From the time we wake up until we go to bed, there is one thing we all have to do over and over again. Make decisions. What to eat, what to wear, where to go, what shows to watch. Some of these can be difficult choices and a drag on our brain cells and time. But life requires us to overcome indecision and move on.
The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision - Maimonides
The donkey who couldn’t decide
Here’s a story I heard in my childhood that’s stayed with me through the years. A donkey, who was thirsty and hungry, saw two containers on the horizon. They were equidistant from the donkey but in opposite directions. One contained water, and the other had hay. The donkey stood in the middle, wondering whether to drink or eat first. In the meantime, two other donkeys sped past—one drank the water, and the other ate the hay. The indecisive donkey eventually died from thirst and starvation.
You may be thinking, “That’s not a very happy story. Why traumatize a six-year-old with it?” I guess, that's true. But the story has staying power, as evidenced by my still remembering it. More importantly, it drives home a crucial point.
We need to learn to overcome indecision and move on with life. Pronto.
Say what you want about Big Data, but online search engines are like truth serum. Like Catholics confessing their sins to priests, we, in the digital age, seem to seek penance by admitting our deepest and darkest secrets to internet search engines.
Google search trends can teach us a lot about what’s ailing us as a society. One such hot-button topic appears to be our inability to decide. Apparently, on anything.
Some of us, admittedly, are more indecisive than others. But, as the data behind online search trends reveal, we are collectively a group of ditherers.
We can’t decide on
- What to eat
- What to get
- What shows to watch
- What games to play
- Where to go on vacation
And more shockingly,
- What to do with our lives
So, what has brought on this communal vacillation?
Why decision making can be a struggle
Primarily, our indecision is driven by one of two types of fears:
a) Fear of the consequences of making the wrong decision, aka “what if it comes to bite me later!”
b) Fear of missing out because we could have made a better decision.
Decision-making also means taking accountability—something we all prefer less of. “It’s not my call to make. Just ask the manager (or mom, neighbor, or the dog)” is a copout we use to avoid taking responsibility for our choices.
Another key reason we struggle to decide is when we are faced with what psychologists refer to as the Approach-avoidance conflict, a concept introduced by one of the founders of modern social psychology, Kurt Lewin. This kind of conflict arises when you need to choose between two situations, both of which have positive and negative attributes.
Here’s what approach-avoidance conflict looks like:
- I want to wear high heels to look fashionable, but I also would like to be comfortable.
- The traveling job sounds glamorous and pays well, but I don’t want to be away from family for days on end
- I want to eat that scrumptious dessert but don’t want to mess up my diet.
Such equally appealing/unappealing choices make it difficult for us to overcome indecision. However, the sooner we stop wavering, the better it is for us. Indecisiveness has consequences.
The consequences of indecision
When the 2008 financial crisis hit, investors reacted in one of three ways:
1. The holders
The holders were investors who believed in the buy and hold strategy, and more importantly, did not change their minds when the markets tanked. Not only did they bear their losses and hold on to their portfolios, but they were also the ones who continued to supplement their investments with cheaper stocks. Arguably, this class of investors had deep pockets and could afford to hold on to assets that could potentially have turned into lemons. But they made a decision at the beginning and stuck with it.
Good for them because these holders eventually made the greatest profit and the least losses of all.
2. The panic sellers
The panic sellers were the ones who decided to sell and get out of the market at the first sign of trouble. They didn’t like where the markets were heading, cut their losses, and ran.
Sure, they incurred significant losses in the process, but, at least, they moved on.
3. The dawdlers
The dawdlers were investors who believed they’d hold on to their portfolios forever like the holders. But then they got indecisive when the bad situation got worse. Panic overtook them, and they eventually turned into sellers.
The dawdlers realized, late in the game, they didn’t have the stomach (or, in reality, the means) to weather a downturned market over a long period. They waited to sell when the market bottomed out. Their hemming and hawing proved to be very costly, making this group of investors the worst off in the end.
The examples above are not lessons in investing strategy. Rather they illustrate a key tenet of decision making: We are usually better off when we make quick decisions and act on them swiftly. Not making timely decisions can have substantial opportunity costs.
But, how do we know when we’re simply being cautious versus being indecisive? Here are three key telltale signs to watch out for.
What does indecision look like?
Even if you believe you are a quick decision-maker, see if you can identify with any of these behaviors described below. These are often subtle clues to let us know we’re wavering.
You wait to make decisions because you need even more information.
Decisions cannot be made in a vacuum, and we need data points. Fair enough. But TMI is a thing.
Research is usually what you do when you’re not sure what you’re doing - random internet quote
Watching the weather channel to find out if the wind will be northwesterly or southeasterly is irrelevant if you are simply trying to decide whether you need a jacket before you leave the house.
b. Soliciting too many opinions
Soliciting too many views will only result in more confusion instead of clarity.
The world has too many opinions and not enough solutions
Asking every Tom, Dick, and Harriett who crosses your path for their opinion on what car you should buy isn’t helpful. Ultimately you will be the one driving (and paying) for it.
Putting off the decision to another day/week/month/year is a sure sign that you’re wavering. Procrastination does not make the problem go away. It simply prolongs the agony.
As the proverb goes,
If and When were planted, and Nothing grew.
We can’t forever be stuck at the fork in the road. We have to make choices. Hopefully, sooner rather than later.
Five steps to overcome indecision
1. Flip a coin
I agree it sounds flippant (punny) but hear me out!
One of life’s realities is that we are not as much in control as we’d like to think. Renowned cognitive psychologist Amos Tversky once said,
The big choices we make (in life) are practically random.
It is our natural curiosity and interest that makes us do things rather than us deciding to do something.
In other words, most of the stuff we hem and haw about is truly mundane and irrelevant to our success or happiness in the long run.
So next time you have a mundane decision to make: what to make for dinner, what outfit to wear, or which TV show to watch, simply set a timer for thirty seconds and choose before the timer goes off. Or flip a coin and let destiny decide for you. There are even apps now where you can spin a roulette of sorts to decide which restaurant you should go to.
The methods don’t matter. But pick something. Already. Then live with your choices without questioning them. The opportunity to flip another coin is never too far away.
2. Summon your Eeyore
For a few minutes, be a pessimist and think about the worst thing that could happen should you make the wrong decision. Or, put it to the five-year test. Ask yourself, “Will this (whatever is triggering your impatience) matter five years from now?”
Unless you are trying to decide whom to marry or whether to invest your entire life savings in crypto, the worst-case scenarios are usually not that bad and pretty reversible.
Most of the decisions we make won’t move the needle in terms of our long-term happiness. Acknowledging that will remove fear and embolden you to overcome indecision.
3. Beware of choice overload
It takes superhuman effort to walk into the cereal aisle of a grocery store and not be confused by the umpteen brands of cereal boxes confronting us.
Sheena Iyengar, psychologist and author of The Art of Choosing, published a remarkable study based on what’s popularly known as the jam experiment. Two sets of shoppers were compared. The first set of shoppers sampled jam from a table that had twenty-four different varieties. The second set of shoppers had to choose from a table with six different jam options.
Surprisingly, the researchers found that the shoppers who had fewer choices to make (six) were ten times more likely to buy the product than shoppers given twenty-four options. The experiment showed that choice overload could end up confusing people. More isn’t necessarily better.
You don’t have to evaluate *all* options. Find ways to shortlist your choices right away, and then work on picking the winner.
4. Stop analysis paralysis
The only thing worse than making a bad decision is not deciding at all. Overthinking ends up in analysis-paralysis and can cause us to choke under pressure.
Bad decisions can make good stories
A field cannot be plowed by turning it over in your head.
5. Good vs. good enough
Stop chasing unicorns. Let go of perfectionism. The pursuit of perfection is like chasing a mystical creature that changes its shape and nature every time you believe you’re close to reaching it.
Use the Pareto principle (80-20) rule to overcome indecision. If your choice solves 80% of the requirements, it may be good enough.
Here’s a brain teaser:
There were once three monkeys on a shaky tree branch. One of them made a decision to climb down. How many monkeys are left?
Answer: Three. Yes, one monkey had decided; but still stayed on the branch.
Making decisions is one thing. But acting on it is entirely another.
You don’t need more time in your day. You need to decide - Seth Godin