Too Many Choices Lead to Inaction

Indecision is paralyzing for ADHD Adults

Too many choices lead to ADHD paralysisI took 4 days off for the long July 4 weekend last week.  Four whole days with no obligations (except fireworks!)   Loads of free time to work on my website, organize my office, create videos and produce a webinar.  Or throw in some hobby time with painting.

Four free days of possibilities!

Did I do any of these things?  No, of course not.  Instead, I focused for hours on shopping for a chair, following a tangent that wasn’t even close to my Top 10 Important Things to Do.

If I had treated myself to one of my own ADHD Coaching sessions, I would have coached  myself to narrow down my options and commit each day to ONE specific accomplishment or activity.  Because having too many options of things to do, and open time to do them in, was a sure way to get very little done at all.

With ADD / ADHD, we are quite familiar with the concept of too many options.  In our case, the options are often the many thoughts and “to-do’s” swimming around in our brains.    There are so many things we could do, so many projects we should do,  that it’s hard to decide which is most important, or what to do NOW.

So we often do nothing. 

Less is More

An often-cited study was conducted in 1995 by Professor  Sheena Ivengar, author of  “The Art of Choosing.”     The study found that people were far more likely to buy jam when they were given a sampling of only three flavors, than when they were invited to sample a large assortment of 24.  The conclusion was that, although people find the idea of choice appealing, in reality, too many choices become debilitating.

Further refinement of the study led to the conclusion that a lack of information about the choices was a deciding factor in people’s not taking action.

The dilemma of choice can be even more acute for  ADD / ADHD Adults.  Many of us already have challenges with overwhelm and ambiguity, coupled with a bit of shame and perfectionism.  When there are many possibilities of actions to take, and no clear direction as to which is most urgent or important, our brains freeze up.

(Lots To Do) + (Too Much Unassigned Time) = Unproductivity

The irony is, our tendency is to try to get more time, when we would actually do far better with LESS time and fewer choices.   You have probably proven this over and over to yourself:  you are most productive when right up against the deadline for ONE particular project.   Then it’s clear what must be done right away, and you can finally focus and do it.

So next time you find yourself paralyzed with indecision of what to do, narrow down the choices.  Then pick just one action that will move things forward and get started on it.  Don’t worry about it being the right choice.  Sometimes the easiest action is the best to start with.

By the way, in case you’re wondering about that chair…  I finally snapped out of it on Sunday night and realized I wasn’t ready to buy that chair right away.  But the hours of shopping time weren’t wasted.  I have narrowed down my choices, filed them in Evernote, and might be ready to make a decision in time for the Labor Day sales.

What one decision or action will you take this week?  Please share!



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Categories: Blog,Overwhelmed and Stuck,Productivity,Uncategorized

Author: Bonnie Mincu

Senior Certified ADHD Coach, Founder of "Thrive with ADD," Bonnie has been coaching adults with ADD / ADHD traits since 2001. She has developed numerous training programs to help with the challenges of Adult Attention Deficit Disorder.

34 Responses to "Too Many Choices Lead to Inaction"

  1. Monica Posted on July 10, 2013 at 11:07 am

    Once again! you are soooo right! you just caught me “trying to work” on three different projects, but not one because I just started searching on the web for window coverings for my front door sidelites! it just took me 15mins to find out the name of the narrow windows at each time of our door!!! to finally not buy anything, and deciding we can live for now with what we have… Now I feel guilty because I used two hours of my precious time not working on projects whose deadlines will be soon approaching but too far away, just like you said, to do anything now “urgently”. Thanks again for sharing the light on our challenges, I am going to follow your advice and start on one of those projects, then maybe as a reward I get to search for more blinds this afternoon, maybe I buy some for Labor Day sales too :) THANKS BONNIE!

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on July 10, 2013 at 11:21 am

      Isn’t the web dangerous? Instead of using web search as a quick break, it’s more like QUICKSAND! Once you fall in, you can’t pull out.

  2. Carrie Root Posted on July 10, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    You know I just broached this very issue with my doctor not yesterday and his response was ‘that doesn’t fit within the clinical ADD criteria and more likely a response to societal pressures of having to do more with less assistance’. So, I thank you for validating my concerns and frustrations.
    My one action, is to mindmap all of my tasks, because sometimes just doing that seemingly ‘simple task’ lets me take action on one of rather than having ping-pong ball brain while attempting to do said tasks, which inevitably leads to ping-pong task hopping (don’t worry the dizziness will stop soon :P).

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on July 10, 2013 at 12:32 pm

      Carrie, I love that “ping pong ball brain” expression! Mindmapping is an excellent idea. (For those who want to learn about it, see my download class, “Get Unstuck with Mind-mapping”.

      Your doctor does have a point. The paralysis brought on by too many choices is not only an ADHD phenomenon. But it probably glitches us up more than most folks.

  3. Louise Posted on July 10, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    Yes, I just read that! Wow! I have just on purpose taken a few days off to do my exams (I have about 14 open book ones pending) and thought to get at least 5 of them done in this time. Well, 6 days off and none of them have been done! So maybe after I get back to a normal routine again I will do the few hours in the evening again every day!
    Thanks for the wisdom!

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on July 10, 2013 at 1:30 pm

      Louise, that’s a huge number of exams! Give yourself specific study assignments in time blocks. A checklist of sections to study could help too.

  4. Dona Yasser Posted on July 10, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Story of my life. Even at 50 and fully mindful of this trap, still fall into it way too often. When that does happen, I am reminded that I’ve been coasting too much and need to review ways to structure myself.

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on July 10, 2013 at 1:49 pm

      Structure is critical for me getting things done. I gave myself permission over the holiday weekend to NOT impose structure, but then I wasn’t so happy with the results! :)

  5. Mary Curtis Posted on July 10, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    I forwarded this to a family member who has ADD and their comment was:

    “It was rude of them to bold and italicize text and hyperlink and use all different fonts – trying to read that was an ADD/ADHD person’s nightmare.”

    Maybe the format is interfering with the message.

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on July 10, 2013 at 2:17 pm

      Hmmm. Many people have told me just the opposite — that the colors and bold-face make it easier to skim and pick out the key points. Which just goes to show that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for ADD.

      Anyone want to comment on this? (NOTE: That bold-face there was deliberate!)

      • Lesa S. Posted on July 10, 2013 at 5:37 pm

        I tend to skim everything I read, so I really appreciate the bold and italicized emphasis!

  6. Cindy Callaghan Posted on July 10, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    Working from home makes this an everyday struggle for me. The more time I have, the more I fill it with little things that don’t really contribute to the bigger projects I should be working on. Structure is good, but sometimes I get so detailed in my structuring that it becomes another area of wasted time. My motto follows the KISS principle of keeping it simple and smile! (I never have liked calling myself stupid…)

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on July 10, 2013 at 2:23 pm

      Cindy, try mind-mapping to avoid over-structuring. It makes it quick and easy to think through your plan. (Second time today I find myself talking about mind-mapping as a solution. Perhaps it’s time to offer that mind-mapping course again!)

  7. Skip Posted on July 10, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    Thank you, Bonnie, for your post. You described my life very well…a universe with far too many priorities to achieve. A few years ago, my psychologist suggested I attack this concern with a question….”What is number 1″? When I took time to consider all that was pressing, then decided to work on my #1 before moving on, it brought so much productivity and peace. I am now retired, and serve in a Ministry on a volunteer basis, and find that it is so difficult to accomplish anything…far too much time…far too many things that need to be done…and, unlike during my days of employment….no set schedule or structure…only the expectations of others which constantly present themselves. I find I must simply stop….reviews….pick my number 1 for that moment…and move on. Thanks so much for the validation that I am not the only one who suffers from this issue.

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on July 10, 2013 at 3:14 pm

      It sounds like you found the strategy that works for you. Good going!

      • Skip Posted on July 10, 2013 at 8:44 pm

        Hello Bonnie
        As you know….it is definitely one day at a time; it sounds good, but…there are definitely days………Remember, after many years I am still working on #1…I wonder when I am going to get to #2? Thanks for the encouragement.

    • Pat R Posted on July 10, 2013 at 6:11 pm

      Skip, how did you CHOOSE number 1?

      • Skip Posted on July 10, 2013 at 8:51 pm

        Hello Pat. What was suggested was to keep a list that is not numbered, so that I don’t have to worry about how to choose my A’s, B’s, C’s, etc. Then daily, I simply review the list to see what is the most pressing for the day, and that may become #1. Also, since interruptions and distractions are always willing to confuse things, by having my #1, I can, if necessary, leave off working on #1 for the ’emergencies (that I sense are valid), then go back to working on #1 until it is accomplished. Sounds good, but….I am afraid that I am learning to work it one day at a time, one thing at a time.

        • misery chick Posted on January 25, 2015 at 4:01 pm

          Hi all! LOVE TO BONNIE & EVERYONE! What has really helped me to figure out (BUT ONLY IF/WHEN I CAN REMEMBER IT!) my #1 priority is to ask it in a different way: “What’s the best use of my time right now?” That really helps narrow it down because most of the time I feel pretty overwhelmed and frantic with a ‘ping pong mind (LOVE THAT TERM!) when I look at even a simple uncomplicated list. Fortunately, most of the time that works and after I start one thing it motivates me to keep going. If I get overwhelmed, etc again, I just ask myself again, “What’s the best use of my time RIGHT NOW?” Really helps!

  8. Julie Posted on July 10, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    Love reading what you and others have to say. You are so on target and have better than great suggestions to offer. Now, I just have to motivate myself to do them… :-)

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on July 10, 2013 at 3:27 pm

      Ah, the real solution is to learn what will help you take action even when you’re NOT motivated!

  9. Faye Wilson Posted on July 10, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    I just wanna say I love you all! Group hug! Amazing! I’m a part of an elite club…. I didn’t have to apply… I didn’t have to decide! The decision was made for me at birth.. Yay.. And here I am! I’m SO happy I’m not alone as I recently shared with Bonnie. I’m thankful you all know what I’ve gone and am going through. Certainly not one of my family members, friends, co-workers…. Not even my mother understands. Do you know what it’s like to stare and get lost trying to make a frugal purchase… Only to break out into a sweat… And an hour later the cashier smirks sarcastically and asks if you found everything you needed?! I did! Seemed like a WALL of padlocks… All sizes, qualities, features and of course prices… I didn’t have but a few dollars yet needed the best padlock. I read and studied.. And put that one back and read the next one.. Back and forth until I Literally broke out with tiny beads of perspiration on my forehead… Finally,, worn out from the intensity of thought.. I sighed.. Grabbed one within my budget and was sweetly greeted with the waiting cashier’s snicker… try to explain that one to your non-believers…. Another group hug! Take care Faye

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on July 10, 2013 at 5:11 pm

      Welcome aboard Faye. It sounds like we have a Perfectionist in our midst!

  10. Mary Anne Hahn Posted on July 11, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    OK, Bonnie–you have described me to a T. My one thing this week is to continue to blog daily (I am participating in the Ultimate Blog Challenge). But I am also going to continue to follow yours. I love feeling like I have just found a like minded community!

  11. brenda Posted on July 14, 2013 at 10:09 am

    so glad i found this group.. my head is swimming with to do’s.
    i find it really helps me to have 4 or 5 things picked ahead of
    time or else i spend so much time trying to decide, being
    stuck etc.. ideally having the night before.. my no.1 is going
    to be listing steps to follow through with woman who was
    interested in me doing portrait of her and her kitty.. also going
    to continue on photography business goals.. do an artist date
    (something nourishes my artist self..
    thanks for being there.. feels so great to feel understood..

  12. Lesley Potts Posted on July 15, 2013 at 7:44 pm


    I spoke to my doctor today about this very topic–feeling as if my brain is racing all the time, but I am stuck in neutral, getting nothing done. It helps to hear that many other people share the problem–at least I can stop kicking myself and telling myself “it’s all my own fault.” I am retired and disabled, but I have so much to do around the house and hobbies to pursue as well–if I only could! Your comment about the Internet puts a finger on a very real problem for many people (only perhaps even worse for ADDers). I am literally unable to sit down at my computer, do one or two small tasks, and walk away. I have spent hours and hours online doing basically nothing, while a whole day’s schedule went down the drain–time and time again.

    I recently read an interesting (and frightening) book called The Shallows, which discusses the research on computers and the human brain. It seems that, since the Internet cannot interface with us because it can’t understand us, it creates an interface by “training” us to behave more like computers: pointing and clicking when prompted, choosing from (and being distracted by) multiple links and hypertext filling up even the simplest document, and crowding every screen with ads and other non-essentials, all to create neural pathways that enable us to look, scan, and navigate faster–just like a computer. Unfortunately, this leads to a very shallow (hence the book’s title) gathering of infobits in place of substantial information and in-depth, thought-provoking content. Having worked in public libraries for many years, seeing daily the reactions of computer users of all ages, I am inclined to believe, as this book suggests, that we are being “dumbed down” by the Net and are slowly but surely losing some of our higher cognitive functions, such as the ability to read a book, think deeply, or form new conclusions from in-depth research.

    Our “reward” for jumping through the computer’s hoops on command is a little burst of dopamine–a few seconds of chemical pleasure in the brain. I’ve suspected for years that the Internet is NOT really what’s fascinating people so much, and making techno-addicts of them–we’re simply hooked on a drug. I finally had to install filtering software that blocks many websites and sharply limits my Internet access time. It’s not a perfect solution, but it certainly helps–I’m just as susceptible to this monster as anyone, maybe more so because of ADD!


    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on July 16, 2013 at 9:18 am

      Lesley, thank you for introducing us to the book, The Shallows! That bit of stimulation provided by clicking and web surfing has become an addiction issue all over the world, and is more addictive to ADD Adults than others. That’s another reason why we shouldn’t be looking at lit screens when getting ready to go to sleep; the stimulation keeps us up longer.

  13. CreepingMouse Posted on July 16, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    Hey there, just found your website, and it’s already describing me to a T! I haven’t been clinically diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, but I’ve had a suspicion that I have it since I listened to a radio program about it and it sounded just like what I’ve brushed off as “procrastination”

    I just dealt with the same problem a few days ago, and even now, I’m flipping from tab to tab, before even finishing my comment here! xD Just wanted to say thank you, and I look forward to seeing other advice you have to give! :)

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on July 16, 2013 at 7:39 pm

      I’m glad you found us! You might want to check out my ADD/ADHD Self Test, which I suspect will give you a more definite feeling about whether you fit the ADD profile. And don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE to this blog for more strategies!

  14. Selena @ Look! We're Learning! Posted on October 8, 2014 at 8:09 am

    Yes!!!! This is me to a T. Unfortunately, I have the tendency of overcommitting myself to a dozen projects at once. I end up paralyzed and wasting time online instead. Right before the deadline for each project, I churn out amazing work. It’s a vicious cycle.

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on October 8, 2014 at 10:09 am

      You’re not alone in that sudden productivity at deadline. When the adrenaline kicks in, it allows you to finally break the paralysis and focus.

  15. Melissa Posted on November 24, 2014 at 7:22 pm

    I’m a first time reader of this blog and literally everything I am reading 100% defines who I am and my habits. I’m 27 yrs old and feel like the older I get the worse my ADD gets. I’m not hyperactive but more so can’t get organized, have racing thoughts, procrastinate and always running late. Oh, and I am always overfocused (only when I’m interested in what I’m doing), otherwise I put it off if I’m not fully engaged. Signed up for the webinar tonight and am looking forward to it. It feels good knowing I’m not alone in the struggle to have an organized life!

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on December 4, 2014 at 5:25 pm

      Hey Melissa, welcome aboard! Your actual ADD probably isn’t getting worse, but it may seem worse in certain situations. More responsibilities at work, or being in a different setting, can make a difference. I hope you got to clear lots of clutter in the “Clear Clutter Webinar!”

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