You Might As Well Do The Thing: How to Make Decisions While Anxious

You Might As Well Do The Thing: How to Make Decisions While Anxious

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Confidence

As a standup comedian who talks a lot about anxiety, I frequently get asked the same question: “how are you SO great?”

But after that, people often ask how anyone with anxiety can possibly do something as terrifying as standup.

For a long time this confused me, too. It’s not like I’m immune to the fear of public speaking. There’ve been plenty of times before gigs when my brain has tortured me with images of failure and humiliation. I’ve often wondered why on earth I do this to myself.

Eventually, though, I stumbled on the answer. (Or, at least, on an answer.)

If I weren’t performing I’d be beating myself up for not doing it.

I’d go to gigs and watch others and think “I could do that. I should be doing that.”

I’d feel guilty at wasting my potential, and it would suck enjoyment out of all other comedy for me.

In other words: if I’m going to suffer either way, I might as well DO the thing.

Once I realized this, it turned out to be a helpful heuristic in many other situations. Choices can become simpler when the emotional cost of not doing something is added into the equation.

Consider this highly scientific graph:

Doing a scary thing might involve a quick spike of ‘suffering’ (by which I mean the inherent anxiety or stress of doing it). But if I then spend every day for the rest of my life regretting not doing it, then the total amount of suffering might well be considerably higher.

(In graph terms, this means the light blue area eventually grows much larger than the area filled by the red spike, as time trundles on and I continue to beat myself up with regret.)

A Sucky Marathon is Better Than No Marathon

This works great for something scary which you can get over with (relatively) quickly, like a public speech or a parachute jump. But what if we’re holding off on doing something massive, like writing a book or becoming a lawyer?

Should we still just do the thing when there’s such a huge time investment?

The truth is that there’s no right answer. What matters isn’t so much which thing we choose to do, but that we choose to do something.

In other words, the only true waste of time is beating ourselves up for not using our time properly. If I spend fifteen minutes every day beating myself up for not getting ‘round to writing a book, then by the time I’m dead, I could have written a whole series. Even if the books were the worst ever written, at least there’d be something to show for all that accumulated time!

The trick is to commit one way or another: either do the thing, or let go of it. Beating myself up and not doing it is the worst of all worlds.

Decide, One Way or Another

If you find yourself suffering due to not doing something, try channelling that ongoing suffering into motivation to act.

Whatever it is—making music, painting, words, performance, cleaning your house, going for morning runs, whatever!—you’ll reap untold* benefits from that time you’re otherwise wasting.

* technically now I’m telling you about them they are ‘told’ benefits, but that doesn’t sound as good so…

Whether you land on “I’m going to DO the thing,” or “I’m going to let go of the thing,” you’ll be better off either way.

Your Turn

Do you waste time suffering over NOT doing something? How do you channel that into something positive? Share with the community in the comments.

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at enhughesiasm.com, his mental health blog, and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

25 Comments

  1. David says:

    Great article, Neil; thank you. Your advice was similar some other helpful advice given to me years ago when I was having difficulty deciding whether to go to grad school–especially because it would take 4 years or so. That advice (from a supervisor at work) was, “Well, that time is going to pass anyway…” In other words, you could be in this exact same state of deliberation 4 years from now if you never decide to go, or to let it go. A great bit of gaining ‘perspective’ from those few words, eh?

    I also wanted to note that I think the blue line in your ‘highly scientific’ chart above should be at a positive angle, indicating that the suffering of regret will (more rapidly) increase for not having taken action that could have avoided most of the pain in the light blue region. (Or at least, it would be that way for me…; just my 2-cents.) Keep up the great work!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks David! I thoroughly agree – thinking “that time will pass anyway” is a very useful metric for figuring out how to spend time. I try to share that advice often so you’ll probably see me squeeze it into more articles in future :D

      And yes, I completely agree with your point about increasing regret on the graph. Naturally this graph is extremely scientific, but I wanted to make the point that (sometimes) even low-level constant suffering will eventually add up to more suffering than just doing the thing. Of course you’re right: if regret is constantly increasing then the equation swings even more in favour of action.

      But the point I wanted to make is stronger still: suffering doesn’t even have to increase for it to be a problem over a long enough period of time :)

      Thanks so much for your thoughts, I appreciate the helpful additions to the post a lot!

    • Arie says:

      Thanks. Just what I needed to hear. Time will pass. I will get my grey hair al little sooner but with a lot more adventures. Just wanted to try , do I have the skills to become a teacher? And yes. I love it. ( After my 50th birthday). Mathematics are really difficult though….
      Thanks David.

  2. Sonia says:

    Wow! this was so great to read right now! lol As for most of today I had been beating myself up for not being motivated or rather inspired to do all or some or one of the things I know I’m creating. I just feel like just chillin’ and just resting and being outside. I was going back and forth in my mind on deciding to either pick something and just do that and or just let it all go. lol either way deciding period is so powerful! its interesting how confusion or indecision is a great distraction. I crack myself up! So the decision- going to read a book outside in my fellow momprenuers backyard with the dogs

    • Neil Hughes says:

      That sounds lovely, Sonia, I hope you enjoyed reading outside :) sometimes that’s part of the creative process. And yes, it’s so much more powerful to just decide – no point going outside to read and not letting yourself enjoy it.

  3. George says:

    Really helpful looking at the spike of the activity/suffering only lasting temporarily – against the time spent with regrets – great article!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Glad you liked it George! I hope your decisions benefit in future, whether you decide to do tricky things or not :)

  4. Jess says:

    So great!! I arrived at a similar answer while crying on my bed watching anime on Netflix because I was so sad and anxious and worried that I was wasting my time. “I should be doing (insert any of my bazillion projects here)instead of being here watching this”. But then I realized I was actually very tired. That is why I was lying in my bed: I was exhausted. I was beating myself up because I actually didn’t make that decision in full awareness so I let the guilt take over.

    So your last title “Decide, One Way or Another” is crucial for me. I can see the difference now. Take charge on my decision to do the thing, rest or do nothing at all. But if I’m doing nothing and I feel that “suffering” creeping up and taking my time then I know I should get up and DO THE THING asap.

    How complex we multipotentialites are. But we can all draw highly scientific graph for everything, right? Love this article <3

    • Neil Hughes says:

      ahh, thanks Jess, I’m so happy it resonated with you. I think it’s a very natural, very human trap to fall into – it’s so easy not to take charge of even little decisions and so we do things like feel needlessly guilty while resting instead of just owning that we’d benefit from a rest. Hope you recognise the trap more easily in future, and enjoy any future necessary netflix anime rest periods :D

  5. Cynthia says:

    This was great! You explained it so simple. It’s as easy as it sounds, do it or forget about it, but do not let this punish you for the rest of your life.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Exactly! This summary is so great I wish I’d put it like that in the article! Thanks for adding it, Cynthia :)

  6. Michelle says:

    This is a great perspective! I struggle with decisions like this all the time, and often the stress of indecision is worse than just doing the thing! I relate to the paralysis by analysis concept as well, but I like the angle in this article regarding the stress and anxiety caused by wondering “what if I had done the thing…” or simply feeling stressed whenever you encounter anything that reminds you of the thing. For me, I made the decision not to go to graduate school 5 years ago after my undergrad, and I still feel pressure today when graduate school is brought up. Part of my reasoning to not go was that the journey is so long, but what I did not weigh heavily enough, as David mentioned, is that the time will pass anyway (faster than I would have thought 5 years ago). I could have already completed graduate school but am instead considering going back to school 5 years later. It has been a beautiful journey, but I completely agree with the spirit of this article- just do the thing or forget about it! However, if you are like me, forgetting about it is no easy task, maybe even impossible. In this case, how do you draw the line so you are not just doing ALL the things? And then how do you truly forget about it? Any thoughts/advice welcome. :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      That’s a great question, Michelle. I honestly think we could write a whole article on it! In short, I think if I catch myself trying to fight with the past, wishing it were different, then I aim to stop as fast as possible: nothing could possibly be more pointless than arguing that the past ought to be different. It wastes the present, and then later I’ll be thinking “I wish I hadn’t spent all that time worrying about the past” and the cycle repeats!

      Sure, maybe you could have finished grad school by now, but I bet many other things happened during these years that you’d have missed out on, and perhaps parallel-universe-you is wondering what life would have been like if you’d never gone to grad school. The only real question is “do I want to go to grad school NOW… or do something else”. And I imagine both answers could lead to great things!

  7. Karen says:

    This is really helpful. I’m an old one, over 50 (*gasp*) – so I have wayyy too much practice at not deciding than some of you. I like the simplicity of “Do the thing or let the thing go.”
    Am I the only one whose indecision even strikes at restaurants? Long ago I decided restaurants would not be allowed to do that to me. I have a hard fast rule that I DO NOT hold up ordering. I DO go last, but I DO decide on something when it’s my turn. And I do this by reminding myself how many times I eat in a year (roughly 1450, if you count a snack a day), and this one meal does not deserve this level of my energy.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Haha, yes, I totally do this at restaurants. In fact, I’ve often noticed that the less important the decision, the more I hesitate over it. Like does it REALLY matter if I eat in this restaurant, or that one? Or order this meal, or another? Like you say, these decisions don’t deserve this amount of energy, and I’m happier if I just pick one and resolve to enjoy it as best I can – beating myself up over ordering the “best possible” meal is a) impossible and b) counterproductive. So yes, I’m totally with you on that, and I love that you recognised the tendency and figured out a strategy to handle it :)

  8. Anna says:

    Thanks for this Neil. Today I wrote a social post about how there is the discomfort which comes from inaction and the discomfort which comes from taking action. We’re in sync ?? Please post one of your stand up vids!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      oooh yay, clearly we are in sync! Would love to see your take on this too :)

      And I don’t post many vids of me doing standup (for now, anyway!), but there is a comedy talk about mental health on YouTube which will give you an idea of my style :)

  9. Kate says:

    I often waste time suffering over NOT doing something. I think a shift occurs only when I realize 1) that I actually am suffering, and 2) that inaction (or avoidance) is not serving me. Inaction doesn’t offer me the relief that comes with emphatically making a choice to let something go.

  10. Joshua Cartwright says:

    Fantastic article with a great little reframe. Thank you

  11. Nicole says:

    wise words Neil!
    You are right with everything you say, but still it is hard to take one way and getting out of this ´not doing anything´ when you have to decide between many options and every could lead in a direction that is interesting for you. I have been at this point for a few years now, because I can´t decide what Job or even education for a Job and career to take (I am 22). I tried to just do
    ´something´that could be interesting or fun ( a study ) but it didn´t work out because it didn´t feel right and felt like it took too much of my freedom. So I am at a point where I don´t know HOW to decide what to do (about education, university and career). I know that doing something is always better than doing nothing, but I want to find something that leads me somewhere I fit in. And I am thinikng about how to decide… doing what is fun? doing what is interesting? being with people who (as much as possible) share my mind or being with the family? earning money just doing some job and building a life with this money or seeking for a job and career that fulfills me?
    It is like everything and nothing could work out and I am getting lost in thinking about it, trying to find something that works now and has potential for my future life.

    Thanks for your article!

  12. Annie says:

    This is so perfectly timed for me! Yes, I’ve totally been through the suffering by NOT acting, and finally made my ‘One Way or the Other’ decision to act. I really just had to ask myself, “Am I okay with waking up 5 years from now with my life pretty much the same as it is now?” (this was with regards to work). The thought was a resounding “ABSOLUTELY NOT” from mind, body, and soul, so I decided to take action. I didn’t really know how to start, so I just followed my inspiration and started!

    It’s really hard to work toward those dreams sometimes, but I just remind myself of what I want my future to look like and keep going.

    Great read! Thank you!

  13. Hanieh says:

    Is it possible to reach all of our favorites?
    Because of my interested in many things,When I want to choose a job
    I feel that I can no longer afford other things I like,
    And it makes me hard to start. But I know I have to pick one.

  14. Maryske says:

    Great advice, Neil – thanks!

    Although I wouldn’t exactly call it anxiety that’s making decision-making difficult for me. Especially in big things, it’s more the (financial) uncertainty that’s daunting enough to hold me back from actually making life-changing decisions. But your advice, “do it or forget about it”, ought to work equally well in any case.

    Considering that I’ve been in the Tribe for over three years now, and have been actively trying (on and off) to get out of teaching for all those years, and been thinking about it for even longer, I think I needed to hear this…

    Now for the other decision: which way to go when there are so many interesting possibilities? Sigh…

Leave a Comment