Posted on January 28, 2014 by Matt Cowell
“Waiting hurts. Forgetting hurts. But not knowing which decision to take can sometimes be the most painful.” ~ José N. Harris
I’ll bet you know someone who always seems to be decisive. Even when things get tough, they choose a course of action, and come out on top. It isn’t luck that prevails in these situations; decision-making is a learned skill and when it’s fully understood, you can be that person too! Studies show that when our mind is left wandering, it will always go to the negative, leaving us with more questions and reasons why not to make a decision (i.e. we fall into decision paralysis).
In this article, I give 6 steps to overcome decision paralysis, stop procrastinating and make better decisions. But first, we need to understand how the human brain works:
Intelligence is largely the ability to make sensible decisions, including calculating pros and cons. Your brain first assesses value: what is the reward expected as a result of the decision? Next, it calculates the decision value, the net outcome (or the reward minus the cost). When your brain finally makes a prediction of how likely it is that the decision will deliver the reward, it is compared with the actual outcome, giving a prediction error. And here’s the thing: the more complex the problems, the more the emotional areas of the brain are involved.
In brain terms, this would involve surges of the chemical messenger dopamine. Consider that all addictive behaviour involves activation of the dopamine systems, and under decision-making stress, instead of being able to choose our actions, the drug chooses them for us. The reward circuit takes over and our conscious cortical mind becomes a slave to the addictive dopamine.
When your dopamine spurt ends, the rush stops and it feels like something is wrong.
But dopamine is supposed to rise and fall. Imagine your ancestor finding a river full of fish. He’s very excited as he runs back to tell his clan about it. Dopamine creates the energy to run back and the memory to find the spot again. Serotonin might surge when he thinks of the respect he will get from his tribe, and oxytocin might spurt when he thinks of the shared pleasure of feasting. But his dopamine will dip unless he finds an even bigger runoff of fish.
You see, when dopamine dips, your unhappy chemicals start getting your attention. You get that “do something” feeling, and you have to decide what to do.
Eliminating Brain Fog
Many of our lives consist of constant stress, a poor diet, and a lack of exercise and sleep, which leads to what scientists call Exhaustion Syndrome. We know it as burnout, and it takes hold of us when we push through each day and postpone the renewal time our body and brain needs.
As your brain is overloaded, you begin taking on more than you can handle. Repeated interruptions, commands, and conflicting messages activates deep, primitive centres of the brain. Now, distractions, inefficiencies and forgetfulness have you under-performing. It’s not a productivity issue. Your brain is hijacked by incoming demands and you have lost the ability to discern between important and unimportant priorities. The constant interruptions not only slow down the brain, but also raise stress levels. Too much stress drains dopamine from the brain, reducing your power to think reflectively and assimilate new knowledge as well as sapping your creativity.
According to Dr. Manfred Spitzer, “Anxious people, generally speaking, only reproduce what they already know.” Your mind is programmed to turn to threats, unfinished business, failures, and unfulfilled desires when it has nothing more urgent to do…when attention is left free to wander. Without a task to focus our attention on, most of us find ourselves becoming progressively depressed.
So how do we end decision paralysis? Everyone sees obstacles that make prevent them from going forward. The key is to identify those obstacles and not let them overwhelm or consume you. Here’s a just-the-facts process that will help you reach your goals.
How to Make a Decision and Take Action:
Step 1 – Identify the goal
Identify the goal that you want to solve or fix. Clearly articulate that goal on a piece of paper and then set a target date to complete this goal.
Step 2 – Identify the problem
On the same piece of paper, identify the reason that solving this problem is critical to you or to reaching your goal.
Step 3 – Identify additional benefits or outcomes of achieving your goal
Brainstorm and list any additional benefits to you personally if this goal is achieved. This makes your goal a reality to you and to your brain and is the key to reaching goals and overcoming big hurdles.
Step 4 – Identify obstacles
Now, identify EVERY obstacle that you may encounter while trying to reach this goal. Just list them in bullet form on the same sheet of paper.
Step 5 – Identify the strategy for eliminating the obstacles
Right next to the obstacle, list a strategy or tactic you can utilize to eliminate that obstacle or hurdle. It might take a little bit of thought, but don’t skip this part.
Step 6 – Plan to eliminate each obstacle or hurdle
Now, think: who are the people you need to help you? You are ready to develop a step-by-step plan to eliminate every obstacle with target dates.
Changing Your Lifestyle to Perform Better
The following ideas are the best practices that I personally use and you can easily implement to help improve your own personal productivity:
- Since your brain is 80% water, make sure you are staying hydrated by drinking six to eight glasses of water a day.
- Choose to eat low-glycemic carbohydrates that don’t raise your blood sugar, but are high in fibre.
- Think of a rainbow when eating, enjoying foods of many different natural colours. They are filled with anti-oxidants that improve your energy and help keep your brain young.
- Exercise regularly. Not only is this healthy, but it floods the prefrontal cortex with dopamine and allows you to think more clearly.
- Get a good night’s sleep so your brain can process what it has learned and restructure itself around the new ideas. Continued jumbling of your natural day and night rhythm with artificial light, shift work, or keeping going all night long impairs your memory.
- Learn to disconnect from the world. Too much stress can actually deplete your dopamine levels and also release too much cortisol which can turn toxic and damage our bodies.
Don’t focus on the negative, or be afraid to fail. Instead, actively plan a more desirable outcome leading yourself to make faster and better decisions.