Indecision

I was listening to a podcast not too long ago, where the host was talking about taking his time to figure out the free engraving he wanted on a certain tech product he was about to buy. He said had they charged him $25, he would have skipped the engraving altogether and that would have made it easy for him to order. But because it was free, he couldn’t make up his mind. He said he had to get away from his desk and run an errand to figure out what he wanted engraved.

I would often decide to make some calls in the evening, but for whatever reason I’d never get around to doing it, despite setting appropriate reminders, which I’d ignore because it wasn’t urgent and could be put off. This wasn’t about me getting anxious about the nature of the calls, but about my tiredness of making those calls towards the end of the day when the last thing I wanted to do was talk on the phone. Making these calls at another time of the day was simply not an option because of the time difference. While I would make those calls sometimes, other times I didn’t. Anyway, this goes to show how we might keep our commitments with others, but not quite with ourselves.

Every now and then, I would put off reviewing items in my office trays (for capture, action support, reading, and reference), which meant not only the trays were far from being current and complete, but more importantly, they didn’t reflect the reality of my situation. Because of this indecision, it would take more of my sub-conscious attention during the week than it deserved.

Here’s another example. I was planning on getting some urgent home repair done not too long ago. Despite the urgency of the situation, I found myself waiting to get a second quote too long and it nearly ended up costing more money than I would have liked to spend on it.

I can share more examples from my life, but I think you get the idea. Do you see the true cost of indecisions in these examples? Can you relate to some from your own life?

Is there something that’s been on your mind for a few months (or even years) but you haven’t finished the thinking about it? When we don’t do the thinking upfront, we keep thinking about it all the time, which undermines our attention and affects are ability to stay in the moment.

Do you ever find yourself putting things off? Do you overthink things? These don’t have to be “big” decisions such as what to do with your life, but they are usually small everyday decisions like what to order for dinner or which movie to watch tonight. We need to make trivial decisions or the important ones, but we all have to make some decisions routinely.

There is always a price we end up paying for indecision in terms of time, money, attention, or some combination thereof. Despite this, we never learn. Putting off decisions can be a source of tremendous friction in our lives.

Here are a couple reasons why I’ve struggled with indecision:

First, we defer thinking required to make a decision so we end up thinking all of the time. When this happens, we keep thinking passively all the time without really thinking things through, which undermines our attention and affects our ability to be in the moment. Because we are always thinking without something without acting on it, it takes more of our attention than it deserves. We keep having the same thoughts that make us feel comfortable with not making a decision.

I wrote in an earlier draft:

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when we have things on our mind. The question is what are we going to do about them. It’s counterproductive to keep thinking about something, unless, of course, we like thinking about it. More often than not, this feeling of overwhelm results from indecision, which leads to inaction. This starts from not capturing what has our attention, let alone making quick decisions about it, and much less doing it.

In this case, mind you, the challenge isn’t in the doing of things necessarily, but in the thinking of them. Thinking is hard work. In fact, any artist who creates and ships routinely knows the primary challenge resides in the thinking and capturing the results of it in the form of writing or what have you.

Regular readers of this weblog will notice I’m behind my publishing schedule this week. The challenge for me for the past few days has been sitting down to do the work because I felt somewhat scattered mentally.

Second, we end up overthinking that we don’t end up making a decision. Suffering from indecision is rooted in fears. Fear of change. Fear of making a mistake. We are afraid of making the wrong choice, so we don’t end up doing anything. We paralyze ourselves. We are so fixated on being perfect that we end up making no progress.

I shared earlier:

We get stuck in analysis paralysis (the perfection trap) because we are unable to make up our minds about what to work on, so we don’t get started at all.

Overthinking can be an addiction and is a sub-optimal use of our mental faculties. It’s easy for some of us to imagine the worst possible outcome of our situation in our head, but it’s never as bad as we think it’s going to be.

I remember taking too much time to launch a project I was working on. Without going into too much detail, the project state wasn’t what I wanted it to be since my goals for it had changed over a period of time. Because I didn’t have the technical skills to make the required changes, I was putting off making the decision of getting started until I found the right organization to help me launch it. After a few weeks of indecision, I decided to launch the project anyway without making any big changes while I tried to iron out the kinks on the side.

Here are some ideas for being more decisive:

With the first approach above, we don’t have to do anything. We just need to finish the thinking required and decide what we want to do about it, then capture the results of that thinking so we can stop thinking about it and move on.

Think about and take in as much information as you can to inform the decision, but then make the decision. Put a deadline on the decision. If you can’t decide something in one day, you can’t decide, period.

Doing something is better than doing nothing. Pick something. Anything. Even if you make the wrong choice, you’ll know it and you can make changes later. Most decisions we take are never final. Nothing most of us will ever do that will alter the course of our civilization.

Start making a list of the (mundane) decisions you make in a given day, week, and month. Use the Explore, Evaluate, and Execute process to figure out which everyday decisions can be eliminated, which can be automated, and the ones that can be delegated. With this approach, you’ll end up with a short list of decisions that only you can make. When you have fewer decisions to make, the quality of those decisions will be much better.

For instance, I know I get a haircut every month, so I don’t have to keep thinking every month about when to visit the barbershop. It’s scheduled in my calendar. I know this sounds so obvious, but I suspect most of us are unclear about making these kinds of everyday mundane decisions.

Another example. At one point, I got tired of having to decide what to eat every day at home. So I created a weekly meal plan. It wasn’t meant to be perfect, but it’s something I could work with for now, while I made minor changes to it week to week. Had I not gotten started, I would be thinking every day what to eat, which involved making far too many decisions than having to decide once a week. Having gotten started with something was key. We forget we can make (most) decisions now and course-correct later.

Spend more time making the big decisions (there are only a handful in our lives) and less time making the small ones.

Instead of beating yourself up for being indecisive, use positive affirmations, “I’m the kind of person who does xyz”. We are who we say we are.

Don’t be afraid to seek outside help. Maybe others can help you think things through because they can take a more objective view of your situation.

It’s a fallacy to think all our decisions will be perfect. Far from it. But the more decisions we can learn to make, the more we increase our chances of being right. That’s just the way it works.

Last, but not least, when we have decided to do something, we must do it. That might mean putting our values ahead of our emotions. Just because we don’t “feel” like doing something isn’t a reason to not do it. By not keeping promises with ourselves, we lower our self-trust.

It’s common to put off decisions about things that seem difficult or challenging. In essence, we are really putting off the thinking required to make those decisions and not the doing itself. When we don’t make decisions, we lower our self-worth in a way.

While it might seem easier to put things off than to deal with them right now, we forget we’ll have to come back to them at some point, but this way, it takes up using more of our attention than warranted.

We often delegate decision making to others because we want to avoid making a difficult decision ourselves. We are afraid of making the wrong choice to avoid future regret.

Let’s not fear making the wrong decisions, but indecision itself. More problems in life will arise from indecision than inaction because we waited too long. Choosing something is almost always better than doing nothing.

We have to think sooner or later about the situations in our lives. We might as well think proactively upfront and decide rather than do something at the last minute reactively.

What decisions have you been putting off?

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