Dr. Paul’s 5 antidotes to overthinking your every decision

Does making a decision feel like climbing Mount Everest? Here’s how to stop the overthinker in all of us.

In this time of COVID, families are making difficult decisions, often without much guidance from the experts.

My daughter struggled for weeks trying to decide whether to send her 3-year-old to day camp. She’s a researcher at heart and read every article on the web. School administrators and government officials also grapple with making important community decisions without clear guidelines. These are challenging times.

Yet, it’s not uncommon for adults to face a decision without any guarantees. Should I look for a new job? Should we move to a new neighborhood? Should I buy a new car? Should we have a child now? Life decisions, big and little, are the fare of everyday life.

Human beings are blessed with both a relatively primitive nervous system and a sophisticated brain. Our pre-frontal cortex enables us to think, reflect, imagine, consider and evaluate the potential risks and liabilities of any decision. It also helps us pursue potential opportunities. Our ancient nervous system primes us to react, especially to potential threats. There is a natural bias toward risk detection. Our brain is wired for survival, not for happiness.

Often, we overly rely on thinking as the best way to make a decision. Round and round we go, stewing over lists of pros and cons, internet posts, consumer feedback, consulting friends and relatives, and then repeating the whole process again — and again. Making a decision can feel like climbing Mount Everest, trying to be certain of the best route to the top of the mountain.

We’re evolved to “overthink” everything. (Yes, there are some people who clearly don’t use enough of their cerebral cortex!) The internet throws gasoline on this fire. Everything is reviewed, vetted, evaluated and critiqued by customers. Want to book a hotel room? Read 200 reviews by happy and miserable consumers, all of whom stayed at the same hotel. Almost everything is rated by someone. But then again, how do we know for sure which review is right?

So what are some antidotes to overthinking?

Set a limit for your internet search. The internet is a great tool for learning about anything. But it can also be a sink hole, without a bottom, that can suck you in and swallow you whole. Set a time limit for your search. Then call it a day.

Talk to experienced friends or relatives. It can be helpful, and much less painful, to learn from other people’s experience. But choose your interviewees carefully. Pick individuals without a stake in your decision.

Don’t let fear rule your decision making. We all want things to go our way. We want to stay at a great hotel, eat a wonderful dinner, find our dream job and live in a beautiful home. Overthinking provides us with the illusion of control. If we just consider, evaluate and think enough, everything will work out. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Don’t be afraid of making a mistake. Do I go left or right? If I go right, and I’m unhappy with the result, then I am sure I should have taken the left turn. But really, how do I know if turning left would have been so good? We can’t go back and stay at the runner-up hotel. Don’t let fear stop you from being decisive.

Don’t second guess your decision. Ever have buyer’s remorse? As soon as you make a decision and act on it, you start to think you should have done something else. This is a great recipe for driving yourself crazy!

Life is a learning experience. When I moved to Washington, I carefully vetted a job offer, which I took, and it turned out to be an awful position! But then it led me to a wonderful company — The Everett Clinic, part of Optum and a great job I had for a quarter of a century.

Life is change, filled with new experiences both painful and pleasurable, all of which help us grow and mature into the person we hope to be.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.

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