Stop Overthinking Decisions With These Expert Mind Tricks

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.

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Why All the Mental Labor?

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 toward 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.

Convince Your Brain of a Decision

Overcoming anxiety isn't about telling yourself that bad things won't happen, or that things won't go wrong. 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.

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, and electronics. Which of these items did you buy somewhat impulsively? 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 prized possessions 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, fear of rejection may be getting in your way. In the second, a fear of disappointment could be holding you back. But the reality is, in both scenarios, there's actually a very little downside to taking action.

Try asking yourself, "What do I really have to lose?"

Prioritize To Avoid Delay

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.

Don't Sweat Small Purchases

Another rule I use is: Don't sweat about purchases of $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.

Set a price level or bar that you feel most comfortable with financially. Your bar might be $10 or it may be $50, but the idea is to not overthink spending trivial amounts.

A Quick Review

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.

This essay is adapted from The Healthy Mind Toolkit by Alice Boyes, PhD, a former clinical psychologist turned writer and a frequent blogger for Psychology Today. Her research has been published by the American Psychological Association.

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