Time off from my busy social calendar was going to be an opportunity. Maybe I wouldn’t write “King Lear” but I could get plenty done: Finish an abandoned writing project, mail letters to my friends, rearrange my furniture, keep up with the household chores, finally watch “The Sopranos” — I could do it all!
Or so I thought, as my bullet-point lists stared back at me, uncompleted. I kept finding more things to add to them. And as my lists kept growing, so did my anxiety. Even things that seemed simple, like putting away laundry, got to be too much. No one else was keeping me accountable, and I was overwhelmed with all my options.
Besides the exhaustion from living day to day in a pandemic, I realized I was struggling with deciding what to do first.
Each item on my list seemed equally important: Should I go for a walk while it’s still nice outside or mop the kitchen floor? Or should I start making dinner before mopping the floor and then go for a walk? But if I’m video-chatting with a friend later, I might not have time for a walk at all.
A to-do list can seem like a simple organizational tool, but to certain kinds of listmakers — me — it can become a daunting challenge, even more so with a global pandemic outside our doors. I was spending so much more time at home, yet I still felt as if I wasn’t getting anything done. Focusing became more difficult than usual.
This cycling isn’t new for me, and it turns out I’m in good company. To-do-list overwhelm can derail the best-intended plans. These lists are ours alone, yet there can still be a silent shame when every line isn’t completed and crossed off.
I didn’t know for a long time that there is a term for this feeling: decision paralysis. Also known as analysis paralysis or indecision paralysis, it’s the inability to decide between several options. In other words, it leaves you feeling stuck.
At the heart of decision paralysis is a deficiency in executive functioning, not knowing how to properly sequence tasks, creating an overload of information. Everyone can have moments of decision paralysis, but this is often found in people who have challenges such as autism or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Decision paralysis can make everyday life pretty difficult and can manifest in ways that might baffle others. Trying to decide among a dozen types of peanut butter might seem simple to some because they just grab a jar and go. For other people, the pressure to make a decision from numerous options is compounded by the pressure to decide quickly, trying to get out of the store as soon as possible. I have ADHD, so I know all too well how buying a simple jar of peanut butter or a box of cereal can be surprisingly stressful.
We don’t want to pick up the wrong one. It might seem silly because it’s a jar of peanut butter and, really, who cares? But trust me, if you’re like me, you can stand there for a while making sure you get the best jar. It’s not a pleasant experience.
I spoke with Marla Cummins, an ADHD coach and productivity consultant who has written on this subject. I asked Cummins about the problem I was facing with listmaking and she stressed that it’s important to recognize the context related to making a specific decision. More thinking isn’t always better; sometimes it’s okay to just trust my intuition.
Cummins recommended the book “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” by Barry Schwartz as a good resource for understanding this process. One of the issues is having seemingly endless options, especially in the black hole of the Internet, which brings forth my fear of making the wrong choice. Cummins suggests giving myself a time limit and sticking to it, because procrastination can masquerade as thorough research.
“With the Internet, it’s great and it’s the bane of our existence,” she said. “It’s too much to digest. It’s really important to put some boundaries and give yourself a deadline.”
Decision paralysis doesn’t involve only small, everyday choices. It can encompass the larger, life-changing choices that we’re all required to make, like buying a car or switching careers. Feeling overwhelmed can lead to more procrastination, as I know too well. When it comes to these big decisions, Cummins suggested limiting research by narrowing down the number of reputable sources you rely on, and thereby decreasing extended decision-making time.
Writing in a journal can be helpful also because it can put at bay some of the outside stressors that complicate our decisions. Cummins recommends journaling as a way to organize thoughts and see them from a different perspective. It can help people get out of their own heads.
“You don’t want to stay in your head,” she said. “It’s a really busy place.”
Looking back on the past few months, I see my big mistake was assuming I would be productive when my daily routine turned upside down. I was embarrassed to admit that reading and writing were difficult because I was having trouble focusing. Those high expectations were a source of unnecessary pain. I had to learn to practice self-compassion even if all I could do that day was just survive.
“Having unrealistic expectations is causing a lot of suffering for people,” Cummins said. This is particularly true for people with ADHD, who may have learned not to trust their instincts over the years, focusing instead on their shortcomings or past mistakes.
Having a daily gratitude practice can be a big help and something to continue even after the pandemic is over. Feeling grateful means thinking less about regret and focusing more on the good.
“This helps with decision-making so you’re not always focused on what you did wrong,” Cummins said.
On the flip side, to look at decision paralysis from a positive angle, the ability to come up with a lot of ideas and look at an issue from all angles is a strength that comes from this same line of thinking.
“Even the difficulty with making decisions is being able to see all different possibilities,” she said.
It’s taken me a while, but I’ve accepted that making the wrong decision is better than not deciding to do anything at all. Instead of long lists, I am keeping them small, three items at a time, and do the best I can. I like the saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” I don’t have to strive for perfection.
And if something comes up so I can’t finish that list? I can try again tomorrow.
Andrea Laurion is a writer and performer from Pittsburgh.
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