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Anxiety and decision making

Anxiety can make it very difficult to make a decision. You fret over what to do, what is the best choice, which thing is more important, what if I choose incorrectly?

You need to overcome this to make things happen when you have some mild anxiety.

Here’s an example:

I have a choice here, I can go over the last 20 times I put cheese in his lunch and figure out which one he likes better, how often he didn’t eat any cheese, try to remember if he’s ever expressed a strong preference, etc. Or I can think “he generally likes both of these, he’s 5, and if he’s hungry and feels like cheese he’ll eat the cheese.” At this point, just go with your gut, there’s no downside to choosing wrong. My son won’t get poisoned, etc.

Now extrapolate to projects. What is the risk of doing the wrong thing? Will you get fired? Will your house burn down? Use this as a guide to rationalize how much time you want to spend deciding on something.

How can we apply this?

When we want to work on a project, we first need to list all the things to do. This is a good outlet for your anxiety. There are so many things to do so list them all! Don’t worry about using “a system”, just anything that lets you get this done. Don’t prioritize, just go for completeness. What if you don’t think of everything? Who cares, you won’t. Just write down as much as you can. Get comfortable with this fact - you will make mistakes, you will forget things. This is the root of anxiety. What if! Well, I have news for you: that “what if” fear is going to happen! And variations of it have happened to you every day! Just accept it. I know this is much easier said than done but you need to try to understand this intellectually, and tell it to yourself in a kind way when you start to feel anxiety welling up.

Ok, back to the list. Do you have some time to work on this project? Scan that list and pick “one thing” you can do. The simplest, smallest thing you can do to get something (ANYTHING) done right now. It helps to have identified this one atomic task before you have time to get to work because then you can just do that one thing (and list scanning can happen later). Once you get that one thing done, just work on that project naturally until you need or want to stop. When you have time scan the list again and cross off completed items and add missing items. Try to break the things on your list down to these simple, atomic actions.

For more on building actions for a TODO list, please read David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

So what really happened here:

  1. You managed and channeled you anxiety by list building
  2. You got ahead of the “analysis paralysis” of figuring out what to do next by scanning your list when time allowed and identifying atomic tasks
  3. You are able to quickly dip into your project and grab a single, atomic task that moves your project forward
  4. You can scan your list as time allows to both update it and manage your anxiety around the project

In this way, the project will get done piece by piece, day by day. If you get a lot of time to focus on a project (and you are able to get yourself to do that) the list has lowered the friction of working long term - the course is layed out for you. If you just have a little time, the list gives you quick wins that build confidence and ease doubts about whether you can accomplish this.

Try this technique to get past the wall anxiety puts up between you and your goals.