How to Overcome Decision Paralysis

It’s a must you still make critical decisions when the situation is uncertain.

By Carole Mahoney

Almost all of us are facing decision paralysis to some extent right now.

As business owners and sales leaders, it may be where, what, and even who to cut to conserve operational costs.

As managers, it could be about how to motivate your team now and get them to focus through their survivors’ guilt of still being on a job when former co-workers, friends, or loved ones no longer have one.

And as sellers, deciding what to do and say to help prospects make a decision that is in their best interest can feel like an hour by hour struggle.

Where Does Decision Paralysis Originate?

Why does decision paralysis seem to strike at times when the one thing we need to do is make intelligent and speedy decisions?

One reason is because uncertainty causes fear, thought distortions, a need for perfection, and anxiety. With too many options and no way to tell which is best, the anxiety of needing to make a choice now without knowing what the future will look like can lead to cognitive overload.

When we feel overwhelmed, many of us often opt to “wait and see what happens”—while binge watching Tiger King on Netflix.

And if you haven’t been through something like decision paralysis before, that lack of exposure or practice making decisions in uncertain times is even more difficult due to what cognitive research calls “case-based reasoning.”

Case-based reasoning basically means solving problems by recalling past experiences or reference points to make what we feel is the right decision. Without any past references to help us, we can gather all the information we need but still not feel confident in our decisions.

The unknown unknowns of what a good future looks like leaves us like a deer in the headlights in the middle of the road—all the while everyone around us is screaming, “Get out of the road!”

Pushing Past Paralysis

So how do we push past the paralysis so we can do something? There are three key components to consider helping counter these cognitive biases. Your mindset about what to do. Confidence in your abilities to make good decisions. Taking action on those decisions.

First is the mindset about what to do. With too many options, we become overwhelmed. In order to overcome this overwhelmed mindset, we need to structure and limit the options we consider. Structure can be as simple as ranking options on a scale.

In addition to limiting and structuring options, we also need to make sure these options resonate with our values and how we identify ourselves. Not only will it make it easier to decide between options, it will make it more likely that we will actually do the thing we decide on.

Once you have some idea on what your options are, it’s time to reinforce your perceived ability to select and follow through on a good decision. How many times have you had an idea on what to do, but your lack of confidence in your ability to make good decisions has stopped you?

Maybe you’ve made mistakes before, like the rest of humanity, and that is stopping you from making a decision now.

To help counter this, look for social proof of your decision. By looking at examples of what others have done, it can reinforce the idea that you are making the right decision.

While making a choice is still difficult, try focusing on the process to decide rather than the decision itself. Study how others made similar decisions. When you observe how others have done it in the past, you will feel more confident in the steps to take yourself.

To prevent further decision fatigue, make your important decisions as early in the day as possible. As our day continues, we tire of the decisions we make, and as a result, put them off. Set a deadline for yourself—not just the day—but the time of day.

Now, if you are a leader facing a longer-term decision, the future is hard to envision right now. Right now, many of you are struggling with the concept of revenue growth when you are faced with operational cuts and challenges due to our current circumstances.

That’s why visualizing your future state is so important. It can be as simple as asking the question, “When do we want to see growth again?” or “When do we want to be back on track?”

Finally, taking action is the whole point of the decision-making process. Here are a few cognitive strategies to help you and your teams take action.

Cognitive Strategies

Tapping into FOMO (fear of missing out) is a way to tap into our emotions to create a sense of urgency in ourselves and others. Our tendency to loss aversion—the fact that most of us hate to lose more than we love to win—feeds our competitive streak.

You only have to look at what your competition is doing to take over market share to get a sense of urgency. If you were them and knew that you could gain market share by acting first, wouldn’t you do it?

And if that doesn’t work for you, or if your competition is playing the wait-and-see game as well, then make a promise. Make a promise to your team and customers, and by doing so, you will create a sense of social obligation.

Like the person who has a gym buddy is more likely to go to their planned workouts, when you make a promise you are more likely to keep it.

Another way to combat inaction is to reduce the friction needed to take action. Behavioral economist George Loewenstein conducted experiments where he found that when we don’t act in our own best interest, it’s often due to the battle between our emotions and our logic.

In times like these, our emotions can overwhelm us. If that is the case with you, use pre-determined criteria for actions based on objective data and logic. It will prevent you from putting a pause on your own plan of action.


Carole Mahoney, as the founder of Unbound Growth, has coached Harvard Business School Entrepreneurial MBA students on sales and been featured as a top sales coach by Ambition and Sales Hacker. You can contact her directly at www.unboundgrowth.com.