I get pretty anxious about open-ended decisions. I often spend an unacceptable amount of time agonizing over things like what design options to get on a custom suit, or what kind of job I want to pursue, or what apartment I want to live in. Some of these decisions are obviously important ones, with implications for my future happiness. However, in general my sense of anxiety is poorly calibrated with the importance of the decision. This makes life harder than it has to be, and lowers my productivity.
I moved apartments recently, and I decided that this would be a good time to address my anxiety about open-ended decisions. My hope is to present some ideas that will be helpful for others with similar anxieties, or to stimulate helpful discussion.
One promising way of dealing with decision anxiety is to practice making decisions without worrying about them quite so much. Match your clothes together in a new way, even if you're not 100% sure that you like the resulting outfit. Buy a new set of headphones, even if it isn't the “perfect choice.” Aim for good enough. Remind yourself that life will be okay if your clothes are slightly mismatched for one day.
This is basically exposure therapy – exposing oneself to a slightly aversive stimulus while remaining calm about it. Doing something you're (mildly) afraid to do can have a tremendously positive impact when you try it and realize that it wasn't all that bad. Of course, you can always start small and build up to bolder activities as your anxieties diminish.
For the past several months, I had been practicing this with small decisions. With the move approaching in July, I needed some more tricks for dealing with a bigger, more important decision.
Reasoning with yourself
It helps to think up reasons why your anxieties aren't justified. As in actual, honest-to-goodness reasons that you think are true. Check out this conversation between my System 1 and System 2 that happened just after my roommates and I made a decision on an apartment:
System 1: Oh man, this neighborhood [the old neighborhood] is such a great place to go for walks. It's so scenic and calm. I'm going to miss that. The new neighborhood isn't as pretty.
System 2: Well that's true, but how many walks did we actually take in five years living in the old neighborhood? If I recall correctly, we didn't even take two per year.
System 1: Well, yeah... but...
System 2: So maybe “how good the neighborhood is for taking walks” isn't actually that important to us. At least not to the extent that you're feeling. There were things that we really liked about our old living situation, but taking walks really wasn't one of them.
System 1: Yeah, you may be right...
Of course, this “conversation” took place after the decision had already been made. But making a difficult decision often entails second-guessing oneself, and this too can be a source of great anxiety. As in the above, I find that poking holes in my own anxieties really makes me feel better. I do this by being a good skeptic and turning on my critical thinking skills – only instead of, say, debunking an article on pseudoscience, I'm debunking my own worries about how bad things are going to be. This helps me remain calm.
The last piece of this process is something that should help when making future decisions. I reasoned that if my System 1 feels anxiety about things that aren't very important – if it is, as I said, poorly calibrated – then I perhaps I can re-calibrate it.
Before moving apartments, I decided to make predictions about what aspects of the new living situation would affect my happiness. “How good the neighborhood is for walks” may not be important to me, but surely there are some factors that are important. So I wrote down things that I thought would be good and bad about the new place. I also rated them on how good or bad I thought they would be.
In several months, I plan to go back over that list and compare my predicted feelings to my actual feelings. What was I right about? This will hopefully give my System 1 a strong impetus to re-calibrate, and only feel anxious about aspects of a decision that are strongly correlated with my future happiness.
I think we each carry in our heads a model of what is possible for us to achieve, and anxiety about the choices we make limits how bold we can be in trying new things. As a result, I think that my attempts to feel less anxiety about decisions will be very valuable to me, and allow me to do things that I couldn't do before. At the same time, I expect that making decisions of all kinds will be a quicker and more pleasant process, which is a great outcome in and of itself.