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Indecisiveness, priorities & flipping coins

"More is lost by indecision than wrong decision. Indecision is the thief of opportunity. It will steal you blind.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero


A friend invites you to go skydiving.

 

You’ve read about it, seen many funny pics on insta, booked your appointment, paid 300 euros, and drove to the site.

 

You’re on the plane gearing up as the instructor repeats what comes next.

And when the door opens you freeze.

You realize how high up you are, your heart flutters and you "nope" out of jumping.



What's wrong with this situation and why is it indecisive? 

 

Well, simply put, there's nothing wrong if you have fear of heights. 

But there was a right time to make that decision

And you had all the information about skydiving and about yourself, before booking the event, spending your money and time. That would've been a much better moment to make that decision carefully, without over-investing your (and others’) precious time and resources. 

 

Instead, you find yourself making your decision at entirely the wrong point in time

 

To beat indecisiveness, we first have to figure out what causes it.


Why are people indecisive? How to overcome indecisiveness?

 

Here are some prime reasons why people are indecisive, and some tips from decision science and behavioral science on how to work through them: 



1/ It might simply be a bad habit. Not everyone realizes that there is no such thing as not making a decision. All there is making the implicit decision to delay or postpone your decision. Or to deprioritize that decision.

 

The way out of this is owing up to the fact of life that not making a decision is a decision by itself. To break out of this bad habit try techniques like rewarding yourself every time you are decisive (e.g. if you take less than 10 seconds to decide what to wear).

 

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2/ We are often distracted by lower priority decisions. We don't have the cognitive space to put effort into everything all the time. So if we're spending all our time making decisions about what to wear today and which of three flavors of crisps to buy, then we won't have that bandwidth for thinking about important decisions related to our priorities (careers, families, relationships etc.)

 

In this case, indecisiveness is a failure to come to terms with your priorities and to intentionally create that space for yourself to sit down with the important decisions related to your priorities. The issue here is usually that we are not clear about our priorities.

 

To set your priorities, here’s a trick:

Invert to narrow down and avoid herding. Think about which priorities many other people have that are simply non-priorities for you. Things other people care that you don't really care about so much. For example: Mark seems to prioritize his family, career and watching football with friends. Eva cares about eating sustainably, exercising regularly and volunteering. Do I care about these also? How much do I care about these? 

Assess simultaneously to stay fair. When you're left with a short list of priorities, look at them side by side (not one by one), and compare to see which are more important to you. Then you’ll have your short list of priorities.

Remember, the list is not the full you. Sure, you also care about 100 other things and this short list doesn’t fully define you. But it should speak to your core beliefs and values, in this point in time, and that’s a great place to start for aligning your decisions. And importantly, your actions.

 

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3/ All our options are bad. We feel grief when all our options are bad or unattractive. We are upset that our best option is not what we wanted, even feel sorry for ourselves. In denial, we keep poking around in the information as if something new is going to magically materialize. 

 

When all your options are bad, what you can do is pick the least worst one. If after you've done your research and evaluated your options you can identify the least worst option, then you should go with it.  Unless you have good reason to believe something will change, it’s best to execute. That said, you can still have your emotions and your grief. Just do it in parallel. 

 

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4/ All our options are good. People can also be indecisive when all their options seem good and pretty similar in value. For example, if you have several great options for where to go on vacation or for how to plan your weekend. 

 

If all options are acceptable and similar in value, with only small differences between them, then maybe optimizing those tiny differences is not a priority. If so, flip a coin. And if you find that you're really, really disappointed by the outcome of that coin toss, maybe that tells you that the options weren't as similar as they seemed at the beginning, and that'll help you make your decision. But if the coin toss leaves you neutral, then decide fast and don't spend time worrying about getting it optimal. Rather, save your energy for what matters more.

 

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5/ Fear of making the “wrong” decision. People may stall because we worry that it will make us look bad, that we’ll be judged, that it will not give us the validation we seek from others, especially when the stakes are high.

 

If you find yourself stalling, then you need to get more comfortable with decision-making under uncertainty by learning more about proper, updated techniques and processes as these are unveiled by behavioral science and decision-making disciplines.

Stick around. And reach out if you want to talk more. 


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Question for you


We are all indecisive in different areas of our lives or types of decisions. That's natural but at the same time we should save our energy for what matters more.

Where do you find yourself stalling at the moment?

Can you identify the reason(s) and work through them with one of these techniques?

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