Have you ever gone to the grocery store for pasta sauce and stood in the aisle for 10, 20, or 30 minutes, staring in mounting horror at the walls of glass jars looming in front of you? You thought this was going to be easy – you just need one jar of pasta sauce! – and yet all the options make you feel frozen, anxious and exhausted. If this sounds familiar, you know what decision paralysis feels like.
Few people would argue that having agency over our own decisions isn’t a good thing. Choice gives people a sense of meaning and engagement. But decision paralysis – also known as analysis paralysis and choice paralysis – is the overwhelm caused by having too many options to choose from.
As a therapist for millennials who specializes in anxiety and ADHD, I see my clients burdened by decision paralysis a lot. Decision paralysis rears its ugly head when there are too many choices. It can also pop up when the decision feels too important and there's too much pressure to make the “right” choice. The inability to make a decision causes overanalysis, anxiety, and feelings of shame.
ADHD brains are wired to have difficulty with executive functioning. This is the catch-all name for the parts of the brain that help you understand things such as the concept of time and how to prioritize tasks. The combination of decision paralysis and ADHD means you can have trouble making decisions because you may be more likely to procrastinate. It also means you might struggle with frustration and overwhelm from one task, let alone multiple at once. This further adds to the overwhelm caused by choice paralysis.
Decision paralysis affects people with ADHD more frequently because of their tendency to struggle with overwhelm and procrastination in everyday life. The pressure to make the right decision compounds with procrastination, leading to decision fatigue and feelings of guilt and frustration. And this is damn hard.
Having too many options – or needing to make too many decisions – can lead to exhaustion, anxiety, and mental overload. Eventually, having to make the simplest of decisions can feel like having to leap over a huge hurdle. This is called decision fatigue, and it’s the cumulative effect of too much decision paralysis.
Decision fatigue can cause making a decision to feel downright impossible. How could you possibly make any good decisions when you’re so tired and overwhelmed? It can also result in passivity when it comes to making decisions or making whatever choice takes the least amount of effort. This can look like defaulting to whatever your friend or partner wants to do on the weekends, even if you don’t really want to do it.
Many people who struggle with choice paralysis spend a lot of time worrying about what other people might think. It’s easy to feel like you’ll be judged for making the “incorrect” choice. And if you’re a perfectionist, this causes extra anxiety and makes the choice even harder.
Perfectionism is strongly linked to anxiety. Many people who have ADHD and anxiety are also perfectionists and people-pleasers. And many of these same people also struggle with decision paralysis. Think about it: if you didn’t care about the judgment of others, would it matter as much which decisions you made? No, it probably wouldn’t. You might still regret decisions sometimes, but the pressure would be off to make the absolute perfect choice. It wouldn't feel as scary.
It can be all too easy to blame, shame, and guilt yourself when you are facing decision paralysis. After all, you know you have to do something, and you know you’re capable of doing it. So you tell yourself to just DO it already, but then the overwhelm creeps in, and you avoid it. It’s a frustrating cycle that seems neverending. You might find yourself berating your indecision, wondering why you can’t just make a relatively simple choice.
But the cycle of overwhelm and avoidance isn’t easy to overcome. Shutting down in response to overwhelm is a protective mechanism in our brains to help us cope with too many stressors at once. And because ADHD brains get more easily overwhelmed by stressors, it makes sense that you’d avoid that overwhelm at all costs.
And because people with ADHD are already more likely to procrastinate, it can make the decision-making process even harder. This is because procrastination is both caused by and causes more overwhelm. And more overwhelm leads to more shutting down.
Your brain needs to feel safe and calm in order to work properly and make good decisions. When you feel overwhelmed with decisions, here are some ways to slow down, feel calmer, and streamline your choices.
Stop and take a break when you’re feeling completely overwhelmed by all the choices. You likely won’t make any good decisions if you’ve reached your tipping point, so go take a break. Eat some food. Do something active outside, like go for a walk. Or lie down for a few minutes. Whatever you do, take some deep breaths and calm your brain down before getting back into decision-making mode.
Take some time to yourself if you can. When you’re trying to make decisions, it isn’t always helpful to be surrounded by other people. Their opinions can bog you down and make you feel even more stressed out about which choice to make. Instead, set aside some alone time and ask yourself what you would really want if nobody else were involved.
Set a timer if it’s a relatively minor decision, like what to wear to a party. When that timer is up, tell yourself you need to have made a choice. Remind yourself that small decisions like these really aren’t all that important regardless of what choice you make. Remember that whatever the outcome, it’s not a huge deal. Practicing quicker decision-making about things that don’t hold much weight can start to help take the pressure off all decisions, big and small.
Batch plan or task batch everyday tasks and activities. Instead of having to make the same decisions over and over again every day, pre-plan some everyday activities ahead of time. Decide what you’ll eat every night for dinner the week ahead, and buy the ingredients in advance. Or plan when you’ll run errands or go to the gym in advance so you don’t have to spend so much brainpower on these choices every single day.
Make lists of pros and cons for bigger decisions, like a career or relationship change. Lists can help you get some of the overwhelm out of your system and onto paper. Remind yourself that there will always be pros and cons to any decision you make, and that’s just part of life. This can help you feel less pressured. Even if list-making doesn’t help you make a decision, it can be a soothing exercise.
Talk to a therapist to work out how to navigate all the moving parts. For example, if you have ADHD, it’s also likely you have anxiety. You may also have a tendency to be a people-pleaser and a perfectionist. These behaviors all factor into decision paralysis and other everyday hardships. It can be a lot to try to manage on your own, and having the support of a knowledgeable therapist can make all the difference.
If you feel like every single decision is a struggle, consider therapy – I can help you work through your challenges and come up with goal-setting strategies to help you find ways to manage your ADHD decision paralysis.
You’ll learn how to overcome procrastination and overwhelm during our work together. We’ll develop coping skills to deal with decision-making and help you step confidently into the world knowing what you’re dealing with and how you can manage it.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.