The Anti-Anxiety Mind Trick That Can Help You Stop Overthinking Every Single Decision
It's not easy, but it works.
This essay is adapted from The Healthy Mind Toolkit by Alice Boyes, PhD, a former clinical psychologist turned writer.
If you have anxiety, this will come as no surprise: Anxious people tend to overthink things, even the little stuff—like how to phrase an email to the boss, or what shade of white to paint the kitchen. No matter how minor the decision, we dutifully run through the options, weighing the pros and cons of each. And then after the decision has been made, we’ll ruminate about whether it was in fact the right one.
Why do we put ourselves through all that mental labor? It's because anxious people are highly motivated to make the "right" decisions, keep everyone happy, and avoid the potential for unpleasant emotions like regret, guilt, or doubt. This is actually a strength, provided you channel it towards your most important choices.
But when you're in the habit of overthinking almost every little thing, you can lose sight of the bigger picture. And the pattern tends to get worse with time. The more we overthink, the more we believe overthinking is essential to making smart choices.
So how can you convince your brain otherwise?
Overcoming anxiety isn’t about telling yourself that bad things won't happen, or that things won’t go wrong—because the truth is, adverse experiences happen to everyone from time to time. Instead, it’s more useful to learn that you can cope when your decisions don't turn out perfectly.
One way to do that is to practice making faster decisions. It will likely feel uncomfortable at first, but it's worth trying, because it can help you quickly gain confidence in your capacity to tolerate disappointment and setbacks when things don't turn out the way you hoped. Here are a few tips to help you get started.
Keep track of your wins
As you get more experience making quick decisions, you'll learn they're just as likely to produce great outcomes as the decisions you angst over. In the meantime, try this experiment: Look around your home at some of your favorite possessions (clothing, tools, kitchen gadgets, electronics, etc). Which of these items did you buy somewhat impulsively? And which purchases were made after exhaustive research? What you'll probably discover is that while many beloved items were carefully chosen, you bought just as many on a whim.
Notice your instinct to avoid risk
People who are prone to anxiety tend to avoid even minimal doses of risk. Say you're waffling over whether to send a Facebook friend request to someone you met briefly. Or you're tempted to try a new yoga class but feel hesitant. In the first scenario, a fear of rejection may be getting in your way. In the second, a fear of disappointment could be holding your back. But the reality is, in both scenarios there's actually very little downside to taking action. Try asking yourself, "What do I really have to lose?"
To get the best of Health.com in your inbox, sign up for our newsletter!
Develop some rules of thumb
This is my favorite way to facilitate faster decision-making. One rule of thumb I use for prioritizing: Always do tasks that are worth $100 or more before tasks that are worth less. I apply this principle to both work and personal tasks. For example, if I need to return an item that cost more than $100, I'll make it a priority on my to-do list. This helps me focus on the big picture first, and stops me from spending too much time and energy on the process of prioritizing itself.
Another rule I use: Don't sweat about $10 or less. If I’m in Target holding an item, I might wonder, “Would this be cheaper at Walmart?” Unless it seems plausible that the difference in price would be greater than $10, I'll just go ahead and buy the item. I won’t jump on my phone to comparison shop, and delay a decision over a small amount of money.
You can develop your own set of rules that work for you. They won't always lead to perfect outcomes, and you will mildly regret some of your speedier choices. But you'll soon learn that you can cope with that mild regret, and move on. And without all those small decisions cluttering up your thoughts, you'll have more mental space to devote to the stuff that really matters.
Alice Boyes, PhD, is the author of the The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit, and a frequent blogger for Psychology Today. Her research has been published by the American Psychological Association.