A meaningful life is full of decisions. Sometimes life goes smoothly, and other times you get stuck. Really stuck. Life will move forward with or without you, so you know you have to make a choice. Some choices are small, but others may direct your life in unexpected directions.
So what do you do when you don’t know what to do? The answer isn’t the same for everyone, but you can get to a decision via many different paths. Working through indecision can be a challenging experience, especially if you’re facing a big life change. You can find a way to get unstuck, consider your decision, and take action with a calm mind.
1. Be Still and Do Nothing
Indecision can feel like a machine cranking day and night in your head. You may feel frantic or have difficulty focusing. Instead of trying to run away from your decision, just stop. Do nothing.
Stop moving and let all your thoughts and emotions flow past you like a river. Instead of standing in the current, stand on the banks of the river. Detach yourself from your thoughts and feelings, letting them flow by you. This visualization can be a simple form of meditation.
When your mind settles, you may have more clarity or a new insight. You may need to practice finding stillness a few times before you see things more clearly.
2. Put Off the Decision
Decide not to decide right now. If your decision isn't urgent, put it off for a short while. Doing this can be helpful if your situation is changing a lot. You may find it hard to move forward if your foundation is shifting under you.
The caveat with not deciding is that you risk putting it off indefinitely. That, in itself, is a decision. But it’s better to make a choice consciously than out of procrastination. If you decide that now is not the time to take action, then don’t. Set a time in the near future to revisit your situation and see how the picture looks then.
3. Have Someone Decide for You
You might prefer having another person make some decisions for you. If you're willing to go with their choice, giving up the task might lift a weight from your mind. Delegation is common in work teams and business organizations. Leaders often defer to experts or specific individuals to make decisions on their behalf.
In a retail store, a salesperson can help you narrow down choices by asking targeted questions. For major decisions, you might enlist the help of a professional. With your permission, a real estate agent or financial advisor can help you make some choices based on their expert knowledge.
4. Ask for Guidance
When asking for guidance, you don’t delegate the entire decision to someone else. You still make the choice and take action, but you get input from people you trust.
Professional advice can be helpful, especially if your situation involves money or legal issues. Attorneys and financial advisors charge for their services, but this can be money well spent. Or you might feel like a mentor or family member will give you the wisdom you need.
Choose someone who is a good listener and who can capture the big picture. Clarify your goals and explain your problem first. A good mentor or professional often asks more questions to uncover new ideas. Listen closely to their advice and discuss your options until you feel like you are ready to make your move.
5. Do More Research on Your Own
Making a decision could be unwise if you go forward without the right information. Make a list of the things you need and get a plan together. Talk to people, use the Internet, and ask questions of professionals.
Be wary that you don’t end up procrastinating as a result. Diving into information rabbit holes can be a time-waster if you aren’t focused. And if you allow yourself to drift off-track, research can become a distraction as well as a form of escape. So watch yourself and keep your eye on the target. Go after critical information and get back to your decision.
6. Let Go of Perfectionism
Perfectionism has a way of making you feel trapped by even the smallest of decisions. If you have trouble letting go of past failures, you'll pressure yourself into making the right decision every time. While that sounds like a good idea, it's unrealistic. Some decisions seem right at the moment but go wrong unexpectedly. Other times, emotions can steer you into making a choice you wouldn't have made otherwise.
Things happen, and you're a human like everyone else. You can't change the past, but you can loosen its grip on you. Instead of feeling grief over lost opportunities or bad decisions, redefine them as learning experiences. See them as moments where you did the best you could with what you knew. Forgive yourself and know that you'll make mistakes along the way.
7. Focus Your Values
Indecision feels stressful, but it can be a good thing sometimes. It forces you to sit down and get your bearings before making a big change. Check your gut and figure out if what you're doing lines up with your values.
Sit down for a moment and consider what matters the most to you. Where is your bottom line? What do you refuse to compromise? These answers will simplify the way you think about your situation. Build your choice from the bottom up with your core values. Until you do this, the details don’t matter. You'll declutter your mind and make a more sound decision in the end.
8. Sleep on It
Sleep works a little magic on your brain at night. Not only does sleep recharge and prep your brain for another day, but it also gives you a fresh perspective on yesterday's thoughts. That important break interrupts your stream of thoughts and allows your brain to simmer on them.
When you wake up, the facts won't have changed much. But your perspective may shift just a bit as you begin thinking about your situation again. You might forget some of the smaller worries you had yesterday and have different questions today.
Sleeping on it is also a way of putting off your decision for a short time. One night probably won't matter much, but stretch it out for a week and that becomes procrastination.
9. Get a Change of Scenery
Taking a vacation gives you a change of scenery, which gives your mind new and fun things to explore. The same thing can happen when your mind is stuck on a decision. Step into a new environment to refresh and energize your brain.
When you feel mentally stuck on something, your mind will often ruminate over the same details. Your mental biases will take you down the same paths many times. Instead of doing more of that, go to a park or museum. Have lunch at a new restaurant in a part of town you don't go to often. Even a walk in a different area of your neighborhood can wake up your brain.
Stimulate your senses with new surroundings. Your creativity and alertness can improve, giving you new ways to see your situation.
Years of scientific research has shown that exercise boosts your memory and thinking skills. Exercise also improves your mood and your sleep, helping you function well mentally. When you get your blood pumping, physical activity and hard breathing is about all you can focus on. You get a break from the mental whirlwind, endorphins kick in, and the oxygen flow refreshes your body.
So when your mind feels stuck, go for a walk or a run. Pick a short exercise video and sweat it out for several minutes. Just do something fun to get your heart rate up. Your mind will thank you for the boost and you’ll get a fresh perspective on your situation.
11. Breathe and Relax
Stress has a way of tying your brain up in knots. To loosen it up, try relaxing your body first. Just a few minutes of stress-relieving exercises can help you settle your mind.
- Breathing exercises. Inhale for five seconds and exhale for 10 seconds, repeating three to five times or until your muscles feel relaxed and your heart rate is slower.
- Get social. Social interactions help you feel connected and supported. Your situation may not change, but you’ll feel better about yourself as you figure it out.
- Muscle relaxation. Squeeze all your muscles as tight as you can and hold them for 20 seconds, then let go. Do this a few times to release muscle tension.
Calm Your Mind and Move Forward
Getting caught with indecision isn’t pleasant, but it doesn’t have to trap you. When you don’t know what to do, freeing yourself can be a creative experience. The process of getting unstuck may be more important than the decision itself.
Your struggle may not be comfortable, but that’s what adds depth to your life. The meaning you create from it is what makes life unique.
Looking for more advice? Read our guide on how to make an impossible decision.
- “Boost Your Thinking Skills with Exercise.” Harvard Health Publishing, April, 2014, www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/boost-your-thinking-skills-with-exercise
- “Protect Your Brain from Stress.” Harvard Health Publishing, August, 2018, www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/protect-your-brain-from-stress