, I don’t like getting things wrong. I feel vulnerable, I feel stupid and I feel frustrated that I can’t fix my error.
And while I know that these are my choices on how to view the situation (and I’m working on improving them) I also know that they’re a common experience for many.
We’re afraid to fail, to make a mistake, to have a negative impact on those around us, so we get stuck, unable to make a decision.
To counter this, I tell myself that I need to make mistakes in order to keep learning and growing – two of my highest values.
I also make sure that I’m as clear as possible on the likely outcomes of my choices, and I play the “what if” game all the way to the end, rather than allowing nebulous fears of what might happen to block me.
Talking things out with the people around you, especially the ones who might be affected by your choice, is also a good way to get clear on the best option for you.
And if you are dealing with a bigger decision, one with significant ramifications, give yourself the time and resources to go through the decision-making process fully, so that when you do make a decision, you feel like you’ve done the best job you could have done.
“Despite the importance of decision making to our lives, few of us ever receive any training in it.”
10. Too many other decisions
Sometimes we have a hard time making a decision simply because we’ve exhausted our decision-making abilities.
This is often referred to as “decision fatigue” and happens when you’ve been making lots of decisions and temporarily used up your mental and emotional resources.
We then go on to make poorer-quality decisions, or no decision at all, because we lose access to our usual toolkit of skills and experience that we normally apply when making choices.
A common situation where this might occur is when planning a wedding or building a new home. There are so many details to sort out and so many decisions that need to be made on a seemingly constant basis that we just exhaust ourselves.
And then we can make snap decisions that we regret later, or have a melt-down and snap at the people around us and stop coping with everything.
To counter this, you first need to recognise that you’ve used up your ability to make decisions. Recognise that you’re struggling or making low-quality choices, and that perhaps it’s because you’re all out of “care factor”.
The best thing you can do at this point is to stop making decisions, but if that’s not possible, take a time out and recharge in whatever way you can before stepping back into the fray.
It may also help to recognise that some decisions can be postponed to another day, allowing you to focus on the ones that really matter.
Another technique that many successful people have used, including Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, is to reduce the number of decisions they have to make every day, in their case, what to wear each day.
Find decisions that you have to make often, and reduce or eliminate them – wear the same clothes, eat the same food, walk the same route, go to bed at the same time.
It won’t help in the middle of decision fatigue, but it will reduce the chances that you get there in the first place.
11. Using an unclear process
Whether we’re aware of it or not, decision-making is actually a process, with multiple steps and potentially many components.
And if our decision-making process is unclear or incomplete, it may derail our attempts to make a decision.
We might be missing key steps that prevent us from having clarity over the real issue, our options or our priorities.
Or it might be that we have all the steps, but that we get stuck at a specific point in the process because we’re not clear on what to do or how to do it.
For example, if you’re trying to choose the right school for your child, you might have researched local schools and decided what’s important to you, but you’re not sure how to sift through all the information you’ve collected and use it to make an effective comparison.
Or perhaps you’re deciding on where to have your next vacation, and you haven’t actually spent the time to identify what you want out of your holiday, and so you’re lost, looking at glamorous destinations but literally getting nowhere.
To counter this, the answer is to consciously use a decision-making process and make sure you’ve done all of the steps.
Even if it feels a bit awkward to be so systematic and deliberate in your decision-making, it certainly will feel a lot better than the indecision that results from the previous muddy attempts.
And your process can be highly logical, organised and rational, or it can be more intuitive and creative – whatever suits you best.
Just make sure it’s deliberate and repeatable, so you can get back on track if you get stuck at any point.
“Process matters more than analysis—by a factor of six”
12. You have a values conflict
When none of the other factors seems to be the issues that’s holding you back from making a decision, then you might need to consider the possibility that you have a values conflict.
A values conflict can cause difficulties in making decisions when two or more options represent values that are in opposition to each other.
Your values are deeply held beliefs about what is important to you, so it’s hard to go against any of them.
For example, you may be trying to choose a new job, because your current role does not have opportunities for growth and development (one of your values).
And you’ve been offered another role that sounds exciting and has plenty of room to expand into, but it means spending more time away from your family (another of your values).
As a result, your values are in conflict, preventing you from making a decision.
To counter this, ask yourself which value each option is asking you to compromise. Ask “what will I have to give up if I choose this?” about each of the solutions you’re considering.
If you can identify the values that are in conflict, you’re in a better position to modify your options accordingly to ensure that your values are no longer being challenged.
Knowing your values can also be of great help when you’re initially researching your options, to help you end up with choices that meet all of your needs.
13. You’re asking the wrong question
If you’ve tried addressing all of the other factors and you’re still stuck, unable to decide, then you might need to consider the possibility that you’re actually trying to make the wrong decision.
Asking the wrong question means that you’re tackling the problem from the wrong angle, and that you might need to step back and reframe the entire decision-making exercise.
You might be trying to choose between new jobs, but maybe the issue is actually that you need a new career.
Or perhaps you’re trying to decide whether to move to a new town, only to realise that the true problem is that your relationship isn’t working.
To counter this, take a long hard look at the situation, and ask yourself, “Is this actually the problem here?” or “What’s really going on?” or “Is there something else I need to be considering here?”
This can be a difficult one to face up to, but so long as you’re trying to decide on the wrong issue, you’re never going to feel like you’ve made the right choice.
Once you have clarity on the true situation you’re trying to sort you, you can at least start moving forward and making better decisions.
Normal difficulties in decision making
There’s some behaviours that you are likely to encounter when making choices that are actually pretty normal, and not necessarily a problem.
1. Questioning your decision
It’s actually natural and healthy for you to question your choices as you move through the decision-making process.
This means that you are being conscious and deliberate in your decisions, and are taking care to ensure you make the best possible decision.
By questioning your decision, you’re looking at the situation from more than one angle, increasing the chances that you’ll take everything into account.
Just be sure to also have a way to make your decision final, so you can move forward and take action, instead of remaining stuck.
2. Going back and forth in the process
You might also find yourself moving backwards and forwards between the different steps in your decision-making process, and feel like this means you’re messing it up.
But in reality, making decisions isn’t a simple, clear-cut exercise, where you move neatly from one step to the next.
Like life, it’s messy and unpredictable, and going back to previous steps can help improve your clarity and confidence in the entire process and the decision you ultimately make.
You might uncover new information that you need to take into account, you might unearth a new priority, or you might discover a whole raft of options you hadn’t considered, so it’s important to give yourself permission to move around in the process in whatever way suits you.
3. Feeling very indecisive
Many people struggle with indecision, for all of the reasons stated above.
But some people are also naturally more indecisive than others.
The character traits of both perfectionism (needing everything to be perfect) or neuroticism (anxiety, moodiness and emotional instability) can lead people to be indecisive, apart from any decision-making process.
If you recognise these tendencies in yourself, realise that you may tend to be more indecisive than those around you, but that shouldn’t stop you from making decisions.
You just need to be aware of your indecisiveness and factor it into your decision-making process.
Four tips to remember when you’re having a hard time making decisions
There are some important things to keep in mind when you’re having a hard time making decisions that might help you better understand why you’re struggling, or at least shift your perspective on the situation.
1. Decisions are a means to an end
When you’re stuck in the middle of a seemingly impossible decision, remind yourself why you’re trying to make that decision.
The end game here is not the decision you’re trying to make, but the actions it allows you to take next.
So don’t hinge your sense of well-being or self-worth on the effectiveness of your decision-making, but instead focus on the thing that you get to do next – whether it’s as simple as eating a meal, or as big as changing careers.
It may not make the decision easier, but it will help you put things into perspective.
2. Your decisions create who you are
You are the sum of every single decision you’ve made up to this point.
Does that scare you? Perhaps, but it should also give you hope. Hope that with every choice you make from this point forward, you get to keep defining you.
I share this to help you realise why decisions matter so much to us, even the small ones.
With each decision, we’re reshaping and restating who we are and who we want to be.
Use that to inspire you to make the best possible choices from where you are right now.
3. Not making a choice is still making a choice
Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that if just avoid making the decision, then we don’t have to deal with the consequences.
But not making a choice is still making a choice, because you’re choosing to do nothing, and essentially take the default option.
There’s nothing wrong with taking the default choice, but don’t delude yourself into thinking that you’ve avoided making a choice, because it’s just not possible.
Just make sure that you’ve made your choice deliberately, instead of letting life happen to you, and your life will be headed in the right direction.
4. There’s no perfect choice
As much as many of us would like to believe that every situation has a perfect solution, this is very rarely – if ever – the case.
I’ve had to learn this one the hard way, spending much more time and energy on problems than was warranted, trying to find the option that ticked all of the boxes.
I’ve had to come to accept that there will never be a perfect choice, because even the ones that seem perfect at the time come with unexpected consequences.
So all we can do is make the best possible choice we can in the circumstances and then put our focus and efforts toward making that decision work.
What is it called when you can’t make a decision?
There are a couple of recognised disorders that include an inability to make decisions.
People with dependent personality disorder (DPD) are overly dependent on others – both emotionally and physically – and have a strong need to please others and be taken care of by them. They have trouble making decisions, need lots of reassurance and can display clingy and needy behaviours.
Aboulomania is a mental illness characterised by chronic indecisiveness, and is also associated with anxiety, depression and stress. It may result from a malfunction in the brain that may have arisen from intrusive parenting or social humiliation that undermines self-confidence and independence.
If you suspect that you are affected by either of these conditions, please contact your primary health care provider for advice.
How to get better at making decisions
Apart from addressing the above factors that may make it hard to make decisions, there are three things that you can do to generally get better at making decisions.
“There are only two things that determine how your life turns out: luck and the quality of your decisions.”
1. Break down the problem into small pieces
Any problem or decision you’re facing up to can be made significantly more manageable by breaking it down into smaller pieces.
Something that seems overwhelming and insurmountable turns into a collection of simple challenges when you separate it into its constituent parts.
For example, instead of trying to decide on a new career, see if you can choose a specific new activity you might want to try out that would take you in a new direction.
And if you find that you like that activity, you can take another step towards a new career, and then another until you surprise yourself with how far you’ve come, one step at a time.
Next time you begin making a decision, ask yourself “How can I break this down into smaller steps?” or “What’s the first piece of this that I could tackle?”
2. Use a decision-making process
We covered this a little when we were discussing the role of an unclear process in making decisions hard, but it really bears repeating.
You’re currently using a process when you make decisions, you just might not be aware of it, which means that it might not be as effective as it could be.
There’s lots of different ways that you can tackle your decision making, with some of my favourites coming from:
- Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work by Chip & Dan Heath (Amazon affiliate link)
- Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions by John Hammond et al (Amazon affiliate link)
- How to Decide by Annie Duke (Amazon affiliate link)
And there’s not really a “wrong” way to make decisions, so feel free to create your own process, as long as it suits your needs.
Just be conscious and deliberate about using and improving your process, and you’ll start making better decisions in no time at all.
My favourite way to get myself unstuck when making a decision is to use a spreadsheet, where I enter all of my criteria down the left, and my options across the top, and then rate each choice against each criteria.
I use this to create a weighted score for each option, which helps me to see which of my choices is likely to be the most satisfying for me. I’ve used this approach for decades and I love it.
3. Focus on the essentials
It’s easy to get bogged down in the details or overly complicated processes when trying to make a decision, but simpler is better.
Work to eliminate the fluff and the distractions, and focus your attention on the things that will make the difference.
Put aside the need to do everything “properly” or “correctly” and instead aim to do things efficiently.
Only look at information that is directly related to your decision, only spend time on activities that directly move your decision forward, and only include options that you’d actually seriously consider.
By paring the process down to the essentials, you’ll have more energy available to invest in making a good decision.
A simple four-step process for making decisions
Over time, I’ve developed my own framework for making decisions that I like to call the DUIE framework.
The four steps in my decision-making framework are:
- Define the problem: What exactly is it that you’re trying to decide?
- Uncover your priorities: What matters most to you?
- Identify your options: What options are available to you?
- Evaluate your options: Which option best meets your needs
If you follow these four steps, you’ll greatly increase your chances of making a good decision.
No more troubles making decisions!
You now know the thirteen factors that make it hard to make decisions, and the three things that happen during decision-making that may not actually be problems.
We’ve also covered four things to remember when you’re having a hard time making decisions and the three-step process to getting better at making decisions.
Although you may still have difficulty making decisions at times, hopefully, these resources will get you unstuck and on the way to making great decisions and taking decisive action in your life.
Let me know in the comments below a time when you found it really hard to make decisions, and what solutions you found that worked for you to get you through the situation.
These resources are also included in the article above and will help you explore the topic in more depth:
- The Jam Experiment
- How I overcame decision paralysis by Mary Steffel (TED talk)
- Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions by John Hammond et al (Amazon affiliate link)
- Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work by Chip & Dan Heath (Amazon affiliate link)
- How to Decide by Annie Duke (Amazon affiliate link)
- Repeated choosing increases susceptibility to affective product features by Bruyneel et al, 2006
Some of the information in this article came from the following sources: