Why we find it so hard to make decisions (and how to get better at it)

Can’t make a decision, no matter how trivial? Kate Faithfull-Williams knows all about dithering and discovers that making your mind up is a surprisingly emotional business.

I find the first line of a feature is the hardest to write. It’s the easiest to overthink and – ironically, when writing about decisions – the trickiest to decide how to word. 

It’s not just first lines: decisions in general overwhelm me. They don’t even have to be difficult. Today I lost 20 minutes in Itsu weighing up the benefits of different bento boxes. I regularly overthink small decisions like choosing a nail polish colour – can you beat OPI’s ‘Don’t Know… Beets Me’? Or maybe I should opt for ‘I’m Not Really A Waitress’? And does cycling to meetings makes me look unprofessional?

Decision-making is supposed to be rational. To have lists of pros and cons. To weigh up differing potential outcomes using evidence. I’ve long tried to quash my emotions and attempt to apply logic to decisions, because emotions unmute my interior monologue, causing me to shoot my mouth off in high-stakes situations. My emotions resemble a mushroom cloud that, once released, has the power to destroy me. To describe someone as “emotional” is not complimentary and, when I look at myself, I feel I know why.

It had taken her half an hour to choose that nail polish 

But, says Liz Fosslien, author of new book No Hard Feelings, I’m going about it the wrong way. The latest research shows good decisions rely on examining our emotions. She points to a lab experiment where people who reported feeling the strongest emotions at the moment of decision made the best choices afterwards, even if they didn’t always go with their initial gut feeling. 

“Instead, they considered their emotions, thought hard about which ones might be informative, and then regulated the rest,” she says. “Paying attention to all your feelings allows you to control them, instead of the other way around.”

This new research on decision-making is particularly timely, because thanks to our 24/7 ‘always on’ culture our attention is fractured (meaning more decisions have to be made, and faster) and our emotions have never run so high. Millennials report more stress and anxiety than baby boomers, according to a study of over 4,000 people by the Mental Health Foundation, with urban professional women feeling the full brunt of it because we are, typically, more driven and pulled in more different directions. Decisions have never felt more vital, nor harder to reach.

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Over-thinking your thinking 

Mastering the art of decision-making has the potential to make us happier and more successful. Decisiveness gives us an advantage at work: the higher we scale the career ladder, the more difficult decisions we have to deal with. Decision-making could even be the tool to break the glass ceiling. It’s interesting that the biggest global research fact tank, Pew, found men are perceived as more decisive, even though the same study shows women are believed to be more intelligent.

“Girls are socialised to be compassionate and empathetic, which translates to how we express ideas – ‘I think…’, or, ‘I wonder if…?’” explains Fosslien. “Boys are given a different set of social rules: shouting louder, scuffling in the playground. This aggression spurs them to set forth their opinions definitively – ‘Do this’.”

At first, I can’t help thinking this is a generalisation but when I raise the issue with an alpha male friend, he laughs. “I’m not necessarily right, but I am always definite. You should try it.” 

Do decisions make you break out in a cold sweat? 

OK, I will. But in order to decide about being decisive, I will obviously overthink it first, because picking apart the detail is what I do. In Women Who Think Too Much, psychologist Dr Susan Nolen-Hoeksema explains the human brain (not specifically the female brain) is hardwired for overthinking.

“Each little thought and memory we hold in our brain does not sit there isolated and independent from other thoughts,” she writes. “Instead, they are woven together in intricate networks of associations.” 

But thinking too much is proven to impede our judgement and performance, according to a study published in the Journal Of Neuroscience. Although I will ruminate long and hard selecting the right birthday card, I have an impulse to leap into big life decisions with as much thought as a Jack Russell jumping into a lake. I bought the very first flat I saw (in up-and-coming Brixton, before Brixton up and came; one of the smartest things I’ve done). And I quit a job in a meeting without pausing to check my bank balance or phrase my resignation professionally (my words were “F**k this shit.” It wasn’t the wisest decision, but leaving that job opened doors I didn’t even know existed). So what’s that about?

“Big decisions can feel too overwhelming to seriously think through,” Fosslien explains. I nod sheepishly. Uncertainty makes me panic like a pigeon who’s accidentally walked into a tube carriage. I have to get out of there. 

Overthinking decisions is proven to impede our judgement

The science of decision-making 

Decision-making is like a muscle: the more we build our skills, the easier it is to flex them. But it’s also a muscle that gets tired. Anyone who becomes genuinely stressed picking the perfect restaurant (me) knows decisions expend a lot of mental energy, so save that strength for when it counts. There are a million articles telling you about the strict morning routines of high fliers that eliminate decisions – Mark Zuckerberg’s uniform of grey tees, or Arianna Huffington’s non-negotiable 20 minutes of meditation. 

But it’s also important to buffer the end of your day, having a bedtime routine that runs on autopilot: teeth, face wash, moisturise, book and bed. Why? Our circadian rhythms mean our energy is naturally lower at the beginning and end of the day. 

And – as it ever-so-surprisingly turns out – 3am is not your optimal decision-making time either. Yet it’s the hour I lurch from my slumber in a slick of cold sweat, suddenly aware of the urgency and enormity of choosing between X and Y. Eighty per cent of people report their worries escalate at night, because, according to Nicky Lidbetter, chief executive of the support group Anxiety UK, “Our days are often frantic, and at night when we’re isolated and the pace of activity slows down, we’re forced to confront our thoughts.” It’s an unfortunate catch 22 to be awake, tossing a decision over in your mind yet knowing this is not the right time to solve it.

So what exactly is it that makes making any decision so stressful? Every psychologist I speak to tells me that choosing one option over others means relinquishing control. Control equals safety. So, paradoxically, it feels safer to agonise over a decision, because then I stay in the stressed space I’m familiar with, instead of being thrust into the unknown. It’s hard to make a positive change because our brains are programmed to believe all change is scary.


But here’s a powerful argument for making a decision right now. Social psychologist Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard professor, investigated decisions and the science of happiness. He discovered whatever decision people made, if they committed to it, they were happier for simply having made it.

In his experiment, people who were given an option to change their decision were actually less happy. It is dangerous, he says, to “overrate the difference between one future over another”. In other words, stop dithering and get on with it. Want to know how? Try our helpful six-point guide… 

How to navigate your emotions to make the right decision

1. List what you’re feeling right now

Tired? Hungry? Irritable because your shoes hurt? Deal with those distractions first. “The ability to separate between your feelings in the moment and your emotions about the choice ahead of you will set you up for decision-making success,” says Fosslien.

2. Identify the relevant emotions 

“Relevant emotions also tend to last longer than irrelevant emotions, so if you still feel the same thing a few hours or days later, that’s a good indication it’s a relevant emotion,” adds Fosslien. Research shows these are the key feelings to think through:

  • Anticipation – if one option makes you feel particularly energised and motivated, perhaps it’s worth seriously considering.
  • Anxiety – what is the desire underneath your anxiety? For example, I often feel anxious about giving my clients what they need, but I’ve learnt that the desire driving this anxiety is to get feedback; to keep learning so my career goes upwards. So now I’ll proactively ask clients, ‘What can I do to make this work better?’
  • Regret – try picking the option that will minimise regret, as this reveals your values. I’m deciding whether to put a little bonus into my pension (boring) or splash it on fancy dinners (woo hoo!). I imagine how I’ll feel 20 years from now. The money goes into my pension.

3. Ditch irrelevant emotions

The aim is to regulate or counteract these feelings so you can make your decision with a clear head:

  • Excitement – excitement makes us overly optimistic and impulsive – it’s when we’re likely to take greater risks and think less deeply.
  • Sadness – when we’re sad, we overestimate the chances of something bad happening to us. Counteract the glass half empty feeling with gratitude. List three good things. Right now mine are: a chair in my favourite coffee shop that’s exactly the right height; a perfectly ripe avocado; a daft text from my sister.
  • Anger – anger makes us hot-headed. That’s when I ignore advice, make rash decisions and bash out passive-aggressive emails. My favourite rage-regulator is a boxing class, but when that’s not an option I watch a two-minute YouTube compilation of ticklish kittens, and my anger softens.
  • Stress – “When you are stressed, you usually want to move quickly from, ‘What am I going to do?’ to ‘At least I’m doing something’,” says psychologist Therese Huston, author of How Women Decide. Though it is uncomfortable to sit with my stress rather than do something, I start to think a little more clearly and learn an important lesson: listening to my feelings is not the same as acting on them.

She knew she should have ordered white 

4. Map out your options

If you’re struggling to choose between A and B, take a moment to introduce an additional alternative. 

“When you limit your decision to a binary yes or no, you make the stakes much higher than they might actually be,” says Fosslien. “So if you’ve listed, ‘Stay at my current job’, and ‘Take the new job,’ think about adding, ‘Stay at my job and ask for a promotion’.”

5. Link the relevant emotions to specific options

Notice if a feeling is tied to a single choice, advises Fosslien. “Are you most excited when you imagine yourself picking option A? Are you afraid you’ll regret choosing option C?” 

6. Embrace uncertainty 

You mapped out different scenarios, you made the best choice you possibly could with the information and emotional intelligence you had. But you can’t foresee everything. “We can’t control outcomes,” says cognitive scientist Tom Griffiths, a Princeton professor and author of Algorithms To Live By. “Sometimes the best decision-making processes involve taking a chance.” 

When we’re being rational, he says, we make concessions and don’t feel we must consider all options – we’re more willing to settle for a solution that is pretty good rather than perfect.

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So, what now?

Making good decisions is a constantly evolving process. Professor Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the psychology of decision-making, recommends keeping a decision journal: when you are faced with a choice, write down exactly what you expect to happen and why that scenario makes you feel eager. 

This helps you evaluate if your anticipation was accurate – and gives you feedback on how to treat your emotions when you make future decisions. 

I think I’ve just decided on something.

Images: Getty Images 


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