Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

5 Ways to Stop Second-Guessing Your Choices (and Driving Yourself Crazy in the Process)

Second-guessing is to confidence what a sugar-coated hammer is to dental care. But, inevitably, you’re probably guilty of it when faced with a career decision—should I do this or that, what’s the right move, what if I make the wrong choice or do the wrong thing?

These spiraling questions and thoughts are problematic and threaten your confidence and professional poise. If, every time you make a decision, you fret about whether you made a mistake, before long, all of your energy is going to be spent nervously overthinking every professional move you make. Rather than coming across as a self-assured leader, you're bound to wear your doubt and personal mistrust on your face, and that's not going to help you get ahead.

Here are five ways for you to stop second-guessing your career choices.

1. Check in With What Matters

Trying to figure out your next move is sometimes like finding yourself in a pitch-black room that’s so dark you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. You don’t know if the room’s empty; you don’t even know where the walls are. On your hands and knees is how you have to feel your way around.

Luckily, you have a built-in system that helps you make suitable decisions. Your values live deep inside of you, and they’re the foundation, cornerstones, and building blocks for who you are. They’re the things in life that matter to you most.

Find them by reflecting on peak moments in your life and career, times when you’ve been firing on all cylinders, and try to assess what it was that made those moments so special. When you know what they are, you can line up a range of choices—quit or stay, apply or don’t, relocate or not, accept or turn down—and then ask yourself, “Which choice best honors my values?”

Finding the course of action that most appropriately honors, expresses, or demonstrates what matters most to you is a great way to cut through the annoying second guessing.

2. Strip Away the Roles

So, what are you? An employee? A manager? An exec? An entrepreneur or a creative? A team member or a new starter? A victim or a joker? The labels and roles we assign ourselves are many, and it’s crazy how many different ones we slip into without realizing it.

Let’s say you find yourself in a boardroom filled with suits. Your reaction to authority, your response to a potentially hostile environment, and the pressure to perform may slip you into a compliant and subservient role, or it might just bring out the rebel in you.

How about when you’re looking for a new job online and browsing the ads and posts? Your reaction to the process of searching, the scarcity or glut of positions, the words in the ads, and the companies themselves might get you thinking “That’s just not me,” “I don’t stand a chance,” “Those guys don’t have a clue,” or maybe “I’ll look again in six weeks.”

The next time you fall into this line of thinking, consider it your chance to disrupt the negativity and do something different. One great way of doing this is to pause, then ask yourself: How would I respond if I were at my best?

3. Acknowledge Uncertainty

Second-guessing is what you do when you don’t know what’s going to happen. You spin narratives about this and that, conjure scenarios where things go great and things go south, and try to reason your way through all the fiction.

It's a response designed to increase your knowledge of the unknown. But while some preparation and legwork are always a good thing, second-guessing your career choices isn’t going to get you very far.

Sometimes you have to decide whether to stick with your current career or switch to something different. You might decide whether to accept an offer that you’re not 100% convinced by. You may decide to hand in your notice when you don’t have something already lined up. Sometimes it’s about choosing to stay in your current town or relocate. Other times, you have to decide whether to apply in the first place.

All of those deliberations are saturated with uncertainty. There’s nothing you can do about it. Your career choice may turn out to be the best thing you ever did, or you may end up quitting after three months, having discovered the company you accepted an offer with is about as trustworthy as Game of Thrones' Lannister family. So make a different kind of decision. Accept that the unknown is part of making career judgments, recognize that you don’t need and can’t have all of the answers, and reassure yourself that whatever you decide, you’ll be OK. Because you will.

4. Make it a Game

We have a real tendency to over-complicate our career decisions. We think that choosing the wrong thing will affect the course of our lives forever more, that if we screw this up, we’re done. That kind of pressure obviously isn’t helpful.

Instead of getting mired down in this mindset, play a game. Whether you enjoy tennis, Pictionary, Pocket Mortys, or Call of Duty, you engage to the best of your ability when you’re playing a game you love. The same can be said about starting a new job or embarking on an unfamiliar project. When you start “playing” you have no way of knowing what the result will be, and while you’re hopeful, the only thing you know for certain is that if you give your all, that’s when you stand the best chance of winning. Practice your serve, get the right shoes, improve your hand-to-eye coordination; do whatever it takes to up your game. At some point, you’ve to get on the pitch and play.

So go have a conversation with someone who’s already a great player. Send that email. Seek a coach, mentor, or support. Run an experiment and see if works. Don’t sweat it if you’re rusty. Learn and move on from any setbacks or failures. Have a quick-fire round and see what decisions you’d make if you had to make a choice right now. Take a shot. Swing away. Enjoy it.

5. Look for the Content, Not the Packaging

Jobs come with a heap of packaging; a title, a salary, a desk, a team, a reputation, a pension, vacation time, perks, and all kinds of other stuff.

The logical part of us looks at the package and weighs the pros and cons. We consider, contrast, and compare the various facets. Of course, you have bills to pay and responsibilities to meet, but if all you’re looking at is the compensation portion of the package, you’ll miss the big picture—and make room for a heap of second-guessing. You’ve got to think of the quality of experience offered by a job.

So, rather than simply looking for a new job that has a “Senior” or “VP” prefix, look for the overall value and richness of a role. What will the job allow you to do? How will the position bring out the best in you? What room is there for you to enjoy it, grow with it, and make a difference?

It’s tough to know some of this ahead of time, but these qualitative elements can be of enormous help in cutting through the second-guessing and making a decision that feels right.

And sometimes, that means you need to stop thinking, analyzing, and procrastinating and just go with your gut.

Photo of confident employee courtesy of Shutterstock.