Break Out of Decision Paralysis
When I graduated college with a degree in audio engineering, I was sure I’d spend my life working in recording studios, making music. I wanted to compose music for films and television.
I interned at a few studios, worked on my own music, and even landed some of my stuff on a few television spots and small films.
But I was young and needed a “real job”, so I changed course and entered the web industry (where the real jobs were). The next 10 years brought quite a few more career-changing decisions.
Like the day I decided to quit that “real job” and go freelance. And the day I launched my first digital product, a WordPress theme. And many more turning points along the way.
Today I’m in the middle of another career-changing decision. But I’ll save those details for another time.
. . .
This post isn’t about my meandering career. It’s about facing a big decision and getting through it without paralyzing yourself in endless options, scenarios, and what-ifs.
The decision to change course
Every change in course comes down to a decision. The choice is between staying on the path you’re on vs. venturing into uncharted territory.
When I was younger, the decision to change course never felt like a decision at all. I was inspired to get into something new, so that’s what I did.
Today, I have the same inspiration to change course. But this time, the decision to go for it comes with more questions, internal debate, and deliberation.
“What should I do? If I do this, how will it affect that? What’s the upside of this decision? The downside? Worst-case scenario? What would this new path look like? What am I overlooking?”
No decision is the wrong decision
I’ve come to realize that there is no right or wrong decision. The only wrong move is to not make a decision at all.
Every day, week, month that goes by without a final decision one way or the other is a costly delay. When you’re caught in a decision, everything else is on pause. You can’t move forward and execute without a plan. And you can’t make a plan until you decide what the goal is.
I spent the last 6 weeks driving myself crazy as I sorted through a couple a career-changing decisions. I’ll share the details of these decisions another time.
Today I want to tell you about a few hard lessons I learned about making better decisions, faster.
Every wrong decision has an upside
What really drives us up the wall when we’re struggling to make a decision is the fear of making the wrong choice. The fear of regret. The fear of failure.
But you have to remember that even when you make some wrong decisions—which you will (nobody bats a thousand)—you still benefit from the lesson learned from that experience.
Sure, a wrong decision might result in a temporary setback. But the most painful setbacks are the ones that stick with you and force you to examine exactly what went wrong and why. The stuff you learn in these moments is pure gold.
You’ll come out of a poor decision smarter, stronger, and better equipped to make a better choice next time.
How to use others’ feedback
In certain phases of my career, I’ve been reluctant to ask for advice and feedback from others. I took it upon myself to weigh all my options internally, and avoid any outside influence or tips. This approach rarely worked to my benefit.
But then I came around to the idea of reaching out and asking for feedback. Except, I found myself starting to fall into another trap: Relying too heavily on the opinions of others, and letting that influence my actions.
There’s an important truth that I only recently came to learn about getting feedback: It’s not helpful to ask someone, “what should I do?”
They’re not you and they can’t be expected to make a wise decision on your behalf. That’s too much to ask of someone. They’ll never be able to see it from your perspective and yours is the only perspective that matters.
The value that your friends, family, and advisors _can _give you is their impression of you. They can tell you things about you that you’re probably not able to see yourself. They can tell you what they’re hearing you say, and how that plays with what they already know about you.
Often, the feedback I hear is, “It sounds like you know which way you want to go, you’re just asking permission.” And that confirmation is enough to better understand where you’re head is at.
Set a deadline
Some decisions truly are big ones with long-lasting outcomes and they deserve some careful thought and consideration. You don’t want to make it on a whim, when you’re more likely to be influenced by emotion or the mood you’re in that day.
I found it’s important to sit with a big decision over the course of at least a few days to a week to see how the choices shake out when you’re in different states of mind. See how the choices look through good days and bad.
But, set a deadline. Before you weigh all options, decide on a day in the calendar when you will have made a decision one way or another. Say, “By this Friday, I’ll know my decision” so that by next week, you can start planning your execution.
I’m a big fan of planning my month in advance (I use Trello for this), and I’ll include “decision time” as an actual to-do in my list. When I don’t, I find that my productivity falls behind schedule, because I can’t execute a plan without deciding on a strategy first.
I found journaling super-helpful. In fact, the entire reason I started keeping a private journal a few years ago was to help me think through big decisions.
I can actually see the periods in my year when I was working through big strategic shifts. Those weeks have many journal entries, sometimes multiple entries per day.
The value of journaling for me has been two-fold:
- It really helps to get my thoughts out of my head and written down. There’s some kind of science to it or something. Writing makes you see things much clearer than keeping it all in your head.
- It serves as a record of where my head was at in the moment of making decisions. This allows me to answer the question many of us ask ourselves all the time, “What was I thinking?” — And that’s what helps me internalize key lessons from past decisions.
I highly recommend starting a journal. I use Day One app. Don’t worry about making it a daily habit. Just use it when you need it.
Trust your gut
Cliche, I know. But it’s true. Your gut knows best.
Remember how I said that wrong decisions lead to lessons learned? As more of those lessons get baked into your memory and experience, you reduce the chance of making the same mistake twice. Certain decisions will even become “second nature”, meaning you won’t even have to think about them. You’ll just know which way to go, naturally.
Your gut is a binary thing. It’s always pointing one way or another. When your conscious mind is lost in options, scenarios, and projections, your gut is pulling you where it wants to go.
We may be skeptical of it, but more often than not, you’re better off trusting your gut.
When I asked a friend for his feedback on something I’m deciding on right now, he finished our conversation by saying, “OK… Gun to your head, which way do you want to go?”
I had my answer in under 3 seconds. That was my gut answer. And that’s what I’m going with.