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WE GOTTA MAKE A DECISION

How to be more decisive

  • Michelle Cheng
By Michelle Cheng

Reporter based in New York

Published

Should I take the job? Should I buy a house in the suburbs or the city? Do I go with the blueberry muffin or the raspberry donut? What should I wear to the party?

These questions aren’t of equal sizes, but for someone who struggles with indecision, any of them might be enough to throw them into a tailspin. Faced with any of these scenarios, we may waffle and flip-flop on what to choose.

Indecision can be costly. It takes time, not to mention a toll on our mental health, when we’d feel better if we just pick something and stick with it.

But take comfort in knowing that most people, at some point in their lives, will feel this. So how exactly do you approach indecisiveness? And what even puts us in this position in the first place?

What indecision looks like

In general, indecision can make it difficult to stay present, according to Jessica Stern, a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health. Decision-making is future-oriented, which means it makes us focus on what’s going to happen next. That can impact our ability to enjoy things or to connect with people in the here and now, she said.

In the workplace, indecision can make us feel overwhelmed, especially as the demands and expectations of the job continue to pile up, Stern said.

There’s a word for that feeling: Decision fatigue. The more options we have, the more overwhelmed we feel. For example, if a supermarket carries lots of different types of cereal, that gives customers more options. Some people like that, but some are going to feel much more overwhelmed than they would if they only had a few options, said Stern.

And when we are stuck, we waste a lot of time. Here’s just how much, via How to Decide by Annie Duke, a decision-making strategist.

  • 150 minutes: Time spent each week deciding what to eat
  • 90-115 minutes: Time spent each week deciding what to wear
  • 50 minutes: Time spent each week deciding what to watch on Netflix

In other words, these repetitive, inconsequential decisions can keep making us feel overwhelmed even as we start to escape it.

Where indecision comes from

Depending on the flavor of your indecision, it could have different roots. There’s those who tend to have more consistent difficulty with making decisions—it doesn’t matter the intensity or nature of the decision, they just feel constantly overwhelmed by making decisions, said Stern. It’s quite common to be habitually indecisive, she added, as the trait often correlates with anxiety; nearly a third of US adults have experienced an anxiety disorder in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Then there are those who might have an easier time making decisions more consistently, but face difficulty with decisions when there’s more at stake. “I would say all humans, at a certain point in their life, have difficulty with decision making,” she said. “So that’s not unusual.”

For those who are more habitually indecisive, indecision can stem from being a perfectionist, or concerns about making the right decision and being fixated on figuring out what the right decision is—even if there is no right or wrong answer, said Stern.

Setting yourself up with that pressure of wanting to make the right decision may also relate to anxiety, she said. That leads to more difficulty in making decisions, which builds upon itself. When you’re in that state, she explained, not knowing where to start can lead our minds to freeze, shut down, or become uncertain when we might feel perfectly lucid under different circumstances.

How to identify you’re being indecisive

The reasons for indecision vary, but they center around feeling stuck, said Vijay Ram, a cognitive scientist. Some may be aware of it, but others may not be.

Indecision is easier to identify when you’re not the one feeling it, said Ram. You’re excited, charging ahead, and time moves fast. When you’re stuck, you’re searching the web, talking to people, fixating on social media—that’s a sign of needing to take a look at yourself and ask, “What’s going on here?”

If you notice you have trouble with making decisions but don’t know why, try keeping a journal for a few weeks. Take note of all the types of decisions that were difficult for you to make and how you felt about them, suggested Stern. Did you feel pressure? Were you worried about what other people might think about you? Did you fret over the implications of that decision? If you keep track, you can find patterns, she said.

Does data help or hurt?

Information is power, depending on how we use it. As data becomes more available on everything from our sleep patterns to the minute movements of the stock market, it can absolutely be a tool to help in our decision-making. But sometimes, too much data instead inhibits the decision-making process. “Something that concerns me a little bit is just over-reliance on data to make decisions,” Vijay said. Without thinking and analytical skills, the numbers start to make decisions for you, he added, which isn’t ideal.

If you find yourself relying too heavily on data for everyday decisions, consider taking a step back and asking yourself why you feel you need it.

How to face indecision

  • Identify where the difficulty in decision making is coming from. Someone with a more consistent difficulty of making decisions should find patterns to what they struggle with, said Stern.
  • Then decide on how to make decision making easier to digest. Stern recommends a mantra or concept to think about: Is the extra contemplation that is going into this decision worth it? If a decision is related to designing something that requires a high level of safety, you might want to be more cautious, she said. But there are many decisions we put a lot of value in that are not actually worth the mental energy we put into them.
  • Attend to your mental health. Get those eight hours of sleep! Making a decision without good sleep is never a good choice, said Vijay.
  • Talk to someone you trust. Talking it out can help you get out of your head and see things more clearly. “Emotions block a lot of thinking,” said Vijay. This is particularly helpful when it comes to making big decisions, added Stern. Try to consult people who have faced similar situations, but don’t consult too many people, she cautioned, as that will give you more feedback to have to sift through and process. At the workplace, Vijay suggested that managers should give employees more time to think on their own and avoid groupthink or on-the-spot decisions. (Those with introverted tendencies tend to be more indecisive, he noted.) Figure out what makes your team feel safe when contributing to decisions; if not, you won’t be getting the best from these folks.
  • Break up large decisions into smaller ones. It will be easier to tackle one piece at a time.

Becoming more decisive

Now that we have the tools to focus on being less indecisive, how can we practice making decisions faster?

One way, suggested Stern, is to practice quick, low-risk decisions (e.g., picking a show on Netflix)—though be mindful not to tip into impulsiveness. “The more you practice [quick decision-making], the more it will train your mind there isn’t necessarily a high level of concern about making ‘the wrong decision’,” she said.

At the end of the day, is there even such a thing as a wrong decision? All you can do is make the best choice with the information you have on hand. Perhaps the best way to maximize your chance of making the best choice is to research, plan, and problem-solve (though not too much).

One 💭 thing

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is obsessed with dealing with constraints on decision-making. In his 2015 shareholder letter, Bezos said, most decisions are changeable and  reversible. He calls it the two-way door—if you made a suboptimal decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long, you can just re-open the door and go back through. Type 1 decisions, on the other hand, are consequential and irreversible and are decided with great deliberation and consultation.

As companies get larger, said Bezos, there’s a tendency to use Type 1 decision-making process on most decisions, resulting in “slowness, unthoughtful risk aversion, failure to experiment sufficiently, and consequently diminished invention.” Decisions aren’t all the same, and Bezos doesn’t believe we shouldn’t treat them like they are.

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