Big or small, we’re faced with many decisions on a daily basis.
Oftentimes, they stop us in our tracks, unsure of what we should do.
The scenarios may differ from trivial to life-changing, and may be personal or professional, but we find ourselves trapped like a rabbit in the headlamps, paralyzed.
Should you start your own business or remain forever a wage slave?
Should you go back to school and open up a new career path or stay right where you are?
Should you end a relationship or grit your teeth and hang on in the hope things will improve?
These are just a few examples of decisions we regularly wrestle with.
You ponder, you worry, and you put off choosing either way, typically getting stuck in a loop of indecision.
And the frustrating thing is that the size of the problem is often inversely related to the amount of time you spend deliberating the best course of action.
It may be a small thing – deciding whether to accept an unexpected invitation to the wedding of a college friend, for example – but it can feel big when you don’t know what to do for fear of causing offense.
The search for The Right Thing To Do can become obsessive and, oh my, what a lot of time is squandered down that rabbit hole.
So, what can you do to break the stalemate?
As motivational guru, Jim Rohn, puts it:
It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you get off on sometimes. What matters most is getting off! You cannot make progress without making decisions.
If you could ditch these dilemmas – the worry, the uncertainty, and the not-knowing – and smooth your path to a decision, just imagine the relief you’d feel.
So, it’s time to do yourself a favor by jumping down off that fence and easing your way into action.
Any action, after all, is likely to be better than none.
President Theodore Roosevelt put it this way:
In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.
Here are a few suggestions to break the deadlock of indecision:
1. Seek out relevant knowledge.
You may have come to an apparent impasse with whatever problem you’re facing, but it’s not a unique and unprecedented situation by any means.
Someone, somewhere, will have already faced it and dealt with it.
Chances are they have produced a vlog, written a blog, an article, or even a book about their experience and their journey to resolving the issue.
Seek out that information and use it to work out where you go from here.
2. Identify your goal.
It’s easy to believe that the action you end up taking is the end in itself, but more often than not, it’s actually just the means to an end.
For example, breaking up an unsatisfactory relationship is not the end, but the means to (hopefully) achieve a more harmonious connection with someone else.
Once you’ve identified your ultimate goal – the ends – you may have a clearer vision of the potential means to get you there.
3. Apply past successes to current dilemmas.
The trick here is simple: assess what’s worked for you in the past and do more of it.
In their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath call this technique looking for the bright spots.
When you’re stuck in a position not knowing what to do, reflect on previous successful achievements, or think of problems you’ve solved in the past.
Then ask yourself:
– What was the successful strategy?
– How did you resolve the problem?
– What steps did you take to achieve your goals?
– How can you use these experiences to resolve your current problems?
In short, reflect on the bright spots and look for ways to replicate them in your current circumstances.
4. Talk it through.
Find a sympathetic listening ear and explain your problem to that person.
This could be a friend, a family member, coworker, counselor, or member of an online forum. In short, anyone who’ll listen.
Just the process of vocalizing the dilemma you face can break the endless loop of worry you’ve become stuck in.
Whoever you speak to is unlikely to have the definitive answer.
But there’s something about putting your thoughts into a logical order to explain the situation to a third party that can bring the clarity you’ve been seeking.
It can result in a light bulb moment and the correct course of action may become obvious.
The added benefit of explaining the facts as you see them to another person is the potential for their valuable feedback.
Seen from their unbiased perspective, they may have some insight that has so far eluded you.
5. Find someone who’s been in your shoes.
There’s nothing like experience to guide you when you’re facing a problem and are unable to identify appropriate action.
Try to find a friend, family member, or acquaintance who has faced a similar dilemma and ask their help with finding your way through the impasse.
With the benefit of their personal experience, both good and bad, their advice or suggestions on a course of action could prove invaluable in releasing you from the stagnation of indecision.
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6. Give yourself some space and distance.
Often the paralysis in the face of a problem is not directly related to the issue at all.
It could be that the stresses and pressures of work, family, and life in general have left you no head space or emotional energy to find your way past your mental roadblock.
Yet you know that you can’t dodge the issue, and you get stuck in an eternal loop of worry with no hope of finding a way through the maze of uncertainty.
If you feel this is the case for you, the best solution, if you can possibly achieve it, is to take time out for yourself.
Try to get away from your usual environment, your regular responsibilities, and from your routine.
The change of scene and shift in perspective may bring about the answer to the conundrum that you’ve been unable to find.
7. Take a baby step.
One of the most common reasons for being stuck on the fence is that you want to be sure before you act.
You are reluctant to do anything until you’re 100% certain.
But nothing in life is ever certain. There will always be things you cannot predict; surprises that come out of the blue.
So rather than waiting until you are 100% confident in your decision, do something small that assumes you have already made that decision.
Then see what happens and how you feel about it.
Thinking about moving to a different town? Spend a whole weekend there – staying in a hotel if you have to – to get the lay of the land.
See how it feels to be there. What is the atmosphere like? Are the locals friendly? Does it have all the shops, bars, and cafes you are looking for?
Want to write a children’s book? Just start with chapter one.
It doesn’t have to be the finished article, but by getting things down onto paper, you might find the inspiration you need to write the next chapter, and so on.
8. Don’t get hung up on perfection.
Sometimes we can get stuck because we think whatever we do must be the absolute 100% perfect thing in the circumstances.
Since the perfect solution is always elusive (and sometimes impossible to identify), the end result is no action at all.
An example might be writing a condolence letter.
You agonize over what to write by way of comfort to the bereaved for so long that, in the end, the card doesn’t get sent at all.
Net result: your conscience weighs heavy and no consoling words are received.
So take a baby step, as suggested above, write a few simple words, but don’t expect perfection.
It doesn’t have to be the best, most perfectly eloquent card they receive, but it will be appreciated so much more than silence.
Some action, any action, is always likely to be better than no action at all.
9. Go with your gut.
Never underestimate your instinctive emotional response.
Your gut feelings are guided by your core beliefs and values, which makes them such a powerful guide when you’re seeking the right thing to do.
You may feel bamboozled by the sheer volume of information spinning round your head once you’ve sought advice on how to resolve a thorny situation.
Digest the information, but then let your instinctive gut feeling guide you to the right course of action.
Be sure to listen!
10. Avoid being impulsive.
While you’ll be keen to do something once you’ve decided on a course of action, don’t be too hasty to act on it.
If you can, sleep on it.
This short break will give your mind a chance to focus on something else, while the ideas ferment in the background.
If it still seems like the right thing to do on the other side of a good night’s sleep, then go right ahead.
11. Don’t listen to doubt.
When you’re finally brave enough to act after you’ve thought long and hard on The Right Thing To Do, it’s all too common to have doubts as the effects of your actions unfold.
This is especially true if things don’t turn out the way you had expected.
You can be tortured with should-haves and could-haves, but don’t lose sight of this important fact:
You acted the way you did with only the best intentions and armed only with the knowledge that was available you at the time the decision was made.
With this in mind, try not to waste your mental energy stressing about things which don’t quite turn out the way you’d planned/hoped.
If we were all blessed with 20-20 hindsight, we’d be a super-human race, for sure.
Using some of these suggestions should give you the courage you need to break the stalemate of not knowing what to do and allow you to take action.
That said, this anonymous saying may be the best advice out there on the subject of what to do when you don’t know what to do:
Be decisive. Right or wrong, make a decision. The road of life is paved with flat squirrels who couldn’t make a decision.
Don’t be a squirrel.