By Zvi Weiss, PsyD
Most research estimates that the average person makes around 35,000 decisions a day. What to eat, what to wear, whether to take this or that route to work, whether to say that thought or keep it to ourselves. Some of these we experience as active decisions, while others are so minuscule, we don’t even realize that we are making a decision.
Sometimes, however, decisions can become so big, nebulous, and overwhelming that they morph into a whole separate category known as problems. When problems occur, anxiety is often not far behind. When we become anxious, we can get lost in worry thoughts and feelings, and even lose sight of the problem that is causing our anxiety. We can get distracted by the feeling of anxiety or the enormity of the problem that we face, and forget that underneath this balloon of worry is often simply a decision to be made, not wholly unlike the other 35,000 that we encounter every day.
It follows, then, that when we are feeling anxious, an important approach is to stop and consider ways of problem solving that we typically do automatically when approaching other decisions. Because of the anxious emotions that we’re feeling, this may not be an automatic a process, so we need a way to remember how to tackle decisions in an organized and productive way. A tried-and-tested means of decision-making and problem-solving can be remembered with the word STEPS:
S- Say what the problem is.
We often feel so overwhelmed by the problem that we face that it’s hard to define exactly what the problem is. The first step is to define the problem operationally so that there is a clear explication of what needs to be resolved. Understanding and describing the problem is the first step in finding a resolution.
T –Think of possible solutions
Make a list of all possible solutions – no matter how unlikely, improbable, or unrealistic. List ways in which this problem can be approached, both practically and theoretically. Even if a problem strikes you as a bad idea, jot it down anyway.
E- Evaluate each solution
Consider each solution individually and come up with each one’s pros and cons. Be as honest as you can in evaluating, and don’t hold back from listing even minor reasons why a solution may be a good or bad one.
P- Pick one solution
Once all the possible solutions have been listed and evaluated, pick one of them based on the factors that have been considered. It is rare that one of the solutions will emerge as perfect (if there were an easily-accessed and perfect solution, it likely wouldn’t be such a problem!), and there may need to be some addition brainstorming on how to manage and approach the cons that exist.
S- See if it works!
Apply that solution and see if it works. If it works, great! If it doesn’t, go back to the possible solutions that were listed and evaluated, and chose another. Sometimes we need a few tries to find a solution to a problem or decision that both alleviates our anxiety as well as effectively solves the problem.
Using this system, we can methodically approach many (if not all) of our decisions and problems that fuel our anxious thinking and feeling. In fact, most of the time we use this approach naturally without even noticing that we’re doing it. However, when emotions get in the way of our employing our natural capabilities, using this simple approach may help in getting us unstuck and feeling better.