You make lots of decisions every day. But, because you are on autopilot for at least half of each day, you may not even realize you are making decisions. You’re just acting out of habit. Also, one of your ADHD superpowers may be your ability to make decisions in emergencies. So, whether you are on autopilot or in an emergency, it doesn’t feel hard to make the decision.
Then there are those times when you feel paralyzed trying to decide, like you’re in quicksand. Sometimes it’s because you’re stuck in analysis paralysis, trying to research and consider all aspects of the decision. But not able to make the decision.
Alternatively, you might procrastinate even thinking about the decision even when the lack of a decision keeps you from moving forward. You’re stuck, for sure. But not in analysis paralysis. And you’re frustrated because it is important to you to make the decision, whatever it is.
The other possibility is the discomfort becomes so unbearable you impulsively decide without thinking about the impact. Sometimes this way of decision-making works out. And sometimes not so much, right?
When addressing your decision-making challenges, consider two questions:
- How can I be proactive to minimize the chances of this happening?
- How can I respond in the moment when I inevitably get stuck?
Read on for some suggestions on how to answer these questions.
How Does Your ADHD Contribute to Decision Paralysis?
When you need to gather information and make deliberate decisions you feel paralyzed, right? While some of the reasons, such as fear of failure or missing out, are the same as your neurotypical peers, some reasons are unique to your ADHD challenges
Writing an email is an example of how your ADHD challenges with executive functioning can make a seemingly simple and straightforward task difficult, as illustrated by this example of Olma.
Olma, a tax attorney, was scheduled to meet with her client later in the week. She still had not set the update she promised two weeks ago and now wanted to send it before their conversation. But, when she started writing, the objective of updating her client became a little bit murkier, as she could not decide what to include. She wondered whether she should explain why it took her so long to send the update. Then, when she started thinking about how angry she thought the client might be, she became frustrated with herself. And, once again thought maybe she was not cut out to do this work.
If you also struggle to write emails, you may tell yourself, “It is just an email!” But you may not have considered all of the executive function skills that go into constructing emails, such as:
- identifying the primary objective.
- creating a specific execution plan, including when and how you will write it.
- organizing all the information and ideas.
- reviewing your progress along the way.
- adjusting your plan — prior decisions — based on new information you receive along the way.
- regulating your emotions.
I know that is a lot. And it may seem overwhelming to think about, especially if you find some or all of these skills challenging now. But, though you do not need to use all these steps, you will need to use some, depending on the decision you need to make.
There good news is you can learn executive functioning skills. Really!
Slow Down and Do More Upfront Thinking
The first step is to practice slowing down to think.
No doubt in the right context operating at the speed of light may be one of your ADHD superpowers and serve you well. But, as you know, it can also get in the way of being intentional and how you make decisions. And, while your tendency to think and act quickly may have started because of your racecar ADHD brain, it has also become a habitual way of operating.
Yet you don’t want to entirely get rid of this habit, but rather be able to slow down when it would help you make decisions more easily. Let’s look at how Olma could practice this.
During a weekly review and planning practice she would curate her task list. And, if she notices she is procrastinating making certain decisions, she would use her curiosity to explore what is getting in her way and what would help her make those decisions.
Then a daily review and planning practice would help her remember to follow through on the decisions she made during her weekly review or pivot if need be. This could include the time she set aside to write updates to clients. Otherwise, as you well know, she might forget and allow whatever feels the most urgent to run her day.
At transition points during the day she could also pause and ask herself the questions below to be sure she is being intentional about how she spends her time:
- What am I doing?
- What did I intend to do?
- What is the importance (value) of my original intention?
- If I’m altering my original plan, what is the reason?
Decisions aren’t written in stone. Sometimes when you get new information, information you didn’t have when you made the original decision, it makes sense to alter course. And you certainly want to be adept at being able to do this. So, while you want to remember your intentions, if there’s a compelling reason to change your original decision, you want to be able to pivot.
Externalize Your Thinking to Make Better Decisions
Another aspect of slowing down to make a decision that is often overlooked is setting aside dedicated time and using a specific process to make the decision. If you don’t do this now, it may be because you don’t think of decision-making as a discrete task. Though you know certain decisions need more thought than others, right?
But when you overlook this, you might also procrastinate on tasks dependent on that decision. For example, Olma didn’t decide what to include in the update to her client. And so, no surprise this proved to be a barrier to writing the email with the update.
The key sometimes is to externalize your thinking, rather than allow the ideas to ricochet around in your brain, like a pinball machine by:
- talking to someone to process your ideas. Once you explain your thinking, whether they give you feedback or not, the solution may come to you.
- externalizing your thinking by writing out your thoughts either in prose or in a tool/process like a mind map or pros/cons list.
Sometimes with working memory challenges and an overload of stimuli your ADHD brain is just not the best place to make a decision.
When It Makes Sense to Defer a Decision
Sometimes you may have a hard time deciding because it is just not the right time to make that decision.
For example, though Olma had been considering whether she should apply for positions at other firms, she hadn’t decided. She was frustrated at her indecisiveness! But, after talking it over with a friend, Olma realized that it just was not the right time to decide whether her current firm was right for her or not.
After the conversation, she finally appreciated how the intensity of the case she was working on over the last four months was coloring her feelings about the law firm. So, she decided she would wait until she completed work on the case to make any career decisions.
It didn’t make sense for her to force a decision. In part because of her involvement in the case. But she also thought that, if she could let it simmer on the back burner, the answer might eventually bubble up when she had more space to think. I’m sure you’ve had this experience.
Whatever the reason, if the decision can wait, sometimes the best strategy is to defer it. Of course, you’ll also want to have a reminder in your task list for when you will revisit and make the decision. Otherwise, as you well know, you may procrastinate indefinitely.
Listen to The Wisdom of Your Instinct
Sometimes the flipside of procrastinating is acting impulsively. And, if you worry about making impulsive decisions, you may not listen to and trust your instinct. Maybe because you do not trust your ability to make good decisions. Unfortunately, this is all too common for ADHD adults.
And, if this is true for you, you are missing out on opportunities to honor the wisdom of that inner voice that can guide you based on your values and years of experience. It is that inner voice you hear when your mind is relatively still. The decision feels right. When you are listening to your instinct you might decide to:
- speak up about something without worrying about others’ judgment.
- accept a job without agonizing over the decision.
- pursue a friendship with someone after just meeting them.
When you listen to your intuition, the thoughts will persist, seemingly nagging at you. If you pay attention to these thoughts, they can serve as a helpful guide in making decisions.
Whereas when you’re acting impulsively, you’re not acting from a place of stillness. But likely reacting to a trigger. So, you might impulsively decide to quit a job out of anger or buy a high-ticket item without doing any research because you are sad. Then you later regret the decision because the impulsive thought that compelled you to act impulsively was fleeting.
Be Willing to Make Imperfect Decisions
Letting go of unrealistic expectations, the desire for a perfect outcome, will also make your decision-making easier.
One way to do this is to limit how much research you do before making a decision. After all, no matter how much information you gather, there will always be more. You can never be 100% certain of the outcome of your decision.
And, if the outcome of your decision isn’t the one you want, it may still be true that you made the best decision you could with the information you had at the time. In addition, deciding to be grateful for what you will gain from the decision, rather than focusing on the downside, can help minimize any anticipatory regret and make deciding easier.
For example, if you choose a restaurant and do not like the food, you might regret your restaurant choice. One way to counter this regret is to your gratitude for the time spent with your family or friends. And reminding yourself it’s just one meal.
A weightier example is deciding to accept a job offer. Even though you may have been very thoughtful, the actual job may not turn out to be right for you. That doesn’t mean that you made the wrong decision. Again, you may have made the right decision with the information you had at the time.
But what you didn’t have is a crystal ball. No matter how large or small the decision, you can never know if the results will be what you want.
You Can Break Free of ADHD Decision Paralysis
Can you think of a decision you’re struggling with now? Which of the above steps would you like to try?
Maybe you’ve tried to do it on your own and are still stuck. If that is the case, don’t be afraid to ask for help from a professional, friend, colleague, someone from your network, or a family member. Who might be able to help you?