Change requires action, but what if you’re stuck and don’t know how to move forward? Here are four tools I use to help make forward progress, even when it’s hard to make a decision.
Decision paralysis is real. Sometimes when I have a huge decision looming ahead of me, it’s hard to figure out what to do.
Just the other day, I met with my operations planning team, and we reviewed the pile of work that I had on my plate ahead of me. My lead operations person looked at me and said “Sarah, you have to make some tough decisions here. You no longer have enough bandwidth to complete all of this.”
We had to get real about the time we had, and the projects we could do. The hardest part? Decision making. I’ve written before about why making decisions is so hard. Today I want to share four strategies you can lean on when you feel stuck and don’t know your next move.
Don’t focus on “a perfect outcome.”
It’s rare that you’ll make a perfect decision that results in a crystal perfect outcome. Instead, ask yourself: “Which choice will teach you more?”
Rather than getting caught in the loop of evaluating possible choices and trying to guess what will work, remember that we can’t control the outcomes. If we could, planning and marketing and making things would be far more boring. If I’m stuck, I like to ask:
What will teach me more? Which option will give me more data or information to build a foundation upon?
As you’re evaluating your decision-making process, consider not just the desired outcome, but what position it puts you in for taking the next step, after this one. Often times decisions and next steps are as much as about data and information gathering as they are “getting it right.”
Differentiate between “difficult” and “unpleasant” situations
Phil Libin, the former CEO of Evernote, gave a talk at Stanford called “No Exit Strategy For Your Life’s Work,” and in it, talked about the difference between difficult and unpleasant decisions. Here’s what he said:
“There are decisions that are difficult in that you don’t know what the right answer is, and then there are decisions that are unpleasant in that the consequences of making them are deeply unpleasant. Almost everyone thinks that those two things are the same. In fact, when we say ‘That’s a really hard decision,’ a lot of the time we mean, ‘No it isn’t, it’s easy to see what the right answer is; it’s just really unpleasant.'”
Use your body to help test the decision.
We have wisdom in our gut brains, the “third brain,” that we can tap into. In this physical exercise, first write each possible decision on a piece of paper. Next, put the pieces of paper on the floor in front of you.
For example, if you’re thinking about leaving your job, you could write “Quit,” “Stay,” and “Go to Part Time” on three sheets of paper on the floor.
One by one, step forward and stand on them. Then, watch what your body does in response. Do you feel relief? Do you feel dread? Sometimes our minds can spin too much and rationalize everything. Often there is a subtle “yes” or “no” response from our bodies as a physical response to information.
Reframe your inquiries from passive to active questions
Michelle Florendo, a decision engineer I’ve interviewed for my podcast and blog, reminded me to switch the language of the questions I’m asking from open-ended or passive to more active questions. For example, when I’m running through scenarios in my head, she said, sometimes you can get stuck in the fear of “What will happen if….”
Instead, she recommends shifting the question to “What will I do when…”
By adding yourself as an active participant to the situation, and activating the question around what you will do, you can change from a fear-based eddy to an active strategic mindset. Remember that being stuck is normal at times, but change requires action. Try any of these four strategies to help you move forward, faster. Each of these tools can jolt you out of being stuck, and back into a path of progress.
An earlier version of this post was originally written as a column for Inc.com
I write a newsletter about personal development, psychology, and leadership. Recent essays cover how to make better decisions, designing your schedule and life, rethinking the structure of work to fit a more human body, and the intersection of parenting and work. If you're curious, seeking the spark of new and interesting ideas, and want some groundedness within the flurry of modern life, you will probably enjoy my newsletter. Don't see the form below? Head here to subscribe instead.