Overcoming Decision Anxiety

post by TimMartin · 2014-09-11T04:22:47.774Z · score: 14 (17 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 13 comments


  I get pretty anxious about open-ended decisions. I often spend an unacceptable amount of time agonizing over things like what design options to get on a custom suit, or what kind of job I want to pursue, or what apartment I want to live in. Some of these decisions are obviously important ones, with implications for my future happiness. However, in general my sense of anxiety is poorly calibrated with the importance of the decision. This makes life harder than it has to be, and lowers my productivity.
    Future Benefits

I get pretty anxious about open-ended decisions. I often spend an unacceptable amount of time agonizing over things like what design options to get on a custom suit, or what kind of job I want to pursue, or what apartment I want to live in. Some of these decisions are obviously important ones, with implications for my future happiness. However, in general my sense of anxiety is poorly calibrated with the importance of the decision. This makes life harder than it has to be, and lowers my productivity.

I moved apartments recently, and I decided that this would be a good time to address my anxiety about open-ended decisions. My hope is to present some ideas that will be helpful for others with similar anxieties, or to stimulate helpful discussion.



Exposure therapy

One promising way of dealing with decision anxiety is to practice making decisions without worrying about them quite so much. Match your clothes together in a new way, even if you're not 100% sure that you like the resulting outfit. Buy a new set of headphones, even if it isn't the “perfect choice.” Aim for good enough. Remind yourself that life will be okay if your clothes are slightly mismatched for one day.

This is basically exposure therapy – exposing oneself to a slightly aversive stimulus while remaining calm about it. Doing something you're (mildly) afraid to do can have a tremendously positive impact when you try it and realize that it wasn't all that bad. Of course, you can always start small and build up to bolder activities as your anxieties diminish.

For the past several months, I had been practicing this with small decisions. With the move approaching in July, I needed some more tricks for dealing with a bigger, more important decision.

Reasoning with yourself

It helps to think up reasons why your anxieties aren't justified. As in actual, honest-to-goodness reasons that you think are true. Check out this conversation between my System 1 and System 2 that happened just after my roommates and I made a decision on an apartment:

System 1: Oh man, this neighborhood [the old neighborhood] is such a great place to go for walks. It's so scenic and calm. I'm going to miss that. The new neighborhood isn't as pretty.
System 2: Well that's true, but how many walks did we actually take in five years living in the old neighborhood? If I recall correctly, we didn't even take two per year.
System 1: Well, yeah... but...
System 2: So maybe “how good the neighborhood is for taking walks” isn't actually that important to us. At least not to the extent that you're feeling. There were things that we really liked about our old living situation, but taking walks really wasn't one of them.
System 1: Yeah, you may be right...

Of course, this “conversation” took place after the decision had already been made. But making a difficult decision often entails second-guessing oneself, and this too can be a source of great anxiety. As in the above, I find that poking holes in my own anxieties really makes me feel better. I do this by being a good skeptic and turning on my critical thinking skills – only instead of, say, debunking an article on pseudoscience, I'm debunking my own worries about how bad things are going to be. This helps me remain calm.


The last piece of this process is something that should help when making future decisions. I reasoned that if my System 1 feels anxiety about things that aren't very important – if it is, as I said, poorly calibrated – then I perhaps I can re-calibrate it.

Before moving apartments, I decided to make predictions about what aspects of the new living situation would affect my happiness. “How good the neighborhood is for walks” may not be important to me, but surely there are some factors that are important. So I wrote down things that I thought would be good and bad about the new place. I also rated them on how good or bad I thought they would be.

In several months, I plan to go back over that list and compare my predicted feelings to my actual feelings. What was I right about? This will hopefully give my System 1 a strong impetus to re-calibrate, and only feel anxious about aspects of a decision that are strongly correlated with my future happiness.

Future Benefits

I think we each carry in our heads a model of what is possible for us to achieve, and anxiety about the choices we make limits how bold we can be in trying new things. As a result, I think that my attempts to feel less anxiety about decisions will be very valuable to me, and allow me to do things that I couldn't do before. At the same time, I expect that making decisions of all kinds will be a quicker and more pleasant process, which is a great outcome in and of itself.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by lucidian · 2014-09-11T14:10:41.100Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this post! I also spend far too much time worrying about inconsequential decisions, and it wouldn't surprise me if this is a common problem on LessWrong. In some sense, I think that rationality actually puts us at risk for this kind of decision anxiety, because rationality teaches us to look at every situation and ask, "Why am I doing it this way? Is there a different way I could do it that would be better?" By focusing on improving our lives, we end up overthinking our decisions. And we tend to frame these things as optimization problems: not "How can I find a good solution for X?", but "How can I find the best solution for X?" When we frame everything as optimization, the perfect can easily become the enemy of the good. Why? Because suppose you're trying to solve problem X, and you come up with a pretty decent solution, x. If you are constantly asking how to improve things, then you will focus on all the negative aspects of x that make it suboptimal. On the other hand, if you accept that some things just don't need to be optimized, you can learn to be content with what you have; you can focus on the positive aspects of x instead.

I think this is how a lot of us develop decision anxiety, actually. In general, we feel anxiety about a decision when we know it's possible for things to go wrong. The worse the possible consequences, the more anxiety we feel. And the thing is, when we focus on the downsides of our decisions, then we have negative feelings about our decisions. The more negative feelings we have about every decision we make, the more it seems like making a decision is an inherently fraught endeavor. Something in our minds says, "Of course I should feel anxiety when making decisions! Every time I make a decision, the result always feels really bad!"

Based on all of this, I'm trying to remedy my own decision anxiety by focusing on the positive more, and trying to ignore the downsides of decisions that I make. Last weekend, I was also looking for a new apartment. I visited two places, and they both looked great, but each of them had its downsides. One was in the middle of nowhere, so it was really nice and quiet, but very inaccesible. The other was in a town, and was basically perfect in terms of accesibility, but if you stood outside, you could vaguely hear the highway. At first I was pretty stressed about the decision, because I was thinking about the downsides of each apartment. And my friend said to me, "Wow, this is going to be a hard decision." But then I realized that both apartments were really awesome, and I'd be very happy in either of them, so I said, "Actually this is a really easy decision." Even if I accidentally picked the 'wrong' apartment, I would still be very happy there.

But here's the thing: whether I'm happy with my decision will depend on my mindset as I live in the apartment. I ended up picking the accesible apartment where you can hear the highway a little. If I spend everyday thinking "Wow, I hate that highway, I should have chosen the other apartment," then I'll regret my decision (even though the other place would have also had its faults). But if I spend every day thinking "Wow, this apartment is beautiful, and so conveniently located!", then I won't regret my decision at all.

comment by TimMartin · 2014-09-12T11:54:22.611Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's very true re: mindset! There was one time in my life when the decision of where to live was made for me (I used to each English in Japan), and I was placed in a location I never would have picked on my own. But because I didn't have a choice in the matter, I made the best of it, and things worked out pretty well. Telling yourself "this is fine, this is going to work" is necessary sometimes.

comment by JQuinton · 2014-09-12T16:16:41.257Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the military, we had sort of ready-made memes for dealing with decision anxiety. In leadership schools it is taught with more seriousness, but in the field (so to say) we would just refer to it as "making a (fucking!) command decision". Since being in the military you have to be prepared for making a decision in a life or death situation, time is critically important. So it was drilled into us to make any decision if we have significant and/or crippling anxiety about the choices to be made. If a bad decision is made, so what? Suck it up and press on (another military turn of phrase). You can correct for it later.

One vivid example was when I was in charge of the military ceremony for a somewhat well publicized funeral. An airman had been killed in Afghanistan (funerals for active duty members pretty much get the full production for a funeral, like what you would see in some epic war movie). We had a plan for where everyone would be during the funeral, where and how we would carry the casket, etc. Of course, like the greatest plans of mice and, well, you know, the hearse pulled up in a place where we completely did not expect it to. This was no time to sit down patiently and redraw our plan, so I had to make a command decision and change things at the last minute to make sure it looked like we knew what we were doing.

A takeaway from this would be to give yourself a time limit for making a decision. People seem to refuse to make a decision if they have too many options; time should be factored in as a sort of 4th dimension of decision options. Paring down possible options should also include trimming the time limit to make the decision. That might make the decision process easier.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-11-03T04:39:35.372Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You could call those military uniforms 'decision fatigue(s)' ha ha ha

comment by CillianSvendsen · 2014-09-11T17:16:17.099Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting post! A relevant post might be Eliezer's Harder Choices Matter Less.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2014-09-12T02:16:07.996Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You can do exposure therapy for bigger decisions. Spend 2 minutes thinking about the decision, then 2 minutes sitting in the yard, then repeat. It's worked for me.

comment by TimMartin · 2014-09-12T11:58:24.894Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm, interesting. I've just realized that I've never tried this, because once I begin thinking about a difficult decision my tendency is to want to keep going and reach some sort of conclusion. I'm going to try your method next chance I get!

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2014-09-12T23:57:34.757Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

once I begin thinking about a difficult decision my tendency is to want to keep going and reach some sort of conclusion

I think I remember reading that although making decisions causes decision fatigue, researching decisions does not. So you might try spending a lot of time brainstorming pros & cons for your decision, finding quotes from studies, etc. and compile them in to a big document called "guide to making decision X" for your personal use. The idea being to defer the actual stress of making the decision for the future and be able to do research, brainstorming, etc. without using up Stress Points.

comment by TimMartin · 2014-09-14T02:12:40.759Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

...I also had not thought to think of those two things as separate. Lots of good ideas for things to try. Thank you!

comment by Torello · 2014-09-11T22:18:59.286Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Definitely read The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, or watch him speak about the book (the book is better than the talks).

Basic concepts he shares:

-reduce the number of options (only seriously consider two options for your custom suit, not four)

-"satisfice" which means saying "I don't need the best, I need something that is good enough."

-limit the number of decisions where you can change your mind. "I only get one decision where I can reconsider today."

-make blanket rules that prevent you from having to make decisions "I can never cheat on my partner, so I don't even need to agonize over every opportunity to cheat that arises."

comment by buybuydandavis · 2014-09-12T08:15:51.080Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Movie: Mr. Nobody

Nemo age 9: You have to make the right choice. As long as you don't choose, everything remains possible.
Young journalist: Everything you say is contradictory. You can't have been in one place and another at the same time. Of all those lives, which one is the right one?
Nemo Nobody aged 118: Each of these lives is the right one! Every path is the right path. Everything could have been anything else and it would have just as much meaning.
Nemo Nobody aged 118: Before he was unable to make a choice because he didn't know what would happen. Now that he knows what will happen, he is unable to make a choice.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2014-09-12T21:52:30.809Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As long as you don't choose, everything remains possible.

Quite. Most possibilities are terrible, so get on with choosing something better!

comment by hyporational · 2014-09-17T12:01:31.482Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Exposing yourself to situations where indecision causes obvious short term harm should be helpful. Doing nothing is a decision too, and humans have a weird tendency to ignore this. I get anxious about not making decisions.