Navigating Self-Doubt: When to Adjust Plans and When to Trust Yourself

Have you ever found yourself riddled with last-minute doubts about your plans?

Amelia spent two weeks preparing a presentation for her startup's quarterly all-hands meeting. As the founder and CEO, she’d use this presentation to report key metrics to her employees, announce new product features, and rally the team around growth goals for the next quarter. She felt confident about her content while she methodically put the slides together—the data neatly highlighted the company’s progress, and the roadmap seemed ambitious yet achievable.

The morning before the meeting, however, doubt and anxiety crept in unexpectedly.

Looking over her polished slides, Amelia started questioning if the goals she had announced were too bold. Did she properly explain recent dips in engagement metrics? Were two new product launches too much for one quarter?

Is this helpful self-reflection or unproductive self-doubt?

How do you distinguish between helpful self-reflection and unproductive self-doubt? When is it wise to adjust our plans?

A study from Harvard University analyzed how emotional states impacted decision-making in complex scenarios (Lerner et al., 2015). Participants who reported feeling calm during the decision process demonstrated less biased reasoning and were more likely to make choices aligned with their long-term goals.

Neuroimaging studies have also shown increased activation in areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with rational decision-making when people are in a relaxed versus anxious state. The heightened activity suggests greater use of deliberate cognitive processes.

This is great news!

It means the plans we make in a calm state are sound. The decisions we arrive at when we are relaxed are deliberate and rational.

On the other hand, multiple studies link acute stress and high levels of arousal with more dependence on automatic, emotion-driven behaviors rather than intentional decision-making. People experiencing panic often act impulsively rather than evaluating options methodically.

It’s all too common to doubt ourselves when stressed or anxious—don’t change your plans; change your mental state. (I discussed emotional regulation here, here, and in many other articles.)

If, like Amelia, you find yourself doubting and questioning yourself when it comes time to act on your plans, remember this mantra:

I made my plans with care and intent. Now, I will walk forward with courage, not backward into fear.


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  2. Morgado P, Sousa N, Cerqueira JJ. The impact of stress in decision making in the context of uncertainty. J Neurosci Res. 2015 Jun;93(6):839-47. doi: 10.1002/jnr.23521. Epub 2014 Dec 6. PMID: 25483118.
  3. Starcke K, Brand M. Effects of stress on decisions under uncertainty: A meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 2016 Sep;142(9):909-933. doi: 10.1037/bul0000060. Erratum in: Psychol Bull. 2016 Sep;142(9):933. PMID: 27213236.
  4. Pabst S, Brand M, Wolf OT. Stress and decision making: a few minutes make all the difference. Behav Brain Res. 2013 Aug 1;250:39-45. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2013.04.046. Epub 2013 May 1. PMID: 23643690.