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Stuck in Indecision? Depression & the Struggle to Make Decisions

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

The researching and writing of this blog post coincided with my desire to get out into nature and start hiking. The day I went to buy hiking boots I walked into the adventure store, stared at rows upon rows of hiking boots, and became completely overwhelmed. I left the store almost immediately, without boots, and to the disappointment of my future hiking partner. Why can I not make these decisions I wondered?


From the moment we wake up each day we are faced with a never-ending stream of decisions. These range from the simple (“what should I have for breakfast?”), to the more complicated ("should I quit my job?”).


For many people, making decisions can be overwhelming. Indecisiveness is linked to several unpleasant emotions including anxiety, fear, frustration, and sadness. The association between indecision and depression is well established. In fact, indecisiveness is one of the diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder. With more than 300 million people living with depression, that is a lot of people struggling to make decisions.

“Nothing is so exhausting as indecision, and nothing is so futile.”
Bertrand Russell

Decision Strategies


When making decisions, having options can be good for wellbeing. According to Self-Determination Theory, choice supports one of our basic psychological needs: the need for autonomy. That is, the need to control the course of our lives. Intuitively, people like to have choice. The more options we have, the greater chance we have that we can perfectly satisfy our needs and wants.


Psychologists have found that we use different strategies when we make decisions:


Although having excess choice seems like an asset, research actually indicates that maximizing is related to greater symptoms of depression. That is, the more choice we have, the worse off we can feel.


Maximizing involves spending more time and effort to obtain the benefit of selecting the best option available. More typically we end up with so much information that we are overwhelmed, and sometimes, the best option may actually not be much better than those that pass for “good enough”. Maximizing can even be counterproductive when it is impossible to identify the best option. In addition, individuals who maximize are prone to questioning whether their decisions could have been better, which can cause self-blame and regret. Psychologists’ term this form of regret counterfactual thinking: the desire to have changed one’s actions in a past situation in lieu of a potential better outcome. Research indicates that counterfactual thinking is more common in depressed people, as well as younger people. Older adults are actually less likely to search for alternatives when making decisions, which is linked with higher levels of emotional wellbeing.


Rumination


For those of us with depression, indecision is a symptom of the illness. Instead of going with our gut, we are more likely to ruminate in circles. Rumination refers to a general tendency for prolonged and repetitive thought about an experience. By letting a problem replay over and over in your mind you are engaging in ‘rumination’. Sometimes people will ruminate about the problem so much so that they never even make a decision. What’s more, people who ruminate are much more likely to develop problems with depression and anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle.

“We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run over.”
Aneurin Bevan

Struggling with Indecision? These Strategies May Help


1. Don’t waste your energy on decisions that aren’t important to you: There’s a reason why Barak Obama only wore grey or blue suits during his presidency; Steve Jobs wore his signature black turtleneck; and Mark Zuckerberg his trademark grey t-shirt.


“I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make."

— President Barak Obama


According to the American Psychologist and Philosopher William James: “We must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can... The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.”


Making any decision exerts time and energy. Limit the time spent on unimportant decisions.


2. Reduce maximizing: Limit your choices: Generally people employ some sort of criteria in making decisions, and having clear decision criteria may be helpful in limiting choices. For example, a person deciding on their meal at a cafe may set two criteria: The meal must be: 1) nutritious; and 2) cost-effective. The resulting smaller choice set may help you make faster and better quality decisions, and feel more satisfied with the decision made.


3. Consider what is important to you

“You will never be indecisive if you know your purpose.”
Lou Holtz

For the more important decisions in life, the most effective factor in decision-making may be what choice will be the most consistent with your values. That is, what is important to you.

A value is a life direction, an internal compass which guides us throughout life. Values are different to goals, which have an end-point. Values are directions we keep moving in, whereas goals are what we want to achieve along the way. Values are how you want to behave or act on an ongoing basis. Values are what we would like to be remembered for.
-Dr. Russ Harris -The Happiness Trap

Values can be used to guide decisions, and even identify appropriate decision criteria. Even in the simple meal example above, valuing your health may underlie the first decision criteria, while valuing your family (via saving that money to spend on them), may underlie the second criteria.


If you have not considered your values, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) may help. ACT is a form of psychotherapy that helps individuals identify their values, and then use these values to guide their actions. Decisions are important because they help us reach important life goals that are consistent with our values. Don’t know where to start? The attached values worksheet will help.


4. Problem solving: When indecisiveness relates to making a difficult decision, the benefit of a Pros and Cons list cannot be underestimated.


Take these simple steps:

a. Define the problem - clearly, specifically, and positively.

b. Generate at least 2 possible solutions to a problem.

c. Evaluate each possible solution - think about the pros, cons, and counter arguments to any cons.

d. Finally, choose the solution that best suits you, keeping in mind this might be a combination of several possible solutions.


Sometimes making a decision that initially seems overwhelming is actually an opportunity to reflect on what you really want.


5. Reduce rumination with healthy distraction: If you are struggling with indecision, you may be stuck in an unhealthy cycle of rumination. The first step is to notice you are ruminating and realise that it isn’t helpful. The second step is to get your mind off the decision: engage in some kind of activity that fully occupies your mind and prevents your thoughts from drifting back to the decision. Read a book, exercise, watch a movie, talk to a friend. Healthy distraction can effectively break the cycle of rumination when the activity is engaging and positive.


6. Deal with decision regret: According to Decision Justification Theory there are two components of decision regret: 1) comparative evaluation of the outcome and 2) self-blame for making a bad choice.


What does that mean?

-> Don’t search for a better option after you have made a decision.

-> Don’t blame yourself (or anyone else!) once you have made a decision.


But remember, regret, while unpleasant, can help us learn from past mistakes and plan for the future. If we didn’t experience regret, we may be more likely to repeat our past mistakes.


As for me... in the end I asked a salesperson to just show me two different pairs of hiking boots within my price range. The pair I chose have worked out perfectly.


Photo by Mika Matin

What strategies help you make decision? Share them below!

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