How to reduce anxiety and make better decisions?

Have you ever read ‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers? I thought it was pretty shitty, honestly, but there is this one part that resonates with me:

“(…) what had always caused her anxiety, or stress, or worry, was not any one force, nothing independent and external- it wasn’t danger to herself or the constant calamity of other people and their problems. It was internal: it was subjective: it was not knowing.”

Throughout my life, moments that has caused me most anxiety were usually related to decision-making and not knowing what the better choice would be. Should I… get a divorce? … take this job? … buy this house? … get a degree in this subject? … stay friends with this person? I’m going to admit something here: I am absolutely terrified of making wrong decisions (sometimes I contemplate a menu for 10 minutes, wondering which dish will be best). As my decisions have more impact, the fear of making the wrong decision increases. Sounds familiar?

Avoiding the pain

In a different book, “Love Spell” by Phyllis Curott, I once read this brilliant line:

“There’s no wrong choice. There’s only the choice that will bring you the lessons you need.”

That’s very reassuring. Turns out, if you’re accepting a job that doesn’t align with what you want, that is not a bad decision: it will actually teach you more about who you are or what you’re looking for in your career. Sounds pretty good to me. Except… some lessons are really, really painful. So, yep – we might need them, and it’s good they are there, but if we can learn the lessons beforehand, we can save ourselves a lot of pain. One way to do this is through working with mental models. Here’s how.

Reducing the unknown in 6 steps

Our decisions are usually based on things we know, either on a rational or intuitive level. We decide to “follow our heart” or “do the right thing”. The thing is… your heart might tell you many different things, and the right thing is not always clear. Getting insight into your decision making process and your mental models helps you reduce the unknown and choose consciously, increasing the odds of a good outcome and decreasing anxiety in the process. This might sound very difficult, but the theory is pretty straightforward. Just follow these steps:

  1. Write down what you want: your goals and desires. The trick here is to start from general values and make these more specific. For example, if you’re choosing between several job offers, you obviously don’t write down which offer you prefer – you don’t know that yet. But you can write down what you hope to find in your job: financial security, fulfillment, a work-life balance, etc. In my case, values would be freedom and being able to connect with others. When I was contemplating quitting my job, I translated these into more specific desires: determining my own schedule, meeting many different people, doing different things at once.
    By the way, this is a perfectly fine technique for decisions that are not life-changing, such as choosing a new internet provider. Of course, in such scenarios you don’t have to start with such abstract values. Your wishes might include things like ‘stability’ or ‘low costs’.
  2. Now also write down any relevant assumptions you might have about the situation and any related elements or people. This is the actual mental model you’re working with. Formulate your assumptions as “if – then” combinations. With respect to work, statements could be: “If I work fulltime, I won’t have time for my family” or “If a job pays less than X, I won’t be able to afford my rent”. Note that statements can be beliefs, but definitely also things you consider to be facts. Try to limit yourself to writing down the relevant ones: our mental models are incredibly complex. You don’t need to know every single assumption in order to make an informed decision.
  3. Plot possible scenarios on your desires. How well does a scenario match and what consequences are there? In my case, there were three scenarios: quitting my current job and starting my own business, staying in my current job or staying with my current employer but transferring to a new department. Starting my own business would certainly give me lots of freedom, but at the same time my freedom and possibility to meet people would also be reduced if I wouldn’t get any paid work. Staying in my current job (in any department), I would meet lots of people at work, but it would be pretty hard to do spontaneous things and fully determine my own schedule.
  4. Identify knowledge gaps and uncertainties. Now that you have your goals and your possible paths, it’s easier to determine things you don’t know that could influence your decision. For example, a big ‘unknown’ for me was: is it possible for me to work less hours at my employer and have a job on the side? The answer to this question greatly influenced my decision.
  5. Try to fill as many knowledge gaps as possible. Okay, so maybe we can’t predict the future. Still, there are some things we can figure out. In the scenario above, I checked out the company’s policy and asked co-workers about their experiences. Depending on your question, you might want to check for online experiences, talk to the people involved, apply for a trial period or come up with your some other creative means to find answers.
  6. The intuition factor. This one is super important and I’ll be writing a post (or more than one) on this subject separately, but for now I just want to say: if your intuition tells you to make a certain choice, DO NOT IGNORE IT. Instead, try putting your intuition into words. Are there any reasons why you feel it’s the right choice? Investigate them. This last investigation might turn things around.


Just do it!

Now that you’ve done all this, you have lots more information to make a good decision. Do so. There is no guarantee for success, of course: your mental model or your information might turn out wrong after all. The odds of that, however, are much slimmer now that you’ve done your research. And if you’ll make the ‘wrong’ decision after all… I’m not going to lie, it will probably be painfull. At the same time, it will also be a lesson. And it’s lessons like these that enable us to expand our mental models, increasing our chances of success in the future!


2 thoughts on “How to reduce anxiety and make better decisions?

  1. Leuk en goed verhaal! Herbert Simon (nobelprijswinnaar economic en Turing award recipient dus ik neem hem altijd serieus) schreef over intuïtie: “…nothing more and nothing less than recognition”…
    Ik meen in een artikel over besluitvorming bij managers. En ik ben nu halverwege in het boek Thinking fast and slow van Kahneman. Ook zeer relevant in dit verband. Mogelijk ook iets voor jou.

    1. Love the quote, intuition is definitely recognition, on a very fundamental level.
      Thanks for the book tip, too. From what I can find online it’s definitely worth reading, I put it on my list!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *