Choice Paralysis

Choose tea. Simple!

Only joking. But they do say a picture paints a thousand words, and this one captures the struggle. You see, choice paralysis (also known as “analysis paralysis”, but that’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?) is when we have so many options that we struggle to choose any option at all. Or go in for a coffee and come out with a tea.

Choice paralysis is one of the gifts bestowed upon us by executive dysfunction, which also helps us to lose our keys, underestimate how long activities take, miss deadlines, turn up late, have difficulty switching tasks and complete steps of a task in the wrong order…

The thing is, choice paralysis is actually the outcome of making decisions consciously, and for neurodivergent people this can happen a whole lot more than for neurotypical people. And not by choice, it’s like having to mentally tick one of those annoying little “opt in” boxes with every move we make. This is why a lot of autistic people depend on routine – it reduces the amount of brain power needed to get through the day.

What is choice paralysis like in practice?

If we think about commuting to the office, for example, while you might have a preferred spot on the platform (the one that puts you closes to the exit at the station you’re going to, perhaps?), that might be the most thought you put into your journey. When the train pulls in, you plonk yourself in any seat that happens to be empty, and read/sleep/check emails until you get to your stop….

Have a look at this diagram from Camilla Pang’s Royal Society prize-winning “Explaining Humans”. It gives a flavour of what it is like to have to consciously make micro-decisions, which is what some neurodivergent people experience:

The diagram shows that there are a multitude of considerations, from avoiding being near someone with strong perfume, to standing your ground but remembering not to push anyone.

The thing is, this isn’t a one off. Somebody making these decisions has to do this every time they get on a train. Then the same process occurs when choosing what to have for lunch. When drafting an email. Taking a shower. Cooking dinner…

So, what does this mean for neurodivergent people?

Well, firstly your neurodivergent friends and family are working hard, all the time, to get from one end of the day to the other. Before we layer their job, or their childcare responsibilities, or housework, etc. over the top. Secondly, you can really help them by communicating clearly and concisely. This helps to reduce mental energy being wasted on things like misunderstandings about where and when to meet, or who was meant to book the table.

And lastly, everyone loves a cup of tea…!

Want to know more about choice paralysis?

There’s a great YouTube video from “Aspergers from the Inside” describing choice paralysis here.

And this article talks about decision-making taking mental energy

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