How To Make A Decision When You Are Afraid of Making The Wrong One
I couldn’t decide what to write about yesterday.
I had a lot of ideas. But I wanted to pick the right topic — something interesting and relevant.
As I was staring at my screen, a friend who was visiting from out of town stopped by to say hello. We were chatting, and she mentioned that her next stop was to go to a certain store to look at organic mattresses. Hadn’t she been to that store looking at mattresses last year when she came to town? Yes, she said. But she still hadn’t picked the perfect one.
Later that day, my husband got a text from a close friend. He is also coming to visit in a few weeks. He and his wife have been trying to decide for 3 years where they want to live. He is from the West Coast and wants to return. She is from the Northeast and wants to live close to her family. So, for years they have lived in a location that neither one likes. Because they can’t make a decision.
I realized that decisions are hard for all of us.
So why is it taking so long for us to pull the trigger?
Here is one thing that I think is going on.
You Think One Decision Is The Perfect One
When I first thought about indecision, I thought it might be procrastination. But that doesn’t exactly fit the bill. Procrastination is:
The action of delaying or postponing something.
While that is technically true about indecision, I don’t think it tells the whole story.
I don’t think indecisiveness is only about putting off a task because it is boring or we get distracted.
We put off making decisions because we are obsessed with making the perfect one.
What’s more, the perfect choice isn’t even the one that will make us the happiest. Its the choice that will make us least filled with regret.
We get so caught up in what will happen if we make the “wrong” choice. That all decisions are black and white, permanent. And the idea that there is one choice, and one alone, that will not cause regret. One decision that won’t make you beat yourself up for days afterward.
For example, there is one topic that is the perfect one to write about. If only I spent enough time making that choice.
Or, there is only one mattress that will be both comfortable and affordable.
We even get the idea that previous decisions that we made did not turn out as they were “supposed” to. And that paralyzes us even further.
Gripped in the uncertainty of the outcome, we are filled with worry.
But taking a step back, can we all agree- there is never one, perfect choice? If there was one perfect choice, one that rose above the rest, wouldn’t it be a little more obvious?
So what framework can we use to get past this obsession with the perfect choice?
Ask yourself — how big of a decision is this?
If you struggle to make decisions, it can be difficult to make any decision, big or small. Deciding on a mattress can be as hard as deciding on a move across country.
But some decisions need more input that others. It can help to think first about how big each decision is.
Does it matter what I write about today? Writing about the new highlighter that I purchased might be boring. But of the relevant topics I have in my head, does it matter which one I pick? I can always write another story tomorrow.
Asking yourself this question can at least shorten the thought process on some of your smaller decisions. Which can help cut decision fatigue. Simply put, decision fatigue is:
difficulty in making a good decision experienced as a result of the number of decisions one needs to take.
As John Tierney reported here, when you experience decision fatigue,
Instead of agonizing over decisions, [you] avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain.
So, agonizing over the smaller decisions only makes it harder to make the bigger ones.
When you determine how big a decision is, it can take the pressure off. And bring you closer to making some of those smaller decisions. Which can give you more capacity to think through the bigger ones.
What is the worst that can happen?
Steven Johnson wrote an article in the New York Times about how to make big decisions. In it, he mentions the work of psychologist Gary Klein, who recommends what he calls a “pre-mortem.” Which means, plan out the worst case-scenario in advance.
To quote Steven Johnson:
By forcing yourself to imagine scenarios where the decision turned out to be a disastrous one, you can think your way around those blind spots and that false sense of confidence.
But I think of this kind of scenario planning in the opposite way.
When you think through what could be the worst case scenario, usually its not that bad.
I could write a story that no one reads or finds interesting. [I’ve done that plenty of times and survived.]
My friend could buy a mattress that is not as comfortable as she hopes. [She is already sleeping on a mattress that is not very comfortable.]
My husband’s friends could live somewhere they don’t love. [They are already living somewhere they don’t love.]
When you think about the worst case scenario, usually its a manageable outcome. If not something like what you are already experiencing.
The reality of the worst case scenario is often much milder than the vague outcome that you have in your head.
So, when you worry that your decision will be wrong. Ask yourself, is the worst case worse than the anxiety and uncertainty that you feel right now?
Write It Down
This is my answer for everything.
But, with decision-making, its great too.
Often decisions feel huge because you think about the same scenarios over and over again. What if this? What if that?
When you write it all down, the decision feels much more manageable.
It also helps narrow the field of options.
For example, these are the three mattresses that I am considering. There are three important qualities I want in a mattress. Plushness, springiness, and a reasonable price. You can even numerically rate each one.
But even a simple list of pros and cons would help.
Seeing it all in black and white helps calm your brain. Because you don’t need to keep all those scenarios in your head. Its all on paper.
Plus, when you see it all written down, it takes away some drama and fear of judgement. The decision becomes more like math.
Set A Non-Negotiable Deadline
This is the tricky part of making open ended decisions.
Many decisions can go on for as long as we choose to think about them.
Then we get exhausted from the indecision. And it makes it harder for us to make other decisions. Again, decision fatigue.
Not everything has to get decided immediately.
But, think through how much time you need to make a decision. For a mattress, perhaps it’s 2 trips to the store and one hour of online research. Give yourself a week to complete it all. And then make your decision.
A decision about a place to live will need more inputs. It will need a longer timeline. Make your timeline realistic, but once you’ve created a deadline, stick to it.
Commit To The Decision
This is about managing your mind afterward.
Its about accepting that you made a well-informed decision. And trusting yourself.
Remember, there is no one, perfect decision.
You made the best choice that you could with the information that you had at the time.
Thinking about a decision after you made it does not add any value. Its time to execute your decision and move on to the next thing.
As Nelson Mandela said:
I never lose. I either win or learn.
Its the same with decisions. Commit to what you chose. Either it works out well, or you learn something from it. Nothing more, nothing less.