Let’s face it, having many choices is stressful. Yes, we appreciate the flexibility, opportunity and ability to self-direct – and yet each choice can take us down a slightly different path in life. Now, if it is just about choosing which cereal to purchase, the stress load may not be so great, (unless – you have dietary requirements or preferences, then it becomes a search)
Okay, so that is a low level choice situation. Now what if it is a larger one, such as: Where to live? Where to work? How to invest? Relationships? Fear of making the “wrong” decision can keep us stuck in one place. Indecisiveness comes from “caring too much,” about too many things, but it gets in the way of happiness and completing a goal.
Let’s take a quick look at the brain-based reasons for the shut down and how to unlock and move forward toward goals and flourishing in life.
Without going into details: the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) is responsible for goal-directed behavior. The Limbic System regulates emotions. They are linked in the brain.
When every decision feels wrong, it is the Limbic System overwhelming the PFC. Intentional, goal-directed decisions help to rebalance frontal-limbic connections. Indecision is a decision. Having a specific goal allows the PFC to organize actions. If they are poorly defined, it is difficult for the brain to determine if they have been achieved, resulting in less dopamine (a motivation-reward neurotransmitter) release. Once a decision is made, the PFC organizes actions to achieve that goal. It changes sensory awareness in the brain and thereby affects perceptions. The brain begins looking for something in particular. Making a decision helps ignore irrelevant distractions and focus on the goal (When the brain focuses on irrelevancies, it loses processing power for things that are important). Decision making creates perceived control, reduces worry and anxiety. Each active step toward the goal, impacts the brain. Dopamine is released and supports the continued process of moving forward.
So what to do:
1. Self-Reflection – Take quiet time to discover what is most important for you. This can be in the form of meditation, prayer, journaling, gardening or walking with focus, expressive arts, focused breath-work, chanting or singing, and paying attention to thoughts and dreams in early morning hours.
2. Create goals that are positive, concrete and specific – Decide for something positive, verses a negative view against something you don’t want.
3. Write in down “as the camera sees it”. A feeling is not concrete. Describe the specifics that create that feeling, considering the sensory systems. As example, wanting a “comfortable home” is vague. Describing the color of couches, a warm fire place, the smell of a healthy meal in the kitchen creates the concrete image for the brain to seek out and acknowledge with dopamine reward when clearly achieved.
4. Create a vision board – Paste together a collage of images, colors, words that project your aspirations and wishes.
5. Make a “good enough” decision -- Trying for “the best” decision brings too much emotion into the process. “Good enough” activates more PFC, which helps one feel more in control.
6. Act -- A decision without action is just a thought. It requires action to have an impact on your brain. Take a step in that direction, even if it is a small one.
7. Keep focused – Continue with the self-reflection to stay on track with single-pointed focus. Success is about persisting toward a goal, even if the journey is not a straight road.
Success does not lie in the results, but in the efforts. Being the best is not so important. Doing the best is what matters. Actively pursuing a goal makes it more rewarding -- verses simply receiving or acting on impulse, habit or external direction. Research shows that deciding and doing so is more rewarding then someone handing it to you.
People are at their best when working toward a meaningful goal that they believe is achievable. We are happiest when we decide to pursue a particular goal and achieve it. It facilitates a life of mental wellness with purpose, efficacy and optimism, which is key to flourishing and living well.
- Lorelei Woerner, OTR/L, C-IAYT