Does the question “what’s for dinner” strike fear in your heart? Hearing “I don’t care, just pick a place” cause a full-body shiver? These very banal questions that make up daily conversations in households across the country are quick and easy, right? Not so fast. 

While we tend to emphasize those big moments, the life and death decisions that weigh heavily with the import of their outcomes, it’s actually the everyday choices of what to wear, what to eat, what to watch, which socks to buy, and so on and so forth, that wear us down, over time. 

Death by a thousand cuts or in this case, decision paralysis one inconsequential choice at a time. 

What is decision paralysis or analysis paralysis?

Simply put: it’s the inability to make decisions. Any decision. But why?

Dr. Carrie Barron, Director of Creativity for Resilience Program at Dell Medical School and Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry at the University of Texas in Austin credits two major factors in decision paralysis:

  1. Mood. We’re living through astonishingly bleak times. If you’re on the internet, I don’t need to remind you that Everything Everywhere All At Once isn’t just the most highly-anticipated movie of this year, it’s also how we’re receiving devastating news at a constant, break-neck speed. It’s a bit of a downer. 

    “If you are feeling a bit more down and anxious, it can be hard to make decisions because mood does affect a certain kind of ambivalence, that can complicate one's sense of clarity, energy, and motivation. Since a positive mood affects cognition in a good way, the opposite is also true. It's simply harder to make decisions when you are feeling down.” – Dr. Barron

  2. Infinite Options. It took me two years to buy bedsheets. And it would’ve taken me two more years if my final set in rotation hadn’t practically disintegrated in the wash. 

I wanted to buy the perfect set that I would love forever, and then buy them in every color. I wanted to support an ethical linen company that produced sustainably-manufactured bedding and I wanted excellent quality at a reasonable price point. 

I wanted unicorn sheets. Problem: they don’t exist.

“If you tend to be a careful and thorough person, you might want to look at every possibility and thoroughly explore it. That can be debilitating, though.” – Dr. Barron

Conquering Decision Paralysis

Am I the best person to address this? Probably not. Like I mentioned, it took two years to buy sheets and as I’m partly feral, “what’s for dinner” is usually whatever I can eat over the kitchen sink. 

On the flip-side, I’ve led teams of a dozen people, moved across the ocean because it felt right, and moved back because that also felt right. I’m the designated coordinator of my friend group for dinner and brunches, and I recently had to make the gut-wrenching decision to say goodbye to my big, orange tabby, Fenwick.

I’m no stranger to making choices big or small and since we’re on this journey together, I’ll share a few things that help me when I’m feeling stuck and can’t see a way forward. 

Four Major Types of Decisions
& How to Handle Them

  • What’s for dinner? What to watch? Where to vacation? Where to live? Any decision that involves two or more people can quickly dissolve into a lengthy, tiresome back and forth. More than likely, it’s unproductive and results in a grudging choice no one’s excited about but everyone is too frustrated to care. 

Solution: Designate an “Options Provider” and a “Choice Maker.” One person provides a handful of dinner or restaurant suggestions and the other selects from there. Easy, fast, everyone’s happy. 

Level Up: When deciding where to spend their holiday, each member of this family created PowerPoint presentations advocating for their favorite vacation destination. Afterward, everyone voted. Brilliant.

  • Which one should I buy? Back in the day, anytime anyone in my family was in the market for anything, from irons to speakers to garden shears, my grandfather would whip out his dog-eared copy of The Consumer Reports Buying Guide and that was that. Their recommendation was as good as gold. 

    With infinite options from manufacturers and retailers all over the world, it’s just not that easy anymore. More choices can mean better quality at better prices, but there are a lot more duds out there, too. 

    Solution: Do your research, from reputable outlets like the Wirecutter and Consumer Reports. Buy the best quality you can afford and take care of it. Read reviews with a heavy amount of skepticism – you never know who’s a paid ringer on sites like Amazon, or what their needs or expectations of the product are. Have confidence that you did your due diligence and squash potential Buyer’s Remorse. 

  • How can I make this impossible choice? Quite frankly, this one sucks. There’s no sugar-coating it. You can be armed with all the information available, have a plan, a backup plan, and another contingency plan and still get caught in an unthinkable situation. 

The only real advice I have for you is this: no matter the outcome of your decision, be kind to yourself. Don’t get stuck in the what-ifs – that’s a prescription for a lifetime of misery. 

Of course, this is easier said than done, and I’ve got my fair share of regrets from last conversations with loved ones, avoidable arguments, and even choosing a job that ended up being a super toxic work environment. 

Just stop, forgive yourself, learn from the experience, and find community to support you through this journey. 

  • Can you just pick one? These are my absolute favorite kind of decisions, now that I know how to handle them: I don’t. When all options are equal, across price, potential, satisfaction, I’m really not trying to dwell on the “road not taken.”

    Just flip a coin. Or pull a card. Or ask Magic 8 Ball. The key here is to move these little time-suck decisions off your plate as soon as possible so you can focus on bigger things. 

    I could’ve spared myself two years of sleeping on ratty sheets like a nesting hamster. Because when it came down to it, that’s exactly how I decided which set to buy. Two years of research and one coin flip.